Showcase Post 2 – Advance Australia Fair of Skin

As a mousey-brown-haired blue-eyed Australian woman, born of Australian parents who were born of Australian parents, I am a part of the main demographic my country’s media represents. Yet my appearance is genetic and my citizenship a result of my place of birth. But here I am, an Aussie sheila.

Shudder.

My childhood and adolescence were certainly shaped by the rote of national television. I would rise to Agro’s Cartoon Connection, eat dinner between Neighbours and Home & Away, and reach the pinnacle of my weekend as Red Symons dished out another Red Faces gong. Perhaps one day Koshie and Mel will dictate my morning routine as I dream of my children’s post-All Saints-equivalent-Australian-medical-drama-bedtime.

As David Morley summarises Berlant (2000) ‘through the accident of birth within a particular set of geographical and political boundaries, the individual is transformed into the subject of a collectively held history and learns to value a particular set of symbols as intrinsic to the nation and its terrain.’ Although it could be argued that our parents’ ideologies shape us as much, if not more than national ideologies, the bigger picture is that they too are a product of their country and form part of its ‘collectively held history’.

Like many Australians, I was proud to be Australian. I loved the beach. I supported the Wallabies. I cried when Princess Diana died. But I’ve never been surfing. I don’t care for sports. And I like the idea of becoming a Republic. What ‘Australian’ even means to me these days I would struggle to define. Or I would shudder. Again.

Putting your finger on Australia’s national identity has never been an easy task. In an attempt to articulate our Australianness, we identified ourselves as a people through what we were not, distancing ourselves from the British and the Americans (Cao, 2007). It was here that the ‘laidback larrikin’ stereotype began, and has since been perpetuated and bastardised into the loudmouth racist bogan stereotype that is too often associated with the green and the gold.

For such a young country, the ‘idea of the nation as represented in its mediated culture’ (Morley, p.105) was intrinsic in ‘the construction of a sense of national identity’ (Lofgren in Morley, p.106), ‘the “cultural thickening” of the nation state’ (Morley, p.106). Cinema as well as broadcast media lauded blokes in the bush as national heroes. Yet this young country has grown and developed. Immigrants added richness and diversity Australia, and their children, second-generation immigrants, increasingly made up a significant component of the country’s populace (May, 2003).

Papastergiadis (in Morley, p.107) argues that “the symbols and narratives of the nation can only resonate if they are admitted to the chamber of the home”, yet if the symbols and narratives dictate a verandah out the front, a clothesline out the back and an old rocking chair, and the chamber of the housing-commission home they are admitted to is represented by none of these things, national broadcasting as a form of unification instead becomes a repellant. The media has a responsibility to inscribe non-Anglo Australian identities as equally central to any other experience, and not marginal or different (Berry, 1999).

Television was indeed anglocentric. In fact up until the early 1990s, multiculturalism within Australia’s national broadcasting remained minimal. When it did occur the actor’s part was ‘performed’ ethnicity, rather than the portrayal of an ‘everyday’ Australian (May, p.1). May suggests that diversification of the country’s media occurred from the late 1980s onwards, paralleling the development of a broad multicultural policy by government. For a cultural identity to remain accurate, it needs to respond to the social, political and economical developments occurring within that culture and be fluid enough to mould a new definition of self. As a nation changes and grows, the identity of a nation grows with it.

Perhaps Channel 7 didn’t get that agenda. Ex-Home and Awayactor Jay Laga’aia (of Samoan descent) accused the Channel 7 show of dumping him as they had already fulfilled their ‘ethnic quota’ with Ada Nicodemou, a Greek Cypriot-born actress. In fact, Laga’aia’s accusation came just a day after Under Belly actor Firas Dirani called for commercial TV to rid itself of a perceived “white Australia” policy and instead strive to represent the “different flavours, different cultures” of modern Australia (Vickery, 2012). Says Professor Andrew Jakubowicz ‘The streets of Neighbours and Home and Away remained blandly Anglo, with an occasional and often violently resented non-White newcomer. These people appeared and disappeared with monotonous regularity, as though there was a tipping point at which the commercial channels had to do something, just to say they were, but then move them on before offence was caused.’

Although the “visibly different” are comparatively more visible and less different today than they were in decades past, I’d argue that Indigenous Australians are still grossly underrepresented by our national media. And even when cast, the role laid out for Indigenous actors is often one that really emphasises aspects of Aboriginality. An Australian television drama that really stood out to me at the time of airing was Secret Life of Us. Looking back on it now, it becomes increasingly clear that the show seemed more pertinent and more real because of its depiction of a group of friends with different coloured skin, different beliefs, different incomes, different accents. Secret Life of Us was actually one of the driving factors that saw me move from Canberra to (more ethnically diverse) Melbourne.

The media plays a central role in the production, circulation and transformation of ideas about race (a key contributor to the idea of “national identity”) – but the media is also subject to the wanton whims of the nation’s funding agencies. Jakubowicz argues that despite the culturally inclusive policies of agencies such as Screen Australia and the ABC, our media is still in desperate need of independent reviews and a political shakeup.

At the time of writing this original post, the Olympics were screening and creating the spectacle-induced swell of national pride that Bondi Rescue could only dream of. Australians in all their varieties came together. For a while, at least. A dismal medal count saw our ‘great sporting nation’ bow it’s head in shame, and second generation immigrants revert to barracking for the country of their heritage. My freckles and name would suggest I champion the Republic of Ireland. I don’t suppose they’re doing much better though, are they?

REFERENCES

Berry, C (1999) ‘The Importance of Being Ari: Chris Berry Takes a Sideways Glance at Head On’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, v.118, pp.34-37.

Cao, B (2007) ‘Beyond Empires: Australian Cinematic Identity in the 21st Century’, viewed 25 September 2012, <http://www.polsis.uq.edu.au/docs/Challenging-Politics-Papers/Benito-Cao-Beyond-Empire.pdf&gt;.

Jakubowicz, A (2010) ‘Race media and identity in Australia’, blog, n.d., Andrew Jakubowicz, viewed 10 October 2012, < http://andrewjakubowicz.com/publications/race-media-and-identity-in-australia/&gt;.

May, H (2003) ‘Australian multicultural policy and television drama in comparative contexts’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Queensland University of Technology.

Morley, D (2000) ‘Broadcasting and the Construction of the National Family’, Home Territories, course readings from COMM1073, RMIT University, Melbourne, viewed 6 Aug 2012.

Vickery, C (2012) ‘Ex-Home and Away star Jay Laga’aia rants over ‘racist’ soapie on Twitter’, Herald Sun, 16 February, viewed 9 October 2012, < http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/tv-radio/ex-home-and-away-star-jay-lagaaia-rants-over-racist-soapie-on-twitter/story-e6frf9ho-1226272054926&gt;.

Advertisements

Showcase Post 1 – Mad Men revisited

A close textual analysis of Mad Men S01 E13 “The Wheel” – the scene where Don comes home from work the day Francine has confided in Betty that her husband, Carlton, has been cheating.

The scene opens on the dining area. We see through the window and panels of glass in the front door that it is night time. Betty sits in her quilted white robe at the foot (or is it the head?) of the table with her back to the camera. She is softly illuminated by offscreen tungsten lighting from both sides. The overhead light remains off. The camera is at her height. Despite being sat at the dining room table, the scene feels tense and void of the homeliness usually associated with a wife welcoming home a husband in the kitchen area. There is no food – only a bottle of red wine and smoke drifting from a cigarette Betty inhales vigorously.

We hear a rustling as the front door opens and Don enters the scene. There is no lighting in the door alcove. Don is dressed in his work clothes – the darkness of his suit, hair and overcoat merging with the darkness of the doorway and contrasting with Betty’s white robe and blonde hair.

Don stands tall and the camera rises to his level. In ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’: Historicising Visual Style in Mad Men (2011), Jeremy Butler notes that within the Sterling Cooper office complex, the commanding stature of the admen is often confirmed by shooting the characters from a low-angle. Don, especially, is ‘master of any space he enters’ (p.63). Despite Betty being positioned lower than Don, the viewer is allowed an eye-level view – thus diminishing the disproportionate view from below at work, and beginning the process of positing Don as less threatening when at home.

As Don steps into his home he takes off his overcoat, greets Betty by her pet name and kisses her on the forehead. There is a sense of intimacy and familiarity, yet Betty remains silent. However, she does not go unnoticed by the camera as we see her casting glances at Don. Is she relieved he has come home? Or is it more surprise? Is she wondering what’s kept him back so long? Is she quietly planning what to say? In Suggestive Silence in Season One, Maurice Yacowar notes that the first season of Mad Men is entrenched with suggestive silence, and he draws attention to the fact that what’s explicit is often of less importance than what’s implicit (p.87).

Betty finally breaks her silence, asking gently why, at 9.30pm he didn’t just stay in the city. Although this could be mistaken for concern or understanding, we know that this is Betty’s way of airing her suspicions and introducing her confrontation of (and warning to) Don – articulated or not. Betty’s mention of the time, without consulting a watch or clock, indicates that she’s been waiting there for hours, overly aware of the minutes passing between the time Don should’ve been home and the time he actually walked through the front door.

Don remains standing as he speaks loudly and formally to Betty about the need to continue his work from home. At this, Betty becomes passive-aggressive, bringing up a previous argument about Thanksgiving. She is chastised by Don and we watch her change tactics, apologising for her anger and instead seeking sympathy for the terrible day she’s had – again, a method of introducing the confrontation/warning. As she speaks she looks straight ahead at no one and nothing, until a sudden tilt of her head as she averts her eyes and demands (albeit coquettishly) that he sit with her.

Don pacifies his wife and does as he’s told. As he sits at the table he and Betty are now at the same height and the camera lowers to its original position. The closer proximity of their bodies allows Don to speak in softer tones, emphasising the fact that he is now at home speaking to his wife, and not at work conversing with a client.

As Betty begins telling Don about Francine’s disclosure that Carlton has been cheating, the conversation is depicted through shot-reverse shot editing. Medium close ups position both characters onscreen and illustrate their interaction and body language throughout the (disguised) interrogation. Then at particularly pertinent moments, where Betty’s words are loaded with double meaning, we see close up shots of Betty and Don. These shots really emphasise the fact that the words being spoken are only a minor part of this conversation, as the implications run much deeper for both. Betty pauses intermittently throughout her story, holding strong eye contact with Don, challenging him to confess. With a crinkled forehead and eyebrows raised, Don returns eye contact for a moment, but then wavers, revealing more to Betty than his carefully considered words.

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (as cited in Borak, 2012) talks about post-structuralist feminism, detailing the passive role of women onscreen and highlighting the camera’s tendency to linger on the female body as spectacle rather than narrative progression. Whilst the camera is certainly hungry for Betty, her prolonged onscreen silence serves to undermine Don’s delusion of superiority. His command of language allows him to sell ideas during a pitch to client, yet during this exchange with Betty Don’s silence speaks louder than words.

The lighting on both Betty and Don’s faces also serves to deepen the undertones of the unspoken conversation. Both characters are partly illuminated, the light falling across their faces in a traditional Rembrandt style – again, a stark difference to the harsh fluorescent lights that illuminate the business world of Sterling Cooper. The darkness across Don’s face re-establishes what both the viewer and Betty already know – that there is an element of mystery to Don, that what you see isn’t all that you get. And the darkness across Betty’s face amplifies the fact that there is a darker meaning behind her telling Don the story of Francine and Carlton.

The close up shots also serve to posit the characters within their environment. Behind Don we see uniformly-patterned masculine wallpaper, and we see the front door/window area – his means of entering the house, but also his means of escaping it. Behind Betty we see the family home – the lounge room furnished comfortably and warmly lit with lamps. Butler demonstrates how Mad Men saturates its small-scale frames with ‘exotic apprehensible details’ such as ‘Betty Draper’s dressing gown…bric-a-brac on shelves…and [the] ashtray’ (p.59) in order to gain viewer acceptance that we are in fact witnessing a slice of 1960s life.

Betty speaks to Don of the bond that love and children is supposed to create between a married couple, alluding to Francine and Carlton, but leaving Don with no doubt that she is addressing him directly as she says “Doesn’t this all mean anything?” – the choice of “this” rather than “that” bringing the conversation hurtling from Francine and Carlton’s house to right in there, unavoidably in front of them.

Betty has made her point and is emotionally in control of the situation, so Don reasserts his authority the best way he can. He ends the conversation by standing, reintroducing his powerful physical presence into the scene, and squeezes Betty’s shoulder as he departs, telling her to bring the wine. As Don stands, the camera rises again, and for the first time in the scene the stretch of silence is supplemented by non-diagetic sound in the form of a slow and dramatic string instrumental that carries over as the scene cuts.

 

REFERENCES

Borak, J (2012) ‘Don Draper is Kind of a Sexist: A Post-Structuralist Feminist Analysis of Mad Men’s Season 5 Poster’, blog, 9 April, Remotely Interesting, viewed 8 October 2012, < http://remotelyinterestingtv.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/don-draper-is-kind-of-a-sexist/&gt;.

Butler, J (2011) ‘’Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’: Historicising Visual Style in Mad Men’, ed. Edgerton, G, Mad Men, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London, UK, pp.55-71.

Yacowar, M (2011) ‘Suggestive Silence in Season One’, ed. Edgerton, G, Mad Men, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London, UK, pp.86-93.

What does it all mean?

A close textual analysis of Mad Men S01 E13 “The Wheel” – the scene where Don comes home from work the day Francine has confided in Betty that her husband, Carlton, has been cheating.

The scene opens on the dining area. We see through the window that it is nighttime. Betty sits in her quilted white robe at the foot of the table with her back to the camera. She is softly illuminated by offscreen tungsten lighting from both sides. The overhead light remains off. The camera is at her height. Despite being sat at the dining room table, the scene feels tense and void of the homeliness usually associated with a wife welcoming home a husband in the kitchen area. There is no food – only a bottle of red wine and smoke drifting from a cigarette Betty inhales vigorously.

We hear a rustling as the front door opens and Don enters the scene. There is no lighting in the door alcove. He stands tall and the camera rises to his level. He is dressed in his work clothes – the darkness of his suit, hair and overcoat merging with the darkness of the doorway and contrasting with Betty.

As Don steps into his home he takes off his overcoat, greets Betty by her pet name and kisses her on the forehead. There is a sense of intimacy and familiarity, yet Betty remains silent. However, she does not go unnoticed by the camera as we see her casting glances at Don. Is she relieved he has come home? Or is it more surprise? Is she wondering what’s kept him back so long? Is she quietly planning what to say? These questions are all answered when Betty finally breaks her silence, asking gently why, at 9.30pm he didn’t just stay in the city. Although this could be mistaken for concern or understanding, we know that this is Betty’s way of airing her suspicions and introducing her confrontation of (and warning to) Don. Betty’s mention of the time, without consulting a watch or clock, indicates that she’s been waiting there for hours, overly aware of the minutes passing between the time Don should’ve been home and the time he actually walked through the front door.

Don remains standing as he speaks loudly and formally to Betty about the need to continue his work from home. At this, Betty becomes passive aggressive, bringing up a previous argument about Thanksgiving. She is chastised by Don and we watch her change tactics, apologising for her anger and instead seeking sympathy for the terrible day she’s had – again, a method of introducing the confrontation/warning. As she speaks she looks straight ahead at no one and nothing, until a sudden tilt of her head as she averts her eyes and demands (albeit coquettishly) that he sit with her.

Don pacifies his wife and does as he’s told. As he sits at the table he and Betty are now at the same height and the camera lowers to its original position. The closer proximity of their bodies allows Don to speak in softer tones, emphasising the fact that he is now at home speaking to his wife, and not at work conversing with a client.

As Betty begins telling Don about Francine’s disclosure that Carlton has been cheating, the conversation is depicted through shot-reverse shot editing. Medium close ups position both characters onscreen and illustrate their interaction and body language throughout the (disguised) interrogation. Then at particularly pertinent moments, where Betty’s words are loaded with double meaning, we see close up shots of Betty and Don. These shots really emphasise the fact that the words being spoken are only a minor part of this conversation, as the implications run much deeper for both. Betty pauses intermittently throughout her story, holding strong eye contact with Don, challenging him to confess. With a crinkled forehead and eyebrows raised, Don returns eye contact for a moment, but then wavers, revealing more to Betty than his carefully considered words.

 

The lighting on both Betty and Don’s faces also serves to deepen the undertones of the unspoken conversation. Both characters are partly illuminated, the light falling across their faces in a traditional Rembrandt style. The darkness across Don’s face reestablishes what both the viewer and Betty know – that there is an element of mystery to Don, that what you see isn’t all that you get. And the darkness across Betty’s face amplifies the fact that there is a darker meaning behind her telling Don the story of Francine and Carlton.

The close up shots also serve to posit the characters within their environment. Behind Don we see uniformly-patterned masculine wallpaper, and we see the front door/window area – his means of entering the house, but also his means of escaping it. Behind Betty we see the family home – the lounge room furnished comfortably and warmly lit with lamps. She speaks of the bond that love and children is supposed to create between a married couple, alluding to Francine and Carlton, but leaving Don with no doubt that she is addressing him directly as she says “Doesn’t this all mean anything?” – the choice of “this” rather than “that” bringing the conversation hurtling from Francine and Carlton’s house to right in there, unavoidably in front of them.

Betty has made her point and is emotionally in control of the situation, so Don reasserts his authority the best way he can. He ends the conversation by standing, reintroducing his powerful physical presence into the scene, and squeezes Betty’s shoulder as he departs, telling her to bring the wine. As Don stands, the camera rises again, and for the first time in the scene we hear non-diagetic sound in the form of a slow and dramatic string instrumental. The instrumental carries over as the scene cuts.

Television snobbery

I live in a share-house of smart and savvy 20-somethings and despite paying a large amount of rent, our television antenna doesn’t work. Whilst this wasn’t our choice, I have often found myself taking smug pride in the fact that we don’t have a TV, feeling a part of an intellectual elite that refuse to watch the mind-numbing shows created for the numb-of-mind masses.

Yet of a night I sit in my bed and log on to TV-links.net, bypassing the movie section as I head straight to the impressive array of television shows. Skins, Misfits, True Blood and Mad Men were constant companions during a lonely few months in Copenhagen. Californication marathons cemented friendships and Whisker Wars cemented a penchant for bearded men. And when the question was raised in our Week 1 Television Cultures tute “What TV show are you embarrassed to love?” memories of The Simple Life and Passions brought a coy smile to my lips.

Unlike Alan McKee I do not favour television over cinema, radio, books or Art – but it certainly has its place in my heart. Perhaps my regard for television is more akin to the metaphor used in Hollywood: The Rise of TV (2005), likening television to a wife and cinema to a mistress.

I agree with McKee’s sentiment (2007) that television makes me ‘joyful in the encounters it offers with difference‘ and that, drawing upon Thomas Hartley, television is ‘the ultimate cross-demographic medium‘, yet I disagree with the idea that television makes me ‘a better person’ and that it ‘doesn’t want to put anybody offside’. Shows such as The Biggest Loser flourish partly through audience empathy, but partly through mockery by the audience. What could be better than watching fat people cry as they struggle to run up a flight of stairs as I tuck into my fish and chip dinner from the comfort of my couch? – not such a ‘generous, warm, inviting, kind medium’ after all.

Indeed, McKee’s notion of television wanting ‘to bring everybody into the audience, smiling’ is indirectly contested by Graeme Blundell’s exploration of the rise of digital film-making, the consequential levels of realism onscreen and, as a result, the ability to explore ‘subtleties of character against the larger dynamics of the social world’ (2011) that Blundell states captured ‘the high end of the market’. This is glaringly obvious as friends from a certain domestic demographic derive their pleasure and truth from shows such as Today Tonight and Home & Away, while others who dwell in a state of pseudo-intellectual hipsterdom get their rocks off to Battlestar Gallactica, Game of Thrones and Community.

Whilst it would be naiive to say that my viewing habits aren’t influenced by friends and ‘the cool kids’, for now I’m too busy trying to decide if I’m more like Jess from New Girl or Hannah from Girls to even contemplate getting up to speed with what Breaking Bad, The Wire or Parks & Recreation are all about.

REFERENCES

  • Hollywood: The Rise of TV (2005) course screening from COMM1073, RMIT University, viewed 20 July 2012.