Miss Representation (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2011) tells a critical and true story about the relations among mainstream media and women’s political and personal power. It follows in the footsteps of decades worth of disconcerting research about women in the media that takes any of four predictable tacks that most grimly have not seemed to have changed much in the many years that feminists have been doing such research:

  • positive images: there aren’t any, or at least there aren’t enough
  • media and violence: images contribute to a culture of (sexual) violence against women, and women’s violence against themselves (body image, mental health)
  • industry watch: a tiny and disproportionate fraction of the humans in the mainstream media and politics are women
  • media and sexuality: images contribute to a damaging, violent and early sexualization of women and girls

The documentary also takes up the tried and true form and method of such studies:

  • it is a victim story: first and foremost, that of the film’s director and narrator, who begins the film’s journey from her own personal need to heal from the abuses of the dominant media she felt as actress, woman, girl, and mother and the related abuses suffered upon her by violent men who learn how to engage with women through dominant media; and, a great deal of the testimony in the film is about the devastatingly true disempowerment suffered by females in our patriarchal society (most clearly marked by girls’ tears)
  • it is a pornotopia: montages of various abuses against women (body image, shaming, violence, objectification, sexualization) by the media are repeatedly and lengthily used as punctuation so that the viewer feels victimized by the film (hence doubling her victimhood), and ends up seeing more images of media violence in its 90 minutes than she might in days, weeks or months (depending upon how judicious she might be in her screen investments). This tactic has been most successfully used to scare and disgust women for decades through the industry of Killing Us Softly anti-pornography films by Jean Kilbourne.

The film’s demoralizing and abject findings, methods, and forms are not misrepresentations in the least; and they are an effective shock tactic in the face of post feminism, feminist complacency, and ongoing patriarchal misogyny and violence. However, as has long been the response to such feminist studies and documentaries, there is much that is missing here, which might already be self-evident given my ham-footed list above. Miss Representation misses:

  • the Internet: where women make and watch media of, for and about themselves in equal numbers to men
  • alternative media: where women make and watch images that are both critical of patriarchy and empowering to women
  • alternative reading practices: whereby women turn toxic representations into inspiring media
  • media activism: where women use the data and images presented in Miss Representation to advocate for and practice media empowerment through expanding access to production, distribution, funding, storytelling, and necessary infrastructures
  • pro-sex feminism: that considers how diverse and open sexual representations of women are empowering and includes lesbianism, queerness and other non-normative practices as part of the possible sexuality spectrum for women
  • the media in context: that attempts to understand the production and consumption of images as a powerful piece of meaning making that operates within a much more complex ideological, historical, social, cultural, and economic reality
  • women and feminism in context: that understands the oppression of women as part of larger ideological, cultural, historical, and economic dynamics
  • women and activism: that presents social justice organizing as an alternative to oppression

This post is late in the news cycle of this media event because I tried, unsuccessfully, to publish it as an Op Ed. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, an unfortunate scandal played out at Pitzer College, where I am a Professor of Media Studies. At a student senate meeting, a small group of students requested the establishment of the Caucasian Culture Club. After lengthy questioning from the senators, engendering insensitive justifications, the request was denied.

Overt racism within a liberal institution, however, is not the scandal I am considering here. Rather, it was this following revelation: the white clubbers were performing their offenses while playing a role at the behest of three students of color. They wanted footage about racial silences at the college for a mockumentary they were making for a documentary class offered by my department.

Two weeks of difficult intellectual and ethical conversations ensued on the student list serve, in town hall meetings, and in our campus media: does the greater good of revealing what might otherwise be unspoken justify the pain of those who are misled along the way? Do various traditions like documentary, ethnography or even the news, have different standards regarding the treatment of human subjects? Do the time-honored institutions of artistic license and academic freedom protect students from other shared responsibilities?

Within our small campus community, we learned a great deal from talking together about these hard questions, ones not isolated to this incident. For our culture is littered with forms that mix truth and fiction, reality and entertainment, documentary and storytelling. Fake or entertainment news like “The Colbert Show” or “E Entertainment News,” fake documentaries and fact-based fictions like The Devil Inside or Cloverfield, and all of bogus “reality TV” are ubiquitous within and perhaps even definitive of our media moment. I believe that the larger culture could learn from the kinds of conversations we had about these issues on our campus.

In F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, I suggest that for talented artists, mocking forms known for their sobriety allows for harder conversations about truth, identity, or history. Meanwhile, in my more recent book Learning from YouTube, I express the less optimistic opinion that the faking of facts, authenticity, and expertise have become an accepted and even normative mode across our culture: for both every day YouTubers and much of the dominant media they emulate.

However, while most of these forms remain entertaining and pleasurable—instilling the satisfaction of insider-knowledge and the comedic reach of parody—we are also beginning to encounter instances where an ever-more uncertain or shifting blend between fact and fiction is causing pain.

For instance, the intense scrutiny by an international Internet audience on the factual ups and downs of the “Kony 2012” video may have contributed to the emotional breakdown of its director, Jason Russell, even as so many African vbloggers righteously attest to their own anguish caused by seeing the over-simplification of their continent’s political turmoil in the name of activating media-weary youth. In this case as well, its authors believed that a greater social good—produced by powerful story-telling forms and their associated feelings—gives them license to play somewhat loose with facts.

But in such confounding situations about the role and ethics of fact-based media, are we best served by only attending to the suffering of those who are misled, or by also asking larger questions about a culture of misleading and its new forms and old institutions? In the case of a retraction that ran on Friday, March 18 on “This American Life,” the players are as sacrosanct as National Public Radio, the New York Times, and Apple. Here, the discomfiting admixture of art and journalism occurred in “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an excerpt of the acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey that ran on This American Life.

In “Retraction,” Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, thoughtfully and with some felt embarrassment and even seeming grief revealed that “the most powerful and memorable moments of the story all seem to be fabricated.” And so this story, too, inevitably played out in relation to the private pain of Ira Glass, and his listeners: “we are going to talk to Mike Daisey about why he lied to all of you, and to me, off the air, during the fact-checking process.” However, by playing the pain card, this story of real wrongdoing is only understood at the personal, and not formal, institutional or political, levels.

Certainly, deceiving a national radio audience, and its producers, about worker abuse in China is itself a violation worthy of attention. But the nature of this violation becomes less clear when that national audience is listening to “This American Life,” itself one of the range of contemporary media practices that structure reality like fiction so as to move, entertain, and inform audiences. Daisey explains, “Everything I have done is bent towards that end, to make people care.” He admits that he lied in pursuit of telling what he thought to be a greater artistic truth, but he continually insists, to an ever more aggrieved Glass, that he did so as a theater artist and not a journalist, and his mistake was putting his work into a new context.

In response, however, Glass doesn’t take the more transparent road: acknowledging that this context-confusion is partly of his own making. For certainly, genre-bending shows like This American Life influence the shifting norms of storytelling. Their programs may be fact-checked like real journalists, but other norms of the profession are adapted to allow audiences to feel. But Glass avoids larger and more self-critical conversations about the pervasive use of fabrication, entertainment, and fiction within contemporary media, or his own show. Instead he chooses to at once verify the journalistic chops of This American Life and vilify the behavior of Daisey. He brings in reporters from “Planet Money” and The New York Times to humiliate Daisey into his own retraction, making Daisey the scapegoat for a cultural and institutional shift, or perhaps spread. Glass says to Daisey, “I have the normal world view. If you say something happened to me, then it did.”

Given these changing norms, however, in our contemporary media environment we need more than a normal view from our best journalists. We need critical frameworks to understand how Daisey, Glass, and mainstream institutions, like NPR, are honestly thinking about, using, and changing the uses of subjectivity, fiction, storytelling—and the real emotions they bring to bear—to allow audiences to know, and to care, in an ever more noisy, unfeeling, and uncertain world.

After my return from the Women, Social Justice, Documentary conference at Smith last weekend it took me awhile to name a certain disquiet that was raised for me there. Critically, my concerns had nothing to do with the strength of the presentations or the commitment of the community. It was reaffirmed for me there that:

  • women need documentaries that represent female experience from a feminist perspective
  • women hunger to make documentaries about their own worlds and experiences with their own voices.

However, Charlie Musser’s post about the same conference helped me to name some of my qualms through questioning how we know and frame this field of practice: are we women documentarians victims, adventurers, heroes, or champions? And if none of the above, what is or should be our trope or role of choice?

In other posts here, I have discussed how male documentarians (and fiction filmmakers in the documentary mode) often represent their documentary filmmaking about adventures as if they themselves were the hapless explorers, as if they were the rugged spelunker or fearless soldier; as if making a film was a war or a similarly endangering undertaking.  Keeping men’s fantasies about such rugged film roles in mind, it seems particularly noteworthy that many feminist documentarians, who are themselves making films about women’s oppression, voicelessness, and sometimes even physical or emotional danger and violence, cast themselves and particularly their filmmaking in this light: as if documentary making is a form of victimhood and suffering.

Thus, as often as we discussed documentary-making as achievement, I heard this feminist mode presented as an expression of oppression: in that the industry is patriarchal, funds are scarce, the nation is conservative, and infrastructure is capitalist. And of course, all that is true. Many of the battles of current feminist filmmakers are the same as those of the generations before us; and in some arenas, it seems we’ve seen as much backlash as we have growth. And certainly, many women have and still come to their filmmaking as a first stop after, or as a response to lived oppression. However, the disadvantages we might encounter as women in film are similar to but not the same as the human rights violations we might document, or even the voicelessness that may have brought us to the medium, and when we tell the story of our film practice only using the disempowered tropes and experiences that brought us there we end up failing to build upon, yet alone even acknowledge, the successes we have made: the many, many films, careers, awards, institutions, festivals, books, or classes in the field. For, the conference also confirmed that:

  • the history of earlier work, makers, and institutions are lost unless we reconstitute them
  • and harder to admit, we get something from this perpetual losing

Which is to say, that once we do have some (more) power than we did, when we do have foremothers (now across a few generations) and a robust, generative, diverse, and amazing body of film, now that we are feminist documentarians with a real history and future (evidenced at the conference through the fire power of the “new” generation: Sonali Gulati, Anayansi Prado, Michelle Medina), how might we enact our self-representation as a field through and with power?

What are the metaphors and practices for having and using an empowered feminist voice amongst many?

We don’t have look far! Here’s just a small sample of some of the inspiring models presented at the conference:

Cynthia Wade: links her power with responsibility.

Barbara Hammer: lusty adventurer with politics.

Su Friedrich: angry citizen challenging film and social norms

Rea Tajiri: loving daughter and respectful neighbor reaching out with poetry

Lourdes Portillo: mother-maker opening our hearts in service or memory, justice, and complexity

Home after back-to-back events where I wore one hat that just might be construed as two (an interesting slip [of the tongue] or tip [of the hat] that helps point out some of my unease with [my place in] the “Digital Humanities,” more on that to come).

The first was just that: Re:Humanities, a student-run undergraduate conference where a day of really impressive student presentations were book-ended by addresses by professors (myself and Katherine Harris) who spoke on our own pedagogic commitments to undergraduate research.

While there was much to note here, I’ll focus my observations on the related themes and contradictions of expertise, authority, authoring, and professional(ism)(ilization) in the realm of the digital (humanities). We enjoyed polished, first rate and diverse student presentations on topics ranging from the mapping of Soweto, to websites devoted to postcolonial feminism, Paris monuments, and global street-art, to pleas for better digital design or citation practices, to the digitizing and narrativizing of rare books. It was crystal clear that digital humanities opens up a place, multiple methods, and voice for qualified young participants who would otherwise not be so readily enabled to “publish” or circulate their work while also being so creative and impassioned about both the content and forms of their fledgling scholarly endeavors. Many of the students commented that doing work for an audience larger than one professor (and maybe their Mom), promotes a higher degree of commitment, professionalism, and passion then they feel when writing a paper, and this reminded me of something I already knew and already do…

The subject of the second conference: Women, Social Justice and Documentary, held at Smith College. Granted, this group of faculty, artists, and students had not really heard of the “digital humanities,” although they were also interested in thinking about the relationship between making things like documentaries, and their academic (arts and humanities) studies, and (feminist) passions and commitments. In this case, a decades-long struggle to find and circulate a voice by those deauthorized by gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of patriarchal oppression has created a substantive history of media objects, and an infrastructure that holds them (including distribution, festivals, scholarship, and pedagogy).

Why, we might ask, doesn’t Digital Humanities know about the work and struggles and conquests of (see Hammer Retrospective at the Tate above) the speakers at the second conference like Lourdes Portillo, Barbara Hammer, or Rea Tajiri who have been interpreting their impassioned, politicized ideas into forms of media and pedagogy for decades and this to an enthusiastic audience who has responded in kind with criticism and media production of our own?

I’d have to say the answer to this is why I don’t whole-heartedly embrace the digital humanities (while I’m happy to be embraced by them). The “field” does the amazing potentially radicalizing work of asking humanities professors (and students) to take account for their audiences, commitments, forms, and the uses of their work. But this was always there to take account of, merely being obscured by the transparent (and patriarchal) protocols of publishing and pedagogy that have suddenly been miraculously revealed because of the confounding force of the digital. However, this turn is occurring, for the most part, as if plenty of fields, and professors, and artists, and students, and humanists hadn’t been already been doing this for years (and therefore without turning to these necessarily radical traditions of political scholars, theoretical artists, and humanities activists).

I wrote just such a comment recently on Miriam Posner’s blog:

“Just got turned on to your blog. How thrilling! When I think (and write and d0) about doing as making as thinking I have often made videos as well as books, and more currently “ video-books” (which are really just big web-pages), so what I think has been lost in this “all Digital Humanities are communities of practice speak” (and particularly that this is a radicalizing moment for humanists) is not simply that people crafted before in that twee sense, but that academic writing is and always was doing, as it was craft, and that these added digital technologies have merely exposed that scholars were always making things, in ritualized ways, for particular users, with machines and for special(ized) uses (and now actually have to be accountable for this). I spoke with Victoria Szabo about this at length for a panel she co-ran recently, Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates at the 2012 MLA Convention. I love your four points at the end for the reason that it marks practice as political, and hope you’ll take a peek at some of the similar principles I’m working through at my Feminist Online Spaces site (a work in progress to be sure).”

John D’Agata, “author,” and Jim Fingal,” fact-checker’s” The Lifespan of a Fact is an initially intriguing, often funny, sometimes intellectually stimulating dialogue in the Socratic mode between a famous writer and Professor of Non-Fiction Writing (University of Iowa) and a lowly intern (who I think went to Harvard), that sadly often devolves into a testosterone-driven pissing match where the lofty and literate D’Agata is reduced to lines like: “tread very carefully asshole” and “Jim, seriously. Chill the fuck out.” And inevitably, “Wow, Jim your penis must be much bigger than mine.” This beautifully designed book that gracefully centers D’Agata’s startlingly lovely word-play about Las Vegas, suicide and “the misplacement of knowledge in pursuit of information” within a prose-frame built from the master and student’s supposedly linear conversation about each and every factual misstep of D’Agata’s essay, paints Fingal as a nattering, bean-counter of a Philistine who just might agitate any artist to such writerly and pedagogic lows. But given that the whole enterprise must be as carefully crafted for rhythm, feeling, flow, and sensibility as is the very essay under question, the intrepid feminist reader is forced to wonder why this (un?) self-aware press (or fall?) to boyish juvenalia by the field’s leading expert (“John: Yeah, I’m the immature one”),  such that a very funny but serious disquisition between two very smart and literate men about the nature of truth, facts, fiction, and contemporary writing becomes too often little more than a schoolyard brawl, at least as far as John’s language use goes. Which is perhaps really to wonder why embroilments in truthiness degenerate so quickly into the male (and stupid) mode.

As dignified lady YouTube scholar myself—a position as silly and serious as any of those introduced thus far—it is certainly my belief that truthiness is the normative mode of discourse online, by the erudite and not so, by both the talented and untutored.

I’ve argued many times, speaking as A Professor of Fake Documentary Truth, that once a mode of parody becomes normative and unself-aware, its radical possibilities for estrangement or commentary (or as D’Amato says so well, its ability “to break us open, to make us raw, to destabalize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes”) become defanged. Now, certainly factiness has not taken over “journalism” to quite the extent that it has “documentary”—which is to say that our socially-networked play with images seems to carry a slightly different license than what we might have available with words. So that The Lifespan of a Fact might still be a little bit different between books and films, essays and YouTube videos, and between blogs and gifs.

I found myself in a similar place when I read David Shield’s Reality Hunger, contemplating this difference in thinking, and timing, and writing and making when one works with words rather than images, and when one does so as a MAN or better yet as MEN. I really loved D’Agata’s essay, and admired Fingal’s steadfast cheekiness, but as the outside (or framing) story of their dialogue continued across the book’s 123 pages, and neither of these characters changed (or grew up) a whit, learned from each other, or enjoyed the fruits of knowledge sharing and dialectical method, I found myself skimming Fingal, annoyed by D’Agata, and ultimately truly uncertain why such smart guys could be so unaware of or unopen to feminist epistemological method.

I have some passing interest in horror (I teach a class on it), I am supposed to be an “expert” on fake documentaries, and my recent concern is user-made video. Thus, I feel some professional obligation to see (and then write about) films in the fake register that are either big-grossing or viral-wonders (i.e. Paranormal Activity, Catfish, I’m Still Here, Taking Woodstock, Exit Through the Gift Shop, or “the lesbian blogger Amina“), just to stay current. But I won’t go to see Devil Inside at a movie theater, and even when I catch it streaming on Netflix, I’ll still be sorry.

Why? Well first of all, it’s reputed to be a very bad movie, and given that even the movies that the general audience tends to like leave me underwhelmed, the crowd’s “F” rating is a strong enough detraction. But more importantly, for me, once you choose to go into self-reflexive mode, you need to be smart as well as crafty. This is the piece (intelligence, commentary, critique) that is missing in our culture’s current obsession with parody. It’s easy enough to fake style: every day users do this as a YouTube pre-req.

But to attach that falsification of an artistic norm to an idea, any idea, about that norm, that culture, the truth, history identity, movies, technology: now there’s the rub. However, since I believe that disbelief attached to mean-spirited mockery is itself the cultural norm and form then perhaps there’s another way to see this. Devil Inside is not a fake of anything, it is the thing itself, which means it is not self-reflexive, which means it can be dumb, but even so, I don’t need to see it, given how swamped I am anyway, by all the other dumb things that come my way given my now-generic interest in fakes (see my personal rub above).

HIV/AIDS Concordia

October 13, 2011

I’m in Montreal, getting ready to give a talk “Remembering AIDS Online: Networking, Viruses, Virality, and Arteries” as part of Concordia University’s eighteen year old, multi-disciplinary, year-long undergraduate course and lecture series: HIV/AIDS Project. As my host and Project founder, Tom Waugh explains, the Project links students to internships, the community, and AIDS scholars and activists. I’m honored to be a part of it.

I’ll be sharing my most recent work that is attempting to theorize the distinctions and through-lines of the online documentary by looking at how my earlier activist AIDS video project (and those of many of my peers), as well as our associated projects of memorialization, have moved from linear video (and other materials) to new digital platforms and uses. I make wacky use of power point to create a “mixed reality experience” (this term comes from Anne Balsamo’s Quilty project, which I discuss, a digital interface that she is building that allows the AIDS Quilt to be viewed on a hand-held, table-like device). Their attempt to repurpose and repopulate an old memorial material becomes the quilt metaphor (and practice) that I will point to and attempt to embody in a room with others during my talk tonight.

Over the course of 40 minutes, 37 power point slides, many quotes, and a handful of AIDS media old and new, I plan to focus upon four tangled lines of thinking about the changing shape of documentary and memorials, and how they contribute to or shape our shifting perceptions of AIDS. I will consider:

1) How AIDS documentaries change as they move from the linear form of video used by myself and others when the AIDS crisis began in the 1980s, to today’s online documentary forms.

2) How memory and memorials are dependent upon their forms and materials

3) How documentary and other memorials have and might continue to serve AIDS activism

4) How “public mixed reality experiences,” using documentary to build temporary memorials, in lived and live offline rooms, might also serve AIDS activism, and its memory.

The talk will next become a more traditional essay that I will publish in the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Documentary Cinema that I am co-editing with fellow AIDS video activist and now documentary scholar, Alisa Lebow.

Tomorrow, I also get to work closely with a small number of students and activists from Montreal and Concordia in a hands-on multi-media workshop where I will introduce them to,and ask them to participate in, my new work on Online Feminist Spaces. It looks to be an exciting couple of days in Canada.

Radical Links

October 12, 2011

Here are some links to radical media actions:

  • feminist academic blogging: “The Three Things I Learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women,” by Kate Clancy
  • dispatches from  Occupy Wall Street by the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
  • my sister, Antonia, interviewed by Real News TV Network on Afghanistan’s Energy Wars
  •  my own early-work on my new blog, FeministOnlineSpaces
  • my graduate student, Timothy Mallone’s video coverage of Occupy LA


NYU Culture and Media @ 20

September 11, 2011

I made a quick trip to NY to attend the celebration for NYU’s Culture and Media Program which I participated in somewhat unofficially in its earliest years by taking the courses Ethnographic Film I and II at the tail end of my Cinema Studies doctoral course work. This participation changed my work (and life, ultimately) in a variety of ways, most critically leading me to the unparalleled Faye Ginsburg, and allowing me to reframe my dissertation on AIDS activist video through ethnographic film’s focus on representation as a lived, cross-cultural, ethical experience rather than cinema studies’ then choke-hold on the text. Faye went on to be my mentor, and it is her endless dedication that was life-changing, literally connecting me to Pitzer, where I have spent the majority of my career. Hopefully, I believe, also life changing in that I have spend these years trying to be at least half as fine a feminist mentor as was bestowed to me, following Faye’s lead.

And clearly, in this I am not alone. There was a huge turn-out for the day-plus long event, and here we could see the profound legacy of feminist mentoring, teaching, and institution-building: a room full of warm, smart, innovative, feminist anthropologists and media studies scholars, racing around the globe, mixing production, theory, and on the ground commitment in their studies and teaching. It was a profoundly moving reminder that our efforts as teachers are the most meaningful in the creative and intellectual possibilities we can enable for the  lives and work of those that follow us. Thanks Faye.

Documentary and Space

September 2, 2011

According to Ryan Bowles and Rahul Mukherjee, in their introduction to “Documentary and Space,” Media Fields Journal, Issue 3: “New forms, modes, and genres of documentary have sparked their own debates and raised their own particular issues. And it is perhaps this moment of changing modes, technologies, and practices that draws our attention to the importance of considering documentary space. But ours is not a new consideration; rather, it is a reconsideration of why space has always been a hugely important issue not only for those in documentary studies but also for visual anthropologists, geographers, ethnographers and journalists, among others. Yes, when we look to online production and video sharing, interactive “documentary games” and “immersive nonfictions,” it seems apparent that “viewers” are indeed interacting with and experiencing documentaries in different ways.”

My contribution to this special issue is A Place in the Online Feminist Documentary Cyber-Closet, but it’s chock full of strong essays, including Jason Alley’s “Spaces of Reticence,” Laura Rascaroli’s  “Sonic Interstices: Essayistic Voiceover and Spectatorial Space in Robert Cambrinus’s Commentary (2009)” and Elizabeth Cowie’s Documentary Space, Place, and Landscape.

Take a look.


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