Monthly Archives: June 2010

Diversity in Media: How the Web Wins

Screenwriter John August recently blogged about the Bechdel test, a (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek way to determine a film’s level of feminism.  It consists of three questions you can ask about any film:

  1. Are there two or more female characters with names?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?

Obviously, the test itself isn’t the point.  It’s intended to start a conversation about our media, our culture and, ultimately, why certain POVs (namely, that of straight white males) are so dominant compared to everyone else’s.

Nonetheless, as this video illustrates, you’d be surprised how many hit films fail the test.

As one of August’s commenters noted, it’s not just films that fail the Bechdel test, but novels and plays as well:

The same oversight exists in our nation’s public and independent high school English classes. Last year the most taught books in America were: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Huckleberry Finn, Julius Caeser, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, and The Odyssey… All of these texts fail the Bechdel test, too. Except for The Odyssey. Go figure.

So, it seems male-focused media has dominated our culture for centuries, and film is just the latest example of a classical bias reasserting itself.

(Un)fair enough.

What’s interesting to me is that film might also be the hardest medium to equalize.

Dudes in Motion

In Robert McKee’s screenwriting guide Story, he explains the differences in our popular media formats:

  • Novels are tales of internal conflict, expressed through monologues
  • Plays are tales of interpersonal conflict, expressed through dialogue
  • Films are tales of external conflict, expressed through action

Again, as with the Bechdel test, there are exclusions, exceptions and overlaps.  But generally (and financially) speaking, McKee’s right: history’s most profitable films have been blockbusters built on spectacle.

Film is motion.  Film is action.  Films must be dynamic in order to justify paying $12 to sit in a dark room filled with strangers, all sharing the same communal experience of being driven to emotion by a series moving images.

Which is why I’m not so sure the Bechdel test, which hinges on two female characters talking, is an appropriate litmus test for film.

For a film to “work,” the action must solve the problem.  Thus, a better question might be whether a film’s female characters are able to solve their own problems without relying on the aid of the male characters.

(Of course, that still doesn’t excuse the Bechdelian failures of Shakespeare, but it’s worth mentioning that his plays were written in an era when all female roles would have been played by male actors anyway, so it’s something of a moot point.)

All of which also leads me to think, inevitably about the Internet.

Blog a Mile in My Shoes

If novels are the story of “s/he,” plays are the story of “them,” and film is the story of “it” (aka “the event”), then blogs, podcasts and videoblogs are the story of “I.”  And since the world is basically divided down the middle between males and females, that should mean that the web would be the most diverse pool of stories on the planet, right?

So why can I personally name so many more straight white male bloggers than I can any other social media demographic?

Simple: I’m a straight white male.  As such, I seek out the stories I can most easily identify with.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t also read blogs written by writers of different genders, ethnicities, ages and sexual orientations.  In fact, that’s why I believe the Internet can equalize the arguments created by the Bechdel test.

It’s Easier to Feel You When You’re Cheap

Films are expensive to make, which means they must appeal to the widest possible demographic in order to earn their money back.  And because they’re primarily made by white males, they’re primarily made for white males by default.  That’s the residual self-identification of the film industry, which was founded by white males and is only now evolving into a truly multicultural talent pool.

And yet, when’s the last time you watched a film about a culture other than your own, or a character you couldn’t immediately identify with?  (I know, I know: Slumdog Millionaire, the “Hey, we elected a black guy so we can stop talking about racism now” equivalent of the Academy Awards.)

Meanwhile, when’s the last time you read a blog (or a tweet) by someone who didn’t resemble you in a lineup?  Probably five minutes ago.

Now that it’s so easy for individuals to express themselves online, the inner thoughts of “others” are more accessible today than they’ve ever been before.  We don’t need bloated Hollywood productions, marketing armadas and bankable stars to convince us that someone else’s POV is worth our time and money to explore; we just need two minutes and YouTube.

Will this proximity to (and seeming acceptance of) “the other” online eventually lead us to be more tolerant of “other” POVs in more traditional media?  I think that’s inevitable, though it won’t happen completely until diversity is proven to be reliably profitable.

Until then, we’ll be stuck with more recreations of the same stories we’ve all seen for decades:

The ones that sell.

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The Popularity Paradox: Why Do We Hate Pop Culture?

I don’t know anybody who loves pop radio.

I know people who listen to it ironically, as though they’re not comfortable admitting they don’t entirely hate Lady Gaga.  And I know people who admit to liking just Lady Gaga, or just Usher, but still insist they “hate the radio.”

But why do we (claim to) hate pop music / pop media?

Why are we so eager to distance ourselves from “the norm?”

Let’s All Be Different Together (Because Being the Same Together Sucks)

We self-identify with people who dislike the same things (and in the same ways) as we do.

That means deriding the musical merit of Ke$ha is as much a prerequisite to being “taken seriously” by our peers as actually liking Spoon or My Morning Jacket; maybe even moreso, since individual opinions are more easily accepted by the fringe than popular appreciations are.  (In other words, you can spend the entire $1 draft night railing against MGMT as “sell-outs,” but you’re only allowed to play “Tik Tok” on the jukebox if you agree to sing and dance like a self-aware parody of someone who’s actually happy.)

Happiness also plays a huge part in this shell game.

As I’ve mentioned before, the ’80s were the last time pop culture was allowed to be happy without angering the intellectuals.  In the ’90s, grunge made joy obsolete.  In the ’00s, the left’s perception of the Bush administration was akin to a country being held hostage by its leaders; to enjoy life would be to give up and blindly accept all the shit Bush was shoveling.

Misery is serious business; only intellectual plebians with no understanding of the long term impact of their actions could possibly find anything to be happy about.

Especially “popular” music.

So we all hate it.  Together.

You Suck Just Like I Do! Let’s Be BFFs!

It doesn’t help that Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and most other modern multi-platinum musical phenomena benefit from:

  • criminally simplistic lyrics
  • monotonously propulsive rhythms, and
  • a studied amateurishness that teases the public into believing that we, too, are just one Auto-Tune squiggle away from becoming international superstars.

In the ’80s, Madonna and Janet Jackson were personae that women aspired to be like; in the ’10s, Ke$ha and Gaga are women you probably already are like — or, if you’re a guy, they’re women you think you actually stand a chance of sleeping with.  No one had those illusions about Madonna, but reality culture means our stars seem touchable, so supporting them is a lot like supporting our friends.

We don’t think of Gaga and Ke$ha as being part of the system; they make us feel like they rely on us to help them reinvent the system.

Gaga earned her audience on YouTube.  Ke$ha made her name on MySpace.  They didn’t need labels to convince us they were worth paying attention to; now their fans are patting themselves on the back because they told the labels who they wanted to support and the labels listened.  (Never mind that this just makes us complicit in the system, only from the inside-out.)

The Last Overnight Sensation I Felt Required a Tissue

50 years ago, pop music took weeks or months to sweep the nation, much less the globe.

50 years ago, a popular film might stay in first-run theaters for more than a year.

Today, all media is hyper-compressed into a mash-up driven culture where identifying, judging, assimilating and reinventing a piece of media happens in the blink of an eye.  Today, Lady Gaga has to perpetually shock us, because the impact of each shock wears off much more quickly than the last one did.

Perhaps those of us who maintain a love-hate relationship with pop culture feel this way because we doubt the long-term survivability of memes and media that sweep the globe overnight.  History will be history when we get there; for now, we’re just waiting for the next Black Eyed Peas album.

But something has to be pretty damn good — or at least pretty damn effective — to become popular… doesn’t it?

Maybe not.

Bludgeon Me Until I Care

On a recent weekday, I was subjected to just over 2 hours of pop radio in Baltimore.  (Disclosure: this was in a cafe where I was working remotely, so I had no control over their radio choices.)  In that timeframe, I heard:

4 x Lady Gaga songs (though never the same one twice)
3 x Ke$ha songs (one repeated)
2 x Usher “OMG”
2 x La Roux “Bulletproof”
2 x Jay-Z “Young Forever”
2 x Justin Timberlake “Carry Out”

… and so on.

Are these songs worth hearing once an hour?  Are they the best songs the record labels can provide us with right now?

Probably not.  But they are the ones the record labels have decided to promote.  And if they’re promoted enough, they become popular by sheer force of marketing will.

So perhaps what people hate isn’t the pop media, but the subconscious realization that the media conglomerates can afford to bludgeon us repeatedly with the same songs, movies and messages until we recognize them, which breeds, if not appreciation, then at least familiarity.  Safety.  Comfort.  Approval by association.

We don’t hate pop culture.  We hate being programmed.  And we hate ourselves for submitting to it, or for not having the knowledge or the means to avoid it.

Although…

… the more I hear it, I do have to admit that one Lady Gaga song is pretty good…

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5 Reasons NOT to Listen to Your Audience

If you write, speak or perform for a living, you need an audience.  Without one, you don’t get paid.  (Hell, online, you still don’t get paid even with one.  But I digress…)

Your audience is one way to validate your success as a communicator.

But your audience is also a trap.

If they love you, their adulation becomes addictive.  You learn what they like, what they respond to, and what makes them appreciate you more.  Naturally, you’re inclined to pursue those reactions because they make you feel good, and that means you’re less likely to experiment with anything outside your audience’s comfort zone.

Which Begs the Question…

What’s more important to you: how your work makes you feel, or how your audience makes you feel?

If you want to grow as a creator or performer, you may need to push your own boundaries.  You may need to say and do things your audience won’t like / understand / appreciate, so you can learn from your own experiences — whether your audience enjoys it or not.

Do you worry that your audience may not follow you down every rabbit hole you want to investigate?  Don’t be.  The fewer people  you have paying attention to you, the freer you are to innovate (and learn from your mistakes) without being judged.

And if your audience complains, derides or discounts your divergence from “the norm,” relax.  They’re only people, just like you.  In fact, there are plenty of…

Reasons NOT to Listen to Your Audience

… including:

  • Your audience doesn’t always know what you know.
  • Your audience doesn’t always know what THEY know, either.
  • Your audience has different goals than you do.
  • Sometimes your audience is your competition.
  • Your audience is afraid to look stupid, needy or uncool.

History is filled with the tales of innovators who were initially (or repeatedly) ignored or disparaged by their audiences, from Vincent van Gogh to Dr. Seuss.  For every film or book we now consider to be an influential classic, there are dozens of reviews that disregard it as amateur, ineffectual or just plain bad.

And those are the successes.

Sometimes, your ideas really aren’t all that great.  Sometimes they’re half-baked, incorrect, premature or — yes — just plain bad.

But if you don’t pursue them, and learn from the experience of your hard-fought victories and spectacular misfires, you’ll forever be clinging to the safe bets.

And that means your audience, fickle creatures that they are, will eventually abandon you anyway, transfixed instead by something newer, shinier and more compelling — something that pushes their boundaries, even while you refuse to test your own.

Of Course, There IS a Catch to This Advice…

If your audience isn’t always right when they disagree with you, then they’re not always right when they idolize you, either.  Their judgment is just as flawed, mercurial and subjective as yours is, rain or shine.

So yes, by all means, absorb your audience’s feedback.

Just make sure you keep their notes in pencil.

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The Secret to Media Success: Making the Audience Care

I just finished the first book I’ve devoured in more than a decade.

Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution details the making of the 5 Best Picture nominees at the 1968 Academy Awards, from their initial concepts through their critical and public reception.  Two of those films, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, centered on race relations during the year when Sidney Poitier became the country’s most bankable star and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.  Another of those films, Doctor Dolittle, was a money pit that bought its Oscar nominations through old-fashioned studio graft and bribery.  And then there were Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, the two films no one in Hollywood wanted to make and the ones that wound up redefining Hollywood, filmmaking and America itself.

Not since Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in 1999 have I inhaled a book so quickly.  Not coincidentally, both books detail the seismic shift between the vintage Hollywood studio system and the “new Hollywood” influenced by New York, television and theater.

The films made during this era — Chinatown, Shampoo, The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Taxi Driver, etc. — relied on unconventional actors, complex narratives, location shoots, sexual freedom and moral ambiguity.  They reshaped the way films are made, judged, consumed and remembered.  And perhaps more than anything else, they expanded the world’s expectations of what an American film could be.

In short, an entire generation got excited about movies.

All of which makes me wonder…

What Could Web Content Be?

Whenever I think about our evolving media forms, I’m reminded of something John Herman told me (and everyone else in the room) in 2006.

At the very first PodCamp in 2006, John — who is a many of many titles, including “video instructor” and “Pac-Man” — intended to lead a session about the do’s and don’ts of web video.  But after sitting through numerous sessions prior to his own, and hearing how everyone else does what they do, John scrapped his original idea and spoke instead about something even more useful:

Not following the rules.

John had recently bought a DVD set of vintage films made during the early days of cinema, and he’d been amazed at how many of the “rules” we take for granted in modern cinema — shooting establishing shots, filming two people in conversation at opposing angles, etc. — were completely absent from these films.

John realized he’d stumbled across media that had been created before we all agreed on how that media should be created, and he was worried that web media was about to enter a period of “rule-making” that might rob us of our creativity.

That Was Four Years Ago.

Since then, we’ve had precious few “breakout” web creations, and what does succeed online remains mostly confined to the web itself.  Those of us who can’t understand why web content hasn’t been embraced by the mainstream should first admit a harsh truth:

In our rush to monetize social media, we forgot to create experiences people want.

If you want to see a movie or a stage play, you buy a ticket.  If you want to read a story, you buy a book.  And if you want to listen to the radio or watch TV, you need to buy the device in question.

But the Internet just comes with your computer.

Yes, you have to subscribe to the web.  And yes, the web costs money to access.  But you’d do that whether people were creating original web content or not.  You’d do it just for email, news, peer communication and streaming media.

You pay for the Internet because you need it, not because you want what’s on it.

Blogs? Podcasts? YouTube?

Those Are Supposed to Be Free, Right?

People don’t pay for what they don’t need or want.  And no one needs or wants web media that’s a cheap approximation of the same stories and experiences they can obtain better elsewhere.

The reason The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde shocked Hollywood is because they spoke to America’s youth.  Sure, these films were groundbreaking on a technical and narrative basis, but that’s film buff talk; what these films did was connect with, represent and empower an entire generation’s point of view.

And people are always willing to pay (repeatedly) for the opportunity to see, share and absorb an experience that excites them.  (Fun fact: By the end of 1968, The Graduate was the third-highest grossing film ever.)

Unless we start creating web-based content that electrifies audiences — content, I should note, that’s specifically designed for the experience of the web, rather than shoehorning old media forms into new media tubes — we’re squandering a golden opportunity to define ourselves through the stories we tell.  It means we’re really just waiting around for someone else to make the rules, because we don’t think we have anything to say.

And maybe we don’t.  Which could explain the whole conundrum.

But there is a bright side.

See, the studio collapse of the 1960s led to the Hollywood upheaval of the 1970s, which in turn spawned the era of blockbusters like The Godfather and Jaws.

So, by that rationale, we’ll all be swimming in money any day now.

We just have to change the world first.

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