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I can’t turn off my brain

August 5, 2016

I watch movies. I watch TV. I start deconstructing power dynamics. Who’s calling the shots? What personality qualities are assigned to different characters? Who’s in conflict, who’s in romance? And how are gender and race playing into any of these questions? I start thinking about looking in the library database for discussions of character development and symbolism. Ghostbusters, crime drama, Lifetime movies. Science fiction. It just keeps happening.

Storytime: In college, I took quite a few English classes. I read novels, I took Old English as the required language course, I took a bunch of creative writing classes. But I was definitely not an English major. At a certain point, the idea of picking apart things I was reading made me feel like it was violating either the words themselves, or my enjoyment of them. It did not sound like fun.

Billy Collins describes my misgivings perfectly in Introduction to Poetry

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
As an anthropology major, I took a wonderful class called “Anthropology Goes to the Movies,” taught by Professor Colleen Cohen. That was a game changer! I read, and learned about things like the camera’s gaze, how editing shapes a story, and the realization that documentaries are stories with an agenda, not necessarily a depiction of “truth.” Whatever truth is. I dabbled in video editing a bit, on a Mac system, and did a group project transforming a doc about rhinos into a sappy tearjerker short called “The Rhino King.” That was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything for school. And then, I graduated, and went about my business, watching things, reading things.
A couple of years ago, I noticed that it’s gotten difficult for me to watch anything  without a critical, sometimes really jaundiced eye.
  • Sitting down to watch the X-Files reboot, starting to feel jarred by the thought “wow, Mulder’s a damsel in distress, and Scully’s doing both the emotional labor and the science to save the day… what does she see in him and his drama, exactly?” (This came as a major blow to my adolescent crush.)
  • Unpacking the frankly frightening power dynamics between Rey and Kylo Ren in Star Wars, feeling that Kylo’s intimidation tactics were so creepy that it jarred me from getting lost in the movie.
  • Feeling frustrated with Rick Castle, Tony DiNozzo, and the other antic man-children positioned as romantic partners on crime dramas… characters launching madcap messy schemes, saying “I have to win her back,” in ways that feel more like disrespect and force rather than humor or romance.
  • Reading Regency romance novels because I enjoy the pageantry and descriptions of ballgowns, only to shiver and throw them aside because I see the same nasty dominance convince/force conquering mentality playing out as Romantic.
I’m not sure whether it was grad school or the Internet that opened up this perspective. Most of what I analyzed in library school was how people seek information and store and organize it… not how media and storytelling portray cultural attitudes. Was I influenced by blogs discussing how our faves can be problematic, inviting conversation about the ways lionized celebrities and media tropes can show the flawed and stereotypical assumptions we carry as acculturated beings?

I think these are good, important conversations to have about media, in the service of wanting to do better in creating representation of  diverse reality, and to give media portrayals and stories that reach out to all kinds of people and experiences. Watching and reading media shapes how people expect things and behave. Questioning it and laying open its shortcomings seems sensible.

Plus, it’s kind of fun. I wound up majoring in anthropology with a bent towards cultural studies. This is right in my sweet spot. It blows my mind in the most wonderful way to see the quality of writing and analysis that’s coming out of both academia and the blog/Tumblr sphere, asking critical questions, unpacking media tropes. Sometimes, it’s amazing and strange to believe that lines of thought that are so much fun to traverse can carry the weight of academia behind them. I feel like I’m getting away with something awesomely rambunctious, reading and taking part in the conversation. And I also respect the legitimate, insightful quality of the discussion. For example, my cousin Berna is hotshot documentarian and media studies scholar at Johns Hopkins, Bernadette Wegenstein. Married to cousin Billy, known to some as Professor William Egginton, also a hotshot academic and philosopher. (Seriously, the brainpower in that household is awe-inspiring.)

At some point, it might be worth thinking about for me to find a second Masters degree program, especially as I’ve grown more fond of being an academic librarian. Might be worth thinking about media studies. Note to self: less time binge-watching and snarking media on Tumblr, more time poking around odd corners of academic databases to see what scholars are saying about Ghostbusters and the X-Files and fanfiction.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2016 2:43 pm

    At the very least, you should read Act Four, Alyssa Rosenberg’s culture blog on washingtonpost.com.

  2. August 6, 2016 7:16 am

    You would enjoy Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. It’s just what you’re talking about–going deeper and understanding more.

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