Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Genre Analysis: Horror

This week's assignment was to work in pairs putting together a presentation about one genre. My partner and I chose to talk about horror films: here's our presentation. The assignment was to discuss themes, typical roles, settings, value assumptions, etc. We came up with a number of sub-categories within the horror genre, including teenage slasher, horror-comedy, and torture porn... It was interesting to think about some of the recurring themes and values that crop up across these movies; for example, the good-verus-evil dichotomy, and the idea that the characters somehow cause their own problems...

The other part of our assignment was to develop an activity to teach about an example of a film or TV genre. Here are the instructions for my suggested activity:
Pick a genre that you do not usually like or watch for your analysis. Interview some of your fellow students and read online reviews to find out what fans of this genre like about it, common themes, etc. Based on this information, choose two examples of the genre to watch (two different films or episodes of two different TV shows) and write a review that includes discussions of the following topics (your review may be submitted in writing or as a video blog):
- why you do not or did not like this genre.
- why fans of this genre do like it.
- common themes found in this genre, including typical characters, settings, values, etc.
- how the two examples you watched were or were not representative of the genre, including brief synopses.
- whether watching examples of the genre did or did not change your opinions about it, and why.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Media Ethnography:

This week’s assignment was to write a brief media ethnography: an exploration of some specific media-consuming audience, their community, rituals, hierarchies, etc. Example topics included a group of friends getting together to watch a sports event, a group playing videogames together (in person or online), a fan group, or a book club, among others.

I chose to write my ethnography about, self-described as “a community weblog discussing the work of TV maker Joss Whedon.”

The way the site works is that members post links to anything newsworthy related to the works of Joss Whedon. Posts range from newspaper and blog articles that analyze or mention Joss’s work to casting calls for current productions to announcements of the upcoming projects of actors who have featured in Joss’s shows to webcomics… and on and on. Since its founding in June 2002 by Caroline van Oosten de Boer, there have been a total of over 18,500 posts to the site. But the posts themselves are only the beginning: each post may have anywhere from zero to 300-some comments, and it is these comment-conversations, I would argue, that make WHEDONesque a community and not just a user-generated news service. In a bit of internet meta-media (or something), there is even a Wikipedia entry about WHEDONesque, which is where I found some of the information in this essay.

Anyone can sign up as a member, but sign-up times are restricted (perhaps due to server or bandwidth issues). I had been reading the site for a while before I was able to register as a member in December 2005. Since then I have checked the site on average once or twice a day to keep up with the gossip and read some of the interesting and/or amusing comment threads. My user profile tells me that I’ve posted 105 comments in the last four years! I know that I’ve very much enjoyed participating in the site, and I feel like I’ve gotten familiar with some of the regular posters as well. I e-mailed a few of them who had their e-mail addresses posted in their profiles, and they were kind enough to answer some questions about what WHEDONesque means to them. It is a small sample, and not meant to be random or representative – I specifically e-mailed people whose usernames I recognized as frequent posters, and obviously the selection was limited to individuals who displayed their e-mail addresses in their profiles.

Continuity and consistency:

One person I e-mailed said that she had been involved since 2002 (the very beginning of the site); the others, like me, joined more recently but “lurking” on the site before registering was common. In general people reported checking the site regularly, from every-other-day to multiple times per day. Not surprisingly, one main reason people mentioned following the site was liking Joss’s work (usually specifically his writing), and relying on WHEDONesque as a consistent source of news. One respondent noted that he will occasionally “post a story if I find something online that miraculously hasn't been posted yet.” In other words, very little seems to escape the notice of WHEDONesque’s collective attention.


One thing I personally like about the site is that it is well moderated with a strong sense of etiquette, which means that discussions are not allowed to devolve into incivility or pettiness. Moderators will warn commenters if their comments are inappropriate, and will block them if the warnings aren’t heeded. Posts with spoilers are carefully marked so readers can avoid them (or seek them out) if they wish; self-referential posts are not allowed (though people are allowed to include links to their own work in comments if it is relevant to the discussion).

In addition to wanting news about Joss and his projects, the appeal of the WHEDONesque community is something mentioned by multiple respondents as an appealing aspect of the site. As one person noted, “folks tend to be (for the most part) bright, sensitive & articulate. Members have [a] wide variety of points of view, interests, and political perspectives, and [WHEDONesque] has neither the (off-putting to me) conservative/libertarian political bent of some of the Firely/Serenity online groups, nor the relentlessly snarky/superior attitudes of some other Whedon-related fandoms.” Discussions do often relate to politics or other sensitive subjects (which is inevitable when you have fictional works that touch on topics like human trafficking, the role of government versus individual rights, and gender and sexuality; not to mention character relationships that can get controversial among emotionally-invested viewers). But thanks to the “culture” of etiquette (and occasional enforcement by the site admins) even the most vigorous comment threads maintain a basically civil tone.

In addition to communication within the site, several survey respondents mentioned engage in other ways, including meeting in person at conventions or parties and communicating on other websites, including other fan sites and Twitter.

And on top of everything else, Joss himself occasionally posts to the site! This was mentioned by several people as being an important reason why they like WHEDONesque - while it is user-generated, sometimes the users include the actual topics of conversation themselves! Joss has no "official" website, so his posts to WHEDONesque add to its sense of "legitimacy," status, coolness, or what-have-you.


The vast majority of posters have equal “status” on the site, except for natural deference to members who are known for their consistency, inside information, or expertise. But there are two groups of posters who are considered different, which is signaled by those individuals’ names appearing in different colors. The names of admins (moderators) appear in orange, and the names of Joss and other people directly involved in his work (writers, actors, etc.) appear in purple. This is convenient on a practical level when a reader is scanning a 300-comment thread to find the Joss post reportedly buried there.


Having Joss’s name appear in purple has also led to some WHEDONesque-specific language, such as referring to Joss as “his purpleness” and his posts as “purple prose.” Other idiosyncratic language has emerged over time. For example, acronyms are widely used to refer to common titles. Also, rather than talk about “panicking” whenever even potentially negative news is posted, people have started to joke about “picnicking” in the comment threads. And what is a running joke but a form of ritual shared by a group of people? This “picnicking” ritual arose especially in regards to the TV show Dollhouse and some members propensity to see cancellation around every corner. A related Dollhouse ritual involves weekly analysis (dissection) of the show’s ratings, both immediately after the episode airs and then when DVR numbers are released a few days later. Other ritual postings include birthday announcements for Joss et al., monthly Q&A links for certain actors, and convention transcripts.

In summary, is a vibrant, diverse community of people who contribute to each others’ enjoyment of creative work. I have enjoyed being a part of it, and look forward to continuing my participation in the future. Many thanks to those who answered my survey questions!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Voicethread: Portrayal of Women Scientists

Our assignment this week was to put together a Voicethread about media representations of some group. The idea is that we would find photos from the Creative Commons - sort of "found photographs" that we could use to illustrate commentary about media representation. I decided to look at images of women scientists... but I unfortunately didn't find much interesting among the creative commons images :( So I went ahead and found images mostly from TV shows and movies (credited where I could find a source, but since this is a work of criticism/commentary I figure it's fair use regardless).

We were also assigned to come up with a classroom assignment, so here's mine:

Choose one group or concept with which you identify (e.g. male, student, Buddhist, cheerleader, waiter, etc. etc.). Find an assortment of visual representations of this group from a variety of sources, including fictional and non-fictional portrayals. Develop two different Voicethread presentations using the images you find, with two different arguments about what the representations show. For example, you could create one presentation arguing that mothers are generally portrayed as happy, unflappable "super-moms"; and a second presentation arguing that mothers are portrayed as harried, flustered, overwhelmed professionals. The purpose of this assignment is to increase your awareness of the messages conveyed by media representations, and also to alert you to how selective or subjective analysis can be used to manipulate findings.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Video Clip Analysis: The Mentalist

Our assignment for this week was to take two different analytical approaches to a video clip of our choice. The array of analytical approaches included Marxist, feminist, psychological, deconstructionst, racial, rhetorical, postcolonial, etc. The possibilities being almost endless for this assignment, I settled on analyzing something I saw quite recently: a scene from last week's episode of The Mentalist. The clip is here (sorry if there's a commercial at the beginning).

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, the blonde man is the title character, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), a civilian consultant who works with the fictional California Bureau of Investigation. The woman in this clip is Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), the CBI team leader; the other guy's role is pretty self-explanatory.

Let's start with a race-oriented analysis. The main characters in this scene, as in most TV shows, are white; their race is pretty much never commented on. (One of the other series-regular characters is Korean, a fact that has been portrayed as relevant to his life a few times over the course of the show.) The third character initially speaks in Spanish-accented English, but then switches to unaccented English partway through the scene. (In this case I think language serves as the only clear racial marker for the character, since his physical appearance seems racially ambiguous.) The character uses a non-native accent to reinforce his low-status facade; once it is clear that he has power relative to the other characters, he drops the accent. This is actually a somewhat layered situation, in that it is a choice of the character, the Fixer, to play on stereotypes in his portrayal of a harmless, blend-into-the-background janitor. However, this being fiction, the choice of the character is ultimately the choice of the creators; I don't know whether the language change was written into the script or was a contribution of the actor, but nevertheless it was a deliberate choice. By switching to the same speech register as the main characters, the Fixer demonstrated that he believed his accented speech had caused them to underestimate him. If non-native-accented speech did not serve to reduce perceived threat, the character would not have bothered to assume it as part of his disguise.

A slightly less convoluted interpretation is that the language shift simply served as an additional signal to the audience that the Fixer was totally different than he appeared. He was not simply a janitor who had been paid to snoop at the office, for example. In other words, it could have been used as a practical short-hand in a busy scene to make sure that the audience could understand what was going on. But even so, the underlying implications about status, power, and language remain pretty much the same.

For my second analytical approach I'll take a feminist perspective. I was actually pleasantly surprised by a couple things in this scene. In the bad old days of TV, it would've always been the woman who was physically menaced by the bad guy, while the male hero watched anxiously and/or attempted to save her. In this scene, however, it is the male lead who is placed in direct physical jeopardy. The Fixer threatens Jane in order to disarm Lisbon, whose gun made her a specific physical threat. The interactions in the scene are primarily defined by the characters' roles: i.e. cop, civilian, and criminal, rather than by the characters' genders. This continues throughout the rest of the clip, as Jane hesitates to chase the dangerous guy after he leaves, and Lisbon is the one to run up to the car after the crash. From a feminist perspective this seems very refreshing: it's not that the characters' genders are ignored or suppressed, just that they are somewhat irrelevant compared to the other dynamics at play in this particular scenario.

There are other aspects to consider with regard to gender portrayals, such as Lisbon's hairstyle and choice of clothing, but relative to other TV shows The Mentalist seems pretty egalitarian. For example, Lisbon generally wears practical shoes rather than heels, and Jane's coiffure is at least as impressive as that of the female regulars.

The second part of this assignment is to describe how students could apply our two analytical approaches to other related films, tv shows, etc. Here's my idea:

Each student should watch at least ten different previews for procedural/legal/mystery TV shows. These could all be for one show, or for multiple different shows; they could be from past and/or current shows. Students should make note of the race, gender, and apparent role (e.g. police officer, attorney, suspect, victim) of each character that appears in the previews. Are there any patterns within or across shows? If the shows are from different time periods, are there any noticable changes across time? Is it possible to draw any conclusions about the portrayal of race or gender in these shows from such short samples? Students should examine features such as clothing, use of language, lighting, music, body language, etc. to discuss how characters are portrayed. This is also an opportunity to discuss how TV previews are created: what choices are involved in putting together a preview, and what do these choices say about the creator, the audience, etc.? This assignment could be done individually or in groups, either during class or as a take-home assignment.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Adventures of Bagpipe Llama

Our in-class assignment today was to learn how to use iMovie. We were asked to bring in a few photos and little movie clips, with no particular content, just to play around with in iMovie. I had a nicely eclectic collection, including clips of my brother's dogs, my mom's bagpipe band, last night's pasta on the boil, etc.

Unfortunately, the classroom Mac I borrowed for the evening did not like the .mov files I had, and refused to import them into iMovie! My very nice neighbor was able to convert one of the clips to a different kind of .mov using his copy of Quicktime Pro, which made iMovie happy. I didn't want to impose on the neighbor by asking him to convert all of my clips, so I just stuck with the one.

The upshot is, I had about half an hour to create a little movie using one short video clip and a couple random photos that I'd thrown on the jump drive last night. I had been thinking that I would work on the movie much more at home, incorporating additional clips, dialogue/title cards, etc. etc., but our instructor said not to bother - we should just post whatever we'd finished in class.

So, knowing the context, I hope you enjoy the movie - I'm sure whatever narration or dialogue you imagine while watching will be at least as amusing as anything I would've come up with.

This one's dedicated to you, Sarah :)