Exploring the success of The Night Owl; bringing Northern Soul Nostalgia back to the Midlands, and assessing the authenticity of it.
Friday 17th July 2015, Lower Trinity Street in the heart of Digbeth, Birmingham’s most creative, eccentric community and neighbourhood, became home to a new venue; The Night Owl. The Night Owl is dedicated to the quintessential British genre merging mod, motown and soul; bringing back the essence of Northern Soul to the Midlands. Inspired by legendary Northern Soul dance halls such as Wigan Casino, and Wolverhampton’s Catacombs; a venue that is dedicated to the music and the dancing. Friday nights are the well respected Northern Soul night with the tagline ‘Keep the Faith!’, whereas Saturday evenings are much more commercialised and mainstream; ‘Mostly Motown Saturdays’; playing a bigger variety of music; Motown, Northern Soul, 60s R&B, Ska, Funk and Soul. The Night Owl has a fully sprung dance floor; designed to assist the movements of Northern Soul dancers, vintage radios and furniture surrounding the dance floor, a huge white wall which shows visual elements of whatever vinyl track is spinning at the time. Having only been open for less than a year; business seems to be keeping afloat, more and more customers venture in, from experienced dancers to first-time youngsters; taking in a whole new experience for them. This report explores the the comeback of Northern Soul to the West Midlands, using frameworks such as nostalgia within music; dancefloor politics and assessing current political economy states, by conducting an ethnography and processing and analysing the results will justify many reasons why the Night Owl is such a success.
The Northern Soul scene itself originated from the 1970s, sprung from different clubs and dance halls across the English North of the country and the Midlands that played lesser known 1960s African American pop music; along the likes of Motown, Soul, Ska and Funk and much more. At the time when Northern Soul was at its peak; there was a certain economic climate at the time; black american culture influenced young white working class english people; ‘almost a transAtlantic cultural fusion’; this influenced the divide of the Mod scene; which split off into different sub-cultures; those Mods who were ‘hard Mods’ influenced more by Ska and Reggae became skinheads. Mods who were more fashion conscious who were more influenced by progressive R&B became more involved with Carnaby-Street-Centric Hippies; however there were those Mods who were ‘purists’ who were loyal to the music itself; ‘formed the foundations of an elitist movement with a value system based on cultural knowledge and competency’ (Nicholson, 2013) that is Northern Soul. The economy at the peak of the Northern Soul hype during the mid 70s was at a low in Britain; especially in areas of the North and the Midlands; on average weekly wages would be around £16-£20. This was the usual wage for young people below the age of 30, with such low income youths in the 70s would spend their money collecting records on average street value £5-£10; in line with this, those who went ‘clubbing’ frequently were from similar incomes. After studies have assessed social class and geographical variations, “frequent visitors to clubs are drawn predominantly from the ‘middle income C and D socio-economic groups’ and that those living in the northern regions of the UK, especially within large northern cities, go clubbing, on average slightly more often than their southern counterparts,” (Malbon, 2002). These clubs that these youths attended were always over capacity; with average nights at Wigan Casino seeing on average 1500 dancers on their ‘all-nighters’; venues as such were seen more than just clubs or venues. For these youths in this particular socio-economic climate; “Northern Soul had its own temples (Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca), high priests (the disc jockeys), false prophets (the bootleggers) and congregation (thousands of working class kids pulled from the heavy industry belt of the North and the Midlands.)” (Thornton, 2013). The political economy at the time of the peak of Northern Soul reflects the ideologies that the youth at the time had; similar ideologies are in line with the youth of today; a means of escape.
The second framework used to assist my findings is the politics of the Northern Soul dance floor. Northern Soul dancing is almost gymnastic, dancers move freely doing ‘spins,’ ‘dives’ and ‘backdrops’. The dance floor was predominantly filled with male dancers back in the 1970s, with terms such as the ‘Slag Bin,’ to describe certain areas of the dance floor. The ‘Slag Bin’ would usually be the outskirts of the dance floor; ‘judging by the amount of girls having a colloquial bin ender outside, no wonder it had the name.’ (Brown, 2006). The dancing was something that had to be taken seriously; it is more than just dancing to a certain genre of music in a certain way; there are rules, almost hierarchies between dancers, and a certain etiquette for all those who wish to dance must abide by. Based on a ‘glide’ style of movement across the floor, those who dance need a rigid torso, and straight legs; eyes forward, using their arms to shift their weight as they change direction; these are the basics, more professional dancers add more twists on their movements with their ankles and hands. The etiquette that is followed by the dancers is an almost unspoken one; in order to dance in a confined space but freely; however it was male dominated in the 70s; ‘Male dancers orientate themselves to other male dancers, and dance with more elaboration, energy and competition as the number of other men on the floor increases. Friendly rivalry and showing off emphasises solidarity in a shared understanding that records have different phases’ (Wall, 2003). Friends would dance in close proximity of each other, but never in groups, and dancing between couples was rare, the dance itself is an expression of identity; ‘popular music is one method of separation, distinction and freedom from adult control, and thus aids the life course development from child to adult.’ (Smith, 2006.)
The final framework is the concept of nostalgia within popular music culture, specifically when addressing northern soul subculture. ‘Instead of Northern Soul members solely choosing rare soul as a shared reaction to popular funk and disco music, members were in fact constructing their own individual identities and status,’ (Dodds, 2013), the music itself is described as ‘‘deep soul with a dance beat’; more heartfelt, rougher and more emotional’’ (Searling, 2013). The concept of Northern Soul and the collected identity between the dancers and the ‘keepers of the faith,’ is a concept common among popular music; ‘Popular music is the product of an ongoing historical conversation in which no one has the first or last word,’ (Wilson, 2005); meaning the music has meaning to those individually, but also as a collective. Certain feelings may arise when a specific song plays; bringing memories and familiar feelings and instincts. ‘Reassuring restorative nostalgia and bittersweet, reflective nostalgia are mutually sustaining to fans who savor groups that perform genre fixity. Through the circulatory flows of fans seeking the sources of the mixes they love, each mode nourishes the other.’ (Sharp, 2014.) Nostalgia cannot just only be a singular individual sensation, but can also be a group moment too; specifically music for people that links with nostalgia tends to be music that was released in their late teens and early twenties, relevant to the nostalgia of Northern Soul. Results from studies have concluded that music that is familiar to a person will trigger nostalgia; ‘music from one’s youth leads to nostalgia if it is familiar and relevant to one’s autobiographical experiences. Furthermore, arousal and emotion are also important elements of music’s capacity to trigger nostalgia.’ (Routledge, 2015).
Methodology and Analysis
To write about the subculture and the lifestyle of Northern Soul, an ethnography has been carried out; using interviews and observations from the Night Owl, Birmingham. The Mod scene is still a lively culture within the West Midlands; particularly in areas like Digbeth; with new Mod-run businesses opening up in the past 2 years such as AceFace Barbers on the Bristol Road in Birmingham; and with the Night Owl opened; there seems to be an ever more growing community; this can be seen from the growing numbers at the Night Owl’s own dance lessons hosted on Wednesday nights, taught by Richard Pearce. Success surrounding the Night Owl has continued to grow with different events the venue hosts; a new ‘Mod night’ is hosted on Thursday nights along with various other events such as vintage clothing, vinyl and record sales too. There were many venues across the greater Birmingham area that would host Northern Soul themed nights such as Soulvation’s at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath and Heart and Soul at the Irish Centre, also in Digbeth; however there was no venue that dedicated itself to the subculture itself until The Night Owl opened for business. The Night Owl has now been open for less than a year; and each week the venue gets busier and busier; with more people from all different kinds of ages either experiencing something completely new and different or returning to the nostalgia they had the craving to return to. Speaking to Night Owl’s owner Richard Priest when discussing the opening of the venue; ‘it started as a dream, I was always in trade since I was a kid, but I always wanted my own place.’ The passion was obvious, and his love for Northern Soul was real and ingrained in the way he spoke. ‘I started to dance when I was about 12, there was some lads on the estate who would practice in the streets before the big night, they’d teach me spins and drops, before you knew it, I was one of the best in the town before I hit puberty.’ Richard appeared to be a true and authentic fan of the sub culture; ‘I went to Wigan when I was 17 for the first time; it was unreal the amount of wide eyes there were, you could smell the sweat, but you know as much as it was most likely the drugs, a lot of it was the love for the music; when you were on the floor, you were in the moment, you were living.’ There’s a sense of nostalgia in his voice, and a faint smile appeared when he reminisces about his youth and the time he spent at Wigan Casino. ‘Having my own venue is my dream come true, when I told my wife she thought I was crazy, said that I’d dance away with the dreams I had. But this place; it’s the stuff dreams are made of; a real sprung dance floor which means no broken ankles, we’ve got talc at the side ready for those who need that extra slide, a disco ball to lose yourself into, vintage decor, and a nice balcony up top, for those who really just want to sit and watch some spectacular dancing.’ Richard Priest is hopeful for business to keep going with its success; ‘give it more time, and it’ll get busier and busier here… we want young people; our DJs are currently 22 and 23 years old, but they know their stuff, we’ve got our ‘oldies’ customers, but we want the young’uns too.’ As Richard continues to look around his venue, with many people on the dancefloor from different ages, from young men, to older women, the crowd is mixed. Those dancing have no problems sliding around each other, and everyone following the rules of no drinks on the dancefloor. ‘I think not only to add to the appeal of this place; for one, the music, it’s something different, and for most people that come here, they experience something completely different. All my staff are friendly, anyone can happily chat to them, I think the music assists the friendly atmosphere too. It’s hard to imagine any trouble happening here, we’re a collective.’ Midway through answering a question about the marketing side of the Night Owl, the DJ changes the track, and without warning, Richard Priest walks away from the conversation and begins dancing to the track, along with others that herded to the dance floor as soon as the track changed. From observing, dancers in the modern age take the dancing seriously; the hierarchy is still followed, there are experienced dancers showing off their moves in the centre of the dance floor, and those who are probably new to the dance are on the outskirts of the floor, and then there are those who just observe and watch in awe the flair of the dancers right on the edge of the whole dance floor. The etiquette of the Northern Soul dance floor is also still in line with dancers; there are no bumps or accidents, no matter how much spinning and backdrops are happening on the dance floor. However, there is one thing that is particularly noticeable; the female dancers at the Night Owl dominated the dance floor much more than the male dancers; much unlike findings from the era of Northern Soul; this was a complete concur, the women dancing completely overthrew the men in terms of dancing skills, and male dancers would do their best to keep their distance from them.
Roxanne Croft, a bar staff member at the Night Owl, also spoke about her experiences at working at a Northern Soul club; ‘there is a stubbornness with certain customers, some people want to keep the Night Owl as authentic as possible; almost underground. Some people do not like the fact the venue is popular, in a commercialised way.’ Exploring this further, much marketing is completed through the use of Soul-Source, a website used by those who are still ‘keeping the faith’, where members can join forums, and look out for key Northern Soul event dates; a much more modern way of keeping in touch with the Northern Soul. However, ‘certain customers are not a fan about using websites, and how commercial it’s becoming, one said to me that ‘it’s not what it’s all about.’ He was talking about how things have changed, but the venue should stop trying to please everyone, and just aim for the experienced Northern Soul members.’ Roxanne went on to explain that there can be a level of elitism between certain customers; those will look down on first-timers, and those that just observe. ‘It’s not fair to rule people out just because of someone’s age or so, some of the best dancers we have are younger than 20, their moves are killer.’
After attending the dance lessons, Mark Croft, a Mod, a regular at The Night Owl talks about the community pride that is nestled within the venue; ‘there’s just an element of nostalgia here; almost everyone is here for the same or similar reasons, there’s certain tracks that will get everyone on the dance floor, that’s the best feeling, that everyone has a tie to it, and you can all dance together, be in that moment, and just live like we did in the 70s.’ There is a link between Northern Soul music and nostalgia; from witnessing first hand there is an element that is so apparent that people will exit conversations as soon as they hear the first 2 beats of a track. There is something that calls them, whether it is physical or mental it could be both.
Conclusion and Findings
The Night Owl is in all due respects a successful Northern Soul venue; each week the venue gets fuller and fuller, more events are held there, and a certain crowd of people is being enticed more and more as the weeks go on. The socio-economic climate in this current day is nowhere near what it was in the 1970s, the state of things are much better, in economic terms, but also socially too. Women are more like the alpha males of the dance floor at the Night Owl, whereas secondary sources said otherwise when conducting research based on the peak time of Northern Soul in the mid 70s, it is no longer a male dominated dance floor, and there is no such thing as the ‘Slag Bin’ in today’s society. The Northern Soul community through the Night Owl is much more welcoming and equal between the sexes; which is highly relevant for the current time of third wave feminism. The element of dance floor politics and etiquette is still in play too, rules are still followed 40 years after they were made, even the newcomers are taught about these rules during the dance classes; everyone learns before stepping on the talced up floor. The authenticity of the venue itself still holds up high; with a real original sprung dance floor, real vintage decorations too, it is the ultimate Northern Soul dream, however, this has been challenged by Northern Soul lovers for the venues marketing ways; using websites, forums and other devices. The nostalgic elements are in line with the secondary research too; this is most like because of the rawness of the music; transporting those back to their first all-nighter, or the first time they witnessed the vast amount of dancers in such a small vicinity. The Night Owl has arrived at a good time for business, and in the most perfect location which is Digbeth, home to alternative people, and creative over all. Further study could be applied to this area of field; when the Night Owl has reached its one year anniversary and a real assessment can be made of the success of the venue; being able to calculate more objective findings such as balancing the venue’s books. However, more detailed subjective findings can be made on a bigger scale to customers of the Night Owl; rather than just small intimate interviews with fewer people; similar questions can be asked to a larger number of people, something worth doing once the venue has been open for a year. From the findings already, the Night Owl will continue to have great success, as long as they keep their customers happy as to keep the authenticity of the venue, and the nostalgia of the music at a high level too, but also finding new ways to attract new customers, and turn people to join and ‘keep the faith.’
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- Mark Croft, Customer at Night Owl, works for Soulvation at Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath. Interviewed on Wednesday 9th December 2015.
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- Richard Priest, Owner of the Night Owl, interviewed on Friday 4th December 2015.
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- Roxanne Croft, Bar Staff at the Night Owl, interviewed on Friday 4th December 2015.
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How is femininity represented in Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? (Season 1)
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a new TV show from Netflix, created and written by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. This is brand new material from Tina Fey after her long standing show 30 Rock has come to an end on NBC. Kimmy Schmidt stars Ellie Kamper as the title-named lead, Jane Krowkowski, Tituss Burgess and Carol Kane; the show focuses on Kimmy Schmidt having to adapt to the new mixed up world of New York City in 2015 after being trapped in an underground bunker, after being kidnapped by an insane apocalyptic cult. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is just one of many brand new shows produced by Netflix, and only available to Netflix users; other highly recommended Netflix shows are House of Cards, Better Call Saul, Orange is the New Black and Arrested Development.
My research question is How is femininity represented in Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a show that is breaking old conventions of the representations of women and femininity and is seen as fresh and original for modern day TV. This essay will explores the way in which femininity and feminism is represented, how Tina Fey uses minor, subtle devices within her writing, directing, and casting of the lead characters; the lead character being a woman, and another main character is a gay black man. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an example for future TV shows to continue breaking conventions, and having higher meanings and values for future generations; especially in the way society treats women, but also the way modern day society treats not only sexism but addressing issues surrounding racism and homophobia. This essay will provide evidence as for why it goes against most readings on the way femininity is represented including theories from Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (2007) by Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, and also touching upon other key theoretical frameworks such as Stuart Hall’s Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practice (1997). The three theoretical frameworks provided will be representation, femininity and homosexuality.
Pre-existing Theoretical Context for the Work
Within this essay, along with a rhetorical analysis, I will be drawing upon key theoretical frameworks and journal works to support my findings through my own research. The first theoretical framework to explore is femininity. Femininity is represented through The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt along with a new wave of representations of femininity; in terms of feminism being represented to an up-to-date take on society. Leslie Heywood explains in Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (2007) when invoked through popular media; such as TV, ‘postfeminist’ often describes the moments where movements are no longer moving, becoming irrelevant, which Heywood suggests that the term implies that the achievements gained by previous generations of women have provided tiers within our social existence of persons complaining that women are still ‘”harping’ about women’s victim status are embarrassingly out of touch,” (page 75). This suggests that audiences are no longer interested in the ‘victimisation’ of women; and slowly feminist arguments are becoming less important to society; even though the issues are highly relevant to women across the world as a collective. Whether the ‘audience’ could be from the ‘male gaze’; it is uncertain, but representing femininity through the media, it is highly unlikely that the complaints about ‘women harping on and on…’ would come from women audiences; meaning there is still an audience that is interested and engaged in the new ways femininity is represented through new wave 21st century feminism. Heywood continues to justify her findings surrounding ‘feminist progress and ongoing feminist struggle; constituting to third wave feminist subjectivity’ (p123), stating that feminists when represented usually tend to have similar characteristics; ‘an unruly or loose woman… loud aggressive posture, working class syntax’ (p132). This type of representation tends to be quite popular in modern day television shows; 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein and Netflix’s Rita. However Heywood concludes that there is still room for improvement for representations of femininity, and the representations of modern day feminists and the teachings and values of feminism.
The second theoretical framework in which to justify and investigate within The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is representation. The key theorist to call upon is Stuart Hall; his works Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997), it discusses how ‘the media forms representations constitute major sites for conflict and negotiation, a central goal of which is the definition of what is to be taken as ‘real’ (p348). Hall addresses the problem between the mass media and dominant ideology; ‘at the centre of the agenda of those struggling for social change. For feminists, as for Marxists, the media have figured as a major instrument of ideological domination’ (P348). Hall continues to explain that through ideological domination, it is now difficult to conceptualize a position from which to resist or challenge the norm; e.g. Russell Brand in his new ‘political’ career, challenging Austerity in the UK. Hall suggests ‘that any given genre provides just such a system of underlying rules and codes by which films or TV programmes are produced and understood’ (p356); suggesting that there is repeated ‘settings, character types and images become signs for a particular kind of fictional world’, (p356). This can apply to TV programmes based in New York City, similar themes include; ‘glitz and glam’, the Upper East Side, city romances, a young girl new to the city; has to find her own way, etc. These types and ‘signs’ can already be seen through numerous TV shows; Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Ugly Betty and Friends. There is already a pattern shown through TV shows, following a young woman, moving to New York, and going on a journey of ‘discovery,’ following similar signs, going through similar cycles of love in the city and heartbreak; and the same iconic venues in New York are always featured, always in link with a certain storyline; e.g. The Brooklyn Bridge, a place to ponder lost love in the city.
The final theoretical framework in which to justify my research and findings is the representation of homosexuality. Brian McNair discusses the devices in which homosexuality has been represented and changed over time in his work Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire (2002). He discusses how the persuasive power of equal rights has taken effect on how different sexualities representations have changed over time; ‘the representation of homosexuality in mainstream culture has changed qualitatively and not merely tokenistically, in the last two decades’ (p146). This suggests a change in the way homosexuality is represented over the past 20 years; this could be because of homosexuality being much more accepted in today’s society; gay marriage now being legal in many countries including the UK and the number of states legalising the act in the United States of America. ‘When the sexual revolution was followed by feminism and gay rights, and the traditional superiority of men came under not just economic but ideological attack’ (p150), this suggests a mass change from how men are represented as a whole; gay male characters within TV programmes are not just defined by their sexuality, but who they are as a person, and the ‘straight white male’ character is under scrutiny. However, McNair also furthers his research into key signs and character connotations that are still used within programmes; the element of ‘campness’ being highlighted. ‘The continuing presence in popular culture of the camp – or ‘swishy’ – persona which, as already noted, dominated representations of homo-sexuality,’ (p145); this leads to the suggestion that camp gay men within TV programmes will always be the ‘simply licenced jesters,’ (p145), stating that most gay characters within television programmes tend to be the characters with quick wits, and bursting with sass, whilst this is still an issue; not all gay men are necessarily camp, meaning there is room for further improvement for the representation of gay men in the 21st century. These stereotypes and their connotations are already present within programmes such as Mitchel and Cameron from Modern Family, Marc St. James from Ugly Betty and Jack McFarland from Will and Grace.
Justification and Organisation of Methodology (approx. 500 words)
Conducting a rhetorical analysis for investigating the persuasive language and signs within The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, analysing the persuasive language and devices in pursuit of presenting modern day ideologies to the masses in today’s society. Addressing issues of the representations of femininity through feminism, and the representations of homosexuality through the programme, there is hope for active audiences to be on board with the programme’s teachings and morals on how to treat women; and create a fairer society, hopefully ingraining and helps audiences direct their lives. The skills I have attained from MED5105 Issues and Representations will assist with conducting my research, I can understand the concept of rhetoric; the use of language as a powerful tool used by writers and directors to create particular responses from their audiences. I have analysed two episodes from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; the pilot episode Kimmy Goes Outside! and the 5th episode of the season Kimmy Kisses a Boy! I have chosen these episodes particularly because of certain scenes that represent women in a different light; through the power of feminism, but also addressing issues surrounding homosexuality and the stigmas and connotations that follow suit. Rhetoric theorists are described to believe that a text can influence the audience; through the manipulation of signs and language and many more devices used by writers of television shows.
By analysing the devices Tina Fey and Robert Carlock use to their advantage, for using The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to provide better values and morals for future generations; in hope that audiences will be influenced by the positive reinforcement of the teachings about how to treat women and homosexuality; and showcasing different roles for many different characters; the programme challenges the norms by which TV as a whole has been following for far too long; becoming slowly outdated, and no longer relevant. The 21st century has followed the pattern of the ‘high-concept’ sitcoms making a return, rather than ‘shows about nothing’; (e.g. Friends, the show about friends hanging out.) The ‘high-concept’ sitcoms show TV programmes becoming more outlandish and weirder as time goes by, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can often resemble a ‘tween show’ seen on Nickelodeon or CBBC (The New Yorker, 2015), however, the sitcom is genuinely about a rape survivor, and her battle to survive in a world she thought she had lost. I will conduct my rhetorical analysis by addressing the subtleness of devices used and created by Tina Fey as a feminist writer, analysing the representations of women, and the homosexual man; referring back to theoretical and academic texts to support my argument; as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a new show, produced by Netflix (known for having large budgets and creating new and alternative programmes) and written by Tina Fey, the analysis should correlate with the concept of the programme, opposing every theory about how women and femininity is represented, and through feminism too. In the hopes of the outcomes of the analysis, there will also be a positive outcome in support of the morals and values within The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in hopes that future TV programmes will follow the pattern of ‘high-concept’ sitcoms, in support of influencing audiences to change behaviour, and create a fairer society.
Findings and Theorisation of Results
Within the opening sequence of the first episode (Kimmy Goes Outside!) of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, four ‘mole women’ are rescued from an underground bunker, where they have been held captive for a number of years by the ‘weird old white dude’ – the leader of a doomsday cult. The story is told through a witness, a local trailer park resident who saw the events unfold; his words are then transformed into a ‘viral auto-tuned’ opening credits. The lyrics are led by the trailer park resident waving his arms, flooded full of emotion, ‘Unbreakable! They alive, dammit, it’s a miracle. But females. Are strong as hell.’ The sequence becomes the opening credits for every episode; with the lyrics and words used, give an uplifting message about women, providing each episode with a strong opening, with statements such as ‘females are strong as hell.’ The opening credits alone are catchy; and showcases popular tabloids about women who have been kidnapped; hailing true stories such as Michelle Knight, one of Ariel Castro’s victims in Ohio in 2004.
Hollows (2000) explains that femininity itself, is largely looked over and ignored, meaning that feminists acknowledged how femininities over time, but ‘little attention paid to the different modes of feminine identity’ (p17) explaining that typical conventions still need to be outlined, but also to be updated with better representations, and much more relevant to the modern day society’s views. Kimmy Schmidt’s opening credits showcase that women’s problems are not to be ignored, that females are strong, and even after years of torment and rape, that they are not defined by what has happened to them; and that there are new ways to create a feminine identity. Following the escape, the ‘mole women’ are featured on the ‘Today’ Show, where they are offered an ‘ambush makeover’, gift bags and sent off with cries of ‘Thank you, victims,’ from the show’s runner. Allen and Hill (2004)discuss that there is a universal idea of what femininity is; and how it is portrayed through US television; ‘that the universal idea (of femininity) for many in the United States because US television was after all simply reflecting all reality, mirroring nature, in another of its defining metaphors, simply being a “window on the world.”’ This can help support the argument that women’s bodies and looks are just the main focus; simply reflecting the reality of today’s society, that the real issues about women are not actually being discussed, not helping with the feminist movement to progress. Throughout the first episode, Kimmy Schmidt finds a new home with an outrageous black gay man, Titus Andromedon, she finds a boss, Jacqueline Voorhees; with quips being thrown in about her past but never revealing her past openly. Apart from when she reveals to Titus; ‘yes there was weird sex stuff in the bunker’ but still managing to be completely unfazed by her past, accepting who she is as a person in the present; . Brundson (1993) discusses the transparent relationship shared between women; ‘a consciousness of women as a gender group who are subject to a global patriarchal subordination, and thus who have gender specific experiences in common,’ can be mirrored through television, by reflecting real experiences of women on screen. This can be applied to modern day TV in line with Netflix shows such as Orange is the New Black, a show which explores many different levels and experiences throughout women’s lives, from women from different backgrounds, ethnicities, races and sexualities.
This also applies to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, where others can relate to Kimmy’s stories, not necessarily to the extent of being kidnapped and held captive in an underground bunker, but with everyday sexism issues. An everyday sexism issue is raised in Kimmy Kisses a Boy! Within the opening sequence of the episode, Kimmy encounters being cat-called by a builder in the city, where Kimmy replies to his remarks completely oblivious that he was being completely misogynistic, and then throughout the episode you encounter the builder questioning his actions, and the way he treats women. This could potentially have a positive influence over cat callers, and those who have to put up with cat calling, a better response could be imposed, or just cat callers questioning why they do it, just as the builder does; ‘why do I say these things, I got a mother who I love, and three beautiful sisters’ – ‘bigger picture!’ These subtle writing devices used by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey have been praised already for addressing everyday sexist issues, and putting a comedic turn, making horrible things funny; suggesting that surviving could be more than just living on. Gamman and Marshment (1988) review women as an audience, questioning the debate around the differences between women as audiences; through the feminist gaze; ‘it is prudent to consider just who is looking at whom!’ This work explains that the audience determines their own opinion from what they watch on TV, for example ‘‘Women have certainly felt ‘moved’ by the experience of viewing ‘The Dinner Party’, but may were moved to express discomfort rather than admiration.’’ For representing femininity; The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is powerfully ‘girly’, but is a model of human toughness; and not only for women.
The representation of homosexuality through The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is delicate, and not near as ground breaking as the new representation of femininity. The gay character Titus Andromoden is overtly camp; but seems comfortable with the way he is. Sneed (2010) discusses the stigma of ‘black males’ and homosexuality; the threat of HIV/AIDS viruses and the stigmas and stereotypes that surround gay black men; ‘HIV/AIDS only reinforced the presentation of black gays as social pariahs, outcasts, and objects of scorn or pity.’ However, Titus does seem like an outcast, his backstory was leaving Mississippi to follow his dreams of being a Broadway star; following conventions of ‘campness’ within TV shows; Gross (2013) discusses the mass media representations, and the absence of facts in representations; ‘most people – gay or straight – have little choice but to accept the media stereotypes they imagine must be typical of all lesbians and gay men.’ Goltz (2009) discusses the positive representations of homosexuality rather than negative portrayals in TV shows; ‘the gay male is regularly overseeing the sexuality of the heterosexual women, who in turn, are positioned as weak, needy, and always sexually available to gay men.’ This correlates with my rhetorical analysis of Titus Andromedon as a character, and his behaviour towards Kimmy, looking out for her, and wanting what is best for her; however, it does not suit the stereotypes that surround Kimmy as a character, my analysis offers an alternative representation; a paternal role for homosexual men, but a role in the lives of their straight female friends – Gross (2013). Becker (2006) investigates what conventions and stereotypical devices such as traits and interests are used to represent homosexuality; ‘Since homosexuality has no ‘natural’ visible markers of difference (like race and gender supposedly do), signifying gayness can take concerted editorial effort;’ which correlates within Titus’ character, the signifying of gayness has taken a lot of effort to present the gay character.
Overall, my findings have correlated with many readings and predated theories that support my research; however, my findings do oppose many stereotypes and outdated views that are mirrored by today’s society. The jokes about trauma, and everyday sexism; the programme takes risks, but those risks need to be taken, to stand as an example and to influence the active audience to know better and to mirror what is shown to the real world. The theme song offers an uplifting fun new take to present feminism; and addresses everyday sexist issues; such as ‘not being rude,’ and cat-calling. Presenting Kimmy as a ‘girly-girl’ but new to the world; there is much to learn from Kimmy’s journey about the modern day woman; challenging society’s norms; ‘Changing your outside isn’t going to fix what’s wrong inside.’ Kimmy’s story of battling through tough times, and overcoming the bad things that have happened in your past. The lack of interest in white men who so dominate the television landscape within the show, just highlights the importance of females within the show; with the underground bunker almost representing a patriarchy metaphor is made explicit; representing women’s stories in a relatable way. The representation of femininity is expressed throughout The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt through the movement of feminism; but having a fun and light hearted take on the matter; and should be used as an exemplar for future writers and directors to follow suit to represent femininity and homosexuality in a more representative way; and to subtly add teachings and morals to the show; encouraging ‘high-concept’ sitcoms to continue for future generations to learn from.
- Heywood, L (2007). Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
- Hall, S (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices . London: SAGE.
- McNair, B (2002). Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire. London: Routledge.
- Nussbaum, E. (2015). Candy Girl The bright-pink resilience of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Available: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/30/candy-girl . Last accessed 1st May 2015.
- Hollows, J (2000). Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p17.
- Clyde Allen, A & Hill, A (2004). The Television Studies Reader. London: Psychology Press. p377.
- Brunsdon, C (1993). Identity in feminist television criticism. Media Culture and Society 19. p170.
- Gamman, L & Marshment, M (1988). The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture. London: The Women’s Press Ltd. P175-176
- Sneed, R (2010). Representations of Homosexuality: Black Liberation Theology and Cultural Criticism. New York City: Palgrave MacMillan. p9.
- Goltz, D (2009). Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity, and Futurity. London: Routledge. p38.
- Gross, L (2013). Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. New York City: Columbia University Press. p14.
- Becker, R (2006). Gay TV and Straight America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 62.
How does Mustafah Abdulaziz mask the poverty shown in his Water collection?
Mustafah Abdulaziz born in 1986 in New York City, the first contracted photographer for the Wall Street Journal, with work published in the New York Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Guardian and many more well-established publications. Abdulaziz’s latest project Water started in 2012 and will not be complete until 2018, it focuses on ‘a natural resource in crisis, reflecting on our relationship with water, how we use and misuse it.’ (Abdulaziz 2012). Abdulaziz has travelled all over the world and has 32 more countries to travel and photograph until Water is completed, so far the collection contains images from Pakistan, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, in poverty stricken areas and where water is scarce, the project has received grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and commissions from the United Nations and WaterAid. Mustafah Abdulaziz’s images are works of beauty, however, being a photojournalist, there is a purpose to his images; to showcase water scarcity across our world in today’s age, and yet he manages to mask these images as beautiful and almost dream-like, rather than photographs of the harsh reality of poverty in the 21st century. Using theoretical approaches and analysing my chosen 3 images, I will uncover how Mustafah Abdulaziz has masked issues all over the world by making them appealing to the eye in his photographs. Whether this was done intentionally or not; this mirrors what many media establishments have been constructing for many decades; masking the truth with something else in place; which constructs and deconstructs different elements within society; hiding the truth from the masses.
I will deconstruct the images using analytical tools; and will be reinforcing my findings with academic findings. By undertaking primary and secondary research; by textual analysing my chosen images, I will begin to break down how Mustafah Abdulaziz masks the poverty shown in them. A textual analysis is suitable for this research question; which will enable me to critically analyse these images in as much detail as possible; and from there I will be able to make educated interpretations from what I have learnt from this module. By evaluating the photographs precisely and as systematically as possible; it is necessary that I make these decisions on how the images have been constructed; the composition, signs, framing and many more techniques. Having collected a number of interviews with Abdulaziz, and using theoretical approaches, semiology and rhetoric devices, I will further investigate how Abdulaziz almost distracts the audience looking at these images, and then how he still highlights the true purpose of the project Water.
I will be calling upon key theorists who have hypothesised and conducted research that strongly links to my research question; such as Raymond Tallis’ work of In Defence of Realism (1988); whose research explores the field of what cameras can show us; limiting certain elements of reality; ‘if the claim that the camera cannot lie has a kind of limited truth, it is precisely the reason that it cannot, but itself, tell the truth, either.’ Explaining further that physical reality within itself is neither true nor false; it’s a matter of perspective. Similarly to this, this can be expressed in Howard Becker’s work Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: It’s (almost) all a matter of context (1994); ‘’what is documentary ‘supposed to do?’’ In context to this research question; it is the explaining to delve into the unknown; in link with orientalism; specifically as Abdulaziz as a photojournalist capturing water scarcity; photographs the Middle East in Pakistan, but also in Sierra Leone, Africa. This limits to what extent my research can reach; as it is unknown whether these photographs were staged or planned; to hide the truth of water scarcity or to highlight it through these photographs. Within Howard Chapnick’s work Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism (1994), he expresses; ‘for me documentary photography is less a matter of subject, and more a matter of approach. The important thing is not what’s being photographed.’ This piece of research is highly relevant to one of the photographs that I will be analysing, but also to photojournalism as a whole; especially when photographing the East; which links with the concept of orientalism too. Turning to theorists about signs and signifiers; what is highlighted within images and what is not; Ed Pluth looks to Saussure for support in his work Signifiers and Acts: Freedom in Lacan’s Theory of the Subject (2012); ‘a signifier can always signify something else, and for this reason on its own it, strictly speaking, signifies nothing.’ This piece of research is relevant to Image A, with the women pulling the water from the well; the rope signifies something, yet it also signifies nothing; in correlation to what Abdulaziz is trying to show us through his images on his travels. In Bianca Freire-Medeiros’ research Touring Poverty (2012); her journal highlights the highs and lows of travelling and photographing poverty in Rocinha; a favela in Rio, Brazil; in terms of photographing residents from poverty; ‘they make it possible for Rocinha residents to stare back into the camera – and therefore at us.’ This research is relevant to Image C; with the young boy staring straight into the camera; and hence straight into the observer’s eyes too; bringing a sense of reality to the photograph; whilst expressing the harshness of the reality that people within our world still live in; in contrast to the beauty of the surroundings. Along the lines of photographing poverty; in John and Malcom Collier’s work Visual Anthropology: Photography as Research Method (1986); they discuss how in certain areas in the world you can be arrested for photographing poverty; specifically in Mexico; where the natives have a growing tolerance for what you choose to photograph. ‘After all, what you photograph is their image, and the nonverbal image often tends to be more emotionally charged than the one they express verbally and intellectually.’ This coincides with my research as to look at what is being shown and what isn’t within Abdulaziz’ collection; however, this limits my research as we can only take the photographer’s word on it. In Michelle Bogre’s collection of images and research within Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change (2012), she analyses many images that explore the reality of poverty; specifically in Africa; ‘these dark, sad images linger and resonate.’ This supports my findings specifically with Image C; where the image does signify the harsh reality of the living conditions surrounding water scarcity. In Pierre Taminiaux’s work The Paradox of Photography (2012) he expresses; ‘The truth for me, therefore, questions the actual meaning of the purely social truth of the image. This social truth denies, in its very nature, the possibility of a secret. It is instead dominated by an obsession, with transparency and public exhibition.’ Again, this correlates with my question; along the lines of, the truth again is all a matter of perspective, and through the eyes of the viewer; the truth lies through each viewer’s own perspective; what was the point of Mustafah Abdulaziz photographing water scarcity; and what is the truth behind it; what is not being photographed? In Audrey Borschel’s work Sleuthing the Truth in Media (2012), she looks towards media consumers; in this particular context; photograph consumers; ‘ultimately consumers decide whether they will be persuaded by the messages they receive, thus we consumers are not neutral either.’ This collates with the purpose of Abdulaziz’s Water collection; he wanted to highlight the water scarcity; however, his pictures may or may not convey the ‘message’ of poverty across his images; from the beauty of the images, and the construction of visual techniques it can almost construct a false meaning. Along with this piece of research, I call upon John Tagg’s work The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning (2009), ‘Meaning might escape us. Repetition of what is said to be already evident is compelled. Nothing can be left unattached. The photograph must be spoken for. It must be clearly kept in place.’ That the purpose of the these photographs was to signify water scarcity; however, the beauty that masks it, could also be seen as removing that meaning; this can coincide with the fact photojournalists are not meant to be artists. This traces the line of the next theorists I call upon; Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites; who discuss the divide between art and objectivity in their work; No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy; (2007) ‘Among professionals, the ‘photograph’ is presumed to be an artistically crafted yet transparent window on reality. The tension between ‘’art’’ and ‘’objectivity’’ as the dual goals of photojournalism, simply comes down to ethics.’ Addressing the sole purpose of photojournalism; and how photographs are inferred. This addresses the problem of objectivity; which is highlighted in Julianne Newton’s research The Burden of the Visual Truth: The Role of Photojournalism in Mediation Reality (2013); ‘Since the 1960s, research in the social sciences has increasingly supported the idea that objectivity is an unobtainable value, a myth, a societal ritual, an organizational routine, or a fall back ideology to protect the hurried journalist in every day practice.’ This again supports the clear evidence that the meaning of these photographs will be inferred by each different viewer; the meaning is subjective, as well as the purpose; are these images here to highlight the water scarcity; or that we can find beauty in the worst places too?
Image A was taken in the Sindh region of Pakistan, where water is collected by being brought up in buckets from a dug well and carried by women and their camels to feed their families at home. These women travel for miles and miles, on foot to collect water, ‘water is life, so they give life to their families every day.’ (Mustafah Abdulaziz, the Telegraph 2014.) This photograph is undeniably beautiful when first looked upon, the eyes are distracted by the high key lighting, creating a dream-like image; the detail and intricacy on the women’s saris add to the effect too. The pattern of 3; with the 3 women aligned along the photograph and with pyramid symbols around the women, their heads and arms holding onto the rope creates a harmonious image. The Rule of Thirds almost perfectly manages to fit in, with the line of the rope, the horizon line in the distance, and where the women are within the photograph, creates a visually pleasing image. When I first looked at this image, I thought that the women were dancing, it seemed to fit the likeable aesthetics of the image, fitting a fairy tale like photograph. After reading about the project and what Mustafah Abdulaziz is trying to portray in his collection, only then did I see that the women were pulling up water from a well, and that was what fascinated me into uncovering the issue of what photojournalists are showcasing, and not in a sense ‘artwork’. Cyan is seen in almost every photograph in Abdulaziz’s collection, playing a very important role as to highlight what the issue is that is being portrayed; various tones of cyan symbolises water. ‘These women have zero time for anything else, they devote their lives to it, sacrificing their health, wellbeing and ability to give birth,’ (Abdulaziz, The Telegraph, 2014), Abdulaziz’s Water project is to showcase to the privileged world the harsh realities of the world that is not seen in the western world. This image is could be seen as a piece of art; almost like a painting; which contrasts what photojournalism truly is; if the well was in the picture then it would make sense what the real ‘meaning’ of the image is; showing the water scarcity; but the absence of what is at the other end of the rope could lead to many different assumptions. However, the photo is technically beautiful and the aesthetics are perfectly place in terms of the angles and the lines; including rules of thirds and the pyramids. The analysis of this particular research is also limited; meaning the question cannot be correctly answered as again it is a matter of context in which it is placed; what is not being photographed; what is the meaning; each answer will be different coming from each viewer and the way they see it. Some may automatically see the problems highlighted; women having to pull water from a well, however some may see the aesthetics of the photograph; the beauty of the clothes and the lighting through them, and that will be all. It is undeniable that this photo is beautiful, and technically appealing to the eyes; but it does have a purpose, as much as this image is beautiful; when looked in close detail and with context, the problem is highlighted; water scarcity.
Image B is taken from the sub project of Water; The Purifying Ganges. The Ganges River runs through India; is sacred to many people in India; a place of purifying, burial, and is considered to be holy in many areas in the country. Another very visually appealing image from Mustafah Abdulaziz’s collection, the rule of Thirds fitting in almost perfectly, being a selection image, managing to be the right moment to capture the image of the schoolgirls dressed in their blue and white uniforms walking alongside the river on their way to school. This landscape digital photograph was most likely to have been taken from across the river, with low key lighting it creates a sombre mood for the image; which may draw the eyes from the brighter hues of cyan (the schoolgirls’ uniforms) to directly below them with a low saturation filter too, where all the waste is collected along the river banks, showing the reality of the scarcity of clean water. With this also being the horizon line of the image, the reality of poverty is much clearer in this photograph than in image A. The viewpoint which this photo was taken seems to be on some sort of beach; with hints of a sand bank on in the bottom right corner; with Abdulaziz photographing an almost upwards view of the bank, making the horizon line vanish behind the bank and the people walking on top of it. The rule of thirds is hugely visible; almost outlined in this image, with the bank running through the middle of the photograph, and the telephone poles running on central of the image; as well as the reflection of them in the water, and the telephone lines in the distancing outlining another line; the image is appealing to look at, as it has guide lines for the viewer to follow and analyse each small section within the photograph. The bright hues of blue and orange on the clothes of the school girls and other people walking along the bank, contrast with the low saturation of the rest of the image. Again, this can be argued that the beauty and aesthetics of the image mask the actual ‘meaning’ of the images; are the schoolgirls almost a distraction to what is lying in the river below them? Again, there is no way to objectively measure it; it all comes down to how the viewer perceives the image; and whether they infer the message or not. The message is to highlight the water scarcity within India; however this is relevant to this image; the eyes are instantly drawn to the centre horizontal line running through the middle of the image; to look at the schoolgirls; but then for the eyes to be drawn directly below them; to all of the rubbish that lies on top of the water; and almost follows the line of the schoolgirls all along the image. The poor quality of water in India is highlighted in this image; by Abdulaziz actually showing the rubbish within the water; signifying dirty and unsanitary water. As beautiful as this image; this is could not be seen as completely beautiful or aesthetically pleasing; considering the actual purpose of ‘water scarcity’ is actually being shown; rather than not being shown like in image A.
Image C was a captured moment in one of the slum homes in Sierra Leone, world famous for its poverty and corruption including the Diamond industry, and most recently, the outbreak of Ebola. In 2012, there was a truly devastating outbreak of cholera, ravaging 12 out of 13 districts in Sierra Leone, the worst in slum settlements near the capital Freetown. Sierra Leone slums are without safe and reliable water or proper sanitation which puts the country at more risk of another outbreak. This photograph’s subjects are from the slums, which have access to water, whether it is clean water it is unsure, but it is implied because of where the image was taken, it most likely isn’t. The quality of life and living conditions are also highlighted; even just by looking at the floor within the image. This photo was most likely to be isolated, by taking many different photos of this slum home, and then selecting the perfect time to capture the curiosity on the young boy’s face at the bottom of the image. My gaze was drawn to him first, because of what he is wearing; again, the colour blue is very important to this project as it symbolises water, but also the symbol on his t-shirt, for Superman, which shows how little help the West shows to the rest of the world, by donating clothes to aid people, and yet, there are human beings without a fundamental human right which is access to clean and safe water. The rule of thirds once again draws the gaze towards the child, and the pyramid that surrounds him; the young girl behind him. This image is not so aesthetically pleasing as Images A and B; however, there is one important symbol within the photograph that tells the viewer a lot about what life is like in Sierra Leone; and how the western world ‘aids’ places; the superman t-shirt. This is one place that needs a superhero; and the t-shirt symbolises the opposites of the western world; and what is happening to innocent people; such as the little boy in image C.
Overall, as much as my research can be quite limited; due to the problem of objectivity; and being unable to measure how Mustafah Abdulaziz masks the poverty and water scarcity in his images from his Water collection; it is again down to the viewer how they interpret the image. It is clear what eyes are drawn to within the images; the colours, the technical devices used, supported with secondary sources; it has never been truer that photojournalists cannot be artists. And that there are definitely issues with ethics when photographing poverty; it is a window which in to look into a completely different reality; something the west including the UK and the U.S.A. could ever imagine living through, and surviving. These photos are important to educate the west on the harsh realities that we don’t even give a second thought about; the message is not powerful enough to sway us to take action; the beauty should be removed to create a more ‘powerful’ image if to really highlight water scarcity; specifically in images A and B; however, the beauty and the technical appealing aesthetics is what drawers viewers in; so they are paradoxes within themselves. It is a problem that cannot be fixed so easily within photojournalism; it is the way it has to be; to document but also to drawer people in and pay attention. The message through photographs will never be clear; because without actual text of what the meaning is, the message is completely subjective to whatever the viewer will take from gazing upon the image. It is difficult to measure it and put it down to facts and figures; but one can hope that people take in and give a thought about the harsh reality of water scarcity; and the amount of effort Mustafah Abdulaziz put in to capture these brilliant images; and to truly take in the purpose of them too; and look behind the beauty, and look into the problems that are addressed within the images.
- Tallis, R (1988). In Defense of Realism. Nebraska: University of Nebraska. 38.
- Becker, H (1994) Visual sociology, documentary photography, and photojournalism: It’s (almost) all a matter of context. Visual Sociology 10 (1–2): (pp.5–14)
- Chapnick, H (1994). Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism. Missouri: University of Missouri. 17.
- Pluth, E (2012). Signifiers and Acts: Freedom in Lacan’s Theory of the Subject. Albany: SUNY Press. 31.
- Freire-Medeiros, B (2012). Touring Poverty. London: Routledge. 128.
- Collier, J, A (1986). Visual Anthropology: Photography as Research Method. New Mexico: UNM Press. 27.
- Bogre, M (2012). Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change. Burlington: CRC Press. 14
- Taminiaux, P (2009). The Paradox of Photography. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 140.
- Borschel, A (2012). Sleuthing the Truth in Media. Indianapolis: First Edition Design Publishing. 51.
- Tagg, J (2009). The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and Capture of Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 17.
- Hariman, Lucaites, J (2007). No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 307.
- Newton, J (2013). The Burden of the Visual Truth: The Role of Photojournalism in Mediating Reality. London: Routledge. 34-35.
Women pull water from a well, Tharpakar, Pakistan, 2013.
Sangam, Allahabad, India, 2013.
Water point, Kroo Bay, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2012.
How does Transparent Represent and Portray the Various Different Sexualities and Gender Conformities to Active Audiences within the 21st Century?
Siobhan Mary Bowater
Media and Communications
Transparent was released on Amazon Prime Video on 6th February 2014, created by the incredibly talented Jill Soloway. The programme is the first to be produced by Amazon Studios to win a major award from the industry; and also the first to win a Golden Globe for Best Series by a streaming platform service, Jeffrey Tambor won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards, and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. The show has been a huge success; with the second season released on 11th December 2015, and has been renewed for a third season.
Transparent’s plotline follows an LA Jewish family, the Pfeffermans and their lives at the point of the discovery that the patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) is transgender, which leads to more secrets within the family being revealed. Eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) learns more about her own sexuality when her college ex-girlfriend makes a reappearance back into her life whilst simultaneously reassessing her own marriage. Only son Josh (Jay Duplass) struggles to stay grounded living his life as an LA music manager, and youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffman) learns more about her gender and her own sexuality in a journey of self-discovery.
Transparent holds an approval rating of 97% from Rotten Tomatoes (RottenTomatoes, 2016) , and has been hailed by several television critics. Transparent is a show that is changing television and more importantly changing perceptions on sexuality and gender. The programme itself is visually beautiful, setting the tone of life in Los Angeles; and places characters into unfamiliar territory that is rarely seen on mainstream television, specifically when it comes to gender and ambiguous sexual identity. As much as Transparent is a comedy programme, it can also be very heartbreaking to watch too, some scenes can be relatable to real life; the breaking down of a marriage, miscarriage and the disappointing child.
As a liberated woman who identifies as bisexual, Transparent is a programme that encouraged me to constantly be questioning sexual identity and gender conformity. Which brings me to the focus of this study; is sexual identity a real thing, or is it another way to categorise humanity? Is it right to constantly label people based on their tastes or preferences? If you don’t identify as very feminine or masculine, does it make you an outcast, or more evolved? Quite possibly, but how are these potentially more evolved people represented through the mainstream media and through television? Why is it that there is almost no positive television representations of bisexual people?
To me, this study has enabled me to critically understand and theorise about issues I am very much affected by. For the reader, this study provides a detailed and thought-provoking analysis of the representations of the LGBT community within Transparent, and an explanation of the cultural, social and political issues the community face within the 21st century, and new issues within the community that appear too.
My thesis is that sexual identity can never be truly identified, as human beings we each have different thoughts and feelings when it comes to sexuality, we cannot easily be categorised as much as society thinks it can. I also believe that media representations of bisexuality are very rare to find; specifically male bisexuality and those representations that are in place often tend to be negative. The quantity of representations of bisexuality are slowly on the rise, and the quality is definitely improving; however bisexual women may be portrayed more often, but their sexual preferences have often been portrayed simply as an aphrodisiac for men, whereas there are only few representations of bisexual men (Bisexual.org, 2014), and it is never stated that they are bisexual, but simply ambiguous. In the 21st century representations of Trans people has hugely improved, and the majority is hugely positive, I believe the same needs to be done for all aspects of the LGBT spectrum to create an equal playing field.
Representation as a Key Concept
Transparent is a TV programme that highlights the often underlooked complicated matter of sexuality; by specifically looking at how the programme represents sexuality, the overall theoretical framework to be explored is Representation itself. The key theorist which to call upon is Stuart Hall; who defines representation as the act of representing a meaning that already exists; within his works of Representation (2013), it is specified how the constructionvist approach defines representation ‘it is not the material world which conveys meaning: it is the language system we are using to represent our concepts’ (p11). An approach that is highly relevant to this specific area of research, when addressing a specific culture, lifestyle, sexual preferences are being represented. ‘In representation, constructionvists argue, we use signs, organised into different kinds, to communicate meaningfully with others,’ (p14). Stuart Hall addresses the problem between mass media and dominant ideology within his book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997), ‘at the centre of the agenda of those struggling for social change. For feminists, as for Marxists, the media have figured as a major instrument of ideological domination,’ (p348). Hall draws attention that through ideological domination, it is now difficult to conceptualise a position from which to resist or challenge the norm. This suggests that there are repeated ‘settings, character types and images become signs for a particular kind of fictional world,’ (p356); which can apply to numerous TV programmes based on sexual identity; certain confusion within discovering one’s sexuality, camp stereotypes are created too in programmes such as The L Word, Queer as Folk and Orange Is the New Black.
Roland Barthes examines the gaze with regards to representation within his work Image, Music, Text (1997); he defines representation through the eyes of the gaze; ‘representation is not defined directly by imitation: even if one gets rid of notions of the ‘real’ of the ‘vraisemblable’, of the ‘copy’ there will still be representation for as long as a subject (author, reader, spectator or voyeur) casts his gaze towards a horizon on which he cuts the base of a triangle, his eye (or his mind) forming the apex,’ (p69). Barthes carefully addresses that representation is surrounded by the unknown mind of the perceiver of information, and how certain representations can have certain purposes depending on the viewer; whether it is an act of social activism; like certain scenes within Transparent, included to provoke enlightenment or whether it does the opposite; which can be seen amongst many films such as the Trans scene in Hangover Part 2 (2011) and Vince Vaughn’s scene with a gay man in Wedding Crashers (2005). Both these films are heterosexual male led casts, both catered towards the male gaze, both scenes reinforce offensive and outdated stereotypes. Barthes also notes ‘as soon as one ‘represents’ it must be decided whether the gesture is social or not, when it refers not to a particular society but to Man.’ (p74) This is not to suggest that every gesture is social, but to challenge whether it could be something more than the same representations the masses have seen before.
In Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation (1996) Thomas Docherty proposes new modes of critical engagement with contemporary culture; when discussing representation specifically how representations can have positive and negative connotations; ‘The perception of an image as an image involves us in a specific deception or irony with respect to the statues of the real,’ (p23). This highlights the issue of representations through fictional TV programmes, generally because they are fictional; ‘the real’ is a broad and wide concept to grasp. Hence, Docherty argues about the exaggeration of representations, concluding how stereotypes can be formed without a fullness of the subject; ‘If an object (or subject)’s representation of itself can constitute an authentic part of its essence, then the object (or subject) prior to its representation cannot have been anthologically full in the first place, requiring rather a representation in order to reveal its fullness.’ (p25)
In line with exploring representation and the symbolic processes it involves; how stereotypes are formed and the connotations that surround these types, Michael Pickering addresses the potential social issues that can form through stereotypes through his work Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation (2001). Within the first chapter, Pickering states ‘They (stereotypes) distort the ways in which social groups or individuals are perceived, and they obscure the more complex and finite particularities and subjectivities tangled up in the everyday lives of groups and individuals,’ (p10). This is particularly relevant to addressing the representation of sexuality within Transparent, as the programme portrays a number of different sexualities across a variety of people; specifically when addressing the struggles of the Trans community who face harsh reality due the stereotypical representations they have about themselves. Transparent is a programme designed to break the boundaries and provide Enlightenment to tackle prejudice; Pickering also discusses how stereotypes could be used to do this ‘the implications of this for subsequent judgment, for stereotyping and a critical understanding of the stereotype, are crucial. They should lead us to rethink the premises of enlightened reasons’ self-arrogated pathologisation of prejudice.’ (p211)
In The Matter of Images (2002) Richard Dyer describes stereotypes in light of what is seen on screen; ‘Stereotypes are a particular subcategory of a broader category of fictional characters, ‘the type.’ Whereas stereotypes are essentially defined by their social function, namely as a mode of characterization in fiction,’ (p13). Dyer addresses how representation is seen on screen, and what the audience is led to believe from them; specifically when looking at LGBT TV and Film; ‘The majority of fictions that address themselves to general social issues tend nevertheless to end up telling the story of a particular individual, hence returning social issues to purely personal and psychological ones,’ (p13). This is pertinent when addressing the representations within Transparent, the programme surrounds one family; each discovery that is unfolded within the family involving their sexuality could be seen as simply returning to personal and psychological issues; it most definitely is not the purpose, however, it may be perceived as this.
When examining the concept of Representation within itself, it is clear that when addressing different social issues through TV programmes that stereotypes tend to be used, this has been seen throughout cinematic history. Transparent is redefining sexuality representations and destigmatising stereotypes surrounding the LGBT community, which leads me to the title of my next chapter.
How can Sexuality be so easily Categorised?
Transparent is a television programme that challenges the social norms of the 21st century representations of sexuality; specifically lesbians, bisexuals and transgender women. The key theorist I have called upon is Richard Dyer and his works of The Matter of Images (2002), focusing on queer sexuality through the screen. He describes how types are created through use of language and ;
‘The problem was and is that the arguments about homosexuality are very hard to make on the terrain of existing definitions, which do inexorably imply categories and types. Thus a statement like ‘homosexuals are just like anyone else’ already reproduces the notion that there are persons designated homosexuals. Moreover, the development of gay subcultures meant that many homosexual people did participate in a lifestyle, a set of tastes, a language and so on that their lives were in more aspects than the sexual, different from that of most heterosexual people’ (p21).
Dyer continues to explore the use of labels and whether certain behaviours are created from them; the use of ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ for describing homosexual men can lead to ‘campness’ as a prime example; then evolving into homosexual stereotypes. When addressing the difference between homosexual and heterosexual behaviours he states
‘We are led to treat heterosexuality and homosexuality as sharply opposed categories of persons when in reality both hetero and homosexual responses and behaviour are to some extent experienced by everybody in their life.’ (p16)
Leading to beliefs that sexual identity is something all human beings go through, rather than just ‘confused’ or ‘experimental’ behaviours with regards to homosexuals; everybody has a sense of self identity. When addressing the matter of bisexuality within media representations, Richard Dyer talks about how ‘it is often used in concert with an essentialist view of human sexuality as being ‘really’ either bisexual or polymorphous perverse,’ (p20). This addresses the issue of how bisexuality is not necessarily defined or be so simply put into a box; leading to a more open view and free for interpretation through the media. He continues
‘In- betweenism probably remains the most familiar and widespread gay typology. In its tragic and violent modes it reinforces negative views of gay sexuality, in its representation of the nastiness or ridiculousness of not being really one sex or the other; it serves to maintain the notions of rigid gender role differentiation,’ (p37).
Diane Richardson discusses heterosexual representations through her work Theorising Heterosexuality (1996), where she discusses the link between gender conformity and sexuality differences; ‘Gender is not simply the mould in which men and women learn different sexualities, but it is a product of sexuality,’ (p17). It is explored how different gender roles can be adopted through sexuality preferences, and the choosing of certain stereotypical lifestyles; specifically through ‘true-to-life’ media representations; where certain signs and signifiers can be put into place to reinforce the ideology of the sexual preference and hence reinforcing gender conformity too. When addressing the matter of bisexuality and how it is represented, she states
‘bisexuals are of course vital to the redefinition of people merely fitting into the two categories of hetero- and homosexual. As more bisexual men and women begin to claim a distinct sexual identity and refuse to be treated as sitting on the fence or as lapsed homosexuals, it becomes harder to sustain the idea that there are only two sexual orientations,’ (p172).
She explores how the specific sexuality of bisexual is harder to represent as history continues to shift, and new discoveries are occurring, still with no clear and definitive representation that is both accurate and relatable.
In line with the representation of sexuality, when addressing sexual identity, and what makes certain things attractive to different people, I call upon Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork (1995) by Don Kullick and Margaret Wilson. The authors address representations of what makes different sexualities what they are within their first chapter; ‘Erotic subjectivity does things. It performs, or, rather can be made to perform, work,’ (p5), this could be interpreted as because of the heavy subjectivity that surrounds sexual preferences, there is no real or accurate representations of what is sexually desirable to different people, but only by sexualised objects e.g. women’s breasts, as use of signifiers of representations of what is sexually attractive to certain people e.g. heterosexual men. When addressing how sexual identity is represented through ‘sense of self’, it explores how representations can be damaging where a person’s sexuality can become their sense of self, how sexuality can define a person; ‘the various practices, feelings, and knowledges that have come to compose the domain of sex in Western societies are currently the medium through which people seek to define their personalities, their tastes. Sex has become a constitutive principle of the self.’ (p12)
Within the work of Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture (1995), Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter discuss the problems with bisexuality, and the stigmas that arise from it, and whether a clear definition or representation can be given to that specific sexual orientation, ‘Activists have used the term ‘bisexual’ to disrupt the natural status of the dualism of heterosexual/homosexual. But they have then paradoxically reinstated sexual polarity through the addition of a third naturalized term, as rigidly gendered as the original two, only doubled.’ (p164-65) It explores how representations of bisexuality can never truly be clear, as there is so much ambiguity as to what is attractive traits to bisexual people, however it reinforces the ideology that each person is different hence, representations will never be accurate. Duggan and Hunter also make points about representations of ‘self-representation’ and sexual identity, when identifying as a distinct sexual orientation, ‘Self-representation of one’s sexual identity necessarily includes a message that one has not merely come out, but that one intends to be out – to act on and live out that identity’ (p124), this relates to certain stereotypes when referring to homosexuality; certain behaviours can be represented as signifiers for sexual orientation; ‘campness’ and ‘butchness’. The works continue to explore this matter in the chapter; ‘Notions of identity increasingly form the basis for gay and lesbian equality claims. Those claims merge not only status and conduct, but also viewpoint, into one whole. To be openly gay, when the closet is an option, is to function as an advocate as well as a symbol.’ (p124)
Lisa M. Diamond discusses the stereotypes and common representations of lesbian and bisexual women within her in depth work of ‘I’m Straight, but I Kissed a Girl’: The Trouble with American Media Representations of Female-Female Sexuality (2005). The work highlights many important aspects within the matter of representations of sexuality, specifically how specific sexual orientations representations over the past 5-10 years have been catered to a specific audience; and how ‘images of female-female sexuality between attractive. ‘Heterosexual-looking’ participants may have a powerful positive influence on young women by countering stereotypes of lesbians as unattractive, masculine, and hostile.’ (p105) This gives more detail in how lesbian characters look in terms of representations, with means to please the audience by providing characters that are more suited to the male gaze. Diamond provides many examples within the journal, which the majority combine both youth and female-female sexuality, such as the female pop duo Tatu; evidence is presented that they were to represent an ‘underage sex project’ which reinforces the aspect of fantasy and experimentation. Lisa Diamond further discusses the representations of bisexuality through American television, how stereotypical they are ‘as sexually voracious, confused, predatory, and emotionally unstable’ (p106); these representations are reinforced to please the male gaze each time, thus creating an erotic attraction, rather than exploring the actual matter of bisexual ambiguity. Bisexuality is still underrepresented through mainstream media, and the consequences of this issue is ‘the only way for mainstream films and television shows to create an erotically appealing – and hence economically rewarding – image of two women authentically enjoying one another’s bodies and avoid the quagmire of bisexuality is to have the participants conclude that their enjoyment of same-sex contact is the wrong type of enjoyment.’ (p106)
Can Gender be so easily Defined?
The final theoretical framework I have researched to assist with my analysis of Transparent is the representation of gender; specifically addressing the representation of femininity within trans, bisexual and lesbian women, but also addressing the masculinity within heterosexuality men. Gender has always been a topic that has been heavily debated, gender stereotypes are damaging to individuals and society as a whole, gender conformity has been in place for thousands of years, and in the rise of the 20th century, nonconformity has been growing amongst different groups of people, particularly within the LGBT community.
Firstly, I address David D. Gilmore’s work of Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (1990); within the chapter of Markers to Manhood: Samburu, there is a section which assesses masculinity within the Jewish community. Transparent follows an LA Jewish family, and religion can come into play in terms of gender behaviour within the members of the family; Gilmore addresses the role of the Bar Mitzvah within Jewish society, the ritual symbolises the growth from childhood into manhood or womanhood from the age of 13. When addressing the matter of masculinity, Gilmore points out the nature of masculine transition; which underlines the advanced, monotheistic, literate conditions which occurs, because of this, it is highlighted that beneath everything is the ‘traditional involvement with the acquisition of male powers.’ (p125) This correlates with other works how the higher male powers can affect behaviour, men must show their masculinity, showing some form of dominance. Within Jewish-American culture, which is in one of few that women virtually can dominate men, also has an element of manhood; the term ‘Mensch’ (Yiddish and parent tongue German) means ‘real man’, being a Mensch means being ‘competent, dependable, economically secure, and most of all helpful and considerate to dependents’ (p127). Within the 21st century and middle class Jewish society, the Mensch is supposed to be a chargeful personality, firm and dependable, a pillar of support. To be the opposite is a ‘schlemiel’ (jerk) or a ‘schmuck’ (prick – but literally translated from Yiddish as ‘useless bauble’, to be bumbling or incompetent) both words are rarely used to describe women, however synonyms such as these ‘convey a sense of masculine inferiority or disgrace measured in degrees of inadequacy’ (p127).
From the points made from masculinity within the Jewish culture, I shall address more about masculinity as power through Lynne Segal’s work of Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men (1990). Segal’s book uncovers the paradox of masculinity, how the more it asserts itself, the more it calls itself into question, she states in a subchapter Making It: Masculinity as Power within her chapter Competing Masculinities (I): Manliness – The Masculine Ideal, that masculinity is not something that can be acquired, it is not an essence. ‘It exists in the various forms of power men ideally possess: the power to assert over women, over other men’ (p123) this reinforces the ideology of men presenting an element of dominance within their behaviour, almost alpha male behaviour. Segal continues to explore the fragility of masculinity; ‘how it is bound within its use and abuse of power’ (p129), linking references to how it is the traditional pursuit of manhood through displays of physical prowess and courage, to put it simply ‘mind rather than endurance, manipulation rather than endurance’ (p130). With regards to manliness in the modern day, Segal points out that ‘North America is now populated by confused, insecure, anxious, ‘makeshift males’’ (p131) this can relate to workloads, movements in social shifts; rise of feminism, this causes the constant seek of approval by peers and family.
The final theorist from which I reference regarding masculinity representations is Anthony Easthope and his works What a Man’s Gotta Do: The Masculine Myth in Popular Culture (1990). Within his chapter Boys Will Be Boys; Easthope analyses various different films regarding traditional masculinity such as Superman (1978), he addresses ‘the dominant myth of how boys want to identify with Superman as a super-masculine ideal by rejecting the Clark Kent side of themselves’ (p29); which crosses with their feminine side and evaluates sexuality within the paradox. Within the same chapter, Easthope also addresses how masculinity is represented through Dennis and Walter (The Beano) showing two sides to masculinity; Dennis showing the masculine side of a young boy, ‘which challenges law but accepts symbolic castration,’ (p31) whereas compared with Walter, ‘represents a feminine side which loves the father and yields to him entirely.’ (p31) These references coincide with other theorists’ works, addressing what it means to be a man, to be challenging and show dominance, however, this has proven that ‘the feminine in male nature can never be suppressed.’ (p32)
From discussing masculinity representations within the media with regards to the representations of gender, femininity also needs to be discussed. Leslie Heywood explains in Third Wave Feminism, Doing Feminism (2007), when invoked through popular medium, there is still an active audience that is interested and engaged in the new ways femininity is represented through new wave 21st century feminism representations. Heywood justifies her findings surrounding ‘feminist progress and ongoing feminist struggle; constituting to third wave feminist subjectivity (p123) stating that modern day women/feminists when represented usually tend to have similar characteristics; ‘an unruly or loose woman…loud, aggressive posture, working class syntax’ (p132). This type of representation tends to be quite common amongst modern day television shows; Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and Netflix’s Rita. Heywood concludes her work stating that there is still room for improvement for modern day representations of femininity, along with the representations of feminists and the teachings and values of feminism.
Following this research, within Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture (2000) Joanne Hollows examines how femininity and women are represented through film, she explains the idea that ‘woman’ can signify castration adding complexity to the notion of woman as ‘other.’ Furthermore, this refers to the image of woman being possibly threatening to man, because ‘she signifies what it is to be powerless, to lack power and presence which defines what it is to be a man.’ (p47) Hollows continues, drawing in points of the male gaze, stating how
‘Cinema offers the male spectator a range of pleasures but leaves the female spectator with no place from which to look that does not involve her own subordination as the passive object of male gaze.’ (p48)
Finally, I have called upon Helen Baehr and Ann Gray for their work of Turning It On: A Reader in Women & Media (1996) which is a critique of the media representations of women, spanning across its richness and diversity. Within the chapter Genre: Textuality, Femininity, Feminism, the matter of feminine virtues is analysed through representation, defining the matter as ‘virtues of passive goodness, personal service to others and devotion to the domestic sphere by definition preclude women from productive activity in the public sphere.’ (p91) This further increases theory to the manner of morals that a woman must uphold, that they must care, for not caring tends to be portrayed as a more masculine behaviour. Furthermore, within the chapter of Audience: Texts, Subjects, Contexts, Baehr and Gray explore genre and gender as a concept, and the difference between the social categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’; the construction of masculinity and femininity are aligned with the categories of the sexes, stating that the ‘problem is that neither of the two perspectives (male or female) is sufficient within themselves to gain a full understanding of what happens when men and women watch films.’ (p123) As much as representations will never be fully accurate, it is difficult to infer the active audience’s approach, as the response to texts will not allow the consideration of how the texts themselves work on the viewers. This is noted to assess the writer’s capability of accurately creating characters that can be relatable, whether they conform to gender stereotypes, but each viewer is different, hence how representations of gender can never be fully precise, due to whether the viewer is male or female.
In this chapter I will discuss the research technique I used in my study. The chapter will be divided into three separate parts: first, I shall discuss my chosen research method and what it involves; then moving on to how I shall explain how I applied this method to my research and become contextualised to suit my research question; and finally I shall explore the criticisms and limitations of this method. I have chosen to analyse all 20 episodes of Transparent, as there is not one singular episode I could have chosen to analyse consistently, but instead, by assessing all episodes and their signs and signifiers within each episode, I will duelly note recurring themes of signs and signifiers from both seasons. Transparent follows the pattern of the ‘high-concept’ sitcom, rather than ‘shows about nothing;’ (e.g. Friends, a show about friends hanging out), this means that shows such as this address issues, and have a developmental element to them, as this will show through my analysis.
Defining Semiotic Analysis
Semiology is the term used for the science of signs developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, another but different science of signs, semiotics, was elaborated by American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. Semiotics is now the term used to generally refer to both systems; both are concerned with how meaning is generated in ‘texts.’
Semiotics has been applied on countless of occasions with various different results within film, theatre, zoology, architecture, medicine, and a whole entire host of different areas that concern themselves with communication and the transfer of information. Some analysts that specialise in semiology have suggested that everything can be analysed semiotically; seeing semiotics as the queen of the interpretive sciences, ‘the key that unlocks the meanings of all things great and small.’ (Berger 2005: 5)
Pierre Guiraud discusses semiotics in reference to the signs and meanings through the media, specifically television in Semiotics (1975); stating the function of a televised message does have a sense of finality, which is not so much of a function, but rather referential content as of its relation between the sensory receiver and the referent (Guiraud, 1975, p16). This highlights the mass subjectivity of how the medium itself is the message; how participation of the receiver will never be consistent because of different opinions, backgrounds and personal preferences, because this particular method cannot be so easily objective. With relation to representations of sexuality, what needs to be distinguished is the relation between the signifier and the signified, and how it is respected in practice; which can lead to being more or less inclusive, and more or less precise. (Guiraud, 1975, p25)
With regards to film and television analysis, to communicate a meaning from it, there are two manners in which to go about it; denotatively and connotatively. To a certain extent, a film/television image or sound has a denotative meaning: it simply is what it is, and it is simple to recognise, it is the greatest strength of film itself. James Monaco explores the language of film through signs and syntax; clearly outlining how film shots can be defined, and how ‘Film is what you can’t imagine.’ (Monaco, 2009, p179) Film provides audiences with a close approximation of reality, and often communicates precise knowledge as well as written or spoken language can, hence, this is where connotations are to be analysed. Within the 21st century, there are culturally determined connotations associated with almost everything, however, film has its own unique connotative ability; this is how the filmmaker or director has made specific choices such as filming something with or without context, different angles, bright or dark shots and so on, ‘a picture is, on occasion, worth a thousand words.’ (Monaco, 2009, p180)
Sexuality Representations – Why Semiotics?
To analyse Transparent and its representations of different sexualities throughout its duration, semiotically analysing the stereotypes and the representations it may contain seemed best fitting for a television programme that touches upon sensitive and relatable subjects and topics. This method has allowed an in depth analysis of a strong and well constructed plot, and specifically the complex characters that further the plot with each episode. Each key character presents a different sexual orientation; providing the programme to be characterised as a social text, defining an overarching representamen that can be used as a guide to inform the audience about current issues of concern within society, also, by highlighting different signs and signifiers for gender, there will also be correlation between sexuality and gender signifiers, that can be seen through mainstream media too.
Television is responsible for inducing an insatiable hunger for entertainment, audiences mindlessly absorb messages and meanings from television, and sometimes may affect their behaviour, audiences in the modern world are affected by media images on a daily basis, almost hundreds of times per day. Television has often been part of social change, with regards to this study, it is what Transparent is trying to achieve; to break barriers and to strip stereotypes away. Semiotics offers my study analytical precision, whilst respecting the continuum of meaning. With regards to social change, and specific representations, TV has indeed shrunk the world into a global village (Danesi, 2002, p151). The representations of LGBT people on television is just a small fragment compared to the real numbers of those people across the globe; hence why it is crucially important to create relatable and accurate representations, these representations should be enlightening and challenging stigmas and stereotypes that have been in place over time. It has been said that TV texts is rarely innovative or inspiring, it produces programmes that reinforce already-forged lifestyle trends (Danesi, 2002, p134), and are more content with adopting and recycling these trends rather than creating anything new and groundbreaking.
In order to explore how sexuality is represented in Transparent, I have to treat the study to take the position of an individual subject with the same point of view, whilst at the same time to get a sense of joining the imaginary community of viewers who are watching the same thing (Bignell, 1997, p144). As the TV viewer, I am to consume the meanings; whilst acting as a producer too, as the viewer to actualise the meanings of the television programme and decode them. With regards to sexuality being represented; I need to call upon the recognition and identification of the signs
and signifiers, which can range from colours, camera angles, gestures, reactions and even certain phrases used. I will analyse the different signs that signify different sexual orientations; specifically male heterosexuality, lesbianism, transgender lesbianism and female bisexuality. Bignell uses semiotic analysis to analyse Twin Peaks; assessing the particular set of codes and the result of creating a mythic meaning, and thus further discusses the discursive codes which have structured these meanings. (Bignell, 1997, p159)
Criticisms and Limitations
Conducting a rhetorical analysis, whilst investigating the persuasive language and signs within Transparent, I will be analysing the persuasive devices in pursuit of presenting modern day ideologies to the masses in today’s society. Addressing issues of the representations of queer sexualities, and trans women through the programme, where there is a hope for active audiences to be on board with the programme’s subliminal teachings and morals on how to address sexuality issues and the trans community; and create a fairer society, hopefully ingraining audiences and helps to direct attitudes. I understand the concept of rhetoric and semiotics; how the use of language and signs can be used as powerful tools used by writers and directors to create particular responses from their audiences, and that there are limitations and criticisms in place; mainly because of the heavy subjectivity that surrounds this particular method. Rhetoric and semiotic theorists are described to believe that a text can influence the audience; through manipulation of signs and language and many more devices used by writers of television shows. I understand how this specific analysis is quite loose and unsystematic with little evident practical application; and how this is my own individual reading of Transparent, however, through my analysis, I will be calling upon critics and reviews, from numerous establishments to support my findings. The limitations can be argued about the functionalism of semiotics; how material practices such as the ‘reading of a text’ must be related to the social relations which have given rise to the ‘politics of cultural practice’ which is a highly relevant point when addressing different sexualities; specifically within the LGBT community. I will not only explore how signs signify specific things within Transparent but also why socially structures are not causes; my research will note the allowed notion of the sign as arbitrary to foster the myth of the neutrality of the medium. I will conduct my analysis by addressing the subtleness of devices used and created by Jill Soloway (Transparent’s creator) as a lesbian and feminist writer, analysing the representations of lesbianism, bisexuality, male heterosexuality and trans women lesbianism; whilst referring back to theoretical and academic texts to support my argument. As Transparent is a recently new ‘high-concept) sitcom produced by Amazon, meaning the programme will continue to become more outlandish and stranger, but in a more developmental way as time goes by; the analysis should correlate with the concept of the programme, opposing every theory of how sexuality and gender is represented, through the feminism too. In the hopes of the outcomes of the analysis, there will also be a positive result in support of the values, morals and teachings within Transparent, that future TV programmes will follow the pattern of ‘high-concept’ sitcoms, in support of influencing audiences to change behaviour, and thus, create a fairer society for all beings; regardless of sexuality or gender.
Analysis and Findings
Transparent is a hugely successful television programme, produced and created by Jill Soloway, for Amazon studios, who have also broadcast other successful shows such as The Man in the High Castle, Mozart in the Jungle and Alpha House. Transparent, as mentioned before has been noted for its awards; specifically for winning a Golden Globe for Best Series, the first show to be produced by a streaming media to win such a prestigious award. The programme was inspired by creator Jill Soloway’s father, Harry, the show is based on an autobiographical account of her father’s transition, who now goes by Carrie, which ‘totally shocked’ Jill by coming out in 2011 at the age of 75, whom she now calls ‘my moppa.’ (Ross, 2015) Transparent explores the ambiguity of gender and sexuality, something that Jill Soloway has always had an interest in, stating that she has always been obsessed with gender, and has always wanted to investigate the mystery of intimacy. (Levy, Nussbaum and Scott, 2015) Jill Soloway has published many essays regarding gender and femininities, and has applied her concepts and theories to her work of Transparent, the first season mainly surrounds the intimate storytelling of Mort’s (Jeffrey Tambor) transition into Maura; which represents a lot of concepts and ideologies surrounding gender. The second season is even more ambitious; the viewpoint is directed onto the family, friends and other secondary characters, exploring the impact of Maura’s arrival into their worlds, and the impact it has on their own conceptions of themselves, leading the three adult siblings of the loving, however messy LA Jewish family, (Amy Landecker’s Sarah, Jay Duplass’ Josh and Gaby Hoffman’s Ali) each go through their own identity issues regarding sexuality and gender conformity. Amazon Studios offered Jill Soloway complete creative freedom; allowing the her to produce a programme that has been hailed as the best new show of its time, being sharply observed, and fits perfectly into the style of ‘dark comedy.’ (O’Donovan and Donovan, 2015)
By conducting a semiotic rhetorical analysis, I have deconstructed certain elements within Transparent from both seasons, this is because each season tends to focus on different issues; the first focusing on gender, and the second tends to direct its gaze more towards sexuality. The opening sequence must be noted, firstly from the pilot as it is the first element of the programme to be on the screens, showcases a variety of different vintage video clips from the 1960s to the 1990s, ending with a time code of ‘JAN. 1 1994.’ (As seen below)
This key element of Transparent is a nostalgic montage of video clips of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, with the time code signifying the turning point of the programme’s narrative; the year Mort Pfefferman begins to come out as Maura. Along with the vintage clips of the Jewish culture, there is a figure in a stunning blue dress; Crystal LaBeija, a clip from Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), which is a more or less relatively unknown ground-breaking documentary following the 1967 New York Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant; it is one of the earliest screen portrayals of the lives of ‘female impersonators’, some which identified as gay men, some however beginning to identify as trans women. (Vider, 2014) Within the opening credits, the 46 second clip brings up questions surrounding gender studies; ‘what does it mean for the Bar Mitzvah boy to become a man, and the drag queen to become a woman?’
With reference to the Jewish traditional values of what it is to be a man, referring back to Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (1990) analysing masculinity within the Jewish Culture, and how the ‘Mensch’ is to be ‘competent, dependable, economically secure, and most helpful and considerate to dependents’ (Gilmore, 1990, p127) this is an almost totally accurate description of Josh’s character within Transparent. Within the pilot episode, the scenes with Josh present shows him in a very beautiful home, showing his economic security, along with Josh talking about his career as a music manager in LA. (See below)
(Left: Glitterish members Kaya and Margaux and Josh in his stylish house. Right: Josh working with Glitterish. Both stills from Pilot)
The pattern of Josh’s portrayal of masculinity continues, within the second episode of the first season The Letting Go, where the members of the band Glitterish, two young girls are at his home, and he enters with pizza to feed them and himself, and another in episode 9 of season 1 Looking Up where he allows Bianca (Sarah’s new girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s teenage step-daughter) to stay at his home when she gets kicked out of where she is staying; showing he is ‘considerate to dependents’ (Gilmore, 1990, p127). Furthermore within this particular episode, Josh addresses the issue of his current love interest wanting an abortion, Josh states how they never had ‘the talk’, whereas Kaya replies with ‘Girls don’t need the talk…only guys need the talk.’ This supports evidence of men asserting power over women, thus showing the fragility of masculinity; ‘how it is bound within its use and abuse of power.’ (Segal, 1990, p129) However, Josh also reinforces the construction of the modern day, middle class Jewish man, to be firm and dependable – a pillar of support, when he continues to explain his proposal of keeping the baby; ‘Look, I’m gonna drive you home, we’re gonna pick up Cold Stone, I’ll rub your feet, I’m gonna take care of you, ok?’ He further shows that he is a ‘Mensch’ by showing he is competent; paying for the dinner for all of his family from the Kosher store, but also showcasing a firm and chargeful personality whilst doing so. The penultimate scene surrounds Josh proposing to Kaya in her home, throwing around dream life situations to her; ‘We could go to Topanga, we could go to Northern California, we could get a cabin, we could have the baby,’ before pulling out his family heirloom Holocaust ring, not asking, but simply stating ‘We should get married.’ This same forceful, domineering behaviour is shown in another early episode, the third episode of season 1; Rollin, in which Josh interrupts one of his musical protege, Margaux’s band practice (the younger sister to Kaya, and second vocals in Glitterish), by rudely shouting over the rehearsal, and asking demanding questions, ‘Where the f*ck is Kaya? She’s not answering my calls, she’s not answering my texts.’ This leads to Josh feeling a sense of anxiety, which correlates with the research that ‘North America is now populated by confused, insecure, anxious ‘makeshift males.’ (Segal, 1990, p131) Following onto the next episode Moppa, Josh is on screen having sex with Syd (Carrie Brownstein), and he tells her ‘Look at me,’ this shows another side to masculinity which is the feminine side of men, coinciding with how ‘the feminine in male nature can never be suppressed’ (Easthope, 1978, p32), as loving looks during sex is considered a more affectionate, more feminine and womanly act.
As the image of a man, Josh has curly, almost scruffy hair, and a full short beard, and dresses in modern and ‘trendy’ clothes, Josh does not present any specific signs of masculinity, but does show a particular set of behaviours through use of language. As much as he is the ‘masculine’ character within Transparent, things unveil about his past, leading to the man he is in the present tone, he was molested as a child by the family’s babysitter/’summer girl’ Rita (Brett Paesel). Throughout both seasons, Josh romanticises the situation by claiming he was in love with Rita, but it becomes clear that he was clearly manipulated by an older woman, what audiences, including myself watching Transparent for the first time, tends to forget that he suffered attendant trauma from sustained statutory rape, and that no one in his life ever told him that he was suffering. (Thrum, 2015) Josh’s character is a straight, white, Jewish man, with a lot of privilege, he is also wealthy, rude, self-absorbed, and often juvenile; a very unlikable character, however, because of all this and the ideology of masculinity, it can be soon forgotten by audiences, that he is a victim. This sense of ‘victim’ and the more feminine and sensitive side to Josh’s character, is seen predominantly in season 2, episode 5, Mee-Maw; where the main story arc follows Josh’s biological son Colton’s (Alex MacNicoll) adoptive Christian family come to meet Josh, and his then fiancee Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). He eventually realises his trauma of his affair with Rita, and struggles to handle it, along with losing his son whom he only has just got to know, it is the first time audiences see raw emotion from Josh. This is because the society which he is in never takes his confusion or pain very seriously, it is an issue that is swept under the rug, and pretending it never happened. (Bernstein, 2016) Thus proving, how fragile the concept of masculinity is, this can also teach audiences that men have trauma too, leading to suicide being the biggest killer of men under 50 years-old, because men feel it is not masculine to share feelings. (Jones, 2016)
(Left: a flashback scene to a young Josh and his babysitter/molester Rita. Still from S1.E8 Best New Girl. Right: Josh exposing his feelings to Raquel. Still from S2. E5 Mee-Maw)
With regards to the representations of masculinity within Transparent, it needs to be noted that the programme has been criticised for the lack of representations of transgender men. As much as Transparent succeeds with reinforcing positive images and portrayals of transgender women, and the issues that need to be addressed, this has meant that there is not much visibility of transgender men. There is one trans man that has a role within Transparent, that is Ian Harvie, trans man and comedian that appears in season 1, in episodes 6 The Wilderness and 7 Symbolic Exemplar. Ian Harvie’s character Dale is portrayed as dateable and sexually desirable, particularly for Ali, as she explores the concept of gender and sexuality whilst studying, he represents the most privileged form of trans masculinity. However, as the storyline continues there is a set of jokes like ‘I’m a man with a vag’ (in The Wilderness) this divulges his character into a fetish; reflecting negative stereotypes; creating the stigma that trans men are ‘men with vaginas.’ Furthermore, in Symbolic Exemplar, Dale displays a show of masculinity when Ali is welcomed into his home, he tells Ali as she is about to take a seat ‘Nobody said you can sit down’, as the scene continues later into the episode, he erotically instructs Ali to call him ‘Daddy’ and to show him what is lying underneath her clothes. As Ali protests at the use of the word ‘panties’ he shows more dominance by telling her ‘Shut the f*ck up! You talk too much.’ This correlates with the point of ‘mind rather than endurance, manipulation rather than endurance’ (Segal, 1990, p130) reinforcing the masculinity aspect of prowess and courage thought to be the traditional pursuit of manhood. Ali and Dale go shopping to find a dildo, to later be used in the bathroom stalls at the LGBT centre, whilst ‘Trans Got Talent’ is on show; however, things do not go as planned, the bathroom scene in which Dale attempts to penetrate Ali with their purchase, he loses grip and drops it. The scene is meant to be for comic value, however can be considered insensitive, it reinforces the idea that Dale is ‘less than a man’, and ‘dickless,’ it implies the audience is to view Dale from what was a heterosexual desire, to be a delusion (Keegan, 2014).
(Left: Ian Harvie as Dale. Right: the infamous ‘bathroom’ scene. Both stills taken from S1. E7 Symbolic Exemplar)
With analysing the representations of gender, moving on from masculinity, I have analysed how femininity is represented in Transparent. It is apparent from watching season 1 of the programme that the femininity of certain characters can be inferred in both positive and negative lights, from Ali’s unapologetic candor to Maura’s traditional representation of what it is to be a woman. Starting with Ali, her appearance is not exactly the most traditional feminine way of dressing, throughout various images of Ali I noticed an absence of makeup, thick, unplucked full eyebrows, messy hair, and tends to dress more masculine; plaid shirts, blazers, more shapeless clothing. (See below)
(Left: still of Ali from S1.E1 Pilot. Right: still of Ali’s dress sense in S1.E5 Wedge)
This signifies 21st century feminism, Ali’s image goes against the male gaze, the character almost reverses theories revolving how a woman should look, ‘cinema offers the male spectator a range of pleasures’ (Hollows, 2000, p48), the same goes with signs and signifiers within Ali’s behaviour. Ali as a character has always been seen as lost, ‘the disappointing child,’ yet adventurous, ‘intelligent, strong, and very much sort of unapologetically herself, but she doesn’t know exactly who she is yet,’ words used by Gaby Hoffman. (Garcia, 2014)
When comparing the two sister characters, from Ali’s expressionate sense of an ‘I don’t care’ type of look, when analysing the image and behaviour of older sister Sarah, it is almost opposite. From viewing different episodes within season 1, Sarah’s image signifies a more feminine representation, long, well groomed hair, painted nails and always wearing makeup, her clothes also are much more feminine, warm colours, slim fitting and with a hint of elegance, resulting in the stereotype of the domesticated, everyday and family orientated mother, but appears still sexual, in correlation with points made with the preoccupation of ‘desire.’ (Baehr and Gray, 1995, p27) Her behaviour as a character, with regards to gender, is more or less very conformative in feminine ways, ‘she signifies what it is to be powerless’ (Hollows, 2000, p47) Sarah tends to be the ‘woman’ in her romantic relationships with her ex-husband Len (Rob Huebel), and her girlfriend Tammy (Melora Hardin). Within her marriage, she was a stay-at-home mother, revolving her life around the care of her children, and enjoying a rather wealthy, pampered life, the same applies when she is with Tammy, acting the more submissive participant of their relationship. Within the first season, Sarah shows signs such as obsessively packing her children’s organic lunches and taking part in their school’s activities, these signify elements of a model mother; a role in which many still believe women are born knowing how to fill (Houston, 2015), which reinforces the representation of feminine virtues, stereotypically correlating with ‘virtues of passive goodness, personal service to others and devotion to the domestic sphere by definition preclude women from productive activity in the public sphere.’ (Baehr and Gray, 1996, p91)
(Top left: Sarah showcasing classic feminine dress sense in S1.E5 Wedge.Top right: Sarah’s casual clothing in S1.E9 Looking Up. Bottom left: Sarah indulging in a makeover in S1. E4 Moppa. Bottom right: Sarah’s outfit for a charity gala at her children’s school in S2.E4 Cherry Blossoms.)
Finally, with regards to rhetorically and semiotically analysing the representations of gender within Transparent, I must address my analysis of Maura’s representation of what it is to be a woman. In Pilot of the first season, Maura is revealed, halfway through the episode, the family dinner consisting of the three siblings and father Mort, has ended; the children have left, and Maura comes to life. The sequence follows Mort walking down the hallway in his home in his underwear, enters the bathroom, and exits in a long, floral nightgown; enter Maura. The nightgown alone signifies femininity; pink and orange colours, floral patterns, long dress, followed by Maura untying her hair and finally feeling able to relax, signifying a ‘grandmotherly’ element to the image. Further into the episode, we see Maura in all her glory, at a support group at the LGBT centre, in full wig, makeup and a dress; looking extremely traditionally feminine. Presenting elements of ‘timeless beauty’ of the older woman to cover up and tone down, but with a pretty dress. (Twigg, 2013, p43) Maura’s behaviour and use of language within Transparent of the first season is a slow development, as she embraces her sense of self after coming out, the softness of voice develops, and begins to learn ladylike mannerisms from her friend and mentor Davina (trans actress Alexandra Billings) through fixing her walk, and giving makeup tips. As the season continues, it is clear the Maura develops her own sense of style; ‘earth mother’, signifying ‘virtues of passive goodness’ (Baehr and Gray, 1996, p91), from my own analysis of episodes, the representation of femininity of Maura is outdated, but this is due to Jill Soloway’s creation of the character; an elderly trans woman.
(Top row: the first images of Maura in S1.E1 Pilot. Bottom left: a still of ‘mother earth’ signifiers of Maura from S2.E2. Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump. Bottom right: a still of Maura, dressed more elegantly, on her way to visit her mother, from S2.E10 Grey Green Brown & Copper.)
From analysing the signifiers, signs and use of language throughout Transparent, Jill Soloway has created a work of art that dives into murky waters, and explores themes, and brings something more interesting to the table rather than a ‘loving family.’ Soloway has invented new ways in which to represent specific areas of human nature, her writing, directing and creative freedom uses signs throughout both seasons of her critically acclaimed show, she has used signs, to represent gender and sexuality into different kinds of signs, allowing to communicate meaningfully to an audience. (Hall, 2013, p14) However, the matter of this, does correlate with my research of how ‘settings, character types and images become signs for a particular kind of fictional world,’ (Hall, 2013, p356); the same can be applied for previous television programmes such as The L Word, Glee, and Will & Grace. When approaching the representations of LGBT roles on television, it is crucial for such representations to be accurate, sensitive and relatable within the modern day age. Soloway has been set to create a show that tests boundaries of what makes someone male or female, or something else altogether and perhaps undefinable (Yuan, 2015), my analysis of Transparent coincides with how ‘to represent’ is to decide what the purpose of it; ‘it must be decided whether the gesture is social or not’ (Barthes, 1997, p74). Soloway brings in relevant themes of modern day life into her writing, the problem with stereotypes, the stigma surrounding LGBT communities, she crosses over links between gender fluidity and Jewishness, between Fascism and other sorts of political shunning (Nussbaum and Levy, 2015). Within the production of Transparent, the element of representations crossover to certain portrayals of stereotypes could be used for subsequent judgment of an audience, I found that the certain stereotypes and representations within the programme lead my view to ‘rethink the premises of enlightened reasons’ (Pickering, 2001) of my own not purposeful ignorance and prejudice. As a young woman who identifies as bisexual, I am keen to explore how all elements of the LGBT spectrum is represented through the media, and with reference to representations within Transparent, I find the programme has already broken numerous boundaries, and has provided an element of enlightenment and moral teachings to an active audience; that the stereotypes or representations are not defined by their social function, but Soloway has managed to create a ‘realness’ to the characters; Maura, Sarah and Ali in particular. From analysing the episodes repeatedly, I declare that the representation of a transgender character within Transparent isn’t the best thing to happen to television, however, it is the most accurate depiction of a family going through a major transition. (O’Donnell, 2014) I also find that when summarising my findings from analysing episodes, that certain representations of issues had not been produced in the most sensitive manner, particularly throughout season 2; specifically in the penultimate episode Man on the Land, which addresses one of the biggest wounds in the trans community. Man on the Land follows Maura, Sarah and Ali attending the ‘Idylwild Wimmin’s Music Festival’, a lesbian festival with the policy that it’s for ‘women born women.’ When analysing the story arc and its representations within it, I found that the predetermined purpose of Transparent was to address social issues, but has fallen to ‘end up telling the story of a particular individual, hence returning social issues to purely personal and psychological ones,’ (Dyer, 2002); as much as I admire Jill Soloway’s work, I find on the grand scheme of audience, the representations within the programme cannot be relatable to a large majority of the LGBT community, specifically trans men and women. Thus, shows there is still a huge absence of representations of trans men, as mentioned earlier, but also trans women; those who come from less privileged backgrounds, such as Davina, which she states in season 2, episode 7 The Book of Life, to Maura, ‘We don’t all have your family, we don’t all have your money. I am a 53 year-old ex-prostitute, HIV positive woman with a dick.’ Within that simple written line, Jill Soloway does address the issues that trans women often face in the real world; statistics have shown that nearly one fifth of transgender people experience homelessness, which often leads to finding ways to make money, often leading to prostitution, (Rutherford-Morrison, 2015) however, this is only the real mention of that type of representation.
Whilst conducting my analysis, I have addressed the representations within Transparent, I also have addressed the representations through the production element of the programme; Jill Soloway has populated her set with trans actors, trans crew members and consultants. Two of the producers of Transparent is Zackary Drucker, a trans woman, and trans man Rhys Ernst; who have had a lot of input regarding how trans people should be represented through the show, this gives an element of giving the community a place of authorship (Ginelle, 2014), along with at least 15 speaking roles for trans actors, and 10 employed trans crew members. From learning this information, and from my analysis of Transparent, I do think the best is yet to come from this programme; having a role of authorship from people from the community, the representations across all spectrums will continue to improve, showcasing vast richness and diversity. It is ambitious for the show to attempt to address every single social issue, however Jill Soloway’s successful attempt with creating the female gaze has worked, she has said ‘to take the planet and just go [round] enough so women can start to feel like they’re the subject, that they are in the driver’s seat of the story, that they get to see, instead of always be seen.’ (Greco, 2014) This is a social issue within itself, and thus proven to have worked; the representations within Transgender are to improve with time, with more input to be brought forward by cast and crew, and as perceptions change with time, the writing will continue to change too. Jill Soloway recently came out as lesbian, and has discussed in many interviews how it has changed her writing within Transparent (Sieczkowski, 2015) ; such as her current girlfriend, Eileen Myles, a famous lesbian and feminist poet, who inspired a particular storyline within Season 2, which moves my analysis on to the final section.
Gender as a concept has always had a part to play within sexuality; the two cross over each other in more ways than one, the same applies within Transparent, which plays major parts within representing lesbians, bisexuals and trans lesbian women. To begin with the portrayal of lesbians; their are specific signs and signifiers within the show to represent certain behaviours within lesbianism; such as the ‘femme’ lesbian, and the ‘dyke’ lesbian; these stereotypes can be seen within Sarah and Tammy when they were together throughout the programme. My findings correlate when examining the two women, how gender roles are adopted through sexual preferences; ‘gender is not simply the mould in which men and women learn different sexualities, but it is a product of sexuality.’ (Dyer, 1996, p17) Tammy portrays a more masculine woman, more domineering behaviour, has an element of butchness, and her image correlates with her behaviour; short hair, masculine clothing and visible tattoos, whereas counterpart Sarah, shows the femme side of lesbianism, keeping true to her own femininity as a woman. My examination of this particular couple in Transparent also supports research of ‘self-representation’; ‘of one’s sexual identity necessarily includes a message that one has not merely come out, but one that intends to be out – to act on and live that identity.’ (Duggan and Hunter, 1995, p124) I also analysed Ali and Syd’s relationship, and what it represents; for this part of my analysis, I specifically focused on season 2, episode 3 New World Coming, towards the end of the episode, Ali and Syd attend a bowling alley hosting a ‘lesbian night’; as the scenes show different lesbians, with different styles, femme, butch, masculine, however, all modern young women, all showcasing an erotic sensualism as Ali recites a poem written by a famous lesbian poet, signifying the rawness of lesbian sensuality, between young women who are unafraid to express themselves in the modern age. From Ali’s sexual awakening, she finds herself falling for Syd into a loving relationship, free to be themselves without change, whilst remaining somewhat ‘heterosexual-looking’, this can retract stereotypes ‘of lesbians as unattractive, masculine, and hostile,’ (Diamond, 2005, p105), Ali develops a bond with Leslie Mackinaw, (Cherry Jones) the famous poet from whom she recites the poem from.
From this, I analysed how other representations within Transparent of lesbians can take a negative view, through the signs and signifiers Jill Soloway has put into place within her writing. As Ali came out in the show at the age of 33, she is curious to explore her new found sexual identity, and pursues a Master’s Degree in Gender Studies at UCLA, the world of this sensualism is fascinating to the character. Leslie’s character represents a totally different generation to the lesbian images seen in Transparent before the character makes her debut; she doesn’t believe in monogamy, she doesn’t believe in age gaps, and she doesn’t believe in taking things slowly. (Nelson, 2015) Leslie uses language to signify her dominance as a lesbian, again crossing over with gender conformity of attaining masculine traits, in episode 5 of season 2, Mee-Maw, whilst her arms are around a young girl (who looks no older than 18) on a ‘throne’ asks Ali ‘Are you gonna come study with me? The big, bad dyke?’ I inferred this as very masculine, butch behaviour, almost counteracting the point I made earlier, she encourages the stereotype of ‘unattractive, masculine, and hostile.’ (Diamond, 2005, p105) From analysing the spectrum of representations of lesbians, Transparent succeeds in portraying different lesbians, from older lesbian women, modern day established lesbian women, to newly come out lesbians, and clearly shows the constructs of how gender comes into play when it comes to sexual identity, and how as much as one can adopt a sexual identity, sexual identity can adopt oneself, ‘the basis for gay and lesbian equality claims. Those claims merge not only status and conduct, but also viewpoint, into one whole.’ (Duggan and Hunter, 1995, p124) Another use of language I examined in Transparent, used to signify lesbianism again in Mee-Maw, within the opening scene, Sarah and Ali are at a spa in the steam room, discussing Ali’s new relationship with Syd; Ali claims that ‘I just crossed the line that I always had there,’ this supports my own personal thesis of how can sexuality truly be defined, as each viewpoint will be different, as it is more about feeling and sense rather than fact and logic – a subjective matter rather than objective. Ali continues ‘also, I’ve realised… I just can’t have real, emotional intimacy with somebody who hasn’t suffered under patriarchy.’ This use of language also supports the theory of being openly gay, specifically lesbian women, as feminists, to act and ‘to function as an advocate as well as a symbol,’ (Duggan and Hunt, 1995, p124) to symbolize active support of the common belief as such. Sarah laughs and replies, ‘You’re a lesbian, because I don’t give two f*cks about patriarchy,’ by this point in the story arc, Sarah has left Tammy, and within the timeline is sleeping with Doctor Steve (Jason Mantzoukas), and fantasizing about the ‘Disciplinarian’ from her High School, Mr Irons and his paddle. The final, quite big part of my analysis of representations of lesbians within Transparent is a highly significant episode of season 2, the penultimate episode, Man on the Land; it takes place at the 42nd Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival, which holds strong resemblance to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. On the character’s’ entrance into the woods, a song is being performed by a live female band, signifying the strong presence of lesbians in the forest, using language such as ‘let’s go down to the fire pit, and roast some tofu dogs, maybe some dykes in a tent will have some beer, we’re lesbians in the forest.’ The visual signs and signifiers that are present within the opening sequence to represent lesbianism; one woman wearing a red t-shirt with ‘VAGITARIAN’ whilst dancing to the band, there is also a lot of nudity, an equal showcase of femme lesbians, (as discussed earlier) and also butch lesbians, (also, discussed earlier), signs for a ‘tampon-making’ tent. The episode portrays the majority of the lesbian population at the festival as man haters, when Maura is waiting in line for the toilets, sanitation workers arrive the chant ‘man on the land’ is echoed throughout the festival; it is explained to Maura by another festival attendee (Sherlock the ‘Mime’) that the chant is to warn the rest of the women as not to be ‘triggered,’ another attendee states that ‘the problem isn’t with the employees, it’s that they’re men!’ From deconstructing the signifiers of this, is that some lesbians are not necessarily as feminist, almost nazi-feminist, I also noted the representation of how older lesbians within the episode, such as the Leslie’s group of friends at the festival also showcasing an anti-feminism notion; they toast to being ‘the last remaining extremists,’ and further explaining the ‘policy’ of the festival; only ‘women born women’ are allowed to enter the festival. The language used to signify this hate for ‘men’ within this conversation suggests that Maura is not welcome at the festival, one of the women argues that the ability for a person born male to choose to live as a female is yet another example of male privilege (Murphy, S); but a range of perspectives are shown, but mainly executing the point of why separatism is exclusionary. (Thomas, 2015) Assessing the signs and signifiers within this particular episode, Transparent does offer a wide range of representations of lesbian women, and reveals the complexity of signs and signifiers for lesbians themselves such as ‘penises are triggers.’
(Top left: The contrast is shown between the image of Tammy (butch lesbian) and Sarah (femme lesbian) in S1.E2 The Letting Go. Top right: a still of Syd and Ali sharing a romantic embrace in S2.E3 New World Coming. Bottom left: a still of Leslie showcasing her dominance and prowess in S2.E5 Mee-Maw. Bottom right: The festival founders sharing a toast in S2.E9 Man on the Land.)
Finally, at the final point of my analysis I have analysed the signs and signifiers of the ambiguous representations of bisexuality throughout Transparent, mainly through the character of Sarah, since Maura coming to her life, Sarah goes on her own adventure of exploring her own sexuality. In the beginning of season 1, Sarah reunites with her college ex-girlfriend Tammy, and becomes quickly smitten after spending a matter of days with her; it is clear that Sarah and her husband are not best matched for each other, Len leaves for work without saying anything to Sarah or the children in Pilot. I analysed the signs, signifiers and language used by Sarah to represent the fluidity and conflict seen on the screen as the honest perspective of bisexuality (Lambe, 2015), Sarah’s character does support certain stereotypes such as being ‘sexually voracious, confused, predatory, and emotionally unstable,’ (Diamond, 2005, p106). Sarah shows signs of anxiety through nervous laughter, and is often prone to stumbling on her words, and cries often, actions and gestures signify the mental health issues bisexual people often experience; bisexual people are four more times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals. (Szymanski, 2014) Enter into season 2, Sarah is no longer interested in either of the romances that she pursued in season 1 (Len or Tammy), she shows signs of not interested in dating either, she wants sex; not necessarily with a man or a woman, and not necessarily sexual intercourse, she wants to be a submissive, and explore the world of BDSM. (Nelson, 2015) In season 2’s third episode New World Coming, Sarah shows signs of loneliness; sat in an empty apartment, sat gazing out of the window to the gym across the street; she turns to sexual fantasies of Mr Irons, the High School Disciplinarian who wandered the halls with a paddle during Sarah’s youth; she reaches climax just from thought and imagination, with little touching of herself. In Man on the Land, as Sarah wonders the festival alone, she is enticed by the BDSM tent/area, and becomes involved with a pro-dominatrix Pony, when asked if she is ‘interested’, Sarah simply replies ‘woof,’ signifying submission; this supports evidence of how the term ‘bisexuality’ is ‘paradoxically reinstated sexual polarity through the addition of the third term, as rigidly gendered as the original two, (heterosexuality/homosexuality) only doubled.’ (Duggan and Hunter, 1995, p164-5) From analysing the signs, signifiers and language used by Sarah’s character, I have gathered Transparent explores bisexuality in the most honest way; no other show has explored so many layers of sexual identity along with layers of gender (Lambe, 2014). Sarah does not allow her sexuality to define her, but merely considers it an aspect of her life that is yet to be explored thoroughly; supporting the research of how ‘Erotic subjectivity does things. It performs, or, rather can be made to perform, work.’ (Kullick and Wilson, 1995, p5) My findings surrounding the representation of bisexuality through Sarah’s character within Transparent, is very relatable, and a very honest depiction of the emotions and the sense bisexual people feel, as a bisexual viewer, I cannot wait to analyse the next season when it is released, as so far I am filled with confidence with what Jill Soloway will do regarding her writing, as she has not catered to stereotypes of bisexual women, who are often created to please the male viewer.
To conclude my study, Jill Soloway has successfully produced a television show that is
honest about the realities of what human beings on all levels of the spectrums of gender
and sexualities, from using her own personal experiences to assist with the portrayal of
key characters. Soloway has used signs, signifiers and a fantastic use of language to
reflect stereotypes, and create new ideologies surrounding the LGBT community, and
has carefully reinforced more positive representations amongst those who often
represented negatively, such as trans women.
However, from referring to different reviews, and criticisms of Transparent, not
every audience is 100% happy with certain elements of the programme, however, this
matter is due to subjectivity, much like my own research, I understand that this is my
own personal analysis. After watching each of the 20 episodes at least 5 times over, my
perception would change each time, I would notice things I had not noticed before. My
findings show how as much as Jill Soloway’s work is new, modern and ground breaking,
it still falls into the pattern of reinforcing stereotypes, and also a lack of representation
for certain groups of the LGBT community, such as trans men. However, the success of
Transparent means that Soloway and her incredible team, full of trans crew and cast,
will continue to improve representations within the programme, and will take criticism
but to make the audience feel something, such as I have. Transparent’s representations
of sexuality in particular will continue to raise questions about identity and conformity,
and will represent that it is not a bad thing if a person does not fit into a certain part of
The devices that Soloway uses to represent are to be admired, use of language
especially, but also the visual image, often the signs and signifiers would be subtle, but
would make more of a meaning from them by being subtle; dress sense, looks, the
display of dominance or submissiveness and much more. Even the cinematic visual
element to the programme, combined with the music that is used throughout the
episodes, create more than just a pleasurable show to watch, it makes audiences feel
something more, audiences can identify with the honesty and the inquisitiveness of
what the show is. The more active audiences become, the better for all, what Jill
Soloway is trying to create is ambitious; changing perceptions of LGBT people,
addressing the matter of bisexuality, something that is particularly overlooked in
mainstream media, from being broadcast on a streaming platform creates a more
intimate viewing for the audience too, allowing viewers to connect more with the
programme. As much as I have a great fondness of Transparent, I conclude that there
does need to be improvements with regards to the representations of sexual identity
and gender conformity, however, only time will tell, but the success the show has had,
Jill Soloway being obsessed with gender and sexuality, there will be more to discuss
come season 3
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