Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Female Super Hero is Missing: Musings on Sheena, Wonder Woman, Xena, and the Academic Enterprise

Before there was Wonder Woman and Xena there was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Sheena, a kind of female Tarzan, appeared in comic book form in the United Kingdom in 1937, four years before Wonder Woman. She migrated to television in 1955 running in syndication for 26 episodes and to film in 1984. Another syndicated version of the Queen of the Jungle hit the airwaves in 2000 running for two seasons ending in 2002.

Though Wonder Woman (ABC and CBS, 1975-1979) and Xena: Warrior Princess (Syndication 1995-2001) have garnered a lot of critical attention in the Television Studies world Sheena seems to have garnered little attention from academics and one cannot help but wonder why. Like Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena centred on a female hero. Like Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena fought for what she cared about and often, like Wonder Woman and Xena, got the best of men. Like Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena was smart. Unlike Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena had an ethnically diverse cast that included Sheena's teacher, the shaman Kali. This, along with the fact that Sheena focused on a female hero, would, one would think, garner Sheena a least a bit of critical attention of academics obsessed with comic gooks, gender, and representation. You'd think there would be more than a passing reference to Sheena in the academic literature and at least a few academic papers on subjects like Sheena and the male and female Gaze, Sheena feminist or anti-feminist, and Sheena and the Shamanic Tradition in Africa.

The fact that there is so little of an academic nature on Sheena raises questions about the enterprise of Television Studies itself and leaves one wondering whether it is much beyond fan boy and fan girl stuff. And this leads us back once again into the labyrinthian world of the social and cultural construction of the academic mind.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Poor Edith: Fear and Loathing on the Melodrama Trail...

I have said this before and I am going to say it again, I am fascinated by what I see as the irrational hatred and fear of film and television melodrama or soap operas out there in film and television critic land. The reasons for my fascination are simple. Just as there is great drama, great tragedy, great comedy, and great detective shows, just as there is good drama, good tragedy, good comedy, and good detective shows, just as there are middling dramas, middling tragedies, middling comedies, and middling detective shows, just as there are poor drama, poor tragedy, poor comedies, and poor detective shows, and just as there are awful dramas, awful tragedies, awful comedies, and awful detective shows, there are great, good, middling, poor, and awful melodramas.

So why the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas? Historians, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and psychologists want to know. Some commentators attribute the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas to paternalism. Melodramas are often, as a number of critics have pointed out over the years, often centred around and oriented toward women. Even if this is true, so what? Others attribute the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas to the perceived hyper or over the top "nature" of melodramas? But are the narrative forms and acting styles of melodramas any more or any less over the top than the narratives and acting choices of American situational comedies?

These questions about melodrama came to mind this labour day weekend thanks to a discussion on melodrama I had with a colleague and thanks to the fact that this labour day weekend in the US PBS reran the popular melodrama Downton Abbey. Though I have seen each and every episode of Downton Abbey at least once I did, I have to admit, peak in on the Downton marathon several times this long weekend. Binge watching Downton Abbey made clear several things I already knew or suspected about the show. The cinematography, sets, and acting of Downton are superb. It is the writing of Julian Fellowes that is the achilles heel of the show. Downton Abbey is, in my opinion and generally speaking, a middling or mediocre show at best. Series 1, 2, and 3 of the show are the best. Series 4, 5, and 6 are the weakest and repeat some of the things during the first three years of the show suggesting that Fellowes had run out of ideas for the show. Rematching the series also foregrounded the silliness of some of the arcs of the show as written by Fellowes. There's the I can't marry William arc, the can Matthew or can't Matthew walk and have little kiddies arc, the Lord and the parlour maid Jane arc, the I'm Patrick arc, the trails and travails of the possibly murderous Bates's arc, the I'm a socialist no I'm a capitalist thanks to wonderful America where social mobility is possible Branson arc. And then there are all those deus ex machines that seem to be Fellowes too much stock in trades.

None of these failures and the others that populate the show are the products of melodrama. They are down to the middling writing of Julian Fellowes. The reason the show is as watchable as it is, is down not only to the quality of the cinematography and the quality of the sets, but also to the quality of the ensemble acting in the series. Lady Sybill's death scene is superb. Thomas's destruction of the World War I rations he has been conned to buy is superb. Maggie Smith is always superb. Without here Downton Abbey wouldn't be nearly as watchable. If not for the quality of the acting and how devoted one becomes to the characters the actors play, Downton Abbey might almost be unwatchable. All this is rather sad since Fellowes seems to have put so much of his ideological self in the show.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Distant Memories of an Oak Cliff Childhood

As you get older—I am now 61 going on 62—you start to look back at your past life in a way you didn’t look at it when you lived it. Recently I have been thinking a lot about my childhood in Oak Cliff, Texas.

I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s in a part of Dallas called Oak Cliff. I lived in a new middle class home in a new middle class subdivision in southwest Oak Cliff at 3422 Guadalupe Avenue. To the west of Guadalupe lay Cockrell Hill Road. Between Guadalupe and Cockrell Hill was an old ranch or farm where we sometimes rode motorbikes, the Clyce mansion, a wooded area, and a bridge. Los Angeles Boulevard lay to the east while Blue Ridge Boulevard lay to the south. On the north side of the dirt road section of Blue Ridge Boulevard was a field, probably an old farm or ranch which stretched all the way from Blue Ridge to Kiest. On the Blue Ridge side of the field stood an old shack. Inside that shack I discovered a limerick that I remember to this day: “Tough titty said kitty but the mic was still good”. It took me years to fully understand what this limerick meant. To the south of Blue Ridge was a wooded area that I occasionally cut through to go to school and where I once saw a copperhead. To the north lay Kiest Boulevard and Five Mile Creek. Over the years my brothers, my sister, and me wondered the creek east and west, from Guadalupe Avenue to Cockrell Hill and from Guadalupe Avenue to Pecan Grove Park, our local park which was at the intersection of Kiest and Westmoreland Avenue, catching sight of the occasional crawfish and water moccasin as we hiked and drank from it.

There are a lot of things I remember about my Oak Cliff childhood, a childhood that in retrospect seems quite idyllic. I remember the lone pecan tree that stood by the last home on Guadalupe heading toward Kiest thanks to which I was able to pick up enough pecans to fill a large grocery bag. I remember swimming for free during the boys hour at the pool in Pecan Park every summer weekday. I remember seeing the asphalt bubble up as I walked what was then a ruralish two lane stretch of Kiest from Gaudalupe to Pecan Park. I recall thinking that the chasm beneath the bridge that ran across Five Mile Creek on Westmoreland near Pecan Park looked like the grand canyon of Oak Cliff to me. I remember scooting on my behind with my brothers and sister on a pipe that ran across Five Mile creek west of the Westmoreland bridge once or twice during my childhood life. I remember the huge hill that Boulder Drive ran up near the grand canyon of Oak Cliff.

I remember my school, TW Browne Junior High School. I recall that I wasn’t particularly a great or even good student for a variety of reasons. I liked the social sciences but I wasn’t particularly taken with or good at maths or the sciences. I remember once getting an A on an art assignment in which I mimicked Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup can. I recall that my metal shop teacher made us bring Lava soap to shop and that I made a wood and metal sign of our address in metal shop class for our house. I remember that Dad put in our front yard. It disappeared two or three days later. I recall the foul smell near in the biology room in Browne. I remember that it was warm enough in Dallas so that every day we went outside during our lunch period. I recall one day when a light snow fall led to the school sending us home early. I recall being on the proverbially worst team in everything during gym period. I remember playing paper football in the lunchroom with other early arriving students before school started in the morning. I recall the last day of school when paper rained down like thick snow and covered the halls of TW Browne Junior High School.

I remember listening to what was the most listened to radio station in Dallas at the time I lived there, KLIF. I loved the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes, the Airplane, and the Temptations all of whom you could hear on Dallas’s number 1 top 40 station at the time. I recall listening to a report one Sunday morning on KLIF about the supposed death of Paul McCartney. I remember hearing Credence Clearwater Revivals “Fortunate Son” for the first time on KLIF, a song about entitlement and nationalism that would have a huge impact on me intellectually. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that I graduated from KLIF to to a non-commercial FM station in Arlington that played albums by King Crimson and the Moody Blues, two other bands, along with the Beatles, which would have a huge impact on my intellectual development. I remember seeing Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds for the first time on TV. My Dad urged me to watch it. I loved it and have been a cinema nerd ever since.

I remember my best friend John Cerillo. I met John at Browne. John had an enormous impact on me. He and the Beatles introduced me to the joys of progressive and protest rock and horrors of the Vietnam War. I remember that after I started listening to the Beatles and met John I began to turn against the war in Vietnam. I recall that I typically wore the bohemian uniform of jeans and an old army jacket to school. I remember that I wanted to, like other anti-war activists and many rock stars, let my hair grow and grow but I couldn’t. My parents wouldn’t let me and the vice-principal of Browne checked every morning to make sure that male hear length met the anti-long hair standards of the Dallas Independent School District. I recall John and me going over to Kimball High next door to Browne and protesting at Kimball’s after school ROTC drills before John’s father picked us up in his car and took us home. I remember wearing a black armband in protest against the war in Vietnam to school. I ended up wearing it under my army jacket, however, because I knew if I wore it on the outside that I would be kicked out of school. I still got in trouble. I remember trying to organise a walk out at Browne with John in protest against the war. Our walkout was timed to take place after the every Friday football season pep rally. The powers that be, however, heard about it, stationed teachers at every door, and put chains around all the door handles of every door in the school except for those leading to the courtyard to keep us from walking out. A bunch of us walked around the hallways for a while before returning to class. I still felt like I had accomplished something.

There are a lot of other things I recall about my Oak Cliff childhood. I remember buying "The Ballad of John and Yoko" and "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" at a drug store near, if memory serves, the Piggly Wiggly on Cockrell Hill. I remember going to Gibson’s on Westmoreland a hop, skip, and a jump from the intersection with Kiest. I recall walking to a record store on Kiest near Kiest Park to get Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band in November or December of 1967. One of my brothers, if memory serves, went with me. I remember going to a record store on Jefferson Avenue, the high street in what was “downtown” Oak Cliff, where I bought bootleg Beatles and Moody Blues albums. I remember the old Texas Theatre on Jefferson where Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot President John F. Kennedy, was captured after he shot JFK. I remember how mammoth and magical Jefferson Avenue seemed to this kid at the time. I remember riding in my parent’s car along Kiest to Polk Street and into the heart of old Oak Cliff. I recall thinking how nice and prosperous everything looked. I remember taking the bus to the State Fair of Texas on junior high day at the fair.

I remember swimming in the big Westmoreland Park pool once or twice. I remember representing Pecan Park in the backstroke at the huge pool in Kiest Park. I finished third. I recall playing on the Tyler Street Methodist Church softball team in Kiest Park though I was neither Christian nor religious. I remember the big neighbourhood football game between the Clyce team, which included my brothers, and my team on the rocky field near the Clyce mansion. It ended in a 0-0 draw after one of my brothers broke his arm just as my father predicted. I recall being a rabid Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorns fan. I remember being terribly disappointed when the Cowboys lost to Green Bay for the second time in a row at the Ice Bowl. I recall going to the Cotton Bowl one year where I saw Texas beat Tennessee. I remember thinking that the #1 Longhorns were going to lose to the #2 Arkansas Razorbacks after the Razorbacks took a 14-0 lead so I took my weekly Saturday bath. When I got out of the tub I learned that the Longhorns had scored in the fourth quarter to narrow the gap. They would score again and successfully complete a 2-point conversion to win the game. Football for me and for Texas was our real religion.

Not all of my memories of my Oak Cliff childhood are idyllic. I got severe asthma when I was 12. I was running track and suddently couldn’t breath one spring afternoon. I recall that my Dad took me to the Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff for treatment. It seemed huge to this smallish teenager. At first the doctor put me on cortisone. It worked well allowing me to continue to run track—I generally finished first in distance running—until side affects began to appear. Eventually I was put on portable respiratory machines that were only of limited help. I remember being barely able to walk up to the second and third stories of Browne because my breathing was so strained.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that the Dallas and Oak Cliff in which I lived was segregated. There were no Blacks and, rumour has it, only three Hispanics, at Browne when I was a student there. Blacks were segregated into South Oak Cliff at the time.

As I get older I find myself thinking that I would really like to see my old Oak Cliff haunts again. I am sure, however, that my memories of the Oak Cliff of the sixties and seventies are quite different from the reality of Oak Cliff today. What hasn't changed is that Dallas remains a segregated city and no section of Dallas reflects that economic and ethnic segregation more than minority dominated Oak Cliff.

Friday, August 5, 2016

You've Been Clintoned

If you believe that Donald Trump is the 1764th avatar of Adolf Hitler since the 1930s then you've been Clintoned. At best or at worst, depending on your point of view, Trump is kind of a comic or Chaplinesque version of Italy's Benito Mussolini. If you believe that Vladimir Putin is the 7914th avatar of Josef Stalin since the 1950s then you've been Clintoned. Putin is more akin to the 19th and 20th century Tsars.

This discourse, this absurd genealogy which links people like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to evil comic book versions of "evil" historical characters of the past, has been created and disseminated by the heirs of those who manufactured a fear based World War I mass propaganda and the heirs of Madison Avenue, who were themselves the heirs of WWI propagandists, who manipulated mass consumer habits by manufacturing "needs, many" of them sexual. What I find so fascinating is that many American and Western academic social scientists and historians appear to believe and parrot this same propaganda or spinning coming from the propagandists of the political party cartel and their wooden dummies in the media as though it were fact. They should know better. That they don't just proves Barnum's point, a sucker is born every minute.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Just Who Is Hillary Clinton?

Some commentators have rightly pointed out that the policies of Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton should not be conflated and that Hillary should not be praised or blamed for the policies of her president husband predecessor. This valid point, however, raises the issue of just what are the policies of Hillary Clinton. To try to ascertain what Hillary Clinton's policies are I asked several people what Hillary stands for just after the Democrats met for their convention in Philadelphia but none of them could tell me what her policies are or what she stands for. To try to figure out what Hillary stands for and what she might do as president I decided to look at her more recent past.

If past is prologue we should be able to look at what Clinton has done since she was first lady in the Clinton administration in order to get an idea of what she might do if she is elected president of the United States in 2016. When she was first lady Clinton devised and promoted a "pragmatic" health care plan that may have given at least some of the millions of Americans without health care health care. Clinton's health care plan, as most commentators admit, would also have been a boon for big pharmaceutical companies and the big health care corporate industry. Hillary voted for the war in Iraq as senator from New York, a war that led to the devolution of Iraq into tribal and sectarian warfare and which saw al-Quaida and later ISIS fill the political vacuum the war left. Clinton later turned against the war but it must be remembered that while she was secretary of state Hillary strongly supported and apparently urged President Obama to prosecute a bombing campaign against the Qaddafi regime in Libya--Qaddafi was one of those many Hitleresque tyrants the US had selectively turned against--a war that led to the collapse of Libya into tribal and sectarian warfare and which saw the rise of ISIS in Libya. Clinton supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade trade agreement only to, as she did with the war in Iraq, turn against it. Those close to Clinton say that should she be elected president she will support TPP if a few "tweets" are made to this trade policy. While secretary of state Hillary supported the expansion of NATO, an arm of US imperial power, in Europe.

So if past is prologue Clinton is likely to be a pro-corporate and pro-"interventionist" president. If past is prologue Clinton is likely to continue her support for globalisation. If past is prologue Clinton is likely to continue America's imperialist great power aims. The problem with all this, of course, is that pro-corporate politics have led to increasing inequality and the increasing enrichment of the 1%, globalisation has led to the loss of good paying American working class jobs, while the expansion of NATO has led to increasing tensions with Russia, the great power which NATO keeps inching and inching towards. In reality Russia is not a threat to NATO or Europe. Islamic sectarianism is. If past is prologue Clinton is likely to be yet another one of those paternalistic, pro-big business, and interventionist Progressives we have seen since the Progressive Era arose in the early 20th century in the US, Bill Clinton amongst them. If past is prologue Clinton, just like most of her Progressive predecessors of the past, is not likely to do much of real as opposed to symbolic substance for non-Whites. If past is prologue Clinton is likely to fight for the same people and things her Progressive forebears did, namely, corporations and the American military-industrial complex. The more things change...

Friday, July 29, 2016

Bernie Whiffs

Bernie Sanders, who ran a campaign that was far more successful than any of the pundits prophesied, had the chance to make history at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week. When the rubber really hit the road, however, the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist who campaigned on the mother of all platforms, the inequality wrought by the economic and political dominance of the 1%, wimped out. Sanders had the chance to take his supporters out into the streets after Hillary Clinton won the rigged Democratic Primary systems, into alliance with the Green Party, a party that really does recognise the nefarious influence of the 1% on global politics, global economics, and global culture and will, if they can, do something about it. Instead Sanders whiffed, endorsing Hillary Clinton, an endorsement that is the equivalent of Bernie Sanders endorsing Enron or the investment banks that brought down the global economy in 2008. Needless to say, I will never trust Sanders or any of the other so-called socialist or left Democrat wimps like Elizabeth Warren again. With socialists like Sanders socialism, which has no future in the corporatist oriented Democratic Party, will only have a future in the US in spite of him not because of him.

At the beginning of this primary season there were some who suggested that Republican candidate Donald Trump was a plant in the Republican Party to throw the election to Hillary Clinton. I have begun to wonder whether Sanders was a plant in the Democratic Party to not only throw the election to Hillary Clinton who he treated with kid gloves, but also to bring young people into the Democratic Party in order to expand Clinton's Democratic base. Another possibility is that Bernie was threatened by the Democratic Party establishment in some way, shape, or form. The Clinton's and the Democrat's, after all, have proven themselves again and again to be machiavellians of the highest order second only in the US to Republicans.

Musings on Political Doublespeak

It is somewhat interesting if endlessly repetitive to listen to political talking heads during the presidential contest season in the US. Why? Because nothing shows so clearly how apologetic and polemical bullshit is spun into potential pied piper electoral gold than discourse during the American presidential election season.

A few examples:
Exhibit A: The apologists and polemicists of the corporate Democratic establishment and Hillary Clinton are furiously spinning bullshit that it is dangerous for a foreign power, in this case Russia, which has been demonised in the US at least since WWI, to get hold of the emails Clinton "carelessly" posted on a private server while she was secretary of state. As anyone with half an empirical brain should recognise, however, if the emails are dangerous in the hands of the Russians then Clinton was probably more than "careless" in the way she handled them. She has perhaps put top secret information in harms way. Most people, because their reality is a product of ideology rather than empirical fact will not recognise the inherent contradiction here nor the attempt to deflect the issue from Clinton's handling of the emails to the ideologically constructed one of what would happen if the evil Russkies got their hands on the emails.

Exhibit B: Former attorney general Eric Holder was on Charlie Rose (PBS) just before Clinton gave what most pundits are calling the biggest speech of her career. When pushed on Clinton's "careless" handling of her emails while secretary of state Holder claimed that Clinton made a mistake just like Lincoln did when he did away with habeas corpus during the Civil War. Putting aside the fact that Democrat Holder probably used Lincoln as an example because he was a Republican and putting aside the fact that Rose pulled his punches or had no punches to pull and did not challenge him on the validity of the analogy, a dispassionate observer might wonder whether the Republican/Democrat/Bush/Obama/Clinton expansion of the security state after 9/11 was and is a "mistake". If not then one must ask whether doing away with habeas corpus during the Civil War was not a mistake either.

I could, of course, go on analysing the doublespeak. We could explore how a rigged Democratic primary system became a stirring victory for Hillary Clinton. We could explore how a party that became fully corporatist in the wake of the Reagan victory continues to convince people that it cares about more than the 1% despite all empirical evidence to the contrary. We could explore how limited presidential power is given the checks and balances in American political culture and explore the question of why so many apologists and polemicists and the media continue to talk as though any president can and will put his or her policies into effect all across the US when he or she enters office. We could explore how symbolism--the breaking of the glass ceiling, for instance--seems to be more important to people than policy realities. I think, however, that I will stop here for the moment.