Media and Popular Culture, Spring 2011
Take-Home Final Exam
Answer any 5 of the 10 questions below. Each answer should be at least one complete page long. The exam should be typed, double-spaced, in Times New Roman 12-point. The exam is due by 5 PM on Wednesday, May 2. You can either drop it off in my office mailbox (738 One Park Place South) or email it to me at email@example.com.
Your response should demonstrate that you have carefully studied and understood class readings, lectures and discussion, and can apply ideas from the course to individual texts. When questions refer to specific authors, you should clearly address the ideas of those authors, demonstrating your understanding of their arguments.
1. Pick any contemporary media text. (You can choose a film, TV show, book, graphic novel, advertisement, game, website, or any other source.) Drawing on Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, discuss the text as a “racial project.”
2. Pick any contemporary media text. (You can use the same text for multiple questions, or different texts if you prefer.) Drawing on Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, discuss the representation of gender in the text. How does the text reflect the “postfeminist” era?
3. Pick any contemporary media text. Drawing on Alexander Doty’s “There’s Something Queer Here,” discuss queer readings of the text.
4. Pick any comic book or animated text. Drawing on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, discuss the “pictorial vocabulary” of the artwork. Draw a triangle on the page and show where the art fits in relation the vertices of “reality,” “language,” and “the picture plane,” then explain why.
5. Pick any game. Drawing on Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Video Games, discuss what makes the game fun.
6. Pick any game. Drawing on McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H3ORY, discuss the “gamespace” of the game and how it relates to the world outside the game.
7. Compare your own experience and that of your friends to the generational sensibility described in Emily Nussbaum’s “Say Everything.”
8. Pick any contemporary media text. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, discuss how the text helps create a sense of national identity.
9. Pick any contemporary media text. Make a “culture-jammed” version of the text.
10. Visit a park, garden, or other nature space. Turn off all electronic devices. Sit quietly for at least 10 minutes observing the landscape and animals. Describe the experience, and compare it to your usual pace of life.
My movie rankings have used the DTMTBD system ever since I first unveiled it in the fanzine Nadine in 1992. I keep a complete database of every movie I’ve seen using Movie Collector by collectorz.com, sorted by year and DTMTBD rating. It’s proven an invaluable resource for syllabus ideas, zeitgeist reminders, and producing a feeling of accomplishment out of sitting through anything. (I had an online version of my database on the old website; look for it soon on the new TedFriedman.com.)
My premise is that the most typical, amiably professional Hollywood genre piece is a good milestone against which to compare other films’ successes and failures. Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is my line in the sand: anything better is a treat, anything worse is time wasted. I wrote back in 1992 that going to see Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead itself still counted as a good time, since going to a movie theater and eating popcorn is an inherently fun activity. 18 years later, either I’ve raised my standards or the theaters have gotten worse. Today I’d certainly regret hauling to a theater just to see Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, just as Date Night was a disappointment. (We actually drove out to see it on a Thursday night when NBC was all reruns. It was cute, but a definite cut below a lineup of Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock. Not even close, actually.)
I admit I haven’t seen most of the big Oscar contenders, including The Fighter (no interest), The King’s Speech (mild interest), or The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin grew up in Scarsdale and I believe went to SHS even did Scarsdale Summer Music Theater, while Zuckerberg’s dad is an orthodontist in Westchester. It feels too much like a high school reunion). But here’s what I thought of what I saw.
Popular culture is often described as “escapist” entertainment. But this dismissal evades some very serious questions. What are we escaping? Where are we escaping to? Does everybody go to the same place? How might the trip affect us, once we get back? This class looks at the social consequences and political implications of mass mediated entertainment. Its goal is to develop the theoretical tools and critical perspective to interrogate the TV shows, commercials, films, books, songs, videos, and web sites that saturate our lives.
The coursepack is sold by Bestway Copy Center, 18 Decatur Street SE (on the first floor of One Park Place South). Some readings are available online through the links provided. Links to additional optional readings will be distributed via the Twitter hashtag #popcult.
2/2 Regulation and Production
Thomas Schatz, “New Hollywood, New Millennium,” from Film Theory and Contemporary New Media, ed. Warren Buckland (Routledge, 2009). (CP)
Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail”: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html
Ellen Seiter, “Semiotics, Structuralism and Television,” from Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, ed. Robert Allen (UNC Press, 1992). (CP)
Roland Barthes, “Myth Today”: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~marton/myth.html
2/14 Reading the Romance: Cultural Capital
Janice Radway, excerpts from Reading the Romance (UNC Press, 1984). (CP)
John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” from The Adoring Audience. (CP)
Go to a bookstore. Browse for, buy, and read a romance novel.
2/16 Ideology, Hegemony and Resistance
James Kavanaugh, “Ideology,” from Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (U Chicago Press, 1995).
John Fiske, “British Cultural Studies and Television,” from Channels of Discourse, Reassembled.
Stuart Hall, “Encoding, Decoding,” from CCCS Stencilled Paper 7:
2/23 Color Adjustment: Racial Formation
Omi and Winant, excerpt from Racial Formation in the United States (Routledge 1994). (CP)
2/28 Spring Break – No Class
3/2 Spring Break – No Class
Ariel Levy, “Raunch Culture” and “The Future that Never Happened,” from Female Chauvinist Pigs (Free Press, 2006). (CP)
Alexander Doty, “There’s Something Queer Here,” from Making Things Perfectly Queer (U Minnesota Press, 1993).
3/9 Mad Men
Unit IV: New Media Futures
3/14 Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud, excerpt from Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993).
Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, Freakangels: http://www.freakangels.com/?p=23
(read through at least Volume 1)
The class assignments add up to total of 100 possible points. Your final grade for the class is determined by adding up your grades for each assignment, adjusting for attendance, then applying the final number to the following scale:
A 100-93 B+ 89-88 C+ 79-78 D 70-65
A- 92-90 B 87-83 C 77-73 F 64-0
B- 82-80 C- 72-70
Take-Home Midterm – 45 points
The take-home midterm will require you to relate concepts from the readings and lectures to the films screened for the first three class units. Due in class March 17.
Take-Home Final – 45 points
The take-home final will be structured just like the midterm, covering units 4-7. Due May 5.
Presentation – 10 points
You will sign up with two partners to research the creators, economics, and audience contexts of a television program or video game. You will then choose a sample episode or gameplay experience, present your research to the class, screen the episode/game for the class, then participate in the class discussion. More information will follow in a separate handout.
As Woody Allen put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.” It’s less than that in this formula, but the bottom line is that you can’t contribute to the class if you’re not there. You’re allowed one unexcused absence for the semester. After that, each unexcused absence subtracts one point from your grade total. Excused absences include medical and family emergencies. You will be expected to schedule any employment responsibilities around this class, or accept the consequences of missed classes for your grade. If you do need to miss a class, please contact me ahead of time, and make arrangements to catch up on missed material.
Re-Writes and Makeup Tests
Opportunities for revision and improvement will be available for the midterm and presentations. In addition, I will look at optional drafts of the final submitted on or before the deadline listed above.
Late and Unsubmitted Papers
Late papers will be marked off by ½ point for every day overdue unless an extension is agreed upon before the due date. No work can be accepted after the deadline for the take-home final. Any unsubmitted papers will receive a 0. Likewise, any unanswered exam questions will receive a 0. So, if you answer only 2 out of 3 required exam questions, you will get a 0 on the third question.
Students withdrawing on or before the midsemester point will receive a W provided they are passing the course. Students who withdraw after the midsemester point will not be eligible for a W except in cases of hardship. If you withdraw after the midsemester point, you will be assigned a WF, except in those cases in which (1) hardship status is determined by the office of the dean of students because of emergency, employment, or health reasons, and (2) you are passing the course.
Incompletes may be given only in special hardship cases. Incompletes will not be used merely for extending the time for completion of course requirements.
Changes to the Syllabus
This syllabus provides a general plan for the course. Deviations may be necessary.
1. Bill Simmons, The BS Report
2. Marc Maron, What the Fuck
3. Jeffrey Kripal, Impossible Talk
4. Masterworks Broadway Podcast Theatre
5. Terri Gross, Fresh Air
6. John Hodgman, Judge John Hodgman
7. Robert X. Cringely, I, Cringely
8. Dan Savage, Savage Love Podcast
9. Doug Benson, Doug Loves Movies
10. Doug Henwood, Behind the News
11. Alex Tsakiris, Skeptiko
12. Jon Suintres, Word Balloon
13. Tami Simon, Sounds True: Insights from the Edge
14. The Guardian, World Cup Daily & Football Weekly
15. Adam Carolla, The Adam Carolla Show
This was a mixed decade for comics. On the one hand, superhero comics rebounded from the “grim and gritty” cliches of the 1990s to newfound creative relevance, thanks largely to the savvy of Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, who recruited writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Robert Kirkman and Warren Ellis from the indie world and let them run wild on the Marvel universe. Bendis proved to have the best ear for dialogue in the history of the word balloon, and Quesada oversaw a series of crossover events that actually managed to deepen rather than exploit the mythos.
At the same time, the indie bubble of the 1990s popped, as the entire American comics infrastructure shrank in response to overspeculation, insularity, and new competition from manga and the internet. A new generation of personal artists never emerged to follow pioneers like Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, the Hernandez Brothers, Chester Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt. Or if they did, they never made it to my comics shop – which these days is a website, since the three stores closest to me all closed down by the middle of the decade.
By the end of the decade, it appears the industry is finally responding to these transformations. Several of my favorite comics, including Freakangels, Bayou, and PVP, are available for free online (although I still prefer to read them in ink). The early attempt to turn Watchmen into a “motion comic” in advance of the movie was a disaster, but the adaptation of Spiderwoman is much more promising. And the widespread recognition for works like Fun House, Epileptic, and Persepolis suggests the space for sequential art outside the comics ghetto may be growing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the margins. As science fiction began to gain critical respectability in the 1960s and 70s, some SF authors railed, “keep science fiction in the gutter where it belongs!” Similarly, there’s a legitimate danger that the recent superhero boom – capped by Disney’s purchase of Marvel – will dull the critical edge that Quesada, Bendis, and their cohort worked so hard to sharpen. But with great responsibility comes great power. Hopefully, the new creative opportunities opening up for comics artists will give them the room to explore even fresher visions. The recent explosion of work by the astonishing Warren Ellis for indie publisher Avatar demonstrates what can happen when a writer bursting with ideas wins full creative freedom, and finds the collaborators who can bring his visions to life.
Here’s my list of the top 50 comics of the decade. I’ve lumped together spinoffs like New Avengers, Mighty Avengers, and Dark Avengers, as long as they’re from the same writer. I’ve listed the primary artsists who worked with each writer, using front cover credits to decide whether to include inkers and colorists, and skipping fill-in artists. Foreign comics were considered if they were translated into English in this decade.
1 – Epileptic, David B.
2 – The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
3 – Y the Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
4 – Planetary, Warren Ellis and John Cassady
5 – Buddha, Osamu Tezuka
6 – Stray Bullets, David Lapham
7 – Alias/The Pulse, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos
8 – Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
9 – Box Office Poison, Alex Robinson
10 – Wolverine: Old Man Logan, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven
11 – Freakangels, Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield
12 – Black Hole, Charles Burns
13 – Desolation Jones, Warren Ellis and JH Williams
14 – Promethea, Alan Moore and JH Williams
15 – Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
16 – The Book of Genesis Illustrated, R. Crumb
17 – Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev
18 – Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel
19 – DC: The New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke
20 – Breakfast After Noon, Andi Watson
21 – Top 10, Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon
22 – Powers, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
23 – New/Mighty/Dark Avengers, Brian Michael Bendis and various artists
24 – Fables, Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha
25 – Fell, Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith
26 – Bayou, Jeremy Love and Patrick Morgan
27 – Hate/Hate Annual, Peter Bagge
28 – Pride of Baghdad, Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
29 – Kick-Ass, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.
30 – 50 Days of Night, Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
31 – DMZ, Brian Wood and Ricardo Burchielli
32 – Northlanders, Brian Wood and various artists
33 – Parker: The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke and Richard Stark
34 – La Perdida, Jessica Abel
35 – Eightball, Daniel Clowes
36 – Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma
37 – Doktor Sleepless, Warren Ellis and Ivan Rodriguez
38 – Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud
39 – Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Guy Delisle
40 – Conan, Kurt Busiek, Cary Nord and Robert E. Howard
41 – Marvel Zombies, Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips
42 – Astonishing X-Men, Joss Wheedon and John Cassady
43 – PvP, Scott Kurz
44 – Local, Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
45 – Mouse Guard, David Petersen
46 – Courtney Crumrin, Ted Naifeh
47 – 100 Bullets, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
48 – Bonndocks, Aaron McGruder
49 – Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, Brian Michael Bendis and various artists
50 – Dork Tower, John Kovalic