On Creating the Visual

As an addendum to my “final post”, I was thinking about issues of how and why it’s difficult to communicate in different media. I‘m a pretty good fiction writer, an average academic writer, and I have no visual creativity. Which wasn’t a revelation to me this semester, but putting together my thoughts on how I function as someone who creates academic work has crystallized a lot of this for me.

I write fanfiction. I’d been writing for a few years when I realized that what I was writing in that context was making many of the same arguments as what I was writing academically (which sometimes led to repurposing story ideas for papers). Looking at that in the context of my struggles to create visual media, and text that incorporates the visual in an integral way, I’m wondering about the efficacy of the way I use different types of communication and I’m more convinced than ever that academic arguments can be made in almost any medium. Just possibly not by me.

the right to the "wow factor": Fat Fashion and Beauty as Agency

I have been following fat fashion blogs for a few years now, first through the politically oriented blogs that referenced the fat acceptance community and then through the more mainstream-seeming blogs that were linked from non-plus-size independent fashion blogs. The personal social justice blogs that I read often incorporated academic theory with personal stories and activism, which led me to position this paper in that tradition: blogging as a way to comment on the social underpinnings of performance of identity, while positioning the argument in my own space to reinforce its importance as my experience.

One of the trends that I have noticed is the rise of more blogs that feature fashion editorial styling, partnerships with fashion retailers, and the decline of an emphasis on the problems of finding attractive, well-fitting clothing with an attendant rise in discussions of following mainstream fashion trends. In this paper I will be looking primarily at the fat fashion bloggers whose work is in conversation with the logic of the fashion industry, with an overview of the bloggers who reject those standards, and how both approaches are successful attempts to create an agentive self.

One of the starting points for finding blog networks that I will be using is the Young, Fat and Fabulous conference website. Gabi, the blogger who runs Young, Fat and Fabulous, has risen from being a completely independent blogger who posts outfits of the day to one of the central hubs of what I term the "glamour" contingent of the fat fashion blogger community. This is the particular portion of the community I will be exploring in this paper, despite the existence of many plus-size bloggers who post outfits of the day in much the same manner as the bloggers profiled in this paper do. The reason I focus on this subset of the community is that it is more clearly in conversation with the conventions of the mainstream fashion industry, and the visual presentation of the bloggers themselves, in addition to the jobs that they hold in many cases, has more in common with Vogue and Marie Claire than many of the other bloggers do. This paper covers bloggers working in a variety of countries, with a particular emphasis on French and US bloggers.

End of Semester Blogging Reflections

Blogging for this class has been difficult and frankly frustrating for me, as someone who has long kept a blog that discusses a lot of the issues and topics that we cover in the class. I know how to make jokes and link things I like and speak informally, but the process of making sound arguments that I actually back up with references is not something I’m used to doing in this venue. One of the hardest parts has definitely been my inability to find an academic voice that is casual enough for a blog setting. I often have things to say about the texts I consume, but I’m used to having a definite line between the academic voice and the casual voice, even if I’m saying substantially the same thing.

And I wish I had done more video essays with the blog, because I think the process of working with texts has fundamentally changed how I academically engage with them.

The most interesting aspect of this process is that I have a constant internal voice that says, “This isn’t important enough for a blog post,” even when it’s something I would write a full academic paper about. Partially I think this is the perception of audience. I am constantly aware that someone might actually take the time to read this stuff, which makes every post a performance. I am the opposite of shy and retiring, so experiencing the tension between playing to the audience and using the venue as a workspace was often stymying.

As it pertains to the topics of the class, this is actually a really interesting issue to work through, because so much of what we’ve discussed has to do with creation and presentation of the self. I had no idea that there was any venue in my life in which I would feel uncomfortable exposing my every thought, but the knowledge that a change in context can change how comfortable I am with presenting myself, even though I am used to working in this medium, taught me a really valuable lesson about perceptions of control of persona.

I plan on keeping this blog and continuing to learn to meld my academic voice with my interests. If for no other reason than the fact that having to actually articulate academically what I find interesting about various texts helps me to see which topics are viable research interests.

Sesame Street, available on your computer

I’ve become obsessed with the PBS video archive, which I’ve had running in the background for a couple of days now. I’ve been sticking with the history and science stuff that I’m used to watching (Nova, Frontline, American Experience) but there’s so much there that I’m planning to delve into when I have the time.

I’m finding the whole idea of an online repository like this really interesting because of it’s non-commercial status. I think the fact that it can function as an actual educational repository is really fascinating. But beyond that, PBS’ position in terms of government funding has been so contentious throughout its life that I wonder if the ability to narrowcast will affect it at all. And I want to know about the copyright implications for classroom use, but that’s a whole other issue.

I also wonder how the PBS bigwigs are conceiving of this website: is it a library or is it streaming Netflix? Is there really a difference any more? Does the ability to “shop” for the videos in much the same way that one does on commercial streaming sites moves the material to more of an entertainment realm? Maybe I’m the only one who likes documentaries on the history of lobotomy or safe working conditions in obscure Georgia factories, but I think it could be interesting if PBS promoted the site as an entertainment site, especially with the impending Hulu subscription move.

The videos have been available on the websites of each of the shows for a while now, but putting everything together in a Hulu-like format encourages an interaction with the material that I hadn’t been expecting. If PBS can position itself like a for-profit network (interstitial ads, wide variety of programs) it may be easier for an audience to engage with it in the same way they do with those networks. Even with the added pleas for donations.

Moving in the World as an Immortal White Guy

Throughout this semester, I kept meaning to make blog posts about my random media observations, so there will be an influx of seemingly random 500(or so)-word dissections of the stuff that has crossed my mind that I haven’t gotten around to talking about. Mostly TV, because that’s how I roll. First up, Doctor Who.

I have this obsession with immortal/long-lived characters, probably from a childhood spent bingeing on comic books and fantasy novels. I never had a time-travel fantasy as a kid, because I had an inkling that “black” and “woman” were not going to serve me well in most of the places that the characters I liked traveled to, but I still loved the concept. So Doctor Who and Highlander were go-to media products for me as a kid and teenager, and the New Doctor Who has been one of my favorite shows. Here’s the thing I find interesting in watching Doctor Who now that I didn’t as a kid: extended age, with all its attendant implications of wisdom and experience, is a white male domain. Yes, I get it, when you’re casting a UK/US show, your protagonist is a white guy. I’m not talking about the reasons for why this happens, I’m talking about the values it imparts to the show and how those casting strictures end up constructing a certain reading of those qualities.

On Highlander (the TV show), there was a character named Methos who was 5000 years old. He was a recurring character, and most of the storylines involving him used him to make a point about we poor benighted mortals and how we spent too much time on the wrong things, and how he’d lived, you see, so he could understand that our petty differences were insignificant. The casting was apparently race-blind, and they just happened to find a white guy who was the best for the part (in British Columbia. I know you’re shocked). The interesting thing here in terms of how whiteness is constructed is that it is an unmarked category. The character is placed in all kinds of situations across 5 millennia and he is always accepted without question, and rarely with a discussion of, “hey, what’s that white dude doing here?”

This works to normalize the idea of default whiteness, where of course a white man can enter any situation and not have to worry about his cultural position relative to his surroundings. The characters who occupy a different cultural position are guest stars, not POV characters, and they are not meant to be part of the fantasy role-playing for the audience. The show places the audience at the same level as the main characters (all but one of whom are white men, the last is a white woman), and says, “you could be here! If you found yourself in 9th century China as a white guy, everyone would think you were just one of the gang!” Highlander serves as just one more example of how one of the insidious parts of default whiteness in casting is that it frequently makes no sense and blinds the audience to the fact that the people who are not white are also protagonists in their own story that the current text is just not telling.

Doctor Who, which prompted this rant, is a slightly different case because there has been discussion about casting the character with a non-white actor. Oddsmakers were laying bets on Paterson Joseph before the last casting decision (and he would’ve been awesome.)

My problem with Doctor Who is not so much the default whiteness, because, at least in the new series, people talk about race! The black girl says, “oh hey, is it safe for me to be here?” like I expect I would say when transported to the past in Europe. Where the issue for me comes in is the buildup of a national mythological figure, who is presented as nearly omniscient, and is always embodied in a white male figure. And embodied in increasingly young white male figures as time goes on. It isn’t a problem with the actors. In fact, the most recent incarnation is a 26-year-old, and I find him more believable as a character his age (over 900) than previous actors. The issue is that it’s taken for granted that these characters will be believable, and the argument against a woman or a person of color among fans is frequently that they would not believe the character were it not a white man. It’s never stated directly that there’s an assumption of authority in that particular body, but it’s underlying in the outrage against other options (alongside the racism and misogyny.)

What I wonder is where I stand in terms of accepting the characters that don’t fit this paradigm. When reading about characters who aren’t white men who live long lives or are immortal, I have little problem accepting the character. But when watching these characters, I find myself thinking, “Is anyone going to treat them unfairly? Will someone call attention to their race/sex? Is it safe to be that person is that position?” The process of seeing the character makes them more embodied for me, and cuts off options for imagination. And reveals that the extent to which I’ve accepted the concept of whiteness and maleness enabling one to move in the world freely is really disturbing.