film

A semester ends, and here’s what I learned…

…from JOMC 240, that is.

The question:  What’s the most important thing you learned about media this semester?

The answer: Disruption.

In the world of mass media, I learned that disruption is always going to happen, and it’s actually exciting. Unsurprisingly (given my  general worldview), I embrace the idea of disruption in communication as a downward power shift.

It’s true that a very small number of companies control the bulk of media companies, but the actual voices that are being heard are expanding, and that is all thanks to a more recently crowdsourced media landscape.

Newspapers were disrupted by radio, which was disrupted by TV, which was disrupted by Internet streaming. Books were disrupted by radio, which was disrupted by film, which has been disrupted by Netflix and the Internet. The lists go on, and we’re nowhere near the end of the lists of media disruptions.

But that’s OK. We don’t know what is coming next, which leaves us with a remarkable amount of power over where communication goes and who gets a say in it.

The most exciting part of all of this? We have the ability to be the next disruptors.

A Snapshot of the Women’s Media Center Annual Report

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The comprehensive annual report from the Women’s Media Center revealed what I already expected to be true: media’s representation of women is seriously lacking, and in many cases, actually worsening. Here’s a handful of stats:

  • “The percentage of episodes directed by minority females slid from 4 percent to 2 percent. (That was the most glaring year-to-year change, driven largely by the cancellation of a single show, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.)” This is just dismal.
  • “Fifty-two shows for which minorities made up 10 percent or less of the casts got the lowest Nielsen rating, 0.39 points.” Execs: people will actually watch your shows in greater numbers if they contain diverse casts. In addition to representational issues, shows are simply more likely to be of good quality if they are not grossly whitewashed. I’m tired and bored of watching this many white people on TV and in films, and I am not alone in this.
  • “Black women respondents said “Young Phenoms,” “Girls Next Door,” “Modern Matriarchs,” and “Individualists” were the black women they knew most in real life.” How about more representations of these kinds of women, rather than more of the “Angry Black Woman” trope?
  • “89 percent of tech start-ups are launched by all-male teams.” Again, dismal.
  • “The number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science dropped 64 percentage points from 2000 to 2011.” Loss of interest in growing fields is a real problem. As the daughter of two computer and telecommunication engineers, I grew up listening to my mom tell me about her college engineering courses, where she was one of only a few women in her entire department. But just when I get discouraged by the reality that this disparity in the tech world has barely changed, I think about Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code. Check ’em out, and tell every young woman you know the truth: coding is power.
  • “By 2020, the United States is projected to have 1.4 million computer-based job openings.” See my previous point.
  • “Leadership ranks in television news were 21.6 percent female. Leadership ranks in newspapers were 19.2 percent female. Leadership ranks in radio news were 7.5 percent female.” I’m wishing I were shocked. Glass ceilings still exist.

That’s just the result of a perusal, and I feel steeped by those percentages.

And one more thing to keep in mind: poor representation is a systematic problem that will require conscious action to be improved. These disparities will not simply even out on their own. So here’s to the individuals who will use whatever power and platforms they have to make next year’s report a lot more hopeful.

The Truman Show: the most compelling PG-rated Netflix option

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It had been years since I’d watched The Truman Show, but it was recently added to the Netflix instant catalog…so you now know how I spent my Friday afternoon.

There’s a not-so curious phenomenon that I’ve noticed while re-watching films or shows that I loved when I was younger: the take-aways from the work in questions hit me in a totally new way. Why this occurs isn’t particularly dumbfounding—of course time and development change a person’s perspective—but the first time I remember it happening was when I re-watched The Lion King, and it shocked me.

I was around 16 and probably babysitting, and I realized that “hakuna matata” (i.e. no worries for the rest of your days) is not a mindset Disney was advocating for! Timon and Pumbaa were enjoying themselves and their carefree lives, but when Simba joined them, he was shirking his duties as king. The Hakuna Matata Lifestyle was actually meaningless for Simba and only allowed him to further avoid responsibility for the fate of his pride. But as a kid, I thought “no worries” sounded like the thing to have.

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This happened again while I watched The Truman Show, a 1998 film about a man whose entire life has been recorded and broadcasted live as a TV show. Truman is played by Jim Carrey (who I normally avoid watching, save this movie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). This opening scene is a nice introduction to the movie’s concept.

When I watched it years ago, I imagined what it would be like to be Truman, to be lied to by everyone I’d ever known, but to simultaneously be loved and watched by the world at large. The conspiracy theory of it all fascinated me.

Watching it now, I noted those aspects, but I also noted the potential problems that arise concerning the media’s ultimate goals and ethics (amongst other things). While I firmly believe that there is little risk of a corporation adopting a baby, building a super-superdome that holds a small country built specifically for that human, and broadcasting its life internationally, I still wonder where the media actually draws the line between documentation and exploitation.

Is it ever alright to document a person without his or her knowledge? As long as the subject is ignorant of the exploitation and the maker of the media is getting a paycheck, how far would media producers be willing to push ethical limits? When we grew tired of scripted TV, we turned to reality TV, so what happens if and when we get tired of that? Is entertainment media only truly comfortable with turning people into objects for our viewing pleasure?

The director of the TV show—the character with easily the most interesting lines—explains why Truman hasn’t figured out the hoax midway through the film, saying, “We accept the reality with which we are presented.” This statement alone and its consequences in the film raise a whole slew of other questions that I’m still thinking my way through.

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All of this is to say: I recommend revisiting old favorites with fresh eyes. I also recommend clicking on The Truman Show the next time it pops up on your Netflix queue.

(And then you can let me know if you also see the ending as an allegory for leaving religion/other belief systems, because I saw it that way this time, and it blew my mind a little…)

Woody Allen at the Golden Globes: navigating the ties between the art and the artist

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in "Annie Hall"

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”

(It’s two weeks after the fact, and I’m still thinking about this…)

I’m an avid viewer of award shows, so I have lots of opinions about the Golden Globes themselves. For instance: it’s unequivocally true that Tatiana Maslany should have won for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and Tina and Amy should just host every award show, always. Those facts aside, when the HFPA honored Woody Allen with the lifetime achievement award, I was a bit underwhelmed.

Admittedly, I have only seen one Woody Allen film: Manhattan. I thought it was beautifully shot and presented, I appreciated the cinematography, the style, the ambition, and Allen’s uncanny ability to create a world of his own imaginings, even in the most iconic city in America—but nothing about the film screamed “full of excellent roles for women.” I wasn’t horribly shocked by this at the time; however, on Golden Globes night, he was praised for writing just that.

But as it turns out, there was much more to be conflicted by while watching that segment:

Allen sexually assaulted his 7-year-old daughter, and I heard about this for the first time on the day after the Golden Globes. I was horrified that this was not a narrative I knew.

I’ve heard about his work for years, in art classes and film classes. So many people I know are rabid fans and have described their favorites of his films to me in detail. One friend has explained to me how much I’d love Annie Hall an absurd number of times, and at least 10 of his films have landed on various lists I keep of movies I want to watch at some point.

And because I’m interested in films, I want to see them, still. I want to know something of his body of work, and this is where I found myself conflicted.

How do you separate the artist and the art? Can you? Should you? Can and should you separate anyone’s personal world from the work they do?

I kept these questions in my head for days, working out my thoughts on the issue and slowly coming to conclusions. Then, I came across Tavi Gevinson’s take, which so eloquently states a decision I had also come to. She says:

“I’m not going to deny myself the relationship I have to Woody Allen’s work … If I do that, I should also deny myself the relationship I have to the work of other questionable (and occasionally downright disgusting) artists. If I do that, I should also deny myself the relationship I have to work that is itself questionable or downright disgusting. And if I do all of that, I would be limiting my world, when I am actually capable of both loving a movie and knowing that its creator is repulsive.”

Several artists and public figures I’ve admired have done terrible things I cannot and have no desire to ignore. Most have done less heinous things, which are easier to overlook. But there is a difference between a creation and the person who created it. To appreciate a resulting work and the cultural conversations it has started, I do not feel I have to appreciate (or monetarily endorse) its originator.

In short: I can watch Annie Hall and remain disgusted by the thought of Woody Allen. And I only wish the Golden Globes might have considered painting the guy in a less picturesque light during its international broadcast.