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Archive for the ‘Ideology in television’ Category

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It’s summertime, and time for a new Gordon Ramsay project.  Chef and television presenter extrordinaire Ramsay has worked on several projects on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few years, but this time the workhorse may have bitten off more than he can chew.

The premise of the show follows in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver (Project 15 / school dinners) and James Martin (fixing hospital food accross the UK), where a known presenter enters a public institution and attempts to effect social change.  In this iteration, Ramsay has entered Her Majesty’s Prisons – specifically Brixton penitentiary – on order to improve work habits and attitudes of serial offenders.  The intention of the show is unclear – he is not there to improve the quality of food served to the prisoners (although despite his protestations against the relative comforts of teh prisoners, he does improve their food in the very first episode) – but rather he is there to develop certain skills in a number of men who appear to have never worked a full ‘straight’ week.

In the course of the first episode, Ramsay and the viewer are introduced to a number of figures, a man who has faced an incredible 79 convictions, an affable chap who in his own words spent a life ‘duckin’ and divin’ in order to get by, and a brigade of me so inured to the routines of the institution that even the slightest changes to their daily lives risks riot.

And therein lies the problem with the show.  Ramsay must present these men as no hopers, in order to triumphantly transform them into talented workers by the show’s end.  The series becomes critical of the individuals, rather than a system that has failed them.

My problem with Ramsay’s prison nightmares is not so much in his intentions which are ostensibly to improve the lives of men with very little motivation or life skills, but rather its insistence on their confinement being the inevitable outcome of their individual failings – failings which Ramsay will redress over the subsequent 12 weeks.  The men are not, the show implies, in jail becasue they live in a massively flawed society and economic system that privliges the wealthy (why isn’t Bob Diamond a fellow inmate?) but rather they, because of their massive flaws, are unable to exist in society.

Unfortunately, Ramsay repeatedly promotes the myth that prisoners somehow have it easy.  This is the same belief system that posits that those on benefits or anyone who is in part, or wholly subsidised by the public sector (including public sector employees) is somehow living in luxury and exploiting a flawed system.

Ramsay laments that prisoners are treating the prison like some sort of perverse hotel – with five choices of (appalling) meals each day, and 21 hours of lounging around in their rooms watching television and playing video games.  Ramsay questions how a criminal, with such soft treatment in confinement, could ever learn the skills of ‘hard graft.’

There is a rather odd idea being presented here, that prison is a more comfortable life than labouring in freedom.  This is surely perverse.  Either Ramsay is right, in which case, our economic system has failed us wherein there is less reward in honest labour than in doing porridge, in which case surely it is not the prisons that need fixing but rather society itself; or, conservative institutions such as The Telegraph, are misrepesenting prison as a soft option, in order to fulfil their own ideological agendas.

But surely there is something to Ramsay’s point.  Why aren’t prisoners labouring anymore?  Why are they in confinement for all but 4 hours in a day?  Why have prisons become simply a holding pen rather than reform penitentiaries?  Successive government cuts have resulted in an American style prison system in which convicted felons are simply housed, rather than provided with labour, skills and social training so that they can be returned to productive society.

In the last twenty years, the prison population of England and Wales has doubled.  Since 1993, prison populations have risen from 40 000 to surpass 80 000 in 2006.  It seems that jailing has become a new national pasttime.  We have begun incarcerating for crimes that in the past warranted fixed penalty fines.  We are filling jails at a much faster rate and all the while, arguing that those prisoners are having a lovely time of it.  Part of the problem is that there is big money in prisons.  Private, for profit groups have been earning contracts to administer prisons – there are currently 11 such prisons in the UK.  But regardless of the profit motive, it is substantially cheaper to provide prisoners with television and video games than it is to provide them with job training, labour skills, counselling and social skills.  Rather than rehabilitating prisoners, the new jails work hard to placate prisoners as cheaply as possible.  The result being that penitentiaries do whatever they can to keep the inmates quiet, rather than to prepare them for a return to society.  But there is also a profit motive in jailing.  Each prisoner represents a substantial amount of money – the cost of each prisoner per year has now reached £41 000, that represents £32 million per year of government money being placed into the hands of jail administrators.  With that amount of money, it seems prisoners could be given more to do than watch television.  With Ramsay’s training and providing inmates with both kitchen and business skills (inmates also learn to sell what they make), perhaps this is the start of a return to prison apprenticeships.

Occupying inmates is one thing – but with a captive audience, perhaps there are better uses of prison money and Ramsay seems to have hit a nerve.

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You're F@$#ed!

Oh the Apprentice is back, and what fun and frivolity this season of dweebs and fantasists has brought me!  This year, Sir Alan is once again unsure of which of his many titles the contestants should call him.  While for the last few seasons, he has been Siralun, this year he elected to be called Lord Sugar.  Surely a knighthood trumps being a peer, but I suppose Sir Alan has a more familiar, friendly appeal whereas Lord Sugar is more ominous and threatening, providing the connotation of his ability to blow up planets using a death star if he so feels.

So, titles notwithstanding, Sir Lord Alan Sugar Supreme Ruler of the distant planet Amstrad is once again commanding minions to sell dog food and biscuits.  However, there is a ridiculous fantasy tied in with this show, that people who can do any sort of selling are therefore magically gifted in business.  We’re already up to episode twelve, and while some episodes have resulted in literally thousands of dollars worth of sales (Lord Sugar’s pre-existent ties to major corporations like Asda playing no part in such sales), most weeks have returns in the far more humbling hundreds of pounds.  And this is how the show is ideological.  Despite the fact that there are t.v. cameras following the contestants, and the fact that the contestants are working in teams, with free cross-London transportation and working flat out for 48 hour periods, their returns are consistently within the 500 – 600 pound range.  And so it fulfils a sort of television fantasy, where we too with our humdrum lives of selling shoes, hobnobs or noddy dogs can feel that with our meagre incomes, our ‘talents’ will one day take us to the offices of Siralun where we too can eat at the trough of plenty.

But lets take a look at the math.  In week 12 the apprenti were set about buying and selling a load of cheap tat – umbrellas, nodding dogs, shitty watches.  Siralun provided two hundred and fifty pounds worth of ‘merchandise’ which the apprenti were tasked to sell and then sniffing out what they considered the hot properties, had to buy up more, and sell that too.  They had two days of farting about with which to turn a profit.  And in the end, the two teams had total assets of about 750.  But wait.  Is this really a miracle of business?  If we look at the numbers, they began with 250 worth of stock given to them.  So really, they generated about 500 in profit, over two days.  In teams of four.  They also spent much of their day pissing about travelling in vans, not paying gas or congestion charge fees.  So really that 500 in profit is more like 460.  They also mysteriously had booths, tables, tents and other stuff to help them sell the merchandise.  As well as pitches on the South bank and Covent garden market, pitches that one must buy a license to have.  So this 460 pound profit is not a real figure either, not reflecting the actual cost of their two days worth of sales.  Adding to their sales ability, they also had the magic of t.v. cameras, which tend to attract attention wherever you set them.  So, they had the additional draw of television and people’s natural curiosity which is piqued whenever there’s the chance of ‘will I be on the telly?’  So even their incredible sales prowess could be attributed not to their innate business acumen but rather to the fact that they’re bringing to their sales pitching their pseudo-celebrity status endowed on them by the very show itself.

So finally we’ve got a figure of roughly  450 pounds earned by a team of supposed business stars, who have the weight of television behind them, siralun’s added generosity, free transportation costs and the costs of licensing their sales venues provided to them.  But how much did they really earn?  Well, 450 pounds split four ways over two days works out to 112.50 per person.  Over the two day span, that works out to earnings of 56.25 per person per day.  Divide that into a 9 hour working day, and you’re left with 6.25 per hour, about what a long time employee at McDonalds gets.  And that’s excluding the publicity and benefit of being on t.v.

So, good on you business stars of tomorrow!

 

 

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There has been a bit of discussion on television of late about the state of Art versus entertainment.  On the Bill Maher show Real Time, Bill stated his position that art should not be publicly funded, that art should not be subsidized, and that if people wanted to buy art, then the value of art should be placed on what people are willing to pay and support from their own finances.  Maher’s argument is that it is up to the individual and private society to set the valuations of art.  But this is a flawed argument because it presumes that societal taste is unbiased.  But here is the major flaw – while entertainment is by its nature populist, changing and catering to audience tastes as demographics demand and aspiring to reach its widest audience (a tv show format changes, those changes being predicated by audience choice and tastes) art must not be influenced by commercial needs.  Art must be differentiated from entertainment precisely because it is NOT predicated by populist sentiment but rather by the vision of the artist as individual.  The fundamental difference between art and entertainment is that art expresses the view of the artist, whereas entertainment reinforces the views of the audience.  And so art prices cannot be set by populism because then it ceases to be art and becomes entertainment!

In order for art to have any meaning, it must be publicly funded.  Art is expensive to produce.  Materials, labour, venues, exhibition and distribution all cost money.  This money must come from somewhere, but if it came entirely from pre-sales, then artists would be forced to construct work that would secure good presale rates.  Their work, then, would by the nature of sales, become repetitive, conventional and safe (look at Hollywood’s reliance on sequels, prequels, remakes and ‘homage’ carbon copies) and if the art world too became subject to market tastes, it too would become ‘safe.’

I’m not saying that Bill’s argument is in the wrong spirit.  I do think that the individual has an obligation to support the arts too, but we don’t support the arts with our money, we support the arts with our participation in arts culture.  Support the arts by consuming art – support the arts by going to museums, theatre, performance art, concerts and lectures.  It is through the consumption of art (that has been financed independently from private investment) that arts cultures flourish.  It is only when public money is spent on art that is not consumed, that is shelved rather than being viewed or exhibited, that art becomes a waste of money.

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In this episode I look at the question of race.  There are claims that this is now a post-racial society, a claim that is pure nonsense.  Because we have been a racist society, we cannot ever move beyond a question of race.  Film and media too often uses the stereotype as a shorthand for creating texture to a character, but casting characters with certain iconographies, media ‘fleshes out’ a character very quickly.  However, the stereotype is so prevelant within the collective unconscious, that as soon as any character exhibits qualities of a type, it immediately evokes our racist past.

If we take reality television as a very easy example, a show like Jersey Shore has selected characters that fit snugly into an established racial type – the ‘guido,’ and any challenging to that type is immediately countered with the supporting casts’ flak.  For example, in the ‘guido’ type, men are supposed to exhibit agressive masculinity in contrast to women as objects.  If any of the men exhibit characteristics of femininity (delicacy, taste in clothing, consideration for others) they are immediately berated as ‘unmanly’ or as exhibiting homosexual tendencies.  This then, serves to reinforce the known stereotype as being racially (shared by all with Italian American heritage) driven.

Such typing is far more insidious with African American characters who are still positioned in very limited roles:

The Uncle Tom:  An educated paternal figure a la Bill Cosby, Bernie Mac or the dad on Fresh Prince

The Buck:   the agressive sexually active young man – 50 Cent, most rappers.

The Step-and-Fetchit:    A stupid side kick, generally useless but often played for comic value, often portrayed as lazy and conniving.  D.J. Jazzy Jeff played this role on the Fresh Prince, but this character while used less, is still a main figure of much black entertainment programming.  (Chris Rock show had an interesting reversal of this, with Chris’ white friend playing the side kick.)

The Mammie:  (who has often morphed into the Sassy Aunt or, the loving, wisecracking elder woman) Tracy Jordan’s wife on 30 Rock.

The Promiscuous woman.  While much white entertainment plays to the idea that women are sexual objects, the narratives generally demonstrate the women as desirable but sexually unavailable (think of Rachel on friends – sexy, but always slightly out of Ross’ reach, and while often dating never constructed as promiscuous).  The beautiful black female roles are usually shown as not only sexually desirable, but also sexually available, their promiscuity being a part of their sexualized figuration.

And that’s it.  In 50 years of ‘progress’ black characters are still easily slotted into these five figures.  Three men, two women.

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Well, this last year has been a mighty strange one, but never did I imagine such culture shock at returning to Canada.

The most shocking thing to me about contemporary North American society is its peculiar attitude to food.  I’ve been out of Canada for the last 8 years, living four and a half years in England, and then three in South East Asia.  My first port of call back in Canada was a large supermarket chain.  At some point in the last few years, small supermarkets have become a thing of the past, and now all grocery shopping is done is buildings about the size of a football arena.   But the most appalling thing about this attitude toward food, is the packaging of it all.  Food in the West seems to me to be something so heavily processed that it no longer actually resembles food.

Having spent the last eight years buying my meat exclusively from butchers, and fruit andveg from farmers markets and green grocers where things do not come pre-washed, pre-picked, trimmed and packaged, I find the amount of food waste in the west grossly offensive.  When we have gotten to a point where only boneless-skinless chicken breasts are available, and kidneys, liver, tripe and heart cannot be purchased, I’m left wondering why and how North Americans have become so terrified of food in its raw state, and yet ironically at the same time so much of this commercially processed product is being marketed as ‘natural.’  ‘Natural’ but completely divorced from its natural state.

So, here is my first film in a series of video blogs about ideology in contemporary life.

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The final apprenti smugly beaming to camera

The Celebrity Apprentice is a very odd show, one I find strangely compelling while simultaneously detesting every single smug second of Donald Trump`s increasingly strange shaped head and vulcanized hairdo (which his two smarmy spawn sons seem to have inherited).  The premise of the show is simple (er, actually its bizarrely convoluted).  A dozen or so `celebrities` – a very generous extension of the term there – with contestutants (yes, my freshly coined neo-logism) ranging in fame from disgraced senator Rod Blagojovich to someone who may or may not have competed in the Beijing Olympics but her personality is so non-existent that I frankly don`t care if she quickly swam through a pool in China or Australia.  Or through a swamp in Belize for that matter.

But I ramble.  These pseudo-celebs whose major achievement in most cases seems to be aggressive self-promotion, are weekly tasked to perform a pointless campaign which strikes me as little more than a heavily sponsored product placement for some lucrative but absolutely useless service, from some expensive personal data security service called `life-lock`, a service so completely befuddling that even the president of the company had great difficulty explaining or even being aware of what it is, to a rapid plumbing service that guarantees they will be on time with a cash back promise.  Finally, a service that treats fixing my oft broke commode like it’s a pizza.

But what is so deeply astonishing and disturbing about this show, is the petty nastiness with which the celebrities treat one another.  They have become so thoroughly narcissistic that every tiny interruption of their single minded attention to themselves brings down their full wrath upon each others` pin-heads.  In this last week`s episode, one character (I shall call her a character, as I don`t think there is any genuine person cast in this show) dared to steal a slice of pizza from another team.  This pizza was most likely provided gratis by the show`s producers, but quite possibly a tiny amount of one of these over paid star`s personal budget, and yet the sour faced misery that such a petty act conjured up was almost beyond belief.

And herein lies the ideology.  The Celebrity (sic) Apprentice is a show that ostensibly tries to be about the `real` world of business and finance.  And it fully lives the attitude that the world is a `dog eat dog` environment.  Contestants are selected and groomed based on their fulfillment of the show`s ideological worldview that business and that society functions best through competition and consequently through nastiness and pre-emptive attack.  The show presents and normalizes the attitude that petty self interest, that vindictiveness and spite, are all simply a part of the day to day business of accruing massive personal wealth despite that wealth being to the detriment of competition, neighbors and even teammates.  No wonder America is in deep financial crisis.  If American society and values have been headed unchecked in the direction of such aggressive personal self interest that every action is approached as a personal affront even when it comes down to sharing a slice of free pizza, then we`re all well and truly fucked.

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Brando`s Roman haircut.

In the 1950s, French critic Roland Barthes began to examine elements of daily Parisian life, reading them as signifiers for social status and ideology.  Writing regular columns for Les Lettres Nouvelles, from 1954 – 1956, Barthes would examine different cultural texts and explore how they revealed ideology.  Examining such disparate things as steak and chips, or Marlon Brando`s haircut in a film version of Julius Caesar, Barthes would explain how such things revealed our attitudes about culture and life.  Barthes` methodology  as a cultural theorist was derived in large part from structuralism.  Structuralism posits that all elements of a text are composed of signs, so for example, the word cat C-A-T is composed of three different discrete signs (C signifying the ‘ck’ sound, and so forth) each sign, signifies a different thing,(CK – A- Tuh) but when put together their unity creates a second signified – a small animal that has been domesticated – the cat itself.  For Barthes, just as language is composed of signs that point to multiple different signified meanings, all life can be understood as texts which similarly point to different signified meanings.  His example of Brando’s hair in Julius Caesar signifies the character’s Roman-ness, in the same way that in an advert for Italian pasta sauce the use of tomato and peppers (red, yellow and green) signify the pasta’s Italianicity.  The fabric of our material world is in fact a complex system of signs and signifiers which when placed together create our (biased) understanding of the world.  This means that all life, and in particular media texts, are highly political in that they signify a complex relationship to prior histories of knowledge.  Brando’s haircut is both a continuation and perpetuation of a western ‘knowledge’ of Roman culture taken from Classical roman statues as well as other films about that period.  So a haircut isn’t just a haircut, it’s a part of a discourse on history and culture.

Survivor, Heroes vs. Villains

You may be left wondering `what has this got to do with Survivor`, a current television series about supposed castaways living in exile on a deserted island and competing for a cash prize?  To begin, the clothing and haircuts of the characters in the show are a signifier of the participants’ precarious existence.  Their dishevelled appearance becomes a visual testimony to the supposed reality of their situation.  Television, a media that traditionally depicts its participants in a heightened state of grooming (contrast the Survivor contestants with those of America’s Next Top Model) is then contested with the survivors’ lack of stylists.  But the participants’ ‘reality,’ of course, is very different to what we see on screen.  While they are, without question, living in the elements, the litigious nature of television as an industry prevents them from being in any real danger.  The off screen presence of medics, producers, production assistants, directors, teamsters, camera crews, gaffers, lighters, caterers for the production staff and staff of various media sponsors guarantees that what is experienced by the participants is in fact very different (and no doubt protected) than what is shown on screen and what their rough appearance has us believe.

Is this the body of a man who eats junk food?

So on to food in Survivor.  The participants have been living their ‘in the rough’ lifestyle for a few weeks and have been sustaining their diet with what can be caught, found or fished and while their island is bountiful, the weight loss of the actors signifies their relative privation.  And so to increase motivation, the contestants compete for various food rewards.  As the weeks pass, the rewards have been provided by a number of corporate sponsors; Seven Up and the Outback Steakhouse being the two most prominent.  And here we have how food becomes a signifier.  The rewards have all been designed to signify ‘homeness’  and yet it is a particularly biased depiction of American daily culture.  The food challenges have been entirely junk food; hot dogs, seven up, pizza, a feast of chocolate, steak and (frozen, processed) shrimp from the outback steakhouse.   So how is this significant.  A group of malnourished, underfed survivors fight desperately for this food – food that is high in fat, low in nourishment.  In virtually every single episode, the participants engorge themselves on this oil rich, nutrient low diet, and discover to their surprise that afterwards they feel very sick.  This is because the richness and heaviness of the food is in fact detrimental to their now cleansed bodies.  Indeed, a low fat, high vegetable, high protein diet would be much easier on their systems, provide them with more energy and in fact be a much greater reward.  We the viewers are provided imagery of the survivors eating the food and declaiming ‘this is the best meal I’ve ever had’  ‘pizza never tasted so good’ and other such empty platitudes, shortly before vomiting up the supposedly rewarding feast.

Courtney, engorged on steak and shrimp from the Outback Steakhouse.

Why does the show provide the contestants with such unhealthy food, then, if it is so hard on their now detoxed bodies?  It is a matter of what it signifies.  The hotdogs and pizza become signifiers of the contestants’s Americanicity. For the purpose of the show, the junk food replicates the ‘modern’ lifestyle that the contestants are far removed from, but also unites the contestants with the viewers at home who are themselves induced to consume such high fat, low nutrition fare during the commercial breaks and during the product placements within the show.  The show’s programmers are colluding with the show’s advertisers to actively promote a lifestyle that is even in the show itself, demonstrably toxic, but highly lucrative to the corporate sponsors.  The power of the signifier is to combine the image of hot dogs and seven-up with an image of an imagined home-life of barbecues, family and loved ones.  Pizza, as a signifier, then, represents far more than bread, cheese and sauce but instead becomes a mythic representation of the party the contestants hope they will have when they return home with their million dollar prize.

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