Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Journalism

Merry Christmas. War is…Over?

I’m not sure when it started, but I am told that there is most definitely a “War on Christmas” occurring in America at the present moment. Well, reoccurring to be more accurate. In response we see comedian Jon Stewart formally declaring a (mock) “War on Christmas” even as other media outlets attempt to understand what the fuss is all about. What is a journalist to do? To ignore the situation seems neglectful, but to acknowledge the dispute is to grant a measure of legitimacy. In short, what is one’s responsibility when it comes to reporting something like the “War on Christmas”? Is there a way to contextualize the issue without engaging directly, perhaps seeing the fervor as the product of a channel that must find news (or create it)?

Part of the struggle, I think, lies in the notion that the commercialized Christmas has invariably become part of the traditional Christmas story in America. Even children’s specials support this notion, for despite Charlie Brown’s speech that commercialism will not ruin his Christmas, it is only after his sapling is transformed through the trappings of commercial celebration that it is allowed to bring the children together. This is not to suggest that we confuse Santa Claus with Jesus, but that both figures have become central to the Christian understanding of the season. If there indeed is a “War on Christmas,” are we even fighting the right enemy?

But beyond the rabble rousing, I am incredibly interested in the sensationalist deployment of “Nazi” in order to challenge those who are seen as hindering Christians’ ability to celebrate Christmas for one of Nazism’s goals was the unification of the German people through the perceived threat imposed by the Polish. In line with a position heavily influenced by Social Darwinism, Nazism construed this assault in terms of a mortal danger—in this model, there would only be one type of winner and Nazis most definitely intended to ensure their own survival.

What happens, then, if we remove Nazis from the discussion (and, along with them, the inherent negative connotations) and instead consider the process employed by the National Socialist party? We must recognize that this sort of community building is not inherently evil nor is it a product of Nazism—to label it as such would be to ignore the larger ideological developments at play and to fail to understand its relative import to us today. This, to me, seems to be the real story at the heart of all of this rhetoric:  what are the ways that dominant ideology paints itself as a victim in order to garner support?

As others have noted, the “War on Christmas” is perhaps really just a battle in the larger “War on Christianity.” Viewed in this way, we can situate the current discussions alongside Lowe’s decision to remove its ads from All-American Muslim and concern over religious iconography on military bases. For me, the larger area of concern is not whether Christianity is in fact jeopardized but rather how such a war is being constructed in the first place. If we look back at tactics employed during the Nazi assertion of power, we can better understand the potential benefits of fostering an environment that finds itself in a perpetual state of battle with the secular Other threatening imminent demise.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies cultural anxieties that surround the social construction of the body. Throughout his work, Chris attempts to use Post/Transhumanism, Early Modern Science, Gothic Horror, and religion to answer the question, “How do we become more than our bodies?” 

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he endeavors not to eat his weight in holiday snacks.

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The Majority Report

The charge of media’s liberal bias is not a new one.

From Sarah Palin’s cry of “gotcha questions” to Jon Stewart’s arguments against inflammatory rhetoric, we see a wide range of individuals in America expressing discontentment with the status quo.

And those critical of mainstream media also have a point.

But when we consider our demands for mainstream media, are we calling for reforms in reporting or asking journalism to be something that it’s not? We see individuals from different political positions calling for change in the media and in reporting, but how realistic are our demands given the structure of the media industry itself? I believe that we can challenge the system, but are we focusing on the branches instead of the roots?

Taking the recent News Corporation “hacking scandal” as an example, we simultaneously see multiple ways in which journalistic outlets failed citizens and how the problem cannot simply be solved by asking reporters/editors to “do better.”

On the ground level, we of course have the unethical behavior evidenced by the News of the World staff that formed the basis for the story. However, given that this was not just an isolated incident (i.e., a “rogue reporter” as initially stated) we must also examine the institutional and structural supports that may have served to foster a culture in which the aforementioned scandal could occur. As the story developed, the public began to gain insight into a newsroom that deemed information more valuable than people; a mogul who, although not directly involved, nevertheless shirked responsibility for his employees; and a media that seemed content to fixate on “hacking” rather than the larger issues of ethical practice and invasion of privacy.[1]

This, of course, raises the notion of just who comprises journalism’s constituency. Although it seems like the straightforward answer would be that the fourth estate ideally serves the people, this stance may in fact not be correct in practice. The propaganda model, put forth by Herman and Chomsky (1988) suggests that a number of intervening factors—what the authors call “filters”—exist in mass media that serve to subvert journalism, making it beholden to entities other than the public. Concentration of ownership along with reliance on advertisers and reliable sources suggest that any problems evidenced by the media are, in fact, much more complex than many initially realize; while criticism of the media might be warranted, focusing all of our attention solely on the media will never effect any real change.

If we accept the validity of Herman and Chomsky’s arguments, we see that mainstream media might actually contain strains of conservative bias. Such an argument should not suggest that media outlets cannot also contain a liberal bias (to wit, Herbert J. Gans paraphrases Stephen Colbert’s assertion that life itself tends to lean liberal) but merely argue against the notion that media inherently and/or necessarily contains an all-consuming bias toward the liberal.


[1] This should not suggest that hacking is not a legitimate social concern, as we have witnessed large-scale attacks against government and corporations that have definite potential for harm. However, in this case, the discussion surrounding this particular story seemed to play on the fears (and popular preconceptions) of the public in order to make a somewhat sensationalist argument. Put another way, I would suggest that this was a “scandal that involved hacking” and not a “hacking scandal.” Although I think that the first conceptualization is more accurate, I can also see how the second phrase is easier to sell and why mainstream media outlets—beholden to advertisers and conscious of time/space—would choose the latter.


Why the “Cult” of Mormonism Misses the Mark

The question of Mormonism’s role in this election cycle refuses to die.

Over the weekend, much ado was made regarding Reverend Robert Jeffress’ assertion that Mormonism was a cult, with editorials and articles appearing across media outlets. Although I recognize that the dispute supposedly at the heart of this matter is whether or not Mormonism is, in fact, a form of Christianity, I also suspect that this entire discussion is being overplayed because of its proximity to the Republican nomination process. I, for one, have not seen many (if any) crusades to dissuade Mormons from calling themselves Christians in other contexts. For that matter, this is not the first time that America has broached the subject, but we seem to have forgotten that Mitt Romney had to defend his religion the last time we went through all of this four years ago. We could go back and forth over the distinction between religion and cult—see other discussions regarding the nature of Scientology or the perception of early Christianity in a Jewish society—but I believe that this would be time spent unwisely.

Instead, the more problematic line from Jeffress at the Value Voters Summit was, “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?” Putting aside the false dichotomy between a “good moral person” and a “born-again follower of Jesus Christ”—which incidentally suggests that a candidate who identifies as born-again Christian is not a good moral person—the underlying message subtly implies supporting Christians over good moral people. Of course the two categories are not mutually exclusive, but I think that reporters missed a great opportunity to disentangle emotionally-charged words from thoughtful political action. Even when the topic was mentioned, discussion quickly moved onto another distraction:  the Constitutional injunction against religious testing prior to assuming public office. Instead of publishing headlines like “Cantor Doesn’t Believe Religion Should be Factor in 2012,” which, besides being misleading and not truly reflective of the article’s body, news media have an obligation to explain to voters why religion does matter in the political process. Values do matter and religion undoubtedly speaks to a portion of that—just not all of it. We know from reports like those of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that religion does impact voting, so why pretend otherwise? The opportunity that the press has, however, is to challenge pundits, politicians, and the public not to use “religion” to mean more than it should.

Moreover, another missed opportunity for the media was Jeffress’ assertion that Romeny was a “fine family person” but still not a Christian, given that he was speaking to a crowd ostensibly gathered in support of family values. Shouldn’t this statement, particularly at this function, cause reporters to question exactly what types of values are being upheld? Doesn’t Jeffress’ statement call for an examination of exactly what is meant by terms like “Christian” and “Mormon”? Ultimately it is these values that will determine the potential President’s policy, not the moniker of a religion.

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Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he tries to avoid the Flavor Aid.


Iowa’s Straw Poll Helps Us Take Stock, Not Just of Candidates But of Ourselves

In a move long-suspected by many, Texas governor Rick Perry officially declared his intention to seek the office of President this past Saturday. Perry, who garnered national attention with his rally, The Response, once again invokes—or at least should cause one to question—the manner in which religion has been interwoven into a political climate that has, of late, seemed to largely fixate on the economic issues of budgets, debt, and unemployment.

Without diminishing the importance of these topics or their coverage, the recent debates in Iowa suggest that understanding the potential impact of religion in the various GOP campaigns is of value whether one identifies as Republican or not. Beyond the gaffe of news anchor Ainsley Earhardt, and the larger discussion (and negotiation) of Mormonism that it references, religion’s presence seems to have manifested in subtle, but potentially significant, ways throughout this campaign season.

Responding, perhaps, to a recent poll that indicated Americans’ preference for a strongly religious President (despite not being able to correctly identify the specific beliefs of major candidates), Fox News displayed a graphic during the Iowa debates that indicated three pieces of information:  religion, marital status, and number of children. Interestingly, this graphic was paired with another image showcasing each individual candidate’s political experience, perhaps suggesting that Fox News considered these two sets of information equally important for viewers.

And, in a way, maybe they are.

During the debates on Thursday, Byron York asked candidate Michele Bachmann about how her religious beliefs—specifically her belief in the virtue of submissiveness—might affect her behavior, citing her prior decision to become a tax lawyer as a result of her understanding of God’s desire as channeled through her husband. Although this inquiry elicited a strong display of displeasure from the audience as extraneous or unfair, the question seemed designed to probe Bachmann’s decision-making process in the past as well as what might shape her choices in the future if she were to become President.

So maybe the relevant concerns aren’t necessarily what religion a person is or isn’t (although this does not excuse the propagation of misinformation), but rather specifically how these beliefs influence a candidate’s perception of the world and the behavioral responses that those filters elicit. Undoubtedly, religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of the world and the range of perceived actions that is available to us at any given moment.

But beliefs aren’t exclusive to the religious community:  if the recent skirmishes over the federal debt ceiling have taught us anything, it is that we demonstrate a potential aversion to complexity or are perhaps slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of problems posed by the modern world. Our own response to these looming presences is to streamline the world, tending to engage with our environment in the specific, and limited, ways that align with our mental picture of the world.

So, before we criticize Rick Perry’s drive to ask God to fix America—as tempting it might be for atheists and secularists—we need to examine the human desire to seek out, and ascribe to, simple answers that are readily available in times of crisis. This impulse, which seems to have largely assumed the form of religious rhetoric in the current round of Republican campaigns (and one might even argue that the content itself is not necessarily spiritual in nature if we look at the reverence given to the invocation of Reagan) seems to be the real, and often under-discussed, issue at play. Although a more arduous task, I believe that appreciating the power and presence of religion in this process will afford us a richer understanding of the American people and their relationship to contemporary politics.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he searches for LA’s best iced coffee.


Man of Science, Man of Faith

In today’s world, it seems that “secularization” is all too often matched with a sense of loss:  whether it be the decline in institutional religion or the dissipation of enchantment, we seem to employ the term in order to forward the idea that we are moving away from something that was once valued. And, to be fair, this is true. The modern age has, since the Enlightenment, been, in fits and starts, shifting away from a life infused with religion. But, I also think that “secularization” can also speak to something larger, and more significant, than that.

Unfortunately, it appears as though “secularization” has become synonymous with Science and been placed in opposition to Religion–atheists rigidly adhere to a rather static ideology that denounces aspects of religion, preferring the explanations proffered by experiments and equations. Yet, are we simply trading one set of dogma for another as we move between extremes? For me, Science works best when it challenges Religion (and vice versa) to keep pace with the developing world. The sense of awe, mystery, and wonder inherent in religion keeps scientists humble and science reminds us that some holy laws must be reconciled with modern culture.

One of the most welcome and quoted new books on the subject is Taylor’s A Secular Age, an 896-page opus that argues that secularization has been largely positive — as long as it leaves open a “window on the transcendent.”

The spiritual and religious impulse in humans will never die, says Taylor. Even if religion doesn’t dominate a society, as it once unfortunately did in Europe and elsewhere, people will always seek the transcendent; something ultimate, larger than themselves.

The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, says what is needed most now is new forms of religion that work in a secular age, where they are subject to analysis and don’t rely on political endorsement.

We are seeing this today. Many open-minded forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and of smaller spiritual movements, including meditation, yoga and healing, are maintaining a sense of the transcendent in some secular, pluralistic societies.

We can partly thank the Enlightenment for the rise of secularism, with the era’s emphasis on freethinking, rationality and science. But many thinkers, including 19th-century sociologist Max Weber, also credit the advance of secularism to Protestantism.

The Protestant Reformation rejected the absolute authority claimed by the Roman Catholic church of the time.

It brought a new wave of reform, choice and intellectual questioning to Christianity. By the 19th century, Protestants were critically analyzing the Bible and trying to discern the difference between the “historical Jesus” and the Christ of unquestioned mythology.

This so-called “critical method” wasn’t an attack on the faith, as some traditionalistic Christians continue to argue today. But it was what many consider a valid attempt to challenge the taboos that surrounded Christian orthodoxy.

Seeing the synthesis of these two areas is what makes studying modern religion so fascinating. Despite a formal training in Natural Sciences, I have gradually come to appreciate the power inherent in religion and am quite excited to be in some other great minds at the USC Knight Chair in Media and Religion blog.


Under a Microscope, Politician’s Private Lives Become Public

“There are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country and we have got to have the guts to stand up and say ‘No.’”

By now, Newt Gingrich’s comments at the first New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debates have made the rounds, spreading across blogs, mainstream news outlets, and, of course, The Daily Show. Positioning Muslims alongside Nazis and Communists as those who would infiltrate our country, Gingrich has once again invoked anti-Muslim sentiment in the name of patriotism.

Although Gingrich’s polemic likely raised a few eyebrows, it was admittedly not all that surprising given his recent stance on the subject; highly visible in a movement that would label American Muslims as forever foreigners, Gingrich seems to have crafted himself into a candidate who is willing to engage with the popular topic of American Muslims. Despite the recent spate of coverage, Justin Elliott notes that the mainstream media has generally shied away from what might very well be the real story: the evolution of this particular brand of rhetoric by Gingrich.

Perhaps the American public is partly at fault as it clamors for briefs primed to incite moral outrage and hungers for stories that whet an appetite for spectacle. Yet, as we know, journalism also has a role to play and it is perhaps neglecting its duties in this regard. An issue larger than a simple lack of coverage, there seems to be a fundamental absence in the training of many journalists who would cover religion.

And yet religion continues to have a large presence in the current state of politics, manifesting concerns separate from the intricacies of traditional voting demographic blocs. With Rick Perry hosting an event for governors named The Response, and Reverend Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance calling for a reduction in religion’s political presence, it appears as though this upcoming race will see the resurgence of a negotiation between the public and private aspects of religion that was recently highlighted by the Ground Zero mosque.

But it’s not only politicians who struggle to understand how religion figures into the everyday, with salvation to be had at venues unlikely as cowboy church. However, despite the potential collapse of the private/public dichotomy, are we really encouraging people to think about the role that religion plays in both of these spheres? Has our news coverage been affected by an upswing in atheism’s popularity? Religion, faith, and spirituality all bridge the gap, with values formed in private undoubtedly affecting actions displayed in public. Why, then, do we hesitate to engage in meaningful discussion of religion’s potential political impact, focusing more on what a particular individual’s religion is in lieu of an attempt to understand how and why that particular philosophy permeates a candidate’s positions? If we are content to simplify our interest to buzzwords like “pro-life” or “against gay marriage,” never challenging ourselves to understand the root causes of the issues we hold dear, how can we ever hope to convince the other side that we may in fact have a point? We insist that others see it our way and never take the time to talk to them in words that they might actually be receptive to. Rather than avoiding the issue entirely, perhaps we should encourage people to make the discussion of religion a routine practice—and provide them with the information and rhetorical tools they need in order to facilitate intelligent discussion.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he is pursuing media/cultural studies with a concentration in Gothic Horror as an articulator of cultural anxiety. A biologist by training, Chris currently endeavors to understand transformative bodies through lenses as varied as narrative studies, media, and religion, a process that has resulted in an upcoming chapter in The Hunger Games and Philosophy focusing on issues of authenticity in celebrity. Follow his quest to find the perfect cup of coffee on Twitter at @TrojanTopher.


Just More of That “He Said, She Said”

“We live in a land that you can choose one or the other, same-sex marriage or opposite marriage…and you know what, in my country, and in my family, I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised…”

 

-Carrie Prejean, Former Miss California 2009

 

These words, spoken in response to a question posed by blogger (and then acting judge) Perez Hilton, reignited simmering tensions as the issue of gay marriage was again thrust into the national spotlight during the 2009 Miss USA pageant. Although he had hoped for an answer from Miss Utah (Denizet-Lewis, 2009), Hilton nevertheless took advantage of his opportunity, forcing national attention toward the subject of gay marriage legislation; outspoken, media savvy, and an unapologetic gay man, Hilton had capitalized on his moment, engaging mass audiences in what had become an embroiled topic of conversation. Particularly poignant was the fact that Perez Hilton resided in California, which had just narrowly defeated Proposition 8 (otherwise known as the California Marriage Protection Act) and was, at the time, in the thralls of a back-and-forth battle of escalating appeals. Although questionably worded—the choice of the term “opposite marriage” with its non-normative connotations would come to haunt her in the coming months—Carrie Prejean’s response represented a fairly standard beauty pageant answer to a relevant and noteworthy current issue. Hilton, however, did not seem content with Prejean’s reply and expressed his displeasure in a video blog, calling her a “dumb bitch” (Vasquezama, 2009),[1] a catalytic move that helped vault the incident to the status of a media event.

Based in part on the work of sociologist Simon Cottle, this paper will present a background of mediatized rituals and, as a subset, media events in order to contextualize the Carrie Prejean/Perez Hilton controversy. Concerned more with the unfolding of this particular story, and less with value judgments of “right” and “wrong,” I will also draw upon French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and media theorist John Fiske in order to argue toward a position that seeks to understand how and why discussion of gay marriage came to involve the figures of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton; I will also strive to demonstrate that although much discussion centered around these two figures for a period of time in 2009, the much ballyhooed incident was in fact indicative of a much larger set of concerns.

Figuring It Out

In some ways, the controversy stemming from the 2009 Miss USA pageant seems somewhat surprising as both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton appear incredibly unqualified to spearhead discussion of gay marriage; prior to this incident, neither seemed to be respected as a particular expert on the issue of gay rights or identified as a pundit with any sort of political acumen. Yet, despite an arguable lack of obvious credentials, Prejean and Hilton had managed to meet one important criterion:  they were on national television. Although the viewership of the 2009 Miss USA pageant hit a record low (Keveney, 2010), the simple fact that the controversy occurred on a mediated large-scale platform indicated two noteworthy (and interrelated) factors:  (1) the reach of television as a broadcast medium is widespread and singular in its presentation; (2) the only way to experience the event for most people was through media.

The first factor—which is more readily apparent but ultimately less important—came about as a result of developments in communication technologies that allowed for a global system of satellites and near-instantaneous transmission of news and information (Friedman, 1999). Building upon a model that had its roots in the radio and television culture of the early 20th century, mass communication throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries allowed an increasingly large proportion of people to simultaneously experience an occurrence; this idea is significant because it develops a common reference point that then serves as the seed for the germination of a mediatized ritual or a media event. Although recent developments in online culture have increasingly proven to support divergent points of view, broadcast media, by its nature, continues to provide a central communal narrative. Additionally, the scale of exposure is also an important factor to bear in mind as broadcast media can make the difference between niche market and national scope.

More important, however, was the notion that, for most people, the incident only existed in its mediated form. According to media scholar John Fiske, this fact meant that audiences could only operate on and conceptualize what Baudrillard terms “hyperreality,” as opposed to the “real” (Fiske, 1994; Baudrillard, 1994). For people living in a post-modern world, the representation of the exchange mixed with its reality, causing the two levels to become effectively indistinguishable from one another—for viewers, everything about this particular media event was, in short, hyperreal. Moreover, for the majority of the audience, both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton did not exist as actual people per se, but instead as media personalities; our entire construction of these individuals’ identities stemmed from their portrayals in and though the media.

And, in some ways, the “real” Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton are somewhat immaterial for our purposes as most people involved in the ensuing discussion will never come to know either of these individuals directly—for most of us, the representation is much more powerful and salient; who we perceive these two to be is more important than who they actually are. Speaking to this concept, Fiske introduces the concept of the “figure” as an embodiment of deeply-seeded conflicts, emotions, and/or feelings within a society (1994).[2] Although Fiske uses individuals like O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas to make a series of points about figures and racial tensions, we can perhaps employ his thought process to draw similar analogies with Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton regarding the issue of gay marriage.

The Voice of the People

In line with Fiske’s description of figures as manifestations of underlying contestations, the response from Americans (to both Prejean and Hilton) was swift and vocal; having been provided with a tangible focal point for their perhaps previously unarticulated and unfocused sentiment, individuals on both sides of the debate began to write letters to newspaper editors in order to express their opinions (Rubin, 2009; Morris, 2009). Combing through opinion pieces from the time of the incident, one notices a stark trend:  authors seem less concerned with debating the relative merits of the situation at hand and instead tend to express outrage that others do not see the world as they do.

Eventually, as the months continued, the narrative surrounding Carrie Prejean would grow as Prejean and her supporters began to cite the contentious answer as the reason—notably, not one reason of many possible factors, but the reason—she had placed second in the Miss USA pageant (The Chicago Tribune, 2009); individual citizens like Judith Martin would go a step further and attempt to contextualize the negative response to Prejean’s answer as part of a larger disruptive pro-gay marriage movement (2009). Prejean, it seems, was the victim in all of this, being vilified by a left-leaning minority public who was hypocritically intolerant.

It is at this point that we begin to see the breakdown in communication between opposing perspectives in conjunction with a general unwillingness to understand the other side of the issue:  those supporting Prejean felt justified in their counter-critique of gay marriage supporters, but were in effect calling for advocates of gay marriage to tolerate an ideology that perceived to violated civil rights. From their vantage points, both sides had a valid argument and were not going to back down.

With supporters of Perez Hilton losing much of their moral high ground thanks to the blogger’s aforementioned “dumb bitch” comment, both sides of this issue were rapidly enmeshed in emotional mudslinging as they attempted to shout down the other side. In retrospect, the rapid escalation of the argument (and perhaps our personal investments in the outcome), caused us to forgo a rational discussion of the real issues alluded to by the incident; as academics and professionals, we have learned that we live and die by our ability to argue a point—rhetoric and intelligent discourse are our hallmarks—and we have also come to understand that criticizing ideas is acceptable and appropriate but assailing character is uncouth. Yet, by responding to Prejean’s answer with a personal attack (and simultaneously showcasing the danger of “lay journalism”), Hilton instantaneously altered the course of the conversation and changed the focus of the gay marriage debate as it pertained to this particular case.

Placed on the defensive, Carrie Prejean positioned herself on the side of truth, stating that she had given her honest opinion in response to Perez Hilton’s question and simultaneously invoked faith, becoming, in essence, a martyr figure (The Staff at wowOwow, 2009; Foreign Mail Service, 2009). As a result of this development, popular readings of the First Amendment were also invoked as Prejean’s supporters questioned the preservation of free speech, not seeming to understand that Prejean’s rights were never threatened (Sullivan, 2009). Here again we see that Prejean fulfilled the definition of a figure, serving as a focal point for discontent in America; although the incident itself had little to do with Constitutional rights, the perception that Prejean’s speech was being impinged upon allowed a certain subset of Americans to adopt the event as their own banner moment. Writing a response to the incident later that year, one author noted that Prejean “all too quickly became a heroine for those who are sick and tired of Hollywood and the thought police” (Hagelin, 2009)—clearly, then, Prejean was thought to stand in as champion for all Americans who had grown disenchanted with the (arguably) corrosive factors represented by celebrity culture and the stifling adherence to political correctness. Regardless of our own stance on the issue of gay marriage, the dissent characterized by Prejean indicates that we have, as a country, failed to promote an environment that fosters rational discourse; those on the right feel as though they are unable to adequately express their opinions and this frustration has developed into outright anger as we near the mid-term elections of 2010.

Additionally, casting her experience as a test from God further entrenched Prejean and her supporters as she became infallible—when framed as a choice between lying to win a beauty competition or pleasing God, how could Christians not support Prejean’s choice (offensive as it might or might not be)? Elevating the discussion to the next level, Prejean also sued the operators of Miss California USA for alleged religious discrimination (Business Insurance, 2009). Suddenly, a personal religious trial had become an assault on Christianity; Prejean, no longer a mere defender of personal integrity, became a crusader for Christianity and all it represented (Homan, 2009). Seemingly all too happy to embrace this new direction, the public began to more closely identify Carrie Prejean with traditional Christian values and morals as she became affiliated with conservative groups (Family Research Council Action, 2009).

The repercussions of Carrie Prejean’s new stance were swift and graphic:  within a few weeks, a variety of scandals surfaced—ranging from rumors of breast enhancement surgery to semi-nude photos, bad behavior, and a sex tape—possibly in order to discredit Prejean’s position as a blameless and righteous victim (Coutts, 2009; Abrahamson, 2009; Gensler, 2009). Again raising the notion of Prejean as a figure in the Fiskian sense, we might argue that while it is doubtful that many cared about Prejean’s sex tape per se (i.e., the backlash did not censure Prejean for having/producing a sex tape but rather for being duplicitous), the revelation of the artifact’s existence mattered immensely in regard to the public perception of Prejean’s character. Whether he had intended it or not, by attacking Prejean personally, Perez Hilton had opened the doorway to a moral absolutism that ran counter to his originally stated goal of gay marriage as a legal issue (vasquezama, 2009); instead of being productive, the discussion had become focused on media figures and again fragmented into the prevalent left/right talking points that have propagated throughout the nation in recent years.

Although the memory of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton has somewhat faded in the present, we have continued to see a surge in the disconnect between left- and rightwing politics as the mid-term elections approach:  the rise of the Tea Party (admittedly a diverse group of individuals who are interested in a range of issues) demonstrates the growing separation between competing ideologies in America. While figures like Christine O’Donnell have replaced Prejean in the national spotlight, we continue to see similar themes of God, country, and Constitution reflected in the talking points of the Republican Party. As the issues raised by the figures of Prejean and Hilton in 2009 have not been adequately addressed or resolved, they continue to manifest in the public sphere as points of contention. Having firmly established that Prejean and Hilton reflected the Fiskian conceptualization of the figure, we now turn to work by Simon Cottle in order to further understand how such representations function at the intersection of media and life.

Mediatized Rituals as Disruption

Although some might consider the controversy embodied by Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton to only be suitable for display on infotainment outlets like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, we have seen that the back-and-forth pop-culture-based battle evidences very real political issues; although mainstream media might become caught up in discussion of Prejean and Hilton as representations, we can also conceptualize the emergent discourse as an example of a mediatized ritual. Despite a historical resistance to its study (Scannell, 2001), scholars have recently reintroduced the importance of spectacle in everyday political processes, arguing that to delegitimize spectacle is to discount the possible role it plays in people’s lives (Duncombe, 2006; Cottle, 2006).

Employing sociologist Simon Cottle’s argument that mediatized rituals “open up productive spaces for social reflexivity and critique,” we can gain a theoretical perspective on the Prejean/Hilton incident as we see Americans contemplate the discrepancy between how society is and how society should be (2006, p. 411). Although Cottle describes six different classes of mediatized rituals, the most valuable framework comes from the notion of mediatized public crises.[3]

In contrast to a media scandal, which represents a fairly isolated transgression, the story of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton morphed throughout its deployment to encompass a range of issues as previously demonstrated. Reflective of deeply personal issues (and highly contestable ones!), the Prejean/Hilton controversy embodied a mediated public crisis as the event “exhibit[ed] narrative progression, unfolded over an extended period of time, and [was] theorized in relation to discernible phases” (Cottle, 2006, p. 424). Once conceptualized as a mediated public crisis, we can plot the milestones of the Prejean/Hilton saga in a trajectory that showcases a struggle for validation, legitimacy, acceptance, and ultimately power. Moreover, understanding the incident in the context of an ongoing, and constant, debate over gay marriage and gay rights, we see that the issue was never really about Prejean or Hilton—sooner or later two opposing figures would have said similar things that would have sparked the tinderbox of controversy. Correlation, as they say, is not the same as causation.


[1] The clip of Hilton’s response to Prejean appears on YouTube and was uploaded by user vasquezama, which accounts for the use of lower case in the citation. Attempts to find the original video blog by Hilton referencing the event were unsuccessful.

[2] Although off-topic for this particular paper, I am much more familiar with this same idea in regard to the genre of Horror and the conceptualization of monsters. A particular fan of American Gothic, I see the continued resonance of vampires, zombies, and werewolves as indicative of the fact that we, as Americans, have not yet come to terms with what these figures represent (e.g., death, paranoia, etc.). It is my position that we create monsters in order to grapple with the underlying issues as we are generally less likely to confront concepts like our mortality head on due to their associated cognitive duress. I would also add that a similar function is performed by Science Fiction and its creatures as we attempt to reconcile our feelings toward the integration of technology and scientific advances into our society. For me, Horror touches on our desire to explore these sorts of fears along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies for they represent a transgression of the norm and find exhilaration in Horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of experiencing violations of the cultural standard without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath the morality pleas of many horror films lies a valid method of exploration for audiences. Even scenes of torture, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, can be understood as a method of exploring what humanity is like at its extremes; both assailant and victim are at limits (albeit very different ones) of the human condition and Horror provides us with a voyeuristic window that allows us to vicariously experience these scenes.

[3] There is admittedly some overlap between categories as noted in Cottle’s paper, with the Prejean/Hilton incident reflecting elements of media scandal and moral panics at various points in the chronology of the controversy. I have focused here on mediatized public crises due to the narrative/unfolding elements of the case study.