The show is not the show,
But they that go.
Menagerie to me
My neighbor be.
Both went to see.
Although the second chapter of Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? focuses on an examination of neoliberalism’s campaigns in the culture wars, there is something profound about the choice to concentrate on education and housing as two domains of change in the latter half of the 20th century. Following World War II, both education (in the form of a college degree) and a home were part of the democratic dream of the American citizen. Surveying the current landscape, however, we see that what once was bright has turned dark as both the housing industry and higher education have increasingly become privatized industries that are almost inextricably linked with debt. Encapsulating a force that contributed to this shift, Dugan writes:
Rather than support the idea that resources were adequate for broad-based public sharing of the fruits of prosperity, business activists promoted the idea that resources were scarce, and fierce competition among groups and individuals would be required to secure a comfortable life. (36)
In some ways reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism, we find that the very thing that purports to offer us light is the very thing that causes us to be further bound to a system that ultimately drags us down.
Additionally, we might consider how the neoliberal impulse mentioned in Duggan also manifests in reality television programs like House Hunters. Ostensibly a 30-minute program on HGTV that details a couple’s search for a new home, House Hunters sticks to a formula that essentially includes the prospective buyers surveying three prospective properties with the help of a real estate agent, making an offer on one of the properties (that is almost always accepted), and moving in at the conclusion of the episode. Aside from an unrealistic portrayal of the home-buying process, House Hunters works to solidify and normalize the privatization of the domestic space through its promotion of home ownership.
House Hunters television promo (2010)
House Hunters also makes abundantly clear just how intertwined race, class, sexuality and politics really are with its portrayal of viewers and the lingering comment, “I thought they were brothers.” More importantly, however, the home, in some ways the most private of cultural spaces, has now become a site for spectatorship on multiple levels as viewers see the innards of the house themselves but also experience a measure of voyeurism vicariously through the featured couple. Indeed, the format of the show as reality television makes explicit Clay Calvert’s phenomenon of the “voyeur nation” as “a nation of watchers performing their verification practices with an eye to the gaze of an imagined other, in order to avoid being seen as a dupe” (in Andrejevic, 239). The flip side, then, of reality shows’ democratizing promise that “everybody can be a judge” is that we are, in some ways, expected to have an opinion about the latest thing to be scrutinized; feeling the ever watchful gaze of others we examine the house just as ardently as the featured couple, knowing that we might be called upon at any moment to render our opinion.
If, however, the emphasis on home ownership demonstrates how the intersection between economics and the domestic is subject to privatization, the manifestation of House Hunters as a reality television show also indicates ways in which the overlap between the domestic/family and culture is increasingly made more public in service of economic gain. The issue here is one of privatization and privacy as the logics of neoliberalism turn privacy into a commodity.
My provocation is this: utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.
The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag: Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:
“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”
Without pausing she fires back:
“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”
I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast: youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.
Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:
There is another sky
Ever serene and fair
And there is another sunshine
Though it be darkness there
Never mind faded forests, Austin
Never mind silent fields
Here is a little forest
Whose leaf is evergreen
Here is a brighter garden
Where not a frost has been
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum
Prithee, my brother
Into my garden come!
All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.
But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.
And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.
The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone: utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.
Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.
Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.
Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.
I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.
So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?
For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.
Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.
But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.
I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.
In short, a utopia.
What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.
I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.
We’d never know how high we are
Until we’re called to rise
And then, if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies
Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.
I want to start out with a provocation: In our current age, television has become a form of religion, with the screen our altar and actors our saints.
This is, of course, not to say that television supplants other forms of traditional religion (and I would go further to suggest that any antagonism or dissonance between these types of worship says more about you than it does about the strains of belief themselves), but merely that our relationship with the medium has come to reflect many of the qualities that we associate with institutional religion as television has come to assume a pervasive, public, and central part of our lives, with our identities constructed, in part, around our position to TV. We form rituals around television viewing, regularly sitting down in front of our sets to watch True Blood instead of in pews. Or, if we judge importance through money spent instead of time, we might consider how a television is likely the single most expensive appliance we own or just how much we spend on cable per year. And, for some of us, television is the venue through which we connect to foreign others, supplementing the worship of God with a steadfast belief in Albus Dumbledore.
And what is religion, anyway?
I’ve always found it slightly ironic that my name alludes to the support of a religion that I often find myself at odds with; growing up, I had always associated the term “God” with a prominent figure in Western monotheistic religions. When I was younger, I recognized that, on some level, this notion of the Christian God was being forced upon me and I spent much of my life forming my identity in opposition to this conceptualization—I needed to escape from the oppressive and pervasive nature of the theology in order to attempt to craft my own sense of self. It has been difficult to learn that there is more to Christianity than evangelicals and that not everyone is trying to tell me how to live my life. Kant has had a large influence on my worldview and I do not think that God’s existence can be proven (or disproven); I also do not believe in a God that created the universe or exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. This does not, however, mean that God’s existence does not have any impact on my life—God exists for those who believe in Him and the actions that result from those beliefs are very real to me. Moreover, many of the tropes that inform my work in identity and narrative derive from Christian tradition; religion, along with myths, fairy tales, and a host of other informal stories, all shape the way that we learn to view ourselves and our relationships to the world around us. So, although I continue to refrain from identifying as Christian, I would argue that I am closer to God today than I have ever been and that part of this process has come about through critical reflection on the incredible amount of television that I watch.
And stories, whether they are found in religion or on television, possess the ability to convey incredibly complex ideas to us in a way that we cannot always fully articulate. For example, take the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky,” which is a familiar one if you’ve been exposed to any amount of entertainment growing up; it is the story of Alice, of Dorothy, of Neo, and of many others who have gone on a quest to become a hero. And, although he would not have described himself in terms of heroics, it is also partially the story of Jesus. Throughout the episode, various characters were admonished to “wake up” or expressed a desire to return home. Each has been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, existed in us all along. These heroes have all ventured into the darkness and found their way back to the world of the living; each of these heroes has woken up and tapped into the power that this revelation brings.
This journey is the same one we undergo when dealing with grief and death: when our loved ones die, we travel with them to the land of the dead; for a time being, a part of us dies as well. We hear the call to come back to the world of the living but also whispers from the underworld. We are scared to embark upon this path because we fear that we will become lost and will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living; we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. (As a side note, this is also what the “There Is Another Sky” of the title refers to via an Emily Dickinson poem.) Funerals, whether experienced in a church or through a screen, act as rituals to transcend the everyday, allowing us to learn a script for letting go of the dead and returning to the surface.
So if we take a step back and consider Berger’s argument for the cyclical relationship between society and human beings through a process of production/externalization and consumption/internalization in conjunction with Gerbner and Gross’ Cultivation Theory, we can readily see a case made for television fulfilling some of the same core functions of religion. Television, as a product of man, follows its own internal logic and, through its existence and subsequent consumption, forces an in-kind response by its audiences. Television’s logic, then, structures and orders the world in a fashion similar to that of religion, with Gerbner and Gross suggesting that the process of identification is proportional to the amount of television consumed. In short, television, like religion, helps us to make sense of our world.
1) Reality television, in particular, provides a fruitful arena for further exploration of these concepts due to its current popularity and ability to blur the line between authenticity/fabrication. Borrowing from a heritage in documentary film making, the genre assumes a sheen of objectivity while nevertheless evidencing elements of manipulation by editors and writers. Moreover, the accessibility of its “stars” (due to their status as “normal” people) make the salience of their behavioral scripts that much more evident for people who would wish to use them as models of successful/unsuccessful behavior. Although dangerous due to a general lack of situational information/context, viewers might be tempted to repeat behavior that they see on screen, hastening the process of internalization, for it was undertaken by someone “just like me.”
2) Making a similar case for advertising’s ability to act as religion, James Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as advertising and religion, a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. (I might also suggest that a large part of the Catholic church’s growth was due to its efforts of self-promotion and advertising.) Aspects such as religion and advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, these forces play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—advertising works the same reason that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers.
The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu. The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. The Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172-199.
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
Twitchell, J. (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Shoes clicking, she walked through the streets with thoughts in her head and a gun in her hand; she was the queen of New Cap City—in time, would become its god—and didn’t even know it. But that is her future. Right now, she is just a girl who has finally awakened.
Inspired by the analysis of Jacob [and apologies for parroting your ideas–this is my take on your take], I began to think about how the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky” is a familiar one, if you’ve been exposed to any amount of entertainment growing up; it is the story of Alice, of Dorothy, of Neo, and of many others who have left on a quest and come back a hero. Throughout the episode, various characters (e.g., Sam, Tamara, and arguably Zoe) expressed a desire to return home or were admonished to “wake up” and each has, in turn, been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, has existed in them (and us!) all along. These nascent heroes, like their fictional forbearers, have all ventured into the darkness and found their way back to the world of the living; each of these heroes has woken up and tapped into the power that this revelation brings.
And ultimately, this is the message of the poem by Emily Dickinson, from which this episode draws its title.
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair.
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there.
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind faded fields—
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers,
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
The story of the hero is the struggle to preserve light in the darkness; the story of the hero is braving the depths and finding our way home.
The story of the hero becomes our story as we deal with grief and death: when our loved ones die, we travel with them to the land of the dead; for a time being, a part of us dies as well. Caught in a stasis—a kind of unholy limbo—we hear a call to return to the world of the living but also suffer whispers from the underworld. When faced with death, we close ourselves off, afraid to embark upon the path that leads toward resolution because we fear that we will become lost: we fear that we will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living and we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. So we use funerals, like the one shown at the end of the episode, to act as rituals that transcend the everyday, providing a space for us to let go of the dead and to return to the surface; funerals remind us that we belong to a community of the living who will draw us back. This is also what Dickinson’s poem alludes to: there is darkness, but there is also light.
The story of the hero becomes our story as we sit in front of computer screens alone and afraid, living out heroic adventures online but terrified to make the transition into real life. We say that the game allows us to be something; we are so desperate to be something—anything—other than what we are that we forget our worth. We forget that we could be so much more if we only let ourselves be.
We forget that we could be so much more if we only let ourselves be.
As someone who works with teenagers on a regular basis, I am privileged to witness some remarkable feats by young people (more impressive, perhaps, than some of the things that I will ever accomplish) but am also privy to some of the great struggles that individuals go through. In some ways, I think that being a teenager—like Tamara and Zoe—is scary because it is the time when you begin to figure out who you are (and who you want to be) and we don’t always like what we see. So, instead of taking a risk, we simmer in quiet desperation, forever anxious about what might be and forever shameful of our sin. I don’t mean to belittle this—I feel it more deeply than you might ever know—but I choose to embrace the darkness and to call forth the light (you might call it God).
I believe that God exists everywhere and in everything; I believe that we are all interconnected, all part of the life stream (to borrow a phrase from Leoben, who will rock the world of Caprica 50 years hence), and all part of God. I believe that God resides in all parts of our beings, which means that he also exists in those parts of us that we repress and find horrid. In fact, I believe that God’s light shines the brightest in these spaces, for it is where He is needed the most. I believe that God does not love us any less because we have darkness, but also that love is not the same thing as approval. I believe that the solution is not to build more walls, further closing ourselves off from the darkness, but to bring these parts of ourselves to light and to learn to resolve them. We need to realize that one of the greatest gifts God ever gave us was Grace, but that this is a gift that we get to bestow upon ourselves. God never deserts us, but also doesn’t do all of the heavy lifting—we, like our heroes, have to discover that we had the strength all along.
The discovery of God in the blackest places is similar to the voyage that I encourage all of you to take; I challenge my students to confront the darkest parts of themselves and to be secure in the knowledge that they’ll find their way back to the surface. I feel that if students are not able to identify the worst parts of themselves, they’ll never be able to reconcile them and that this leads to a whole host of issues later on. Being comfortable with yourselves—all of you—is, in a way, analogous to finally waking up or finding your way back home.
“It’s been a long night,” I thought to myself as I dragged my tired body into bed. Part of me knew that I should take off my shoes at the very least, but a voice inside my head argued that the removal of footwear would require me to move from the now all-too-perfect spot on my pillow.
“What is it now?” I glanced angrily at my cell. “Shut up and let me go to sleep!” Flipping over on my side, I hit buttons of my phone to discover a Tweet from Jay Brannan announcing a new music video. “I’ll check it out tomorrow,” I thought, dropping the phone back on to the headboard and settled back into the sheets.
I’ve been a fan of Jay ever since I saw him in the movie Shortbus (which itself is rich with blog topics). Performing in such a film is certainly admirable, but the film also exposed me to Jay’s music, which I have been listening to for a couple of years now.
While many of the songs on Jay’s album, “Goddamned,” are enjoyable, one song in particular strikes me when I put on my sex blogger hat: “Home.” While the track describes the certainly relatable experience of being a young person in a large city, it also contains the following lines, which are some of my favorite:
Why don’t the Gideons leave condoms in the drawer?
Bibles don’t save many people anymore.
Sure, there are many ways to argue this sentiment (declining condom usage is fodder for another article), but I do think that it’s an interesting point of view although I’m admittedly biased because safer sex is much more my religion than Christianity/Judaism ever would be. Why do hotels leave Bibles for their patrons and not condoms? Is saving one’s immortal life more important than potentially saving one’s mortal being? Is it practical to try to save both?
The interplay of religion and science has been around since the early stages of civilization and these forces are often pitted at odds against one another (even if not in direct conflict). As Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, once wrote:
Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.
Although there has been some recent conflict between the two camps, I can’t help but believe that the goal of both schools of thought is the development of guidelines to keep their believers safe. In my world, the original role of religion was to keep its members safe (from the world and each other), healthy, and to encourage propagation of the species. Science-based sexual health education, too, I would argue, aims to do many of the same things. I think that both ideologies have things to offer and that it is incredibly presumptuous to think that one side has all of the answers, or the only answers.