Girls’ Media: What are your essential texts?

At the school where I teach, the students don’t have finals. Instead, at the end of each semester, they embark upon two massive, two-week projects of their own devising. For example, I’m sponsoring individual project weeks on Cult Film and classic feminist texts. But students can also pick to participate in a “group” project, which means that a teacher comes up with a very specific idea (kind of like a mini-seminar) and they investigate said idea in detail.

There are about 12 group projects this semester, ranging from The Study of Happiness to The Cultural and Musical Roots of ’60s Rock. As for geeky me, I’m doing Girls’ Media Studies.

I took a grad seminar in Girls’ Media Studies during my first year in my Ph.D. program at UT, but the idea of girls, media, and the relationship between the two has long been a pet project of mine — in part because I was strongly influenced by several media texts as a “girl,” but also just because I find girlhood — as a discursive construction, as a societal point of anxiety, as a generally sucky time — really fascinating, and I love thinking about my own girlhood and where it fits within the historical continuums of girlhoods, including girlhood’s current iteration, marked, as it is, by constant mediation, ubiquitous screens, and contradictory messages about what it measn to be “good,” “pretty,” “smart,” “sexual,” etc. (Of course, all of our girlhoods were filled with contradictory messages on these topics).

So long story short: I’m looking for texts. The class is only two weeks, and I’m going to be doing some background on how “girls” have been conceived over time and in media, some Patty Duke, some Nancy Drew, some old school Seventeen, and, of course, some seminal texts from my own girlhood. The students will also select some texts on which they’d like to focus, and they’ll do final projects on a text of their choice.

If you were teaching a class of 14-17 year old girls, what would you show them? What sort of questions would you consider? What television shows, magazines, books, movies, albums, songs, etc. would you want to discuss? What would you want to say about it? Stuff from now, stuff from then, stuff from whenever. Help me make this class as awesome as possible.

What I Did on my Blogging Vacation: Writing the Dissertation and Finding a Job

The last time I posted — about a month ago on Charlie Sheen — I was completing the conclusion to my dissertation, gearing up for SCMS (film and media studies’ annual international conference) and feeling solid about the state of my dissertation.  WHAT A DIFFERENCE A MONTH MAKES.

Since then, I have:

1.) Finished and handed in the completed draft of my dissertation, thinking it was (mostly) fine.

2.) Attended, reveled, and left completely exhausted from SCMS (in New Orleans), where I made several new friends who specialize in celebrity gossip, met scholars whose work has been fundamental and inspirational to my own, and presented on blogging, tweeting, and online networking as a media studies academic.

3.) Came home completely without a voice, which led to the very unfortunate cancellation of my presentation on Kanye and Twitter at SXSW.

4.) Took four separate plane trips in four weeks.

5.) Received the final editorial comments from my advisors on the diss…..and went into a five day flurry of final revisions that challenged me in a way (physically and intellectually) I haven’t felt since the beginning of grad school.  (More on this below).

6.) Turned in the final final version of the dissertation just in time to allow readers four weeks before my defense….which will in turn allow me to graduate this May and receive my diploma on my 30th birthday.

7.) Accepted an unexpected dream job teaching film, media, cultural studies, and literature at The Putney School in Southern Vermont.   More on this below as well.

8.) Received some exciting/unexpected/super promising emails related to the transformation of my dissertation into a book (if you’re ever wondering about the utility of a blog related to your research, THERE’S A GOOD REASON RIGHT THERE).

8.) Spent a ludicrous amount of time in the meantime catching up on sleep, reading fiction, doing yoga, and playing in the 80 degree Austin weather.

Before I return to regular celebrity gossip, academic style blogging, I do want to say a few words about completing the dissertation and my decision to take the job that I did.  While most of the posts on this blog address celebrities and pop culture (the “celebrity gossip” in the blog title) it also approaches them from a perspective grounded in academia….and my relation to academia has always influenced my approach to blogging, my own blogging voice, and the type of topics I choose to cover.  I also wish that there had been more descriptions of the dissertation process (and job market) in media studies in particular before I started my own journey, if only to make me feel just slightly more prepared.

FIRST, THE DISS.

I should begin with the caveat that I wrote my dissertation in nine months.  I ostensibly began my research on June 1st and handed in the final copy in March.  THIS IS NOT NORMAL, AND MIGHT EVEN BE RIDICULOUS.  There were a few reasons for the brevity of my dissertating phase:

*I had a number of wise advisors at my master’s program who suggested that I try to use my seminars in my Ph.D. program to investigate and write initial drafts of chapters.  So I did this, whenever possible.  When I started writing my prospectus, I had already written drafts of three of my chapters.  OR SO I THOUGHT.  (More on this below).

*I was also lucky to have found a topic — even before I started my Ph.D. program — that I loved and that continued to fascinate me.  The approach, scope, and argument concerning that topic (the production of celebrity gossip) has changed over the years, but the overarching topic has not.

*Because I needed to be officially ABD when I started my stint as a Visiting Instructor at Whitman College last Spring, I churned out a prospectus in the two months after I had finished my comprehensive exams (August 2009).

*When I was at Whitman, I was teaching three classes that I had never taught before — and knew that I needed to put the diss on the back burner during that time.  I submitted and performed edits on articles during this time (at least one of which became a big chunk of the diss) but did not research or write on the diss from January through May of 2010.

*I am a fast writer and a slow reviser.  As evidenced by the sheer length of my blog posts, sitting down and writing has never been a problem for me.  Writing better — and with more concision and verve — sometimes has.  When people ask how I managed to write over 400 pages so quickly, that seems like the easy part.  The harder part was doing the initial research (many hours in the basement of the library on the microfiche machine and sifting through Lexis Nexus) and agonizing over revisions over the last two months.

*My dissertation advisor is phenomenally organized, which meant that I received feedback on my early drafts very quickly.  Don’t underestimate how important this is.

My dissertation looks nothing like what I envisioned it as a first year Ph.D. student.  It also looks very little like the dissertation I envisioned in my prospectus.  Or, rather, the thrust of the argument is the same — but the organization, e.g. the way I went about proving my point, and the language I used in proving that point, has changed rather substantially.  What started as a five-chapter consideration of five case studies between 1954 and the present ballooned into a ten chapter look at major shifts in the way that outlets within the gossip industry processed and mediated stars, basically starting at the beginning of the studio system.

[There are various philosophies about how the timeline of researching/writing a prospectus/proceeding through the diss should work.  Mine had to be a certain way because of my job at Whitman.  If I had to do it over again, it'd be awesome to have had a more thorough grasp of what I'd end up arguing -- in other words, have actually performed more of the initial nitty-gritty primary research.  Granted, I had done a fair amount of that nitty-gritty during previous seminars, which saved a lot of time when it came to writing about People, The National Enquirer, Confidential, Entertainment Tonight, Perez, and TMZ.  In the end, the way that I did it worked out -- and also helped me keep some momentum, which again cannot be underestimated.]

Even once I figured out how I’d organize the chapters, the diss was constantly transforming before my eyes — especially since I do most specific industrial research for a chapter right before I write it (rather than doing all the research upfront).  I didn’t realize that I would be making the arguments about Entertainment Weekly/E!/Extra and their relation to Time Warner that I did, in part because I simply didn’t know as much about them as I thought I did.

Oh, did I mention the fact that only about two or three academics have written about my topic EVER?!?  That makes it so much easier to research!  Obviously I read just about everything ever written (academically) on Hollywood stars/star theory, but there was very little theorization of the way that these stars were mediated and how the industry that profits from that mediation works/relates to the rest of Hollywood.  At times, this lack was painful, as I basically felt like I was connecting dots and forging arguments in the academic wilderness.  But then again, I rarely had to pussyfoot around other scholars’ arguments or try to focus on refining a slight argument already made by another scholar.  Virgin scholastic territory has its benefits.

My dissertation committee was made of five members, each with specific expertise in an area related to a section of the dissertation (industry, television, 1960s/70s stardom, 1950s stardom, etc.)  As such, my chief advisor read every chapter, but an additional committee member also read the chapters that dealt with his/her expertise.  Not only did this really help to refine my arguments in subsequent drafts, but also (somewhat) ensures that I won’t have any surprise or major objections when I defend in two weeks.

When I turned in the COMPLETE WHOLE THING at the very beginning of March, I thought things were pretty great.  It was done; I would receive a few additional suggestions; I would perform final revisions; there we go.  But after returning from Spring Break, both my chief advisor and my other chief reader/editor (who, for those of you who know the person I’m referencing, is famous for his incisive and incredibly editing skills…..that also require a fair amount of work) both basically told me that I had done a very nice job of doing a lot of researching, treading new ground, and forging an argument…..but that the diss, as it was, was merely good when it could be really great.  What followed was a whirlwind (read: FIVE DAYS) final editing process in which I cut nearly 50 pages, added 15, and turned the “okay” into something much tighter, compelling, and, hopefully, great.  It hurt like a bitch, and I nearly pulled the first all-nighter of my life, but I couldn’t be more grateful that they pushed me to make it better.

You may be asking, “why didn’t this silly girl just take more time?”  Economic realities.  Last year, the UT RTF program announced that they could not guarantee any funding past the fourth year.  Several of my friends in their fifth year were forced to hodgepodge teaching-intensive appointments outside of the department during their fifth years.  And while my leave of absence last year (to teach at Whitman) ensured at least another semester of funding, friends, I am sick and tired of accruing loans. I did not go to graduate school in the humanities to amass a loan load similar to that of law and med students who will go on to massive salaries.  Yet the realities of living in Austin on our salary have forced continued accumulation of debt, even with my (temporary) Whitman salary to defer costs.   What’s more, if the job market this year has taught me anything, it’s that ABDs (people without a completed degree next to their name) are put on the very bottom of the pile, if not entirely discarded, when it comes to job searches.  And, as my very sage MA advisor Mike Aronson told me during my second quarter at Oregon, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.”

And so, it will be done — dependent, of course, upon the committee’s approval on April 22nd.

SECOND, THE JOB.

I’m not going to go into super detail about the media studies job search.  Suffice to say that I applied for around fifty jobs — with varying degrees of fit — and received several “bites” (request for additional materials, phone interviews, MLA interviews) but nothing past the first round.  From speaking with others in my situation, my lot seems to be very typical.  The jobs that used to go to ABDs are now going to those at visitings/postdocs/those fleeing the California schools and downsizing departments.  UT has no opportunities for adjuncting or postdocs.  In other words, around the end of February, the future was looking very dim.  Would I delay the dissertation?  Would I defend and try to make ends meet by returning to nannying? (Which, JUST SAYIN’, paid three times what I make as a grad student — at least when I lived in Seattle).  How in the world would I get health insurance?  On a whim, I Googled a school that had long resided in my recesses of my mind, where rigorous academics met with a dedication to the experience of the natural world.  Over the years, I’ve met a handful of people who’ve attended this school, each of which were remarkable, unique, and intellectually confident in a way I cannot quite put in words.

This school — The Putney School — happened to be advertising an opening in English.  My undergraduate and M.A. degrees qualify me to teach English; my five years of teaching experience qualify me to teach; my two summers teaching gifted and talented high school students qualified me to teach high school students.  I also thought my upbringing in history with the natural world (hiking, mountaineering, climbing, alpine and cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, gardening, horseback riding) as a child and student in the Pacific Northwest might make me an even more attractive candidate.  But high school?  Did I really want to do this?  Didn’t I pursue a Ph.D. so that I could teach college level kids?

Fear for my future led me to apply.  Two weeks later, I received a request for an initial phone interview, which later turned into a Skype interview and an on-campus interview in Vermont.  The school flat out bewitched me.  There were three feet of snow on the ground — a reality with which I knew I would have to grow accustomed, if I was offered the job — but the students, the campus (on a beautiful farm on dozens of acres atop a hill, just a few miles from Brattleboro, Vermont), the landscape, the confidence and intelligence and overarching energy of the place……I fell in love.  I had the opportunity to teach a class of seven students, and they were, no joking, more engaged, engaging, insightful, and straight-out *hungry* to learn than any other students I have encountered, whether at Whitman, Texas, or Oregon.  Putney was founded as a progressive school, which means that it builds on the philosophy of John Dewey — who believed, as Putney and its community does, that education is all that you do.  Whether waking up at 6 a.m. to milk cows, participating in a small seminar on Existentialism, or learning how to blacksmith, it’s all part of education and the subsequent cultivation of character and intellect.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the reason I had decided to get into academia was not to get a job, but to teach — and to teach at a small liberal arts college where I could help reproduce the type of education that I myself had received at Whitman.  The publishing, the networking — all of that was done in service of that greater goal.  But when I stepped back, I realized that Putney was a liberal arts college in a smaller package, with even more of the philosophy and adaptability (and lack of red tape) that could create an invigorating and sustaining learning environment for both teachers and students.  Did I mention that I get ridiculous breaks?  That it’s gorgeous?  That I’ll use about a tank of gas a year?  The yoga studio looking out into the mountains?  There’s a second breakfast built into the day called “MILK LUNCH,” complete with fresh baked bread!   The lack of grades and subsequent lack of grade-grubbing?  The small (read: 5-10) class size?

But will I end up teaching English?  No, or at least not traditionally.  Part of the reason Putney was drawn to my application was, indeed, my background in media studies.  (And, I’m guessing, the fact of the Ph.D. — they received over 300 applications (a testament to the trickle-down from the academic market).  Yet the English Department had recently decided to perform a dramatic overhaul of their 11th grade curriculum, transforming a course that had previously focused on American literature into one more broadly concerned with American culture — essentially an American Studies/Cultural Studies course.  Which is exactly what I do: even when I teach Film History, it’s part industrial history, part cultural history.  Star/celebrity studies would not exist without movies and television and other forms of media, but the disciplines are not about the texts in which stars/celebrity appear so much as the ways in which those texts contribute to the star or celebrity’s cultural reception and significance.  In other words, this is perfect.  For next year, I’ll also be teaching “elective” courses (for upperclassman) in Post-Katrina Media (Treme, When the Levees Broke, Zeitoun, etc.) and Modernism and Modernity, both of which I designed myself.

I received the job offer half-way through SCMS, which was both discombobulating and incredibly fortunate.  I was able to talk through the possibility with basically all of the scholars/friends that I admire and who have provided guidance in the past, and the overarching consensus was that taking the job at Putney did not mean forever foreclosing my future as an academic.  Sure, I’ll probably never get a job at an Research-1 university.  But that was never the goal.  So long as I continue to publish, get my diss out in book form, choose my applications carefully, and concentrate on teaching, I could potentially parlay my time at Putney into a job at a liberal arts school.  Who knows: maybe I’ll stay at Putney for 20 years, maybe I’ll stay for 3.

If you asked me a year ago if I would’ve ever considered taking a job at the high school level, I would’ve said absolutely not.  But opportunities sometimes do not arrive as advertised, and embracing this opportunity took a significant amount of paradigm shifting — and thinking about what I really wanted and needed to be happy and stimulated, whether intellectually,  psychologically, or academically.  Miles and miles of running/hiking/cross-country trails out my backdoor!  Fresh milk and organic vegetables at every meal!  MOUNTAINS!  Kids who LIKE LEARNING!  Those things might not make you happy, but few things make me happier.

To conclude, I’m thrilled to be back on the blogging train and rest assured have no plans to discontinue Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style when I begin at Putney in the Fall.  I do hope that I’ve in some way shed light on my own journey through the dissertation and job search process, and would be happy to answer any questions you might have, either in the comments, on Twitter, or via email.

(If you haven’t hopped on the bandwagon, I encourage you to join the Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Facebook page, where I post the MVP gossip/celebrity/star bits on a daily basis — at least check it out.  Not spammy, just awesome.)

Blatant Self-Promotion: New Article in the Austin Chronicle

Not by me, but about me. If you’re a regular reader of the site, hey, you probably know all this stuff, but maybe you’ll just want to make fun of the way I look in the picture (I am apparently VERY EMPHATIC about gossip), or the fact that I use naughty words.

Either way, it’s a great read, and the author, Melanie Haupt, obviously gets what me, and my blog, are trying to do. I had a great time chatting with her and can only hope that the article encourages others to engage more critically with the stars/gossip they consume. That or start reading my blog.

Check it out here. If you live in Austin, you can pick up a hard copy at anywhere cool until Thursday.

Call for Submissions – Celebrity Gossip: Industry and Identity

Below you’ll find a Call for Submissions for an SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) Panel I’m co-organizing with Jennifer Frost, who’s just completed Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism.  If you know of anyone who’d be interested in submitting, please pass along!  Or you can just pass this along to the four corners of the intertubes, either way.

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS  -  CELEBRITY GOSSIP: INDUSTRY AND IDENTITY
(SCMS 2011; SUBMISSIONS DUE 08/10/2010)

Plainly put: without gossip, there would be no celebrities.  Indeed, what we say and read about stars and celebrities constitutes their images just as much, if not more, than any film role, television appearance, or commercial endorsement.  Long dismissed as the shrill, smutty stepchild of Hollywood, the phenomenal success of Perez Hilton and TMZ reminds us that gossip remains as profitable and pertinent as during its ‘golden age’ spanning the 1930s-40s.  This panel thus aims to explore celebrity gossip in its myriad forms: as an industry, a form of media, and a means of identity formation.  It will thus pay specific attention to the ways in which gossip not only forms a crucial node in the production of popular entities, but influences and organizes the ways in which those figures are received in both the domestic and international sphere.

This panel hopes to additionally address how participation in the consumption and proliferation of gossip serves as a form of identity formation; how, for example, discussing a celebrity’s sexual proclivities or parenting choices offers a way of working through that celebrity’s embodiment of or challenge to the status quo.  In this way, celebrity gossip provides the figurative paperwork for declarations of media citizenship, as readers engage analog and digital tools to ‘gossip back,’ forming real and imaginary communities around the figures whose images and lifestyles provide means of making meaning of their own.

Submissions may address (but are in no way limited to):

  • The cultural and industrial history of celebrity gossip: the ‘gossip mavens’ Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell, Mike Connolly, Rona Barrett, etc.
  • Gossip’s shift in focus from Hollywood stars to celebrity writ large in the 1950s-1960s, with increasing attention to Jackie Kennedy, television personalities, Elvis, etc.
  • The role of gossip in the proliferation and negotiation of scandal
  • Gossip’s mode of address and ‘ideal readers’ — and the relation to race, gender, sexuality, nationality.
  • The aesthetics of gossip; gossip as camp
  • Specific gossip publications, such as Photoplay, Confidential, daily gossip columns, radio broadcasts, magazines, tabloids, television programs, gossip blogs
  • Gossip’s relation to feminism and/or postfeminism
  • Gossip’s role and placement within Conglomerate Hollywood
  • Contemporary gossip personalities (Perez Hilton, Lainey Gossip, The Fug Girls)
  • New Media Gossip — interactivity, comments sections, convergence.
  • Gossip’s role in the reception of specific celebrity images, e.g. Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods
  • How, and why, we should archive celebrity gossip — and the difficulty of accessing historical gossip materials

Please email abstracts of 250-300 words and a brief bio (Name, Affiliation, Position) by August 10th, 2010 to:

Anne Helen Petersen
University of Texas-Austin, Department of Radio-Television-Film
annehelenpetersen@gmail.com

Scaring Off The Grad Student Twitterati

First, a caveat: My apologies for authoring a third post on Twitter over the course of two weeks.  I promise: we’ll get some good J-Lo gossip soon.  What’s more, the post that follows deals with my experience this past weekend at an academic conference and how Twitter both accentuated and ‘scandalized’ those proceedings — while it will certainly be of interest to anyone who’s ever been concerned with how junior professionals grapple with how their name/image is bandied about in public spaces, there will be a little bit of ‘inside baseball’ academic talk.

With that said, I’ve just arrived home from a long weekend spent in Eugene, Oregon at the 2010 Console-ing Passions Conference.  The funky name is a vestige of the 1990s, when pun-y, hyphenated names and titles were all the rage in academia — basically it’s a feminist media conference that deals with many of the texts, approaches, and concerns that have long been marginalized by mainstream media studies (although that situation is gradually changing).  In other words, this was a conference with a ton of panels that dealt explicitly with identity politics (race, class, sexuality, gender, etc.) and also dealt with texts, such as my own objects of study (gossip, stars, celebrity et. al.), that are still eschewed by some in the academy.  (At SCMS, the ‘big dog’ of media studies conferences, I had a senior male scholar visibly recoil and scoff when I told him that my dissertation was on the history of celebrity gossip).

For various reasons, there was no internet access at SCMS, a situation that rightly infuriated many participants (myself included), mostly because it prevented any sort of live Twitter coverage of the panels.  Hello: MEDIA STUDIES CONFERENCE.  This situation will of course be remedied at SCMS next year, but it also left many of us media studies scholars who are regular users of Twitter.  Thus, when Console-ing Passions rolled around six weeks later, anticipation for what live-tweeting would like like — and how it would be received — was high.

Indeed, as both Jason Mittell and Max Dawson pointed out (through Twitter) almost immediately, one morning panel of CP had inspired more Tweets than the whole of SCMS.  I myself live-Tweeted most of the panels I attended (if you follow me on Twitter, this was obvious); I greatly enjoyed being able to look back on what was live-Tweeting about my *own* presentation — not to mention participating in the back-channels that emerged during several panels and the plenary.

Melissa Click authored a great wrap-up of the conference over at Antenna, and Amanda Ann Klein has a great piece on the uses and mis-uses (including several Twitter highlights).  As Amanda emphasizes, Twitter can create really productive conversation — but the particular interactions on the backchannel (and their ramifications) at this conference leads us, as scholars, to think about how Twitter will be used in the future — and if we should come up with some tentative ‘guidelines’ to guide us towards a proper conference Twitter etiquette.

Now, Amanda also draws attention to what might be the most controversial use of Twitter at the conference — an event that took place at the plenary. Here’s Click’s succinct recap of the plenary itself:

“The CP plenary was Friday’s anticipated event. The plenary, titled “Publishing What We Preach: Feminist Media Scholarship in a Multimodal Age,” included Bitch’s Andi Zeisler, the Queer Zine Archive Project’s Milo Miller, and scholars Michelle Habell-Pallan and Tara McPherson. While Zeisler discussed blogging’s utility in feminist activism, and Miller discussed the web’s utility for archiving “twilight media,” Habell-Pallan discussed the importance of new media in American Sabor, the first interpretive museum exhibition to tell the story of the influence and impact of Latinos in American popular music. All three speakers communicated important messages for feminists wishing to bridge activism and scholarship, but it was Tara McPherson’s polemic, “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination,” that captivated the audience and had conference Tweeters typing like crazy. McPherson challenged the CP audience to adjust to the changing nature of the humanities by engaging with “the materiality of digital machines,” namely code, systems, and networks.The CP plenary was Friday’s anticipated event. The plenary, titled “Publishing What We Preach: Feminist Media Scholarship in a Multimodal Age,” included Bitch’s Andi Zeisler, the Queer Zine Archive Project’s Milo Miller, and scholars Michelle Habell-Pallan and Tara McPherson. While Zeisler discussed blogging’s utility in feminist activism, and Miller discussed the web’s utility for archiving “twilight media,” Habell-Pallan discussed the importance of new media in American Sabor, the first interpretive museum exhibition to tell the story of the influence and impact of Latinos in American popular music. All three speakers communicated important messages for feminists wishing to bridge activism and scholarship, but it was Tara McPherson’s polemic, “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination,” that captivated the audience and had conference Tweeters typing like crazy. McPherson challenged the CP audience to adjust to the changing nature of the humanities by engaging with “the materiality of digital machines,” namely code, systems, and networks.

Now, what Click doesn’t mention — and perhaps rightly so — is that part of what had Tweeters typing like crazy was a potentially incendiary phrase uttered during the Q&A session.  Discussing where media studies needs to go in order to remain relevant during the next century, McPherson pointed out that “as lovely and elegant as Lost is, it doesn’t really matter.”  This particular phrase echoed through the Twittersphere, Tweeted by myself and others, reaching hundreds of scholars following the conference remotely.  This particular point was one of the most circulated (at least virtually) of the conference, and inspired Jason Mittell to author a response of sorts on his blog entitled “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do.” (For those of you not in media studies: there’s tension in the academia between those who think that studying actual texts is important and others who find it not as crucial to the future of the discipline.  See McPherson’s response to Jason’s piece for more conversation on that point.)

Importantly, the comment simultaneously was and was not taken out of context.  Sure, without actually hearing all of the talk — or the specific wording of the question to which McPherson was responding — it’s difficult to know exactly what she meant.  But at the same time, myself and others were diligently live Tweeting snippets and key concepts from her address — which, to be very clear, I *loved.*  Here’s just a sampling of what I tweeted from the talk — this was probably written over the course of about 3 minutes:

Thus, when I and others Tweeted her comment on “Lost doesn’t really matter,” it wasn’t without already having worked diligently to establish the other ideas and concepts that she was forwarding.  McPherson herself was disappointed that a single comment — one that Nina Huntemann appropriately termed “media studies bait” was what many took away from the talk.  Again, I’d like to emphasize that there were many other ideas taken away from the talk — especially the ‘silo-busting’ phrase — and that McPherson is correct to be disappointed if that’s what people remembered from the otherwise inspiring, challenging, deeply insightful address.

But not only would I say that it’s not what those in actual attendance took away — it’s also not what those in the Twittersphere took away…..unless they tuned in for a single 3-minutes of Tweets and refused to look before or after.  And for better or worse, McPherson knew she was being live-Tweeted, and that that phrase, no matter the context ,would read as incendiary.  As Bethany Nowviskie points out, most of those critiqued on Twitter at academic conferences are also *present* on Twitter and able to respond; appropriately, Tara McPherson regularly tweets from conferences and even live-tweeted the speeches leading up to her own.

Which all brings me to my overarching point and title of this post:  how criticism of how scholars are Twitter  has the potential to scare grad students away from using it — especially in the conference setting — altogether.

Because our conferences are (relatively) small and the number of people Tweeting them is even smaller, those who are participating in the backchannel are highly visible.  Many people *follow* the backchannel on their smartphones, but participate little or not at all — in part because it’s too cumbersome to update swiftly and eloquently on such devices.  Yet those who are updating frequently, as I was, in part because I had a computer, but also because I’m a ridiculously fast typist (thanks to an Apple IIe program called ‘PAWS’ that I played non-stop from age 5-8), my handle and name was incredibly visible on the feed.  Looking at the stream now, I’d venture that 75% of the Tweets came from non-professors.

Put differently, those who are in some ways most vulnerable to rumor and word of mouth — e.g. graduate students — are not only doing most of the labor in making the conference visible to the rest of the world….but also exposing ourselves to criticism and visibility by those who think that a.) Twitter doesn’t have a place at conferences or b.) we’re ‘getting it wrong.’  What bothers me about these particular critiques is their passive aggressivity: if I’m doing it wrong, tell me so, either in real life or on Twitter.  Part of why I like Amanda’s recent post so much is her willingness to think through what worked and didn’t work with Twitter at CP — but I think that we need to have more frank conversations, especially with those who not only don’t Tweet, but don’t read academic blogs.  To put it plainly: we need to have conversations with those who are most critical and dismissive of Tweeting, who are most often (but certainly not always) senior scholars, and who are often in charge of whether or not we, as graduate students, get hired.

Of course, scholars, whether professors or grad students, shouldn’t write things on the backchannel that they wouldn’t say in the Q&A session, and I was very careful to craft my own comments according to that maxim.  Twitter shouldn’t be a gossip session — it should be an opportunity to better formulate responses to what’s being said…and also to help open up the conference to those not in attendance.  I’ve had several non-academics on my Twitterstream tell me how fascinated they were to see the ‘innards’ of an academic conference — and that’s *exactly* the sort of positive exposure that we, as scholars whose work is often undervalued or ridiculed by those outside of the academia, should be looking for.

But if our legitimate responses to a panel — whether in the form of transcribed a quote that struck us as particularly incendiary, asking for more attention to race/class, or simply bemoaning the fact that a scholar seemed to be dismissive of a topic — become a liability, then it’ll certainly discourage us from continuing to cultivate the back channel in the future.  Junior scholars should be encouraged to participate in discourse, both critical and affirmative, about scholarship — whether in spoken conversation or Tweeted @s.  But the visibility following this particular conference, especially as I’m about to enter the job market in the Fall, makes me think twice about whether I’ll be live-Tweeting again.

Meta-Post: Sorting Through Twilight Hate Mail

stewart

On Monday, I published a post entitled “Why Kristen Stewart Matters.” The post worked through Stewart’s image, commenting on the ways in which her star text has been conflated with that of her most famous character, Bella Swan, and concluded with a defense, of sorts, of those who believe in the ‘real life’ relationship between Stewart and her Twilight co-star, Robert Pattinson.

To be clear: while I commented on the ways in which Stewart appears in public and the way that her acting style is often times described, I never said that I, personally, dislike Stewart.  Or her movies.  Or her star.  Or her haircut.  Or that I disapproved of her smoking pot, not wearing make-up, etc.

To be even clearer: I am, in fact, a fan of Twilight — even though I have profoundly ambivalent and complicated feelings about the text, it gets to me.  I’ve written about those feelings — and done ethnographic research on other feminists with a complicated relationship to the text — elsewhere.  What’s more, I like Kristen Stewart!  I even like her when she’s not Bella.  And I have no problem if she is, in fact, dating Robert Pattinson — a possibility that I in no way foreclosed.

But as evidenced by nearly one hundred comments, some more hateful than others, I did not make the above position clear.

How did the Twihaters find my modest academic blog, you wonder?  Not through random Googling.  Rather, through the magic of old school linking and Twitter.

Journey of a Post

I published the story late Sunday night; waited to publicize until Monday morning.  However, someone at Movie City News, who had happened upon an earlier guest post on Ellen Page and linked from the main site, must have seen the post on his/her reader on Sunday night, because it was on the Movie City News homepage early Monday morning and already funneling readers to the post.

Sometime that morning, Jen Yamato, a senior editor at Rotten Tomatoes, tweeted a link to the story; her Tweet was soon picked up by RobPattzNews, which, with 50,000 followers, opened the floodgates.  In addition to the thousands of readers from Movie City News and Yamato’s Followers, the link was retweeted dozens of times, posted on several IMDB chat boards, linked at Twilight fan sites, etc. etc, culminating in nearly 10,000 hits in one 24-hour period and earning the #7 spot on the WordPress Top Spot Chart. In other words, if you want internet traffic, write about Twilight.

In the end, a post intended for an audience either versed in star studies, semiotics, and the general project of my blog — the analysis of star production and reception — was read by thousands unfamiliar with my overarching purpose.  My thoughts came off as defamatory, insulting, hateful, vengeful, replete with jealousy.  For many, I was yet one more condescending outsider who could not understand how or why fans found Stewart, Pattinson, or their potential relationship important.

Of course, I did receive a fair amount of positive, or at least appreciative, feedback — all of which I posted.  But I made the executive decision not to post the hateful comments — in part because I had already decided that I would do a post like this one allowing such comments to see the light of day, but also, admittedly, because they were hurtful, as much as I tried to stay objective about them.  One can only take so much of being called a jealous, unintelligent bitch — although some were quite hilarious, as you’ll find below.

I’m certainly not the first to be subjected to such anonymous vitriol.  Lainey Gossip receives equally dismissive and vicious hate mail every time she posts on anyone and anything related to Twilight — including those who ridicule her race, her family, her husband, her looks, etc.  Dooce receives so many hateful comments that she has brilliantly decided to “monetize the hate” — creating a separate site, surrounded by ads, to generate ad profit off people reading the hate mail.

Looking through the comments, I find they can be divided into a few general categories: Believers/Evidencers, Defenders, and Ridiculers.

In general:

Believers voice their faith in the existence of the Stewart/Pattinson romance.  Even the suggestion that it was fabricated or suggested by the studio is blasphemy.  I’ve merged this group with the Evidencers, who counter my post with their own evidence — sometimes specific, sometimes tangential — that Pattison and Stewart are together.  They likewise point out that I have not done my research — and that if I did, I would know not only that they are together, but that some fans hate their romance.  Most interestingly, several posters accused me of not having ample evidence myself — and that I should either do more research (on fan boards, etc., to get a feel for what the fans are really thinking) and/or keep my nose out of their business.

Defenders take issue with what they read as my dislike or criticism of Kristen Stewart — her acting, her general look, etc.  These posters seem far more concerned with Stewart than the romance — indeed, many of them want to think of Stewart outside of her Twilight role, and dislike my reading of her star as intensely inflected by the Bella role.

Ridiculers are obviously the most hilarious as the bunch, as they go straight to my personal integrity and qualifications.  I’ll let these speak for themselves — and you should let me know which one you’d most like to have directed at you — but I’m struck by the presence of romantic individualism, a term Angela McRobbie uses to describe the ways that women attack each other in their quest for men, essentially dividing an otherwise powerful gender-bound coalition.

I’m posting the comments at length — not all of them, but the best of them — and would love to hear your feedback. Ultimately, I’m most struck by the ways in which a post wrote without jargon, intended for an audience of both academics and non-academics, could be interpreted so variously.  Importantly, almost everyone who regularly reads my blog is familiar with the idea of star studies and star construction; whether or not they voiced it explicitly, it was that suggestion of construction that inflamed most readers.

While I can’t monetize the hate as brilliantly as Dooce, I can make my own (academic) profit off such commentary.  Such is the purpose of this post.

BELIEVERS/EVIDENCERS

You could`ve just written 2 sentences.”I am so fucking jealous of Kristen Stewart&her relationship with Robert Pattinson.And let me count you all the reasons for my jealousy,which will be hidden very deeply in my faux *breaking down of their non-relationship*,which I am afraid as hell that it might actually be real,hence this entire post.”
You would save me 10 mins of my life,that I lost reading this BS,the time I will now never get back.Grow up&smell the coffee,hun.The writing is on the wall.Making yourself believe there is no R/K will get you nowhere fast.You`ll see what I mean soon.

Goodness, all that angsty filler. Pattinson and Stewart are together and have been *at least* since New Moon began filming. By the last month of filming, she’d moved into the Sheraton where he’d been staying.

They’re still together, and are a lot less interested in hiding it- staying at Chateau Marmont and the Charlie hotel in LA.

They are currently the only major cast memebers staying at the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver. What a coincidence.

Beyond the mountain of evidence that they’re a couple, why would anyone expect that they are together? Well, you could go with the odds and it has nothing to do with their on-screen romance. Kristen and Rob and A-list celebs now. That doomed Kristen’s relaysh with Michael A. Women rarely, if ever, date down the food chain. Men might sometimes, but it’s rare for a woman

I would almost agree under any other circumstances. But there’s waaaaay too much evidence to point Robert and Kristen being together. I don’t expect them to come out and confirm any relationship (so many stars who are together do not ie: Beyonce, Jay-Z etc). To be honest at the very beginning I hadn’t read the books or seen the movie and I was drawn to do so out of curiosity. I would see magazine covers splashed with their photos all over so I decided to do my own investigating. I saw all of the interviews,panels,photoshoots,photo ops,premeires etc. I was fascinated by their closeness their chemistry that giddinesa and sparkle I would see in each others eyes that was so clear to see. I’m a 31 yr old married woman and definetly not delusional..I could planely see the that these two were falling in love with each other..To me it’s very interesting when I see others who don’t see the obvious but I guess some people are cynical or their minds are clouded by other things..but to me it’s as plain as day…

You cannot be serious. I suggest you go to Twilight fan sites where they ALL worship RP’s ass and see how much they DO NOT want him to be with Kristen.  So, yeah. Before you write something like this , do a little research beforehand and avoid coming across as such an ignorant person.  I know this won’t go through since you don’t have the balls to let everyone comment and all the comments are being screened. But, hey, at least you read it.

idk about them..lol..and as far as not wanting us to like her..ok your opinion..more like i would say she’s just over people like you ..who are obviously not fans of hers and do and say everything you can to bash her and then think this is intelligent mature conversation..umm no its not..i really dont know who you are ..where you come from..or what kind of blog this is..but one things for sure..you have a major issue..with Kristen Stewart..”sigh”..but then again..who doesnt these days..its really getting old..get your facts straight and do a little more research on this young lady next time you decide to write an article about her..because you are greatly misinformed and your research is way off.

DEFENDERS

Just tell me one thing: do you know Kristen or Rob?
Cause the way you talk (write), it looks like you’re really close to them…
Get over yourself, hon, you’re trying to look smart and insightful, but instead, you’re just doing exactly like the tabs, trying to come up with explanations about something you know nothing about.
Who are you to judge Kristen, when you’ve never even talked to her, had a conversation at least?
How can you be so shallow to talk about someone you don’t really know?
I don’t know her either, but as far as I see, she’s just a 19 year old trying cope with all the twilight craziness and not loose her mind.
It’s so easy talk about people when you have no idea how they feel.
You should be ashamed, you never know who are going to read this BS you wrote.

Kristen Stewart is an accomplished actress who has been working in the industry for 10 years. She has been praised by people she has worked with over and over again and has a huge fan base who adore her. It just appears now that Rob Pattinson is quite taken with her, his jealous fans such as yourself, feel the need to criticize her openly in your blogs. What’s your purpose? Do you think Rob or Kristen care what you think? Does it make yourself feel better? Your bitter jealousy is visible in this article and it’s unattractive. Get off your high horse because you will never have what Kristen Stewart does.

I’ve been a fan of Kristen Stewart for years. I find it sexist that apparently in your mind Kristen has to always wear dresses, watch her word words, and just sit and look pretty. She is famous. She has done movies with some of the biggest actors and actresses. Bella Swan might be well know but not famous in that sense. Unless you mean that everyone wants her vampire boyfriend, then yes. The magazines are wrong with all their BS covers that try to make it sound like Edward and Bella but most people don’t think of them like that. When I read the the book, sure I see Edward and Bella as Rob and Kristen but I don’t expect them in real life to act like that. Really the way you hate Kristen I think you are expecting her to be like Bella. Bella is a weak little girl that just needs a mans help which then maybe its good Kristen isn’t like that.

No offense, but you seem to dislike Kristen.  I’m disappointed that you aren’t more objective.   Although Bella put her on the map with the general pulic, Kristen was already on the map and respected in HW and with HW insiders.  I disagree that “Bella” will define Kristen.  Once this series of movies is over, she will move on to better characters.  The fans of Twilight will not follow Kristen to other movies.  Thank God!  For some reason a good portion of this fan base comes accross as extemely irrational in their criticism and hatred of her.  Methinks some jealous little girls and cougars wish they were “Bella”.  I am in the middle ground over whether a real relationship exists between Robert P. and Kristen, but I have to ask; who are your sources that youare so sure its NOT a real romance?  I’m very confused about your claim that this is a publicity stunt.  Why would a romance between Robert and Kristen would be a publicity stunt deigned by the studio?  Don’t most of the twi-hards hate Kristen?  Don’t most of the Robsessed think Rob is better off alone and waiting for them?  Only a small percentage of the fans are actual “shippers” so a publicity stunt makes no sense whatsoever.

You leave no doubt that you do not care for Kristen Stewart’s acting abilities.  But to imply that she is without talent negates the opinions of Sean Penn, Jodie Foster, Donald Sutherland, etc., who have VERY high opinions of her abilities.  Then you twist her relationship with Robert Pattinson to paint them both as studio puppets who pretend to be dating.  And because you still feel the need to insult and condescend, you paint the fans as unable to distinguish between what they see on screen and off.  Obviously, you have an agenda and you attempt to disguise it with seemingly thoughtful analysis, but your “analysis” fails in that it doesn’t consider the real story.

Im sorry i completely disagree with you. First of all, Kristen has been well known in hollywood inner circles for a LONG time for her acting. Her acting in Speak, Into the Wild, and Cake Eaters, were critically praised, and she is considered one of the most talented young actresses in hollywood. She had all this before Twilight. Heck, this is a girl, who is praised by Sean Penn and Jodie Foster, two of the best actors in cinema, as being one of the most talented young actresses Hollywood has ever seen.  Second, fans of Kristen Stewart love her because of her the way she dresses, the way she speaks her mind, and the way she doesnt care about hollywood’s expectations. How refreshing, that there is a young actress now days who doesnt care about the publicity and the fame, and all she cares about is the craft. In a sea of superficiality and disingenious people, Kristen Stewart stands out as a talented, individual.
While you attempted to be intellectual and dissect why people are fascinated by Kristen Stewart, you failed utterly and proved yourself to be another KStew hater. i think its you who doesnt understand why a lot of fans have fallen in love with this girl

Kristen Stewart is one of my favourite actress and that’s been the case since way before Twilight. I think she’s a stunningly beautiful young woman and a very talented actress. Despite her young age, she has worked with many important names in the business and all of them have a very high opinion of her. I appreciate K’s efforts to maintain a somewhat normal life despite the hype caused by everything Twilight. And I am very happy that she and Rob have found one another.

Okay wow..i dont even know where to start..whats with the Kristen hate..good lord like i said..you’ve called her out and insulted her on so many different levels..not really sure where to start..umm but i’ll try with this first..sorry but i have never seen K wear ugly clothes in public..she has her own style obviously..so totally different than anyone else in HollyWood..and i admire her for it..but not ugly by any means..and have never seen her wear 2 day old make up in public..and if she did..well that tells me the cameras were a little to close up in her business..because come on ladies..who hasnt done it from time to time..if u say you havent went out in public even briefly with out washing off your make up a couple of times..then u are telling a fib..lol..and her mullet..how many more times does it have to be said..she did it for a movie role people..i admire her all the more for cutting off her beautiful long brown hair for this role..and some people seem to forget..yes she did have beautiful long hair at one point..and sure she will again..it hasnt always been a mullet..lol..and as far as her acting style..you need to go back and read what all the people that have worked with her has said about her acting style..and skills..nothing but praise..from names that mean something..and i would think know a little bit more about someones acting abilities than you..no offence intended of course..and as far as not speaking up on her relay with Rob Pattinson..well i think we could say he’s just as tight lipped as she and that would be their business..and really..you think maybe its all for PR huh..well i guess time will tell..have to say that really throws your take on Kstews acting skills out the window..lol..it would take one heck of an actress and actor by the way..to fake their off screen chemistry and all those meetings and hotel stays and concerts and pics..yes it would take a really dedicated actress to fool us all for the past year and 1/2..luv her truly..and him…great method actors those 2.

“I may be all alone in this, but I like Kristen BECAUSE of all the reasons you mention we should not ” I LOVE HER! and you’re a so jealous Person… Ok ROB IS YOURS… ARE YOU HAPPY? GROW UP! PLEASE!

RIDICULERS

anne you’re a jealous b*tch. leave kristen alone and quit trying to tear her down. she’s done nothing to deserve your scorn and doesn’t care what you think of her. you look like a jealous fangirl with this drivel.

I find this post highly disrespectful, cynical, hateful and ignorant towards both Kristen and Robert and their fans at large. I have to give you credit for trying at least to sound intellectual. This sounds like a sociology paper i did in college freshman year. But you’re straining. First of all, the attacks against Kristen are so off-base I don’t have enough time to get into it here. Secondly, it is FACT they they are best friends and in love, dating, shagging, whatever you want to you call it. That isn’t because I read tabloids (they all suck) or because of some naive wish- fulfillment. I’m 34, divorced, attend grad school, and have worked since I was 15. I’m happy, have tons of friends, like my parents, realize world peace will never happen, and can separate fact from fiction. Hence, I am no “fangirl”. I don’t scream, stalk, wish Rob bit me or that Kristen would walk the plank. I know they are together because I have paid attention. I have watched them; You Tube videos and in person. I’ve read countless interviews and aritlces, and seen thousands of photos; I’ve read comments from the interviewers, photographers, directors and actors they’ve worked with; I read facial expressions, body language. And because of this knowledge, I WANT them to be together… becuase THEY MAKE EACH OTHER HAPPY. Shocking, I know. Direct sources? yes, I have them, but that’s besides the point. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. The truth is staring us all in the face; the question is do you want to admit it???

You could`ve just written 2 sentences.”I am so fucking jealous of Kristen Stewart&her relationship with Robert Pattinson.And let me count you all the reasons for my jealousy,which will be hidden very deeply in my faux *breaking down of their non-relationship*,which I am afraid as hell that it might actually be real,hence this entire post.”

You would save me 10 mins of my life,that I lost reading this BS,the time I will now never get back.Grow up&smell the coffee,hun.The writing is on the wall.Making yourself believe there is no R/K will get you nowhere fast.You`ll see what I mean soon.

I think you need serious help. Weather you like it or not there is a Robsten. Alot of ppl do ont appreciate your bashing of Kristen and i’m sure Rob does not. This is not for PR for the movies.

I dare you to post even the negative comments. A true academician and a real scholar can dish it out as well as take it.

Otherwise, I suggest you go back and talk to your professors and ask what academic means.

Strange that only positive comments get posted. You’re too chicken shit to accept a negative comment yet you want to appear scholarly. You’re a poser. A fake.

If you cannot be intelligent enough to accept both negatrive and positives, at least try and not to be so superficial.  Playing Bella doesn’t define Kristen Stewart.That’s why she couldn’t care less walking around being un-Bella like.

Being Edward and Bella in the Twi franchise may define or may not Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart’s relationship to each other. Even if it does, you can only wish you were Kristen so you could at least be with Rob in some way. And then maybe, you should also stop and think that maybe, they really do like each other and they really do have a relatiionship. Unless you know for sure that they don’t, stop assuming they don’t have one.

But with a brain cells like yours, you’d never get it.

Annie Petersen, you’re a journalist, and you should have done more research. These two are a couple. You’re right, Kristen Stewart matters, and you don’t, so get over it. Jelousy is not a good thing. Leave her alone. You know nothing about her, so why judge her. Just because you’ve seen a few movies she’s done, or some pictures of her, all of a sudden you think you know her. true fans who have had incounters with her, had nothing but good things to say about her. The reason why they don’t shut down the dating rumors, is because they are dating. If you did enough research you would know that these two are extremely private people who don’t like to flaunt their relationship like the rest of the Hollywood does.

Anne, insteresting read.  So basically what you are saying is that this is a plan by the studio to make fools believe that Robert and Kristen are a couple, and that all the sightings of them together, which you didn’t include in your piece, are basically a PR stunt.  Plausible, but that would mean that Kristen and Robert are putting their lives on hold for the sake of their paycheck which would really turn people off.  So your assessment is that they are playing their fans, or at least the fools who believe they could be a couple.  Wonderful.  My question to you is, do you know for a fact they are not a couple, or are you trying to make sense of how fans view these people?  Because I can tell you that I know the difference between fictional characters and real people, and so do other Twilight fans.  Many of whom like Rob and Kristen in spite of the characters they play.  Many became fans after watching their inteactions during interviews, which to many, seemed honest and not staged.  So basically you are alluding that Rob and Kristen are just playing the studio game, collecting their paycheck and laughing at the fans who support them.  Not to mention, you clearly dissed Kristen in your thought proviking piece.  I still haven’t decided if this is your opinion, or you have the facts to back this up.  I guess we will never know.  Or yet again, we may know after Rob and Kristen collect their paychecks.

And my personal favorite:

This is a ridiculous article. Are you really a journalist or a work experience student trying your luck? FAIL!

Meta-Blogging: How to Maintain an Academic Blog…Tell your secrets?

When I posted the other day on George Clooney, my friend Colleen, who studies Japanese Film at UO, posted the following on my Facebook page:

Annie – I’ve been going back through the history of your blog and I have a question: how long do you spend writing your posts? I’m amazed at your loquacious and detailed narratives and although I imagine it gets easier as time goes by, you both inspire and daunt me. Particularly, regarding your very first post, I found myself thinking, “Yeah! The blogs in my field are COMPLETELY dominated by men…why the hell don’t I do something about it?!” So, could you talk about the process a little?

Now, the purpose of publishing Colleen’s comment for the world to see is not to prove that someone besides my mom and best friends read the blog.  Or find me by turns daunting and inspiring.  But I think that Colleen brings up a good point — and one that I’d like to discuss more with other academic bloggers — as to how best to start and sustain an (academically rooted) blog.

My Tactics:

  • Figure out what kind of blog you want to have.  I wanted to have an academic blog — but something that dealt specifically with my own research interests and was accessible to a general reading audience.  I knew that my posts wouldn’t elaborately or perfectly researched, but they’d touch on things that had caught my attention.  I also knew that I wanted the blog to be something regular — a living document, as opposed to one that comes to life a once a month.  I wanted a readership.  As such, I had to….
  • Set a goal for posts a week.  And try and stick to it. I think most bloggers try and do this; most also feel guilty when they fail.  I don’t feel ‘guilty’ so much as pressed.  If I indeed wanted the blog to perform as described above, I’d need to provide that many posts.  I’d need to put it on my to-do list — and not necessarily last.  If, as so many of us in the academic community are attempting to advocate, our ‘accomplishments’ as scholars are beginning to expand to include well-maintained blogs, columns at FlowTV.org, and ‘proctoring’ clips at inMediasRes, then I had to treat it as just as important as other things on the to-do list.  This wasn’t just for fun or amusement — it’s part of my development as a scholar.  But to make that tenable, I had to….
  • Really like blogging.  If you don’t like working through your ideas in writing, if you don’t like bouncing them off people or risking putting yourself out for critique, if you don’t like typing or working with something like WordPress, if you feel you don’t have enough to say but that you should have blog because other people do….it’s going to be tough to motivate, and you’re probably going to feel bad.
  • More specifically:  I ask my friends to write guest posts, which means that I can ‘provide content’ even when I don’t have as much time to write.  I’ve also posted a few posts that draw heavily on things I’ve written in other contexts — in part to receive feedback, but also because it’s automatic content.  I also write when I’m not on my ‘A-Game’: one thing I’ve learned in my years in grad school is to protect my ‘prime productivity hours’ as much as possible.  When I’m most concentrated and alert, I do my ‘real’ writing.  When I’m a little tired after dinner and can’t motivate to do any other work — that’s when I blog.  Finally, I publicize it.  At first, I felt really self-conscious about announcing new posts at Twitter or Facebook.  But the best way to feel excited about your blog = other people reading your blog.  And commenting, and making you think about what you’ve written, and what you’d like to write in the future.  I’m curious about how other people feel about this — I, for one, feel oddly validated when a post generates readership (which you can track via your host’s dashboard) and/or comments.

For those of you who regularly blog, either ‘academically’ or on a more personal level, I’d really like to hear your own strategies — and I’m sure many others would like to as well.

Comps Decompression

WARNING:  NO TALK OF STARS BELOW.

JUST ME. AND COMPS.

SO PROCEED AS YOU WILL.

I’m still a bit high off of my first experience of comps yesterday.  I’m also somewhat unable to relax, at least not quite yet — I’m going to the pool as soon as it opens in two hours, but I have time to kill.  But I want to decompress a bit concerning the experience — especially since I know I would’ve liked to have read about someone else’s experience before starting myself.  So who knows, future compers: this might be akin to your experience, it may be totally foreign.  But here’s mine.

For those of you who do not attend the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas, we take a series of three day-long “comprehensive exams.”  You’re supposed to take them when you’re done with coursework, but since our rather asinine requirement-system (I’m not scared to call it asinine:  it is, as you’ll see) makes it impossible to finish coursework in two years (unless you take FOUR seminars a semester or fork out a ton of money to take a summer independent study), many people, myself included, take them when they still have a few ‘minor’ classes to complete.  Basically you take them when you’ve finished  all of your important classes. You select three advisers, who will also presumably go on to form 3/5 of your dissertation committee, and move forward on developing three ‘topic areas’ to which you will devote yourself for the next few months.  After you finish the comprehensive exams, you spend anywhere between 3 months and 2 years developing your dissertation proposal — basically a large roadmap to your diss — and after you defend it orally to your committee, you get to be “A.B.D.”: All But Dissertation. Then you get to write the dissertation.  Then you get to defend it.  And through all this, you look for a job.  The flaming hoops never end.  [I apologize for the redundancy, friends in Ph.D. programs, but sometimes we fail to realize that our lingo is crazy and our lives seem one giant study session to those on the outside.]

Different advisers in our department have various ideas as how to structure comprehensive exams.  Some professors see a comps list as an outline of all developments in the field — and ensuring that you could teach a class on that particular field in the foreseeable future.  Others believe that a comps should be more closely tailored to your specific dissertation ideas — and, lucky for me, all three of my advisers fell in the ‘others’ category.  Thus I came up with three topics: Stardom within Postclassical Hollywood, Star/Celebrity Theory, and Stardom within Television.  Then I came up with long lists of books and articles to read, submitted them to my advisers, they suggested a few more, I read through, discarded some that weren’t of use, and came up with a final list — each was approximately 12-13 books and 12-13 articles.

I came up with my lists in late May, then spent the summer reading, note-taking, synthesizing, etc.  I took approximately three weeks off to write a chapter for a collection, visit my brother in NYC, eat lots of food, retreat to the Northwest, and come back and flip out about being behind.  I caught up, it was fine, I was fine. I scheduled my exams for this week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  You can take them wherever you’d like, so long as you can receive the email.  You’re allowed all of your notes, the internet, whatever.  The bar exam this isn’t.

Unlike the bar exam, ‘boards’ for med school, or Ph.D. ‘qualifying exams’ — which are common after the first year in a Ph.D. program, especially those where they don’t require an M.A. for acceptance, as they do here — these exams aren’t designed to weed out those who aren’t cut out for Ph.D. work or to be lawyers or doctors.  If you’re in the program and survive to your second year you’ve already been ‘weeded’ out.  I fully realize that it is possible to fail these exams, but I don’t know of anyone who has — maybe a few have been asked to rewrite one.  The point is, the value of the exams is completely in the process of reading.  You spend three days regurgitating your knowledge on the page, but you’ve spent three months basically reading all of the books that will make up the lit review of your dissertation.  You’ve tricked yourself into doing some of the hardest background research of the entire process. Ultimately, if you’ve actually done the reading, you’re going to do fine.  And it’s also not our final exam — our dissertation, and its final approval, functions far more like the bar exam.  If you can write that dang thing and get it through your committee and stomach the oral defense, then you’re fit to be a true professor.

I, for one, feel like I’ve learned more over the last three months than the last two years.  That’s illusionary, but it feels that way.  It’s the fact that it’s concentrated, it’s all stuff that very directly interests me, and it all fits together — because my comp areas are so closely related, I read something for one that directly fits and compliments knowledge that I’ve gleaned from another book.  [In contrast, reading in seminars is purposely all over the place -- there was very little overlap between the seminars I took last semester in Feminist/Queer Film Theory and History & Memory]

In the days leading up to the exam, I had finished all of my lists, so I began reviewing, rewriting, charting, etc.  All things that would help organize the piles of knowledge in my head.  I also met with each of my advisers one last time to nail down approximate questions: one of my professors ‘gave’ me the question straight up, one told me almost exactly what he’d be giving me, and the other told me she’d write several question based on topics and ‘themes’ we’d discerned and I’d be able to choose from them.  So, again, it’s not that they’re trying to make me fail, or trick me, or catch me off guard — they want to guide me towards success.

*****************************************************************************************************

C-DAY #1:

I went to a nice Hollywood movie the night before to get me in the mood.  Woke up at 7 a.m., as our graduate secretary sends the email containing the first question at 8 a.m.  Coffee, air conditioning, lots of stand-by liquids (I like to drink things while I write — not alcohol, just carbonated beverages, etc.).  And then, at 7:20, the email comes!  Totally caught me off guard, as I was expecting to look at my email at exactly 8:00 a.m. and see it magically appear in my inbox.  But whatever — I’d have 40 extra minutes.  It’s just a small Word Doc along with instructions to email it back no later than 5 p.m.

The questions were exactly what I was expecting.  I’ve thought about whether I should disclose the teacher and questions, and still don’t know how kosher it would be.  Suffice to say that this certain professor teaches Classic Hollywood industry, and my first question asked me to a.) trace the evolving value of star through the postclassical period (1948-Present) and b.) perform a historiographic survey of the literature on stars and their relation to Hollywood.  In other words, what approaches do people take to talk about stars and Hollywood, and what are the drawbacks and benefits of each approach, and which approach do you favor.

The first question was obviously going to take longer than the second, so I set a deadline to finish the first by 1:00 pm, then spend the rest of the afternoon finishing the second, with 30 minutes to read over them both at the end.  The rest of the day is a blur.  I turned on ‘Freedom,’ but I didn’t really need to — I’ve never feel so concentrated, so absolutely clear-headed and in the moment of writing.  It was surreal — I know that I paused to eat cereal and get more fizzy water, but I don’t remember it.  I do remember writing pages and pages of material, and somehow, when I looked back over them at the end of the day before sending them away, they weren’t horrendous.  They lacked panache, perhaps, and immaculate style, but they were coherent, cogent ideas linking from one to the next.  And for all my elaborate charts and notes, I barely touched them.  The process of making the charts was enough to put that information into my head — which I knew would probably be the case, as I internalize information by writing/typing it.  It was all there, and it all flew onto the computer screen.

I had a mild freak-out at about noon when I realized that I was still in the mid-’70s (right around Jaws and the blockbuster) and needed to get to 2009 in one hour.  I ended up glossing some rather important developments — um, shouldn’t the Telecommuncations Act of 1996 deserve more than 2 sentences? — but I finished, and, since I had given such ample time for the second question, had an hour at the end to go back and flesh out some of the more egregious glosses.

I wrote more than I should have — the suggested total page number was between 20-25 pages — and ended up with 29 double-spaced pages.  CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?  I wrote TWENTY NINE pages in 9.5 hours?  Well I emailed it in at 5:01 and became immediately cognizant of the huge adrenaline rush that I had been riding all day.  It was like emerging from the zone.  I felt incredibly happy, almost blissful.  It was doubtlessly the most intense academic experience of my life — more intense than the SATs, the GREs, or any test in college.  Try to imagine taking five blue book finals in a row and you’ll kind of get what I was feeling.  Of course, part of the novelty of the feeling was rooted in the fact that humanities grad school involves a lot of very gradual, even incremental achievement — slogging through drafts and turning in a paper to profound anti-climax.  But I also knew that I’d be in a daze if I stayed in my apartment, so, as planned, I went to yoga from 5:30-7:00 with one of my favorite teachers.  And I’ve rarely been more focused in yoga — totally held my freestanding headstand for two minutes.  It was like a continuation of the awesomeness.

Went home, had a gin and tonic, ate the dinner I’d prepared the night before, and watched latest episode of True Blood.  Again, more awesomeness.  The only odd feeling is the expectation of doing it all again — two more times.  I can only hope that I have similar feelings, or at least no negative feelings.  Any advice from former comp-takers on how best to proceed (or mental spaces to occupy) would be much appreciated….but now I’m off to the pool.   All day.

Roundtable: Leslie Mann, Judd Apatow, and 'Women of a Certain Age' in Hollywood

Welcome to the Inaugural Edition of Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Roundtable — a feature I hope to continue somewhat regularly.  Today’s topic — Leslie Mann, Judd Apatow, and ‘Women of a Certain Age’ in Hollywood, was first proposed by the one and only Kristen Warner, who, like the other participants in this panel, is either a current or former student in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas-Austin.

A bit on each of our roundtable participants, in part to help illuminate some of their comments below:

Kristen Warner (The One and Only KW) studies ‘color-blind’ casting and recently completed a research trip to Hollywood, where she sat in on several casting sessions, but will make you wait to hear the juiciest details until the publication of her highly anticipating dissertation.  She also likes Mad Men and making fun of my chaco sandals.

Peter Alilunas (PA) completed his M.A. at UT before departing for cooler pastures at the University of Michigan, where he studies, amongst other things, masculinity and its manfestations.  His excellent blog, Manvertised, catalogs some of the most valuable yet ephermal traces of ‘manvertising’ in the public sphere.  He also happens to be my doppelganger: he grew up in Moscow, Idaho, where he was one of Lewiston’s arch rivals; he and I unknowingly shared a class on Stars at the University of Oregon (he was a savvy undergrad, I was a clueless first year master’s student).  I can make him laugh on command by mentioning the words ‘Lamonts Department Store.’

Courtney Brannon Donaghue (CBD) specializes in analysis of film industries — and the Brazilian film industry in particular.  We share a common affinity towards celebrity gossip, CSA vegetables, and Scorsese.  She happens to have been a member of my sorority, but she didn’t even know the anchor wave when I first met her.

R. Colin Tait (CT) is Canadian, and that might be all you need to know about him.  He thus uses an extra ‘u’ in odd places and replaces the ‘z’ with an ‘s.’  But he also studies the film industry, with a particular eye to Steven Soderbergh (on whom he’s currently deep in co-authoring a book) and ’70s nostalgia.

I start out the post below and the other respondents take it from there — and we’d love to hear more of your thoughts, or suggestions on future topics.   And if you’d like to be a future respondent, just let me know.

Leslie MannFunny People star Leslie Mann

AHP:
First, a bit of backstory.
Leslie Mann is an actress.  She is also the wife of Judd Apatow.  Whether her designation as the former should be or can be wholly attributed to her designation as the latter (and the politics of such designation) is the topic of this ’round table.’

According to Wikipedia and IMDB, Mann was selected from an open casting call for a role in The Cable Guy (1996), for which Apatow served as co-producer and co-writer.  They married in 1997.  Since then, she has appeared George of the Jungle, Big Daddy (with Apatow’s former roommate and current star Adam Sandler), Perfume, Orange County, Stealing Harvard, the Apatow-helmed The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but also Drillbit Taylor and 17 Again.  In other words, she has appeared in non-Apatow films, but her most distinguished performances have been in films of his making.  Apatow also cast his own daughters in both Knocked Up and Funny People – a decision I’ve seen attributed to the ease of working with family members (as opposed to unfamiliar actors/stars).

Now, the point in question, first suggested by the one and only KW, is how we should regard Mann’s roles in said films.  In her words, “Leslie Mann: self-serving climber or ‘wife of a certain age’ who probably wouldn’t be allowed to work, finding herself in advantageous position?  Where does she fit in relation to contemporaries of similar ‘situation’: Demi Moore, Katie Holmes, Annette Bening, Mia Farrow, etc.?”

These questions now go before our roundtable panel, composed of current and former UT RTF graduate students.

I’ll start us off with a bit of provocation: yesterday, Nikki Finke published the anonymous email below, detailing the ways in which Universal is fending off (or failing to fend off) criticism related to the relative failure of Funny People (which opened with a disappointed $22 million over the weekend, and is expected to continue to slide with negative word of mouth — certainly not the sort of numbers associated with Knocked Up.  It’s also insult to injury concerning Universal’s piss-poor summer — see here for Finke’s scathing analysis).

From Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood:
“Despite what anyone at Universal is saying now — trying to cover their asses — I can 100% assure you: Universal execs never begged or pleaded with Judd to shorten his movie. Not one of them would have had the balls to. They never would have done anything to piss Judd off. There was a mini feud on “40 Year Old Virgin” between Judd and [ex-Uni exec] Mary Parent, and everyone learned never to side against or ever really question Judd after that. Trust me. Besides, all questions of length were precluded by two words, “Knocked Up”.  It was almost as long and it was an out and out comedy. No one would have been brave enough to challenge Judd on this, even in a joking matter. Trust me, Nikki…Better or worse it was Judd’s show and he delivered to them the movie he wanted and they smiled and said “Thank you.” Privately they may have worried, but they never, never, never asked Judd to shorten it.”

“PS… Judd did shorten it. I saw a three hour, forty five minute version of  “Funny People” and Judd’s goal was to get it to “Knocked Up” length. And that’s where he got it, too. And the studio was happy with that length. And the idea that someone would directly tell Judd that the part with his wife had to be particularly shortened is ridiculous. Ask that person to give you details on that conversation. I would love to hear how that went. It didn’t happen.”

The email is interesting not only for the manner in which it highlights Apatow’s hubris, but also points to the inability of the studio to criticize parts of the film (specifically the last 1/3) that strongly featured his wife.  So where do we go from here?  Is it fair to criticize Mann?  Is marriage to a successful male director/producer the only way for a middle-aged woman to get decent (or comedic) parts?  How is Mann similar or different to the abovementioned female (married) stars?  Is it intrinsically sexist of us to criticize Mann?  How is she — and her roles — different from Heigl, whose ‘shrewness’ I’ve detailed at length?  Finally, what does the relative failure of Funny People bode for the future of Mann in Apatow productions?

************************

The one and only KW:
I feel I should offer a few statements about women in Hollywood:

1. There aren’t that many roles.

2. There aren’t that many types.

3. After a certain age, there definitely aren’t that many roles or types.

These three items are certain and definite within the working structure of the Hollywood organization model. And, no doubt, these items are problematic. Thus the negotiations and ways that women can circumvent this harsh reality are important and necessary to women maintaining place in this industry. Owning production companies and enhancing one’s star status are two of the more popular ways that women have negotiated Hollywood. And yet another one that is often thought of but rarely considered in any real thoughtful way is marriage. Rosselini marries Ingrid Bergman.  Kate Capshaw and Amy Irving before her marries Steven Spielberg and ensures legitimacy and the opportunity to work–whenever they’d like, if they’d like.

Annette Bening fresh off The Grifters meets Warren Beatty on set of Bugsy and transforms into legitimate actress (more on her later as possibility for actual success as an actor). Mia Farrow and Sinatra were big but Mia Farrow and Woody Allen become a power couple. With actor couples it works quite similarly. Think of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. And the same with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. And the same with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. And the same with Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith. And the same with Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise.

These women went from minor roles and minor successes to the star stratosphere only after saying “I do.” Matrimony as socio-economic success formula is clearly nothing new in Hollywood. So, then why does Leslie Mann’s success in conjunction with her husband Judd Apatow bother me so much? After all, if it wasn’t for her husband or his connections, she wouldn’t be working (and she is certainly entitled to employment as are all working actors). Well, it’s nepotism. Regardless of Mann’s talent, the fact that Apatow automatically writes his wife into the roles automatically excludes every other woman who could play the part–every single time. And again, while it is important that a woman over 40 gets to act (as a woman over 40), I think the fact that she obtained the role specifically and explicitly because her husband gave it to her does taint the well a smidgen and overshadow her performance. Second, it seems she has had little desire to step out from her husband and try to prove her own legitimacy. Annette Bening may have started as Warren’s wife (and may still be thought of that by many of us) but in terms of acting, she has become an acclaimed actress in her own right. Even Zeta-Jones leveraged her marriage to Douglas to become more of a credible actress. Pinkett-Smith had a supporting role in Ali with her husband but since has managed to create roles for herself somewhat autonomous of her spouse (she’s even executive producer of her own show–no doubt in conjunction with Will whose power in Hollywood is definite leverage). If these women can do it, why can’t Mann? Why is she content to be “the” star of her husband’s productions? I ain’t mad at her for getting her foot in the door, I’m just frustrated that she seems to think she’s automatically the best for the role. And I don’t think that’s been tested.

Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow

Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow

************************

PA:

I agree the core problem here is a distinct shortage of quality roles for women.  To go right to KW’s final point: we have no idea what roles Mann has auditioned for, how often she has been turned down, or what efforts she has made to increase her visibility.  But there’s a deeper question: for what roles would she be auditioning?  She’s primarily a comic actress — how many movies are out there every year for women with that sort of part?  And whom would she be up against for those parts that do exist?  Christine Taylor would probably like some of those parts, too, but instead she’s relegated to performances in husband Ben Stiller’s films.  I’m sure Mann (and Taylor) would love to get some quality roles like those actresses you mention, but how?  The line out the casting door is probably at least ten deep with women who have won or been nominated for Oscars, are known to the public, and have some cachet.  Apatow is a specialist in a very particular type of comedy — one that does not lend itself to female performances or “quality” actors.  Every example KW mentions is a marriage to someone with intense, Oscar caliber connections (I’d like to do a count of the Oscar nomination totals between Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, Will Smith, etc.) that Apatow does not have.  And now that he has made a slightly more serious film, the critics and the public have essentially dismissed it.  I’m not sure how she’s supposed to parlay her connection into anything more than similar, cutout comic roles, let alone a serious part.

To go to the original questions, I’d ask this: why would we criticize Mann for anything related to this film?  The success of this project (which is an entirely different discussion) hardly seems even remotely related to her performance, which (as in all the films Apatow has written, produced, or directed) is primarily a symbolic foil against which the men unroll their narratives.  Apatow specializes in boys’ treehouse films and there isn’t much room in there for anything else.

RT4Part of the ‘treehouse’ gang – Mann included?

The quality of Mann’s performance hardly seems responsible for the relative failure of the film; the subject matter, marketing, cast, and spectatorial associations with Apatow’s, Rogen’s, and Sandler’s previous films seem much more likely candidates.  I doubt more than a small percentage of people walking in to or out of this film (or any of the other Apatow films in which she’s appeared) know or care who she is.

If we want to pinpoint the problem, I’d say it resides in the viewing public, almost wholly unwilling to transgress gendered boundaries and accept women in lead performances.  Cultural fantasies about appropriate gender behavior and partnerships play out more powerfully in the movies than almost anywhere else.  To gloss quickly into some gender theory, there’s an intense and powerful unwillingness on the part of men to accept women in lead roles, which has resulted in these sorts of outcomes, where even the “best actress” category is populated by actresses who are essentially playing supporting roles in films dedicated to male narratives.  The rare performance by a woman in a genuine lead role typically makes very little money and is ignored or dismissed by male audiences, or is manufactured and marketed to play into regressive cultural fantasies about male and female behavior.  Until that changes, nepotism for married/partnered women is one of the only ways it seems Hollywood understands as a mechanism for getting quality roles for women — many of which (including many of the examples listed by KW) are prestige, personal, or risky projects carried by actors willing to take gigantic risks, and which often return little on the investment other than critical success.  As evidence of that, look no farther than Frances McDormand, who has worked steadily as a supporting actress but has always gotten her best parts from her husband and brother-in-law.  An even better example might be Rebecca Pidgeon, an established and incredibly competent stage actress who would barely have a film/television career at all except for husband David Mamet.  Sure, Mann might seem oversaturated in the Apatow universe (but isn’t any more visible in that world than Seth Rogen — who has made little effort as of yet to break out of the Apatow factory, but seems free from these sorts of criticisms), but if this is how she (and all the other actresses struggling to get a part, any part) gets what little work is available until some cultural changes can be made that break down gendered boundaries and expectations, I’m all for it.

Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand in husband/brother-in-law’s Burn After Reading

************************

CT:

One thing that troubles me about this discussion – not the points raised, but the core of the argument – is the overwhelming negativity towards people in the limelight and their products.

In my current work on the critical reception to Steven Soderbergh’s films the following pattern emerges:

a) Fanfare in the press surrounding the upcoming movie, including details highlighting its unique/innovative techniques
b) the film opens to lukewarm reviews, including pieces by writers in the same publications who covered these films in feature stories. Usually the same elements that were highlighted as innovative, or the film’s pre-release story are the elements that are attacked
c) the film is delcared a failure after the disappointing opening weekend (within 3 days!). Here, critics (and feature writers) reinforce and validate the content of their reviews, highlighting issues that audiences may or may not have found appealing but with no qualitative data (audience research, etc.) This could be why Soderbergh’s The Good German has the same % of freshness on rottentomatoes.com as Paul Blart: Mall Cop – standing at 33% each.
d) Finally, this discourse of failure and negativity somehow makes it into the ether of the public, where people grasp on to what they can relate back to each other. The media has a great deal to do with this and somehow Katherine Heigl’s 17-hour story, or Judd Apatow’s casting of his wife Leslie Mann, or how actor B gained (or lost) 40 pounds for the role becomes the bigger story than the movie itself.

To me, this (very rough) model helps to inform our own discussion of Leslie Mann and explain the fact that we’re even discussing her at all. We’re looking for explanations as to why this movie is a failure; an explanation that has been pre-determined for us before we even saw the film. The fact that Apatow went outside of the very rigid boundaries that we expect of him – nothing but funny man-child films for us, please – reinforces its inevitable failure — regardless of whether or not it is a good movie!

We live in a culture that wants people to fail. This is particularly true of our stars, our artists our leaders and people who dare to be different than us. The media equips us with reasons to hate movies and the people that make them, especially if they are successful. This extends to their immediate family and friends who are often used as fodder in the press and are not immune to criticism. Nepotism in Hollywood seems to be the #1 taboo, despite the fact that there is more than enough evidence to support that this has been Hollywood’s M.O. for nearly a century. And sometimes it’s easier to tell yourself that the actor/actress didn’t earn it, has ruined a movie or, worse, a franchise. After all, I hate Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom because of Kate Capshaw (married to Spielberg), pure and simple.

In a sense, this is and isn’t about Leslie Mann. It is to the point that the features surrounding this film highlighted how Apatow and Mann met (where he declared in the audition room that he was going to marry her) and that this is precisely the element that critics and box-office reporters seem to be highlighting and attacking – particularly the bit about how the Mann storyline is out of place and weighs the film down (to the point that was originally 3 3/4 hours).

To quote Morrissey, “We hate it when our friends become successful,” it’s just that now, we have a whole network that feeds into this need to hate anyone who tries anything at all.

To follow up on the gender aspect raised by Peter, I wonder how we feel about male figures who are dwarfed by the stardom of their wives? Certainly Guy Ritchie, and his cheeky title as “Mr. Madonna” would be an example of this, especially in their disastrous collaboration on Swept Away. I also wonder a little bit about Matthew Broderick (Mr. Sarah Jessica Parker), Danny Moder (Mr. Julia Roberts) and Ryan Phillipe (the former Mr. Reese Witherspoon) and how we largely see these men as more than emasculated or at the very least, under their more succcessful wives’ shadows.

(Have we mentioned the fact that this negativity is directed at a film that opened at #1 at the box-office?)

Funny People

This weekend’s #1 film

************************
AHP:

I’ve been reading this rather elementary book on political economy in television and film — it’s called Culture Conglomerates, and it’s obviously meant to be an introduction for upper-level undergrads, but it’s spelled out the connections in all aspects of the industry (production, exhibition, distribution, both in film and in television) in the most coherent fashion of all other political economy I’ve read.  (For those outside of academia — Political economy = The study of who owns what, and the assumption that ownership matters — and can inflect the product that the company produces.  Recent political economy is especially keen to note the ways in which consolidation and conglomeration over the last 50 years (and the governmental deregulation that facilitated it) has made it so that a very small handful of massive conglomerates control the vast majority of our media).

Anyway, one of the author’s points is very persuasive when it comes to this argument: Americans love us some individuals.  We love individual achievement.  It’s at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the ideology of the American Dream (and general Americanness) that structure our belief system.  So when we think of a piece of art, whether it be a television show or a movie, we like to attribute the achievement to the individual — this is the impulse behind auteurism, of course, but also behind the way that we, as a society, generally talk about movies.  (The author’s point is that in focusing in on the genius of the individual, we lose sight of the corporate machinations which really create the movie — and he’s absolutely right.)  With the shift away from straight-up auteurism, we think of producers – whether Apatow or Jerry Bruckheimer or whomever — as auteurs.  Show-runners as auteurs.  Major actors as auteurs.  Within this paradigm, it’s easy (and simple!) to attribute all achievement within the particular film to that selfsame auteur:  a Wes Anderson film is the product of his unique vision; all performances were directed and entirely his idea, the distinctive set design borne of his dreams.

And so it is with Leslie Mann: it’s as if we’re in Greek mythology and she sprung completely formed from Judd Apatow’s forehead, and now does his bidding and projects his thoughts.  Her agency = completely elided.  Her skill — and it certainly does take skill to play a shrewish wife that makes ‘treehouse’ Ben Affleck always look affable — forgotten.

Returning to Peter’s point, it’s far more comfortable for us to attribute genius to men.  Women are always part of a team of genius — we don’t talk about Katheryn Bigalow so much as the plotting and the performances.  Jane Campion’s The Piano was the product of her and Holly Hunter (and Anna Paquin).  Julie Taymor’s Frida is her vision plus Salma Hayek’s passion.  And tour de force female performances — including those of Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet — always have a male director who’s really responsible.

************************
CT:
Aren’t Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes one of those power couples? If so, is Kate Winslet immune to this kind of criticism and why?

************************

CBD:

So far is the issue with Leslie Mann an institutional problem due to limited of roles/types and nepotism (KW); that audiences are not willing to transgress gender boundaries (PA) or we live in a society that cheers failure (CT)? Perhaps it is a combination between the current studio system and contemporary audiences and society. However as has already been mentioned nepotism and blaming the female for a film’s failure (ie Katherine Hepburn famously described as “box office poison” in the 1930s) are nothing new. While her role may be only tangential, you better believe when it is time to place the blame for the films financial failure they won’t be blaming Apatow the golden child who just signed a multiple picture deal with Universal. This is also evident in the studio’s harsh reaction to the last 1/3 of the movie featuring Mann. The question now is, how prominently will she be featured in the project?

First of all, while I agree with AP’s point that it is easier to construct genius as a masculine attribute, are we willing to make the stretch that Leslie Mann has some hidden genius inside her that the one dimensional shrewish female characters she is given by Apatow is stifling? I hardly believe this. At this moment, Leslie Mann is not an indie actress, an art cinema actress, a method actress, opening weekend box office gold…whatever you want to call it. She is not in the same ballpark as Kate Winslet who had established a name with studio and moviegoers alike before her marriage to Mendes, newly Oscar winner and part of the British actresses with character actor capital known best for their period pieces such as Cate Blanchett. Leslie Mann is just a minor stage player in the Apatow brand, while she may venture off to occasional supporting roles a la 17 Again, she appears to be comfortable in her space as just another one of Apatow’s “shrewish” bitchy women and that is what seems to infuriate everyone here.

In response to CT, I will digress for a moment. Apatow/Mann and Winslet/Mendes are two very different power dynamics that represent two ends of the spectrum of the political economy of the studios.  Apatow/Mann are the wide release, safely profitable mid-range genre picture produced with Universal. Apatow is pretty much a household name among male 18-35 demos, which is what makes him so valuable as director/writer/producer.

Whereas Mendes/Winslet are the indie, “quality” branch of the conglomerates – the Focus Features, smaller dramas opening in 100-500 theaters that almost always get nominated for the prestigious awards, but are not guaranteed to make money or travel well in foreign markets (and as we say with Mendes’ last two projects Revolutionary Road and Away We Go did not gross enough to be considered safe). These power couples, the director husband/actress wives, serve different functions within the industry as well as function discursively in different ways among audiences, critics, etc.

In regards to opening #1, the film performed below expectations and that is all that matters to the studio. (Apatow’s previous films have grossed $30M in opening weekend.) The stakes are higher for the mid-range studio films than tentpoles especially for a proven brand.

************************

One and Only KW:

I cannot help but agree with the things everyone has said–especially in regard to her performance as proof of the ultimate failure/success of Apatow’s newest film. I think to make Mann one of the many scapegoats of this film is wrong and ultimately absurd. But notice that in my opening statement I made no mention of the film. My argument was merely to try to explain why Mann is different from all those other ladies who married more successful men in that it seems that she has not tried to exploit (for lack of a better word) her relationship with Apatow for better, stronger roles. If anything that anonymous memo to Nikki Finke suggested it is that regardless of the KIND of movie Apatow makes and regardless of his cultural cachet, he is an emerging powerful source to the studios precisely because he brings in tons of cash to the industry. It is not necessarily about winning an Oscar PA (although that certainly happens) but it is more about leveraging relationships in the service of gaining parts. As I have learned recently, Hollywood has some jacked up casting practices in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and of course, gender. Average working actors are willing to sacrifice every aspect of their identity JUST to get their foot in that door (PA: it’s not nearly as people deep as you might think) and get looked at. Relationships are what build Hollywood and so it makes sense that if Mann (just like these other ladies we’ve mentioned) has tied herself to someone who is in a position to NOT be told ‘no’ (much like Spielberg I am told..if you want stories, chat me up later, lol) that she wouldn’t try to stretch beyond her husband and become a good working actress (I’m not necessarily suggesting she become an Oscar winner or even an Emmy winner or even a People’s Choice nominee) in her own right is ridiculous and only leaves me with a few conclusions about her self-knowledge concerning her talent. On one hand, I feel that her knowledge that she might not be that good is humbling and I feel supportive of that. But on the other hand, that she completely accepts that and chooses to work in every project her husband has (and her children as well–different blog topic) instead of widening the casting net because, well, there are other women “of a certain age” who also need to be SEEN , just seems lecherous and kinda shallow. And, yes, I would say the same about Christine Taylor.

In sum: I do not have a problem with power marriages. As I think we’ve all hinted at, it is one way to ensure that women have some place in Hollywood and can maintain some semblance of power (outside of the studio execs). But I think I expect that most of these women have ambition beyond specifically working for/with their spouses–especially if they were relative unknowns before meeting them. That Mann just seems content to work within the confines of her husband’s immediate network (including his friends) shouldn’t be a bad thing I suppose. I think that it is just a model that hasn’t been seen in quite a while (McDormand notwithstanding) and may speak to her own levels of confidence and perhaps dominance. Let me be frank:  should she retire she would be the next Kate Capshaw–which begs the question, is that a good thing?

************************

AHP:
Quick interjection: Kate Winslet is also immune to such criticism because she built her career before meeting and marrying her director-husband.  Same goes for Helena Bonham Carter.  What bothers people — whether KW, industry insiders, or those who dislike the fact that Mann is always in the movie — is what is perceived as unmerited favoritism (e.g. Mann didn’t get cast because she was the best of all possible actresses — but because she was the wife).

Maybe what we’re talking about here, in addition to the relative dearth of leading-female-roles, is the entire casting process — who gets cast (race, gender, past star performance) and why.  Part of the illusion and continued importance of celebrity/stardom is the underlying belief that we choose our stars — they are big (and paid well) because we ‘vote’ for them by going to see their movies, buying magazine with them on the cover, etc.  As I spoke of in the first Katherine Heigl post, we think of stardom as a function of our democracy.  So when someone circumvents that — as we see Mann doing, even though she is not really a ‘star’ — or fails to show appreciation for that (Heigl…or, in the case of Apatow, he isn’t showing his gratitude in that he’s given us a film that ISN’T along the lines of what we liked from him before) we reject them.

************************

KW:

AHP, I sense some baiting with you hinting at the casting process. At the stage that these actors we mention function, they are well beyond the traditional casting process. Mann certainly has open casting calls to thank for introducing her to Apatow but I’m sure she has not had to audition for anything in quite a while. Now because she has only “proved” herself within a limited scope of films, if she were not Apatow’s wife she would most definitely have to endure the casting process. She is no star; neither is she that talented a performer (my true claws finally come out) comedic or otherwise. Thus only working for Apatow (and again, his network) ensures she doesn’t have to and after having spoken to casting directors and guild representatives, who could blame her? Well…

************************
AHP:
Not bating!  At least not on purpose.  Let me revise:  while I do think we’re talking about casting in the literal sense (as that was, after all, the way that Mann met Apatow), but we’re talking about ‘getting jobs’ — through agents, deals, whatever.  I know that Mann (and most big actresses) never have to audition, let alone do a read through.  What I’m trying to point to is ‘hiring apparatus,’ writ large.

************************

KW:

Hiring apparatus?

************************

CT:

I wonder if I might interject for a moment, if only to say that there’s a reason that the Apatow crew is referred to as a “Mafia.” I think that the family connotations of the word (as in Corleone, or Coppola, if you prefer) are extremely appropriate, particularly as we can see the network of players (from Freaks and Geeks onwards) including Leslie Mann (who was there from the beginning, and is featured in one of my favourite episodes) Jason Segel, James Franco and Seth Rogen, but also to an increasing repertory company which includes Martin Starr, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Jonah Hill. The “family” keeps expanding outward, to the point where we could pretty much see Apatow’s fingers in many (if not most) of the comedy hits of the past 5-ish years. Mann is one of the most consistently featured of these players, but to point to her directly as responsible for this failure is as nonsensical as pointing towards Starr (the unfortunately bearded guy in Knocked Up), or worse still, blaming Bruce Campbell for when one of Sam Raimi’s films fail, despite the fact that he is in every one.

Mann seems to me to be at least a capable, pretty and likable actress.

This may seem naive, but the question that I have is whether these women are “allowed” to take outside roles, or whether there are even roles available for them. This seems to be the case with Mrs. Ben Stiller, who seems contractually bound only to appear opposite her husband. I wonder if a better comparison is Rita Wilson (Mrs. Tom Hanks), who also only appears every few years in a Tom Hanks production.

This question is motivated by a really interesting documentary on famous women actors called Searching for Debra Winger. In it, Rosanna Arquette interviews most of the famous actresses of the last 20 years and talks about their careers in Hollywood (If you haven’t seen it, you need to – it’s pretty amazing). One of the most revealing interviews is with Robin Wright Penn. I couldn’t find it online (and I haven’t seen the movie in years, so forgive my paraphrasing here) but she gives the impression that she is only allowed to make a film every two years, as per an arrangement with Sean Penn. I found this the most shocking of all the interviews, because it pierced my impression of Penn (as the quintessential liberal freedom fighter) and seemingly reinforced the patriarchy in the relationship.

So I guess my follow-up to this – Is it possible that these couples that are held up as paragons of contemporary Hollywood marriages simply reinforcing existing patriarchal power dynamics?

RT6

************************

PA:

“Simply reinforce patriarchal power dynamics.”  Yes.  Other thoughts: while Mann may not have to audition in the traditional definition, again I have to ask what films she would be on the table for anyway.  Seriously — someone name ten films per year of the scope we’re discussing (budgets north of 50 million) that a forty-plus year old comedic actress would be in the running for that offer lead roles that aren’t somehow connected to Apatow through his factory channels.  For that matter, name ten films per year of that scope that a dramatic actress would be considering.  They don’t exist.  KW suggests that I may be overthinking it when applying gender theory approaches, but it really does work even if the producers and executives aren’t reading Judith Butler together over coffee.  Hollywood is managed by business school graduates who read spreadsheets and tally bottom line figures.  When audiences, who are culturally conditioned not to accept transgressive imagery, refuse to pay for entertainments outside of established cultural fantasies, those bottom lines turn red awfully fast, and then the MBAs stop greenlighting productions with anything but deeply regressive politics.  I wouldn’t say this is an overt, conscious strategy, just one that works as part of a belief in disrupting the fewest possible “common sense” beliefs.  This is especially true in tentpole franchises: Harry Potter, Transformers, and Twilight are all just the latest examples.  Apatow himself is a prime example of regressive politics, one reason his films have performed so well.

For Mann, Taylor, McDormand, Pidgeon, and others, this means they are stuck with nothing or the films their partners are willing to fight to have them in.  Say what you will about their talents — I don’t particularly think Mann is anything exceptional as a screen presence either, and I’ve long thought Pidgeon is serious dead weight in Mamet’s projects — but it’s really not any different than any other business.  It’s not just wives/partners, either, it’s also sons and daughters, which is an even longer list.  Apatow clearly enjoys having his repertory company (the same as Mamet and the Coen brothers, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson, which makes for an interesting parallel).  Why are we criticizing Mann or Taylor for their repeat appearances and not, say, Ricky Jay, who has very little screen charisma (not unlike Mann), but has become a beloved member of the Mamet stable?  It really does come back to gender for me, and how it’s much easier to accept men in comedic roles than women, not to mention forgiving them for occasional missteps.

************************

CBD:

PA, I will wholeheartedly agree with you that there is a disproportionate number of 40+year characters available to men in mid-range starring roles, but I have to disagree that similar budget, genre roles for women “don’t exist”. Perhaps we should look outside the Apatow franchise at working actresses of a certain age. Here are two examples:

-Meryl Streep (who has had a string of successful SUMMER films such as The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia! in the past few years AND continued to performing smaller dramatic roles)

-Jennifer Aniston (although just turned 40, actively working on mid-range rom-coms that consistently perform boffo)

You may call them the exception to the rule that they are stars and brands in themselves and I would not disagree. However, we cannot ignore them. As AHP would say, these are star texts worth thinking about.

Additionally, there has been a lot of buzz in the industry about female leads in television dramas in recent seasons. What about roles being created in cable and pay television? I am thinking of Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer, Glenn Close in Damages, Mary-Louise Parker in Weeds and Mary McDonnell in Battlestar Galactica to name a few. (AHP: Holly Hunter in Saving Grace, Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie).

How does television as an alternative space for women fit into this discussion?

RT7Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer

************************

CT:

I’d just like to add that as with any family business, you can’t really ask the owner to fire employees just because you don’t like them. I think if I were in a position to help a family member out, I would definitely cast, and likely hire anyone that I saw fit after I built a small empire. And let’s be honest, that’s what Hollywood consists of, small empires of families and friends writ large.

The one thing that nobody’s mentioned is it’s clear that Apatow didn’t just cast Mann because she’s his wife, but wrote the part for her as well. I am inclined to say, from everything that I’ve read so far that it’s a love-letter exclusively to and inspired by her. Dare we begrudge him for…loving his wife?

RT3

Screenwriters learn early to a) write what they know and b) to envision someone specific when writing a character. Who are we to judge Apatow because he does both? Do we complain when Wes Anderson writes another part for Bill Murray, or when Quentin Tarantino makes another rambling speech in one of his movies? To dictate who directors can and can’t cast smacks of Big Government, and we all know how popular that is these days! It seems patently un-American to me…not that I would know.

Nice discussin’ with you!

************************

PA:

Agree with CT — great conversation.  One last clarification, with thanks to CBD: you’re absolutely right that these roles do exist.  I seriously overstated when I said the roles don’t exist.  I should have said they’re limited.  And I hope that changes.

************************

KW:

CT–just a note to say that I have seen that documentary and that I also recommend reading Linda Seger’s When Women Call the Shots. It’s a pretty good book for anecdotes about how the industry feels about women and how women feel about the industry. I also wanted to make quick mention of CT’s claim that because Hollywood consists of small empires of families and friends (and it does) that what Apatow is doing is just more of the same. I agree with this. But, again, for me, the argument is not about Apatow’s films as much as it is about Mann’s automatic addition to his films. I feel like I should end with how this idea about Mann began in my head–Apatow was recently on an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio and his wife sat in front row like many wives do. But Mann was given a mic and thus it began. PA you’re good with the textual analysis. In the comments, hypothesize what’s going on here.

<object width=”512″ height=”296″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.hulu.com/embed/vA-q6SPxW6hE8zGKkuVHbQ”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><embed src=”http://www.hulu.com/embed/vA-q6SPxW6hE8zGKkuVHbQ” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowFullScreen=”true”  width=”512″ height=”296″></embed></object>

************************

AHP:  Comment away!

Plea for Suggestions: Emblematic Stars of 1990 – The Present

JonathanTaylorThomaschristian-slater-20051028-80842

JTT and Christian Slater: Two ’90s Stars I Probably Shouldn’t Write About

This post is a bit different, in that it’s not really a post so much as a plea.

Amidst all of my reading/prepping for my comprehensive exams in August, I’ve agreed to write a chapter in my Whitman mentor’s current book on Hollywood industry from 1990 – the present.  (It’s not a collection — my contribution is kind of like the one-off chapters in the decade series, for those of you familiar with media studies texts).   I’m to focus specifically on stardom (changes in, industrial concerns, etc. etc.) from 1990 – the present.  Someone (CBD, I think?) suggested that I could arrange the chapter around case studies: stars whose paths encapsulate the various ways stardom has changed and been negotiated through the spread of new media, the indie early ’90s, the Weinsteins, the continued expansion and importance of the blockbuster, etc. etc. (Each star doesn’t have to relate to all of those topics, but I do need to touch on all of them at one point or another). He/she also doesn’t have had to be a huge star from 1990 to now — his/her career could have petered off, or just become a star in the last ten years, you get the picture.

I have a few ideas, but I’d really love/need to hear yours as well — I’m thinking I’ll want a total of three somewhat complimentary studies.