Saturday, April 18, 2009

2009 PCA/ACA National Conference: My Paper

The paper, and the slideshow.

Things you should know before you read the paper: The paper presumes a lot of its audience -- not on a theoretical basis, fortunately, but particularly in terms of social politics, so it might be more productive to think of the paper's use of the first-person plural as the royal we.

Things you should know before you view the slideshow: DON'T adjust the volume -- I deliberately decreased the volume on the Comfort and Will solos so that the audience could hear me while I talked over the solos.

Some things that couldn't fit into the time constraints but which I can't let evaporate into metaphysical nothingness.

I focus on ANTM and SYTYCD (I originally wanted to include Survivor as well) because of how their formats dictate their respective narrative effectivenesses, which in turn determine how viewers respond to each show. ANTM is an edited show, meaning that months pass after shooting the program before it actually is broadcast, an interim of time which allows its editors to develop narratives of specific, featured contestants. That is, the editors use footage of the contestants in action and recounting their experiences to construct their personae on the show. As a result, certain contestants -- invariably villains -- have been so strongly narrativized and characterized that there's a pretty solid consensus among viewers that that contestant is the one to hate; we all hate Clark, for example.

But SYTYCD, which proceeds in (near-)real time, doesn't have the same lead time to narrativize its dancers; instead, the show has to rely on the interview packages, brief rehearsal footage, and judges' critiques, which are, in my mind, the most important of all, not because they're effective though. Judges' critiques on SYTYCD often take on some ham-fisted, inelegant attempt at narrativization -- Ivan came of age, Danny's arrogance gave way to humility, etc. -- and because we're being told these characteristics instead of being shown them, these attempts don't convince us quite like edited reality programs can.

For instance, in the second episode of ANTM, we supposedly saw ShaRaun making stank comments about Isis during Isis' photoshoot, "or at least the editing makes us think so by adding a terrible overdub to a shot of the girls' backs where we don't see any lips moving" -- in other words, we might suspect that ShaRaun may have fallen victim to dreaded Reality TV Editing. However, when we see her say stuff like, "Isis is over the top. America's next top model is not going to be a drag queen. I'm sorry, it's not," or "This is the funniest thing that's in my head, her trying to be sexy. Reality is, she's a man," then we're happy to conclude that she doesn't need the specter of reality tv producers to make her look bad, she's perfectly happy to do it herself. The key, of course, is us seeing evidence that directly supports how she is characterized on the show.

On the other hand, we rarely see anything so unfiltered on SYTYCD; instead, the dance program only parcels out heavily mediated glimpses into the contestants' non-performance behavior, and any narrativistic elements are usually second- or third-hand talk from the judges. Thus, the show usually stumbles when it tries to manipulate narratives (which the reality genre all but necessitates), which in turn makes a lot of people react against them. Consequently, you see a lot less consensus on whom to hate on SYTYCD -- people hated on Twitch, Will, Joshua, Mark, and hey guess what, they were the top four guys as determined by voters, which means that a lot more people loved them too -- and ultimately, what contributed to hate often involved idiosyncratic biases, pet peeves, and similarly capricious factors.

I would've loved to work in some of the comments from the folks who chimed in with what/who drove you up the wall, from poor deportment (whining, entitlement, racial insensitivity), to falling on one side or the other of the classical/hip-hop divide, and so on. What seems like the commonest reason to hate, though, was when contestants consistently got more praise than we thought they deserved. Disproportionate praise short-circuits our notions of justice and individual worth; if a contestant gets disproportionate praise, then we identify some reason or value that elicited the praise and which we happen to undervalue or outright disagree with, and if it's getting big-upped, then we think bad values are outperforming our own values.

So we have consensus on ANTM, and fragmented and diffuse opinions on SYTYCD, yet despite how differently people react to their contestants, both shows followed the same moral calculus articulated by schadenfreude.

I had something I wanted to call the Slingshot Effect that illustrated the dynamics of schadenfreude, violated desert, and justice that I couldn't develop due to time and space, but it goes something like this: imagine a reality contestant who is metaphysically tied to an elastic length of the Rubber of Justice and who starts the competition at a morally neutral position, neither outrageous nor commendable. But every time she does something disagreeable, she pulls the Rubber of Justice towards the Injustice end; the more evil she perpetrates, the more she stretches her band and the more we hate her, at which point, one of two things happens.

One, she could get her comeuppance, i.e. the slingshot is released and flings her away from Injustice and into the realm of Justice. Accordingly, the farther she goes towards injustice, the greater the recovery of justice (and our pleasure) when she gets her just deserts -- call this the First Law of Reality TV Thermodynamics: our hate is a direct function of how much contestants violate our notions of justice, and the longer they stay in the competition, the more they get to defy justice and earn our resentment, sometimes simply by still being in the competition (i.e. "so-and-so should've been eliminated weeks ago").

A perfect example of the First Law is Robin from the first cycle of ANTM, whose performances in the challenges were consistently dire, rude, or simply non-existent, and who behaved with sanctimonious and venal zeal to the other contestants, and whose figure and age really weren't suited for modeling, and who yet made it as far as the top 4, where she certainly didn't belong in an objective, performance-based estimation. Of course, when justice was restored, it was restored with spectacular relish. The more despicable a contestant, the more spectacular their downfall, and the happier we are.

Or two, she evades punishment and thereby stretches the Binds of Justice so far that they break; that is, she ends up winning the damn competition. (See Whitney from the 10th cycle of ANTM, or Richard Hatch from the first season of Survivor, and so on.) Call this the First Corollary of the First Law: the longer a contestant stays in the competition (thereby stoking our hate more and more, see the First Law), the greater the chance she has of winning it. The First Corollary then is the ever-present shadow to the First Law and gives the moral struggle the precarious edge and danger that makes the stakes seem real and therefore thrilling.

Indie rating: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – "Shame and Fortune"


Ted said...

Good stuff Leee. You point out some things I had never thought about.

momo said...

The Slingshot of Comeuppance! hah!