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‘Home Theatre’ with Theatre Royal Stratford East

November 9, 2013

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During the third week of the Autumn term the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at Reading was asked by Theatre Royal Stratford East to involve thirty students in a project entitled ‘Home Theatre’, whereby thirty devised pieces of theatre would be performed in thirty different homes across London. The aim was to create a tailor-made performance for each host – where the artist would meet them, discuss the contents of the piece, and a week later have a performance for friends and family to come and watch in the comfort of their own home. The performances took place in a diversity of different households and communities – from high rise London flats to a local hospital ward – one was even performed on a house boat.

Our role as film and theatre students was to meet the host with the artist, work with the artist in the devising process, and most excitingly – film the live event on the night when all performances were being shown across London. Finally, all the films would be broadcast live on Saturday 9th of November over the theatre’s website for all of us – as well as the general public – to watch from our own homes.

Looking back at it now – the best part for me was the idea of home based theatre itself. To be invited to create a performance in someone’s home – someone’s living space – which is so personally connected to the person or people living there, was a real challenge for us as performers who were used to performing on a bare stage. We had been given a fantastic opportunity to use this space to create performances around real people in a space that is so lived in and uniquely recognisable to that individual.

As a Film & Theatre student the project was perfect because it allowed me to work collaboratively with my artist and director on the theatre side – looking at how to structure the performance and how the artist could use the space, whilst also allowing me to have my own individual piece of work to take away from the project with the film – experimenting with composition and various camera angles within the space, how I would work with the quality of light and sound, and how I could feed the camera in to the audiences experience within their homes.

My performance took place in an Indian care centre – within the lounge area of their building. The performance was a massive challenge for me and my artist – dealing with an audience from a different culture and with a different language far from my own. They told us they wanted a performance to make them laugh – something happy and nostalgic – pointing out films they used to watch and songs they used to sing. Although many of the residents were from different regions of India with varying and conflicting languages and religions – all seemed to share collectively with many memorable films and songs they loved from their past lives back home in India; Bollywood film classics such as Pakeezah’s feature song ‘Chalte Chalte‘ and  the song by Raj Kapoor – ‘the showman of India’ – singing ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’, which states within the lyrics that even though his clothes are from different regions of the world – ‘his heart belongs to India.’ This material was extremely enjoyable for me to watch and research as a film student – especially in relation to our new World Cinema module. The performance night itself was incredible – we were full of adrenaline and nervous thoughts, but once they all started to laugh and sing along – leaning out of their seats to shake the performers hand – I felt the warmth and excitement that brings people to the theatre. The songs and films were not just a means of entertainment – they were memories, memories that we brought to life in their own living room. The experience was incredible and emotional – and brought to my attention the benefits of site specific performance when the aim is to create work based on the lives of real people that occupy these spaces.

The performances can all be watched from the Home Theatre page on the Theatre Royal Stratford East website. I really think they are worth a look – I know that we are all extremely proud of them.

The show that launched a thousand blogs: The reception of Lena Dunham’s Girls (Television for Women conference paper)

August 13, 2013

Prompted by the release of season 2 of Girls on DVD and preparing to teach the show on a new module in Autumn, I thought I would put up a paper I gave earlier this Summer at the Television for Women conference at Warwick (15-17 May 2013). This was a paper which charted a small part of the vast discourse surrounding the show’s debut, and as it is a paper about the smart, thoughtful commentary by a range of diverse (largely female) voices I wanted to give a shoutout to the women of my twitter feed who have thought through, blogged and unpicked the show throughout its first two seasons and whose words informed this paper. I also wanted to highlight this post by Amanda Ann Klein, which links out to many of the key pieces and helped me think through this mountain of discourse.

The Prezi that accompanied this paper can be found here.

The show that launched a thousand blogs: The reception of Lena Dunham’s Girls

Television for Women Conference, 15-17 May 2013, University of Warwick

Girls_HBO_PosterThis is not a paper about Girls, rather it’s a paper about people talking about Girls. It is about a discourse, the commentary, the hype that swirled around the half-hour HBO show, created by then 25 year old Lena Dunham, about a group of upper middle class white women muddling through their early twenties in Brooklyn. This paper focuses on the pre-publicity and immediate reception of Girls in its initial week or so of broadcast – this was more than enough for 20m paper.

I want to position Girls as a catalyst for conversation. The show prompted many multi-faceted responses across a range of print, online and social media – which thought-through ideas around race, gender, class, bodies, sexuality, authorship, industry, distribution. This conversation highlighted culture’s ever present need to ‘worry’ about young – white – women’s bodies and voices, yet also showed how online cultural commentary opened up space for a diversity of womens voices. This discourse is intersectional, to use all the fancy words, and closing it down to one thing or another – just female authorship, just class, just race – ignores the complexity of the conversation and women’s place in culture. We are not singular!

So I would suggest that Girls + the insightful, engaged, critical, angry, funny talk – by journalists, academics, cultural critics and all – Girls + this conversation = is a thing. Though the many-voiced messiness made your head hurt at times, it is a prime example of how television is produced and made complex through this discourse. Am going to pull out a few of these key points in circulation, to map some conversations about Girls, but necessarily skipping briefly over complex events.

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Context

Girls arrived in a particular cultural context, within the post-Bridesmaids 2011-12 US television season, where a wave of female–fronted sitcoms debuted – primarily chronicling white, heterosexual, twentysomething women who all looked a certain way: 2BG, Whitney, Bitch in Apt 23, New Girl. These were shows created by women – though often showrun by men and had writing rooms where women remained in the minority – thus conversations around gender, race, comedy and authorship were already primed.

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Girls arrived via a carpet bomb of hype from HBO and was perhaps fatally overexposed from the get go. As well as traditional media HBO targeted the online cultural spaces frequented by it’s desired demographic of young tech-savvy, female, viewers. Girls was tied fast to its creator-writer-director-star Lena Dunham and her rarity as a 20-something star and showrunner with creative control – her authorship and distinctive ‘voice’ were repeated emphasised. Girls was inescapable, profiled on culture and lady blogs, television review sites, on public radio stations, in magazines and newspapers and billboards the size of buildings.

Critical praise for Girls and Dunham coalesced with the themes pushed by HBO: its ‘authenticity’, realism,verisimilitude. Girls’ ‘universality’ was aligned with Dunham’s freedom with her ‘imperfect’ body and the flawed nature of the women she created. TV critic Willa Paskin at Salon framed Girls as a ‘generational event’, whilst in a New York magazine cover story Emily Nussbaum argued the show was ‘like nothing else on tv’ celebrating it as ‘for us, by us’. But the question of who this ‘us’ began to be asked as Girls spread beyond this press first wave.

Girls had a cross-platform presence, supported by Lena Dunham’s strong social media profile, where she chronicled production via tweets and instagram. Trailers for the show circulated via youtube, and centralised Hannah’s claim that she could be the voice of her generation, well a voice of a generation. A phrase repeated in critical conversations about Dunham herself, beginning the blurring of Hannah and Dunham.

Significantly HBO made the Girls pilot available free on youtube, thus making it a piece of spreadable media – circulated widely across the internet, beyond the largely white, middle-class, North-East-based media world that had framed the initial conversation. New commentaries problematised the claim that Girls was ‘like nothing else on tv’, noting its much vaunted divergence from Hollywood femininity was limited to one ‘non-normative’ body, wrapped up in a safe white, upper-middle class, heterosexual world. This response opened up a range of conversations about what we wanted from our television representations of womanhood and who makes them.

Authorship and autobiography

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Source: Jojo Whilden/HBO

Throughout the conversations around Girls, Lena Dunham’s status as auteur was intertwined with the questions over her closeness to her protagonist. Dunham suggested in the New York magazine profile that Girls was her least autobiographical project, although in a radio interview with NPR’s Terry Gross she claimed ‘I did write something that was super-specific to my experience’ and that ‘I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me.’ The slippage between Dunham and Hannah was compounded by her previous videos and indie film Tiny Furniture, which mined similar territory to Girls and also starred herself. Alongside her precocious creativity, Dunham’s privileged background – her private school and Oberlin college education, her artist parents – formed a central part of her press profiles, and fed into the privilege critiques which I’ll pick up in bit. What else is there to write about a 25 year old who went virtually straight from college videos to ‘auteurship’?

Whilst the young, female, relationship-based nature of Girls could have marked the show as a delegitimized ‘feminine’ form, the focus on Dunham’s authorship and indie-film cred helped legitimize the show as part of HBO’s channel identity. Though Girls shared DNA with HBO’s low-profile quirky comedies of young(ish) male New Yorkers – Flight of the Conchords, How to Make it in America, Bored to Death – HBO’s hype escalated Girls to the cultural blockbuster level of a Boardwalk Empire or a Game of Thrones (though without their audiences). Thus Dunham was positioned within HBO’s discourses of quality ‘authorship’, Davids Chase and Simon, Larry Sanders, Scorsese etc, a boys club where her gender marked her the ‘diversity’ hire.

Yet her auteurship, her solo voice and achievement at landing an HBO series in her mid-twenties was problematised by the involvement of Judd Apatow, film comedy writer/director/producer /juggernaut. He became Dunham’s mentor after viewing Tiny Furniture and worked with her to develop and sell Girls to HBO, going on to executive produce and write for the series. Apatow was Dunham’s stepping stone, but also something of a millstone.

Privilege

Apatow’s role in Girls creation played into discussions of both Dunham’s privileged background – her access to him via the elite cultural circle she was born into – and the worldview/lifestyle of her characters. In part as a way for some observers to unpick her success and devalue her creative worth –here’s how Girls really got made’. In part to question the ‘universality’ the early hype claimed for the series, the narrowness of Dunham’s storyworld.

As Girls exists within a world of privilege, these are young women making their way in New York – well Brooklyn – but with a parental safety net. The catalysing event of the series as a whole being Hannah’s parents withdrawl of this safety net. The blurring of authorship and autobiography / Dunham and Hannah – and perhaps a tonal problem in the pilot’s writing – fed into conversations around how much Girls was valorizing or satirising Hannah’s entitled worldview, displayed in the conversation with her parents that was the centerpiece of the widely circulated trailer.

Source: http://cdn.uproxx.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/tumblr_m2ljlxcsjI1qb7e66o1_500.jpg

Source: cdn.uproxx.com

Here Girls stepped into a combination of ongoing cultural conversations: of privilege and ‘first world/white people problems’, of entitled Millennials and an anti-hipster mockery. Privilege fermented perhaps the most vitriolic of the show’s critiques and was where misogyny hid most plainly: with charges of nepotism highlighting the cast’s parental connections as daughters of the cultural elite – musicians, artists, playwrights, broadcasters. As daughters of privilege, it was inferred their success was owed to connections rather than talent, highlighted in a much circulated photoshopped poster.

Yet as others rightly pointed out, male showrunners’ family connections and privilege are never credited for their success – Buffy’s Joss Whedon comes from a long line of Hollywood writers, whilst Scrubs and Cougartown’s Bill Lawrence is an American blue-blood.

Source: clutchmagonline.com

Source: clutchmagonline.com

Yet this conversation made privilege visible – Dunham does come from a background and world that gave her access to film funding straight out of university, her parents Manhattan loft to shoot her first film in, access to Apatow, and a lifestyle that is more highly valued in television. In contrast a young black woman – Issa Rae – from a similar background, with a hit web series – Awkward Black Woman – and the mentorship of Grey’s Anatomy’s showrunner giant, Shonda Rhimes struggled to get a pilot off the ground at HBO or ABC.

Race

In tandem with discourse surrounding Girls privilege, was the conversation around the show’s racially monochromatic world, its largely absent people of colour, who, when present, were coded as working class. Dodai Stewart, editor of feminist culture blog Jezebel, which had excitedly hyped Girls, voiced her own weary disappointment, ’Girls was meant to be different from what we usually see on TV: Highly current, thoroughly modern. But the casting choices are not different.’

Earlier that season another ‘girl’ sitcom 2 Broke Girls, faced a critical drubbing over its use of regressive racial stereotypes. Whilst 2 Broke Girls was a critically maligned text, there was a squeamish response to a critically cherished one such as Girls being highlighted over diversity. The second wave of commentary came from culture websites, who targeted the same educated, liberal female demographic as Girls. Particularly the influential feminist and ladyblogs – from Jezebel to Racialicious to The Hairpin – sites whose contributors were largely more diverse than the staffs of traditional news media – and television writers rooms. They offered thoughtful, witty posts by women of colour who shared the lifestyles and backgrounds of the Girls, yet voiced their dashed hopes this ‘universal’ and ‘authentic’ representation of young women would mean they wouldn’t have to, yet again, read themselves onto white women. Jenna Wortham at The Hairpin noted that ‘the problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating’.

On Gawker Cord Jefferson voiced the continuing, wearing nature of this exclusion;

‘The thing that sucks about those shows is that millions of black people look at them and can relate on so many levels to Hannah Horvath and Charlotte York and George Costanza, and yet those characters never look like us. The guys begging for money look like us. The mad black chicks telling white ladies to stay away from their families look like us. Always a gangster, never a rich kid whose parents are both college professors. After a while, the disparity between our affinity for these shows and their lack of affinity towards us puts reality into stark relief: When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.’

In the interview with NPR’s Terri Gross Dunham spoke of the ‘accident’ of her default to white protagonists, and her fear of tokenism. Yet, as further commentaries suggested, are we really faced with either racial tokenism or nothing at all? Was the experience of women of colour so very alien to white writers? TV critics such as Mo Ryan made valuable arguments as to the institutionalised whiteness within HBO and television as a whole, yet here the wrapping of Girls so tightly around Dunham’s authorship returns to haunt critics. For if you are to celebrate Dunham’s creative freedom and choices, crediting the show strongly to her ‘voice’, you must lay these race-based choices at her door too.

I would suggest – as others have – that this conversation about Girls did valuable work in making race and in particular, whiteness visible, highlighting the cultural default to whiteness that Dunham vocalised. This wasn’t Girls, it was White Girls. In a post on Flow, Camille DeBose highlighted a key quote from Richard Dyer’s seminal book White;

“… there is something at stake in looking at, or continuing to ignore, white racial imagery. As long as race is something applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm… There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity…” (1997:1-2)

As DeBose pointed out, in naming the whiteness of Girls, these conversations problematised the claims for the Girls’ universality of female experience.

Conclusion

Arguably this conversation about authorship, class and race did mutate into something more problematic – the early thoughtful critiques of race and class were used as excuse for misogynist attacks on Lena Dunham and her crime of creating-whilst-female. Yet, these remain conversations we are having about Girls, about race and class in television, about cultural squeamishness over the display of womens bodies that do not conform to ‘ideal’ femininity or sexual roles, about female anti-heroes, about the paucity of female voices in culture and the boxes we put them in, about womens refusal, as TV critic Alyssa Rosenberg put it, to ‘stay in her assigned story’. One things for sure, we’ll never stop talking about Girls.

Teen TV Meets T4: Assimilating The O.C. into British Youth Television

May 26, 2013

Here at FTT we thought we’d make use of the blog from time to time to point out new publications by members of the department.

This month sees the publication of my article that shares the name of this post in Critical Studies in Television (paywall warning), bringing together my longstanding interest in US Teen TV and my developing mapping of the field of contemporary British Youth Television. Teen TV has built a solid scholarly foundation in the wealth of Buffy Studies texts and the fine edited collections bringing together essays on Teen TV largely from the US. However British Youth Television is still finding its feet in the academic waters – partly due to its slow roll out in international distribution, but many texts are now appearing in the US via online platform hulu – thus i’m currently embarking on a larger project setting out its academic stall.

There’s nothing about them in the article, but Ryan and Taylor Forever.

Offering a study of what happens when US Teen TV meets British Youth Television the article uses a case study of The OC‘s airing on Channel 4’s weekend ‘hangover’ slot T4 to explore the assimilation of the US form into the British flow of programming. As T4 has recently been cancelled as part of a ‘rethinking’ of Channel 4’s ‘youth’ provision, and with my analysis focused on a era when E4 was still fumbling its way into its eventual purple identity previous to digital TV’s tipping point (and also, was still not free-to-air) the case study forms a time capsule of British Youth TV at the edge of change, the last gasps of niche focus within the broadcast era.

Part of the article includes a close analysis of the sometimes charming, sometimes cringeworthy ‘Schwartz Reports’ which occasionally accompanied The OC‘s Sunday afternoon airings. Here T4 presenters Steve Jones and Miquita Oliver reenacted modified scenes from that episode of The OC. These were framed by the device of showrunner ‘Josh Schwartz’ (Steven Jones playing the nerdily handsome Schwartz as a puppetlike strangely Nosferatu-esque figure) talking us through a sequence from The OC before explaining how he originally wanted the scene played – queuing up the amateurish skit which presented the scene in a new light. Not wanting to unveil more of my own analysis (As River Song would say, spoilers sweetie), as Critical Studies in Television 8.1 can be found in all good academic libraries, I thought i’d put up the screen grabs that copyright prevented me from including in my original article. As a taster, and as an added extra for those who read the article!

Here’s the abstract, below, the screengrabs, completely decontextualised!

This article explores the presence of imported US teen TV in the schedules of British youth television and the relationship between the two national forms. Focusing on the broadcast of The O.C. on the Channel 4 youth strand T4, it considers the role of the spaces ‘in-between’ programmes in framing the audience’s experience of the imported US text. It demonstrates how the T4 supertext employed presenter performance, critique and parody to assimilate the glamorously aspirational US teen TV text into the cynically engaged flow of British youth television.

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Parks and Rec Perfection on BBC4

March 5, 2013

Source: NBC

This week Parks and Recreation finally debuts on BBC4, after long talk of negotiations and promises and anticipation and all manner of teasing with ‘the deals done!’ ‘no its not yet!’ gossip on twitter. Its a rare US sitcom import for the digital channel (we still miss you Mad Men, *sniff*) and it couldn’t be a more perfect home for it.

In brief, Parks & Rec is a warm-hearted (and in my view, hilarious) NBC sitcom set in the parks and recreation department of fictional Indiana city Pawnee. The department is headed up by the indominable Ron Swanson, played in a piece of deadpan mastery by Nick Offerman. He enjoys woodwork, brunettes and breakfast food. He does not enjoy government. As an avowed libertarian, he hates it and the department he runs. He also possesses a fine moustache. Ron Swanson is awesome, he created a pyramid which explains it all.

Source: Popwatch.ew.com
Right click this sucker and blow it right up.

Source: Splitsider.com
Leslie wrote that book. That’s how much she loves Pawnee.

As Ron does not care much for government work, he leaves his deputy, Leslie Knope, to run the whole shebang. And Leslie LOVES government work and LOVES Pawnee. And I and many others LOVE Leslie Knope – I talk about her here as part of In Media Res‘s great week on Parks & Rec. Alongside 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon, Leslie is a masterpiece of televisual comedy womanhood. Leslie is one of the two key reasons for the perfect fit of this show and BBC4. I’ll get back to that.

The other reason is that Parks & Rec sits within BBC4’s fine lineage of workplace comedies like Getting On and The Thick of It. Whilst it shares a back-stage political theme with The Thick of It, in tone and setting it hones closer to the small town politics of the mundane found in the recently concluded Brian Cox sitcom Bob Servant Independent, whose slot it inherits. The peculiarities of local government and the quirky world of Pawnee – and Leslie’s enthusiasm for them both – are what makes Parks & Rec tick. Britain likes its comedy a touch skewed with a particular worldview and whilst Parks & Rec is set in the American heartland it resonates with our off-centre-but-loving sitcom communities a la Gavin and Stacey or Miranda. Incidentally, Parks & Rec has its own master of physical comedy to rival Miranda Hart in the form of Andy Dwyer (played by Chris Pratt), displayed in this Vulture supercut.

 
However Leslie Knope – brought to life by the wonder that is Amy Poehler – is my main argument for the perfect fit of Parks & Rec and BBC4, as she sits comfortably alongside the channel’s parade of awesome ladies. Leslie’s energy, tenacity and single-mindedness aligns her with BBC4’s cast of Scandi-drama ladies: The Killing‘s Sarah Lund and Borgen‘s Birgitte Nyborg (though I remain unconvinced by the male-writer-fantasy of The Bridge‘s Saga Noren). Particularly Birgitte, a fellow driven, lady politician with a sense of fun.

Source: listal.com
The wonder that is Borgen’s Birgitte and her crinkle-nosed smile.

Source: geekinheels.com
Leslie supports 117 things in her campaign ad!

I’d also suggest that Leslie’s giddy, geeky, passion for her job and her quirky smarts in turn aligns her with the BBC’s lady historian titans such as Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery and BBC4’s own Lucy Worsley. I can’t help but imagine that Leslie would love the tales of Georgian women’s rum lot in life and small victories of power spun by Worsley – a fellow petite yet indomitable blonde.

Now, I give you fair warning that Parks & Rec does take a few episodes to find its feet, 5 of the 6 episodes of season one are almost a wash. But from ‘Rock Show’ the show works out who Leslie is and how the people in her department (I haven’t even talked about wannabe-player Tom Haverford! Or the morosely tortured April Ludgate, or Jerry – damn you Jerry) operate around her. As season two swings into gear, the show starts a multi-season long hot-streak unmatched in recent decades of the US sitcom (just my humble opinion). Luckily, BBC4 is showing it in double bills, so we get through the rough stuff quickly.

So, BBC4, Wednesdays at 1opm. Parks and Recreation. Stick with it. You’ll be rewarded.

Ladies Skirts and Active Victorian Women: The Paradise

October 4, 2012

When watching the first episode of The Paradise, BBC One’s new, slightly humdrum Zola adaption (of Au Bonheur des Dames (1883); The Ladies’ Delight or The Ladies’ Paradise – it feels fancy when I write it in French) I noted on twitter how the tracking shot of a lady’s bustled skirts has become as much a convention of period drama as the establishing shot of the grand country seat. It immediately put me in mind of BBC Two’s masterful adaptation of Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), which displayed a similar shot. The shot works to immediately signify the period – the bountiful fabric of the Victorian bustle – and each programme’s gendered focus, the female POV. Yet it also works to signify the nature of our heroine – she is walking through the streets, she is active, moving forwards. Yet the differences between these shots illustrate the diversity of British period drama. The gothic, fragmented at times expressionisticly oppressive Crimson Petal whose swooningly beautiful imagery is a world away from the softly light and bustling wide shots of the classically framed The Paradise. And with that skirt shot conjuring Crimson, in my mind the latter unfortunately pales in comparison.

Both programmes offer the standard aspirational proto-feminist heroine, following working class women in Victorian England whose intelligence marks them out as worth more than their current standing. Both ladies will service you, but in very different ways. Denise the shopgirl is a fount of retail ideas, coveting both The Paradise’s owner and his managerial position, whilst Sugar the prostitute scribbles a florid, bitter novel between clients and advises her client (and later lover) William on business matters.

Both also have professions which allow them active movement – distinct from the upper class women bound by society rules, daintily sipping tea in drawing rooms, or their rigidly controlled domestic servants. The department store setting of The Paradise allows us the relative rarity of Victorian working women who aren’t ‘working girls’. Serving the wealthy by day the shopgirls escape to spend their evenings dancing and drinking in the pub – though, notably our sensible, pure, sensible heroine Denise does not partake.

The Paradise opens with a tracking shot of a woman’s plain, slightly dingy skirts as she strides along a pavement. She moves, she is dynamic, she seems determined, she is notably alone, independent. The camera rises up to reveal our heroine Denise as she arrives onto a high street with her luggage, cementing us into her POV, the new arrival from the country. Earth tones dominate, browns and dingy creams, Denise is somewhat beige, with her blonde hair blending into the creamy browns of her outfit, the wan country girl (all the better to create contrast with the refined uniform she ends up in – see top image) the chipped dark facades of the  shops and pub signify our urban setting, but have seen better days. Denise then stops, entranced, and we cut to follow her gaze to The Paradise, revealed in a crane shot, the real star of the show. The bright creamy white facade and blue detail startling against drab brown surrounds. Dominating the space, a thing of beauty.

Whilst it showcases working class life, The Paradise‘s department store setting still allows its audience a pleasurable immersion in the aesthetics of past-ness. A temple to consumption inside which covetous beauty and opulence abound, reams of fabric shimmer, dainty gloves are cooed over, crystal and silver glisten as the camera tracks around and hovers on detail. Women dreamily describe the store as ‘a kind of heaven’, swooning along with the audience at home, the Sex in the City post-feminist pleasure in consumption read onto the Victorian age.

The Paradise‘s celebration of the coming of modern consumerism – care of the industrial revolution – appears as the contemporary British high street is in sharp decline and we carry out our transactions in anonymous virtual spaces rather than with attentive shop assistants. Whilst The Paradise threatens the business of small local shops (including Denise’s uncle’s), the store is distinguished from the faceless clone towns and supermarket sprawl of the 21st Century high street through its depiction as a community. One ruled by a benevolent manager a la Downton Abbey‘s Lord Crawley (though one who has worked his way up and married well, with the mysterious death of his wife giving him rakish intrigue for our heroine). It trades on the same cosy nostalgia that department store John Lewis cannily exploits in it branding of itself as a British institution. I like to view The Paradise as John Lewis’s origin story (Denise would be a dab hand at a whimsical xmas advert).

But whilst The Paradise‘s depiction of Victorian life through the frame of retail life offers something refreshingly different from the same old society courtship and intrigue (though there is plenty of this here, as the shop’s owner somewhat shadily romances the local banker’s daughter, enticing her and her high society friends into the store) and offers me a plucky, smart working class heroine, overall The Paradise fails to engage. It feels so utterly conventional. So Sunday night rote light costume drama (but on a Tuesday), so Lark Rise to Candleford (BBC One, 2008-11), Call the Midwife (BBC One, 2012-), Downton Abbey (ITV, 2011-). Like DowntonThe Paradise is as much a character as its human leads (oh that old chestnut) and whilst it doesn’t share Downton‘s conservative worldview it does share the same unadventurous reliance on wide shots of heritage splendor. It is as if the aesthetic dynamism of Bleak House never happened. Contrast the above focus on a lady’s skirts with similar moments from the opening sequence of Crimson Petal:

I could screen grab and discuss this forever, but I will save you from that. This skirt tails sequence is part of a fragmented, abstract opening to episode 1, where we glimpse bits and pieces of Sugar, here speed after her through the gothic, fearsome streets, nightmarish faces rearing into her POV. This aggressively asserts itself as not your Sunday night BBC One Victoriana and is the handiwork of Marc Munden, who also directed the  visually dynamic Vanity Fair (BBC Two, 1998) and Channel 4’s majestic civil war drama The Devils Whore (2008) and its Dutch master sidelight. His work is so luscious, so dense, you can almost taste and touch it – the physicality of Crimson Petal is strong, tactile; fabric, skin, bodily emissions. Sugar is an object of desire for men, but she is a survivor, thinks and moves fast, the tails of her jewel-like dress and its folds of fabric float above the mud as she stomps, we cannot catch her, she is not made for this world (later, when she is installed in her lover’s home as his nanny, she is still as a statue). We move to BBC Two, we move from period drama as romantic heritage splendor (perhaps I am slightly unfair, there is the wonder of North and South (BBC One, 2004) and its play with perspective, memory and that deathly white cotton snow) to period drama as dynamic postheritage sexuality.

Two skirt tails, two active (independent?) Victorian working class women, two BBC costume dramas. A change of channel makes a whole world of difference.

Image Credits:

1. BBC

2. BBC/Origin Pictures

3. Screengrabs from BBC iplayer

4. Screengrabs from DVD

Reflections from Media Across Borders: The Creative Potential of Adaptation

September 12, 2012

In an example of (super) slow blogging, I’m finally getting round to writing up my scribbles from the Media Across Borders conference that took place at the University of Roehampton in June 2012. This conference, which focused on cross-cultural adaptation of audio-visual content and brought together scholars and industry personnel, was the first event of the AHRC-funded research network of the same name. I much enjoyed the entire event, which is not surprising seeing as I’m always fascinated by, and readily drawn to discussions of, textual border crossings, whether the border in question is that of medium, nation and/or language. However, I should immediately disclaim that this will be no conference report as such – I’m afraid my mind is far too flighty and my handwriting too unintelligible – but rather some brief reflections on one really interesting ideas that I came across that day.

The idea in question emerged during one of the pre-conference workshops, titled ‘TV Formats: production and distribution’, and specifically the paper that opened the workshop, presented by Sylwia Szostak, who is currently finishing her fascinating doctoral research on Polish broadcasters and American television programming at the University of Nottingham. In her engaging talk, ‘Fiction TV Formats in Poland – Why Bother to Adapt It?, Sylwia argued that foreign players and scripted formats have proven instrumental in laying the grounds for the (re)launch of domestic Polish television series. Drawing on extensive interview research and considering a range of genres, she suggested how broadcasters in developing markets can benefit from international fiction formats in ways more profound than simply helping satisfy a growing demand for local production.

Niania (TVN 2005-2009), the Polish adaptation of US sitcom The Nanny (CBS 1993-1999).

The idea in question emerged during the workshop discussion following Sylwia’s paper, when I invited Sylwia to reflect on the importance of and opportunities for training in contemporary Polish television production, and whether a creative talent pool gets established by (in this case) scriptwriters getting the chance to develop and hone their craft. This is something I’m deeply interested in, and find too often and very regrettably absent from discussions of ‘how to get into the industry’. Sylwia here offered a very interesting idea, namely that undertaking adaptations (for example, Hela w opałach (TVN 2006-2007), the Polish version of Grace Under Fire (ABC 1993-1998); and Wszyscy kochają Romana, the 2011 remake of Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS 1996-2005)) is to be understood as a training period for Polish script writers. This, to me, is really intriguing. (Even more intriguing (or do I mean terrifying?) is the fact that Everybody Loves Raymond somehow managed to run for as many years as it did; but that’s for another blog post.)

Wszyscy kochają Romana (TVN 2011), the Polish remake of Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS 1996-2005).

There is a long history of anecdotes by comedian writers and performers about how they re-enacted their favourite skits and sketches when they were young (one recent example of this is The Office writer and actor Mindy Kaling in her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)), and how this benefited their understanding of comedy. However, the act of adapting (and included in this, to some extent, the acts of transcribing and translating), would be less readily seen as a creatively meaningful act, and in some ways lends itself to being dismissed as little more than repetitive imitation. This is partly because of the absence of the live performance, which is much more readily understood as creatively meaningful, and also partly linked to a wider cultural issue, and continual bugbear of mine, namely that translation is not fully enough recognised as the complex transformative process that it is.

Even with remakes that set out to stay close to the source text, the act of adaptation allows for an in-depth, active engagement with structure, dialogue and story-telling techniques. It is not surprising to find in ‘How to’ guides for aspiring comedy writers the advice to transcribe (here, to physically write/type out – a particularly interesting idea in the age of ‘cut and paste’) pre-existing comedy material, in order to develop one’s skill and craft. This is certainly something that will feed into my own critical and practical teaching of sitcom, come the new academic year. While my concern for the nurturing and training of creative talent continues, one of the many interesting ideas that I took from Media Across Borders is a reminder and affirmation of adaptation as a potentially deeply creative act – indeed, as a potentially creative re-enactment, and one that contains (albeit perhaps implicitly) the important recognition of analysis as a creative act in itself.

The Cabin in the Woods: Can the male gaze be ironic?

July 1, 2012

*or why The Cabin in the Woods makes me feel belittled as a horror spectator.

The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of “Buffy: The Movie” was the little…blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of “Buffy” was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise…[and] genre-busting is very much at the heart of both the movie and the series. (Joss Whedon: Welcome to the Hellmouth DVD Commentary)

Recent meta-horror film The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) has been much lauded for its cleverness about horror as a genre and perhaps film more generally. While there is much to like about the film – strong performances from the cast, horror that isn’t entirely predicated on nastiness – for me there was a central problem from which it could never recover quite from: an insistence on the objectification of female characters in the service of commenting on horror films. Two scenes in particular generated feelings of discomfort about how the male gaze is being used by the film, and raises the question, can the male gaze be used ironically? [1]

 The Cabin in the Woods opens with a scene wherein the main female character, Dana (Kristen Connolly) is only wearing a t-shirt and knickers (and standing near an open window) for no apparent reason, other than the fact this is used as a joke at her expense, as she has apparently not noticed her lack of clothes. Certainly the scene embeds a sense of her vulnerability from the beginning, but other than that it is difficult to see why it was important to introduce her in this way. Later on, once the protagonists are at the titular cabin, a much more direct evocation of the male gaze is offered through the presentation of a dance performed by the other female character, Jules (Anna Hutchinson). By this point in the film, Jules has begun to be identified as the kind of sexually experienced, extroverted and ‘dumb blonde’ archetype that usually dies early on in slasher movies (the film will go on to explicitly label her as such and reveal that she has been drugged to further perpetuate the typology). Her dance begins with a close-up on her bottom as she starts to move it, and the camera gradually moves back, keeping her rear centralized and at about seated head height. In this way, the shot directly places us in a position of watching Jules’ bottom as she wiggles it provocatively, placing us with the other characters whom the dance is being performed for – our awareness of being asked to watch and of her as the sexualized object of our gaze is inescapable. The film achieves an adoption of the male gaze and, in our awareness of the self-consciousness of this via the emphatic framing, a comment on this, placing the male gaze in ironic quotation marks. But, do the quotation marks succeed in canceling out the male gaze? Jules is still objectified by the shot; at this moment we are asked to see her as a bottom and nothing more. [2]

For me, what makes this use of the male gaze specifically problematic (beyond the general concerns of women being treated as objects) is the way in which this objectification is equated with horror movies, and by extension the people who watch them. Being put into the position of enacting an objectifying gaze on this occasion felt like a judgment on watching horror more generally, both a suggestion that this is what the genre is most interested in, and that this is therefore what the viewer (i.e. me) wants. It is clear from an interview with co-writer Joss Whedon that this is exactly the point of this moment and later shots of Jules topless before she is killed, a scene that definitely puts a strain on the quotation marks around it: ‘There was never a question — the nudity had to happen, because the movie is about objectification and identification and that’s what horror is about.’ The slippage between objectification/pleasure/horror being expressed here is worrying, particularly when it is activated for the purpose of superiority. While I’m not trying to deny that objectification is present in some horror films, to say it is the constituent factor of the genre seems to me to wildly underestimate it. Using the male gaze ironically therefore feels like having your cake and eating it – pointing out what horror does and how unpleasant it is (and thus how superior we are for understanding this and being above it), while also offering the opportunity to enjoy some nudity. Later in the same interview Whedon says as much: ‘Drew and I were not unhappy if the hot blonde took off her shirt — hey, we thought it was a good decision!’.

Now, such a remark might not be so much of a big deal, or at least not so much of a surprise, but when self-confessed feminist Joss Whedon is at least partly (He didn’t direct it, but Drew Goddard was also a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a television series which, as indicated by the quote preceding this post, made concerted efforts to present an empowered heroine) behind such mis-appropriations of the male gaze, the problem seems worse, especially when said feminist goes on to say: ‘The thing is, once you call yourself a feminist, it can be damaging to only look through that prism. It can take away the full texture of what you’re trying to create, if you have an agenda that you’ve proclaimed. That’s not to say I don’t have an agenda, but it works best if it’s never mentioned. With Cabin, it’s a bit of a departure, but you can’t create fictions based on politics, otherwise you’re speech writers, not storytellers.’ This prompts me to quote Carol Hanisch ‘the personal is political’, or to put it another way, shouldn’t it be once a feminist always a feminist?

Putting such disappointments with Whedon’s apparent lapse in judgement to one side, this equation of horror with objectification, raises wider issues on the concern with who is watching that frequently belies a stance of superiority; a ‘this is how these people watch it, but we know better’ kind of attitude. In her seminal work on slasher movies and the ‘final girl’ figure, Carol Clover takes the position that horror films are primarily watched by teenage boys, so issues of identification and sexuality are looked at through this bias, an idea that as a female (and long-term) viewer of horror I am acutely aware does not fully account for what is at stake in watching horror films. [3] Not only does it not account for the experience of watching in a way that excludes a plurality of audiences, it reduces the possibilities of what horror is for or about, and therefore permits an ease of dismissal – a kind of equation where the implied audience impacts on judgements about horror that support its limits: these films are only about objectification, and are for one set of people, which explains why the films operate as they do and therefore why they are so horrible etc. In this way, feelings of discomfort or disgust with the genre are more easily parceled away into the sense that they are not ‘for me’ and moreover, disgust with (and superiority over) anyone who does enjoy horror: why would anyone who isn’t a teenage boy wanting to be titillated be interested in them? This progression of ideas leads me to feeling that I have to defend my interest in horror, and particularly when a film is explicitly telling its audience that this is what horror is (objectification etc) and this is why we’re all above it. [4]

So, back to The Cabin in the Woods. My feelings of discomfort at being implicated in a male gaze reminded me of the opening scene of Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I want to end with. In episode 1, we are introduced to Sunnydale via a young couple breaking into the high school, with the typical dynamic of the boy seeking to scare the reluctant girl so that her fear will make her more vulnerable to his advances. The scene plays out a scenario typical of the slasher film, and does so in ways that are consistent with horrors concerns around gender and looking, but not in a way that limits these ideas to objectification alone. The scene starts with a series of views of the dark and empty high school, and then once the couple have gained access via a broken window in a science lab, they walk down a corridor, the girl trailing behind and looking around.

The coercion of the girl into this scenario is made clear by her continued placement behind the boy, her physical reluctance within the space and in relation to the boy, and her vulnerability increased by her consistent looks out of the frame; women looking at an unseen threat (actual or potential) is a staple of the horror genre. Through positioning and performance she is situated as a woman in peril and our concern is for her under these terms. The show is asking us to be worried on her behalf, while also aware of her vulnerability in relation to the boy and to the ominous surroundings. While she might be the object of the boy’s sexual attention she certainly isn’t placed as such for the viewer, and because of how she is positioned we are able to be both with her and distanced from her (empathetic and sympathetic), worried for her and perhaps also scared as she is, but also to be frustrated that she isn’t being more proactive or getting away from the idiot that she is with. As such this opening looks very directly at horror and the way it works, specifically from ideas around gender, but in a way that negotiates the dynamics of this more subtly and allows for a more inclusive watching experience. That the girl then turns out to be the monster, and our feelings of empathy and sympathy are turned on their head as she transforms into a vampire and the boy becomes the prey, brings us back to Whedon’s idea of genre subversion, though not in a way that excludes the possibility of other ways of looking, of experiencing horror or of feminism (without speech-writing), as in The Cabin in the Woods.

[1] my thanks to Faye Woods for articulating the question in our discussion of the film via twitter

[2] The film does offer another example where the male gaze is invoked and then refused: when Holden watches Dana through a 2 way mirror revealed behind a gruesome painting in his room, at first he enjoys watching her unobserved, but as soon as she starts to remove her top he knocks on the glass and lets her know that he can see her.

[3] To be fair to Clover, although she takes this position throughout her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, she does acknowledge this bias and the resulting invisibility of the rest of horror’s audiences to her writing. However, having known teenage boys who watched horror films I remain unconvinced the kind of conclusions she draws entirely encapsulate that sector of the audience either.

[4] An interesting side note is that a great many people who have praised The Cabin in the Woods seem to identify themselves as non-horror fans, which leads me to think that the position of superiority that the film places the viewer in aligns them with it more easily.