Volume 15, 2009

Double Issue: General Issue and Television Issue

Editors: Angela Ndalianis and Lucian Chaffey


1. Reality is in the performance’: Issues of Digital Technology, Simulation and Artificial Acting in S1mOne – Anna Notaro

2. The Neo-baroque in Lucha Libre – Kat Austin

3. Ryan Is Being Beaten: Incest, Fanfiction, and The OC – Jes Battis

4. Mobile Content Market: an Exploratory Analysis of Problems and Drivers in the U.S. – Giuseppe Bonometti, Raffaello Balocco, Peter Chu, Shiv Prabhu, Rajit Gadh

5. Televisual control: The resistance of the mockumentary – Wendy Davis

6. The Classic Hollywood Town at the Dawn of Suburbia – Stephen Rowley

7. Digital Intervention: Remixes, Mash Ups and Pixel Pirates – Amanda Trevisanut

8. The Bill 1984 – 2009: Genre, Production, Redefinition – Margaret Rogers

9. Guiding Stars – Carly Nugent



Mobile Content Market: an Exploratory Analysis of Problems and Drivers in the U.S. – Giuseppe Bonometti, Raffaello Balocco, Peter Chu, Shiv Prabhu, Rajit Gadh


This paper aims at filling the vacuum in the mobile content literature addressing the following two macro-topics: the identification, classification and assessment of problems and inhibitor factors thwarting players involved in the mobile content market in the U.S.; second, the analysis of drivers that companies along the mobile content value chain may harness for breaking such challenges down. In the end, the research study provides a set of levers which companies can take advantage of for increasing their performances as well as meeting critical success factors.

To accomplish our objectives, we have employed the multiple case studies methodology and performed a multi-criteria analysis along the value chain position (e.g., content provisioning, content aggregation) and types of content offered (e.g., video, music). Specifically, the sample of analysis comprises 67 companies throughout the value chain and offerings.

We have identified, at an industry level, six problems hampering the mobile content market in the U.S.: customer awareness and education as well as user habits and acceptance; pricing strategies; regulations; platform’s standards and solutions; OffDeck underdevelopment; economics and monetization opportunities. For each of them, we have delineated a set of levers which players have started taking into account for overcoming such inhibitor factors (e.g., social network mediums, smartphones and new distribution channels, pricing plans).


Although the United States is a strong player in the entertainment and communication industries (Kangas 2004), over the years academic journals and practitioners have highlighted how the U.S. lags behind many countries regarding the mobile communication market as well as the mobile data and mobile content segments. Despite such status, conditions are rapidly changing. In fact, according to Chetan Sharma Consulting (2008), mobile data revenues grew in 2007 and 2008 at a staggering pace, and were projected to exceed, in the last quarter of 2008, the 25% threshold of the overall industry turnover; furthermore, Chetan Sharma Consulting consistently ranks the four major U.S. carriers among the top 10 worldwide data-generator mobile operators. A few factors are leading the mobile data taking off. First, 3G diffusion has finally gained some traction. In fact, according to comScore (2008), during 2008 28.4 percent of U.S. subscribers owned a 3G device (representing an 80 percent year over year lift) versus 28.3 percent in the five largest European countries. In addition, some carriers have already (or are in the process to) embraced 4G technologies, based on either WiMAX or Long-Term Evolution standards, thereby driving a faster transition toward more advanced networks and services compared to many other countries. Other factors at play are the increased adoption of smartphones and flat-rate data plans.

Although these conditions are – to some extent – also bolstering the mobile content market, research analyses do not envision a rapid achievement of the tipping and inflection points, while many factors are spurring a delayed taking off. For example, according to Analysis Mason (2008), the mobile content industry is expected to grow in the U.S. at a compound 16.3 percent annual growth rate from 2008 through 2013; however, the most significant uptake will occur only after 2010. In accordance with CTIA, in 2007 the growth had been already lower (15%), and expectations for the following years were uncertain. Consequently, we aim to fill the vacuum in the mobile content literature by addressing two topics: first, the identification and assessment of inhibitor factors thwarting players involved in the mobile content market in the U.S.; second, the analysis of drivers that companies may take advantage of for overcoming such challenges.

The paper is organized into four sections. In the first one, we review the literature contributions on the mobile content market in the U.S. The second part explains the methodology employed – an exploratory research based on the multiple case studies method involving 67 companies throughout the value chain and offerings. In the third section we discuss the empirical findings, identifying and assessing the main barriers and drivers. Finally, we conclude discussing implications for future research initiatives.

Literature review

Research studies on the U.S. mobile content market have primarily paid attention to user behavior, while little has been investigated at both a firm and industry level. Such research projects convey within the Information System studies predicting users’ acceptance of a technology or innovation by assessing interrelations among user beliefs, attitudes, and intentions. The three widely accepted models, outlined, for example, by Fife and Pereira (2005), Pereira et al. (2008), Pagani (2004), Venkatesh et al. (2003), are: the Technology Acceptance Model (Davis et al. 1989), the Diffusion of Innovation Model (Rogers 1995) and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (Venkatesh, Morris, et al. 2003).

These models have been applied to the mobile data and content markets as well. Among others, Fife and Pereira (2005), Pereira et al. (2008), J.P. Shim and J.M. Shim (2003), Zhang and Prybutok (2005), and Malhotra and Segars (2005) carried out a multi-nationwide survey geared toward comparing the mobile data adoption in American, Asian, and European markets. Overall, results show an uptake among U.S. users that is much lower compared to the international market. For example, according to Fife and Pereira (2005), the majority of respondents (53%) had never sent, at that time, any SMSs: demographic factors and the cultural context underlie such a result. In a later study, Pereira et al. (2008) found higher usage rates for a variety of mobile data services in Korea compared to the U.S., partially explained by social and cultural differences (e.g., Koreans use mobile devices on long commutes) as well as the technology adoption catalyst. J.P. Shim and J.M. Shim (2003) stated that over 90 percent of respondents in Japan, Finland, Korea, and Hong Kong experienced m-commerce services, whereas in the U.S. only 65.1 percent of people surveyed were somehow engaged in the same activities.Zhang and Prybutok (2005) found that Americans use mobile phones primarily for spoken communications; on the other hand, alternatives to SMSs (such as emails) are more viable in the U.S. than Europe (where users are more accustomed to sending SMS messages).Finally, Malhotra and Segars (2005) claimed unlikely a “big bang” in mobile data adoption within the U.S. market, following, by contrast, a linear adoption pattern.

In spite of studies pointing out the (low) uptake of mobile data and content services by U.S. users, the literature review shows a vacuum in research projects aiming to gain deeper knowledge, from an industry prospective, about two topics: first, the problems thwarting players involved in the value chain; second, companies’ strategies explaining such a delay as compared to the international context. According to Bullen and Rockart (1981), problems are one of the six key areas of an organization’s management, alongside with Critical Success Factors, Strategy, Objectives, Goals, and Measures. Bullen and Rockart define problems as “specific tasks rising to importance as a result of unsatisfactory performance or environmental changes. Problems can affect the achievement of goals or performance in a CSF area.”

In the past years, several papers addressed some issues connected to the mobile content market. The majority, however, approached the topic primarily with a technological, instead of managerial, viewpoint. Moreover, no one has specifically addressed problems preventing the mobile content market in the U.S. from taking off. A comprehensive picture of technological constraints hampering the delivery of multimedia content services to mobiles is provided, for example, by Arreymbi and Dastbaz (2002), Tarasewich et al. (2002), Ylianttila (2004) and Olivares et al. (2006), with the analysis spanning from display and resolution to input devices, CPUs, memory, battery life, and wireless networks. In other cases, besides the analysis of barriers to the mobile content delivery, technical solutions are proposed (Piyasena and Chan 2008; Olivares et al. 2006; Wee et al. 2003).

In addition to limited or absent analyses of problems hindering the U.S. mobile content market, very few and partial views about the structure of the mobile content industry in the U.S. and players’ strategies have been provided. Ziv and Mulloth (2007) outlined, supported by the case study analysis of an U.S. mobile content service provider, the shifting power balance from carriers toward users as well as among value chain players. Dennis et al. (2006) investigated digital strategies of major U.S. media companies, their organization and internal operations in the context of convergence. Landers and Chan-Olmsted (2004) applied the resource-based approach for assessing which broadcast television networks’ resources and capabilities might become prevalent and lead to superior performances amidst the new landscape shaped by the Internet’s surge, the digital television’s arrival, etc. On the other hand, in both studies the attention is mainly on challenges prompted by the digital environment and convergence phenomena, while impacts stemmed from the mobile channel are barely cited. Finally, Storsul and Sørgaard (2006) pointed out some characteristics of the U.S. mobile content market, such as the heavy emphasis on the walled-garden approach and technical heterogeneity; they provided, however, only a preliminary view with limited insights from an on-field analysis.

Empirical analysis

Research goals

This study aims at accomplishing two objectives:
• The identification, classification and assessment of inhibitor factors, at an industry level, thwarting players involved in the mobile content market in the U.S.
• The analysis of drivers which companies in the mobile content industry may take advantage of for overcoming the aforementioned challenges. Most levers represent actions that players have already taken into account and harnessed, although in many cases employed only on a limited basis.


In order to achieve the research objectives, we have employed the case study methodology. The case study approach is often utilized in two situations (Yin 2003; Wimmer and Dominick 1997): first, little has been researched on a topic; second, an industry’s structure or firm’s strategy is taken into account, as opposed to predict user behavior. These two conditions completely fit with the scope of our study. Further, we have chosen the multiple case study methodology and performed a multi-criteria evaluation along two variables, both covering the entire mobile content industry: the value chain position and types of content offered.
Such variables have been chosen since combined they make possible getting a whole picture of the mobile content industry through the analysis of every value chain stage as well as product supplied.

As a result, the sample of analysis has been selected to cover each quadrant of the matrix pictured in figure 1, carrying out, within every quadrant, multiple cases as long as new findings were revealed and saturation was reached (Yin 2003). The two evaluation variables have been split up as follows:
• Mobile content value chain (Bertelè and Rangone 2005; Barnes 2002): Content Provisioning, Content Aggregation, Application and Infrastructure Provisioning, Retailing, and Billing Integration.
• Types of mobile content services (Bertelè and Rangone 2008): Video, Music (primarily full track services), Infotainment (e.g., Browsing or SMS services about news, sport, and finance), Personalization (e.g., mastertones, wallpapers), Communication & community, Gaming, Interaction with media (e.g., voting, sweepstakes).

This methodology aims at separating problems at an industry level, affecting every (or almost) value chain stage and type of offering (perceived in each – or almost – quadrant of the matrix of reference), from inhibitor factors linked to a specific player’s position in the value chain or type of content (perceived in a limited number of quadrants).
The focus at the industry level is justified by:
• The exploratory nature of our work.
• The final aim of our research project, which is providing a set of drivers in order for companies to increase performances and meet the industry’s critical success factors. Bullen and Rockart (1981) define Critical Success Factors (CSFs) as “the limited number of areas in which satisfactory results will ensure successful competitive performance for the individual, department or organization.” Specifically, they identify five sources of CSFs: Industry, Competitive Strategy and Industry Position, Environmental Factors, Temporal Factors, and Managerial Position. As such, apart from environmental and temporal factors, successful performances are influenced by industry, competitive position, and managerial factors; in this paper we have taken into account primarily the first one.

The sample of analysis comprises, overall, 67 companies throughout the value chain and offerings, identified via secondary sources (i.e. search engines, specialized journals, press reviews, conventions, associations, etc.) and relying on company managers’ availability. Figure 1 pictures the split among each quadrant.


Figure.1 Methodology and sample of analysis: the assessment of problems throughout the value chain and offering.

The interviewee panel spans through three managerial levels with the following breakdown:
• C-level (CEOs, CMOs, CTOs, etc.): around 33% of participants.
• Senior and Executive Vice Presidents: 39%.
• Directors and Middle executives: 28%.

Interviews were performed via telephone following a set of open-ended questions (available to interviewees by request) customized depending on the company’s role and position. Each interview lasted between 30 minutes and 1 hour. To triangulate information, by the time of the interview additional documents were gathered or requested, including press releases, annual reports, news on dedicated websites, etc.; in addition, in some cases follow-up actions for collecting additional information had been taken.
Interviews were held during the summer and fall 2008.

Research results

We have identified six barriers, at an industry level , hindering the mobile content market in the U.S.: customer awareness and education as well as user habits and acceptance; pricing strategies; regulations; platform’s standards and solutions; OffDeck underdevelopment; economics and monetization opportunities. The following paragraphs describe in details the aforementioned hurdles and, for each of them, outline levers that players have started taking into account for overcoming such inhibitor factors. The majority of drivers has been already, to some extent, harnessed, even though in many cases only on a partial basis.

Out of the six problems identified, two of them – customer awareness/education and pricing strategies – have been evenly perceived by players regardless the value chain stage and type of offering (see the representation in figure 2); they have been, therefore, described at first. The other ones, although recognized by players at almost every value chain stage and type of content, present peculiarities depending on specific factors; as a result, their analysis follows the former.

Customer awareness and education as well as user habits and acceptance[5]

As a result of few promotion activities on mobile content services and a fiercer competition, compared to other countries, from other delivery channels (such as the Internet), most companies are struggling with a low customer awareness and education as well as acceptance of mobile content services. For example, during the last two years carriers had been committed to fostering the adoption of data plans, heavily promoting them, and obtaining remarkable results. Conversely, direct efforts on mobile content services accounted for a tiny percentage of their promotion mix. Moreover, the greater competition from the Internet and other alternative and free delivery channels has hindered the uptake of various types of service, while users are more accustomed to the Internet and side-loading mechanisms instead of the downloading or streaming of content services over the air. For example, ringbacktones have not grown as projected because of very low knowledge and acceptance by users, with results varying depending on carriers’ ability to bundle, promote and market them effectively. With regard to full track services, many players are recording a side-loading usage way higher than the over the air downloading (e.g., a service provider is seeing a 75-25% ratio). In fact, the business is challenged by difficulties at getting users accustomed to purchasing and listening to music outside the Internet and PCs mechanisms.


Besides the need of collaboration throughout the value chain for appropriately communicating and promoting mobile content services, the main factors which players are taking into account or are planning to leverage are:
• Social network mediums, viral effects and word of mouth.

First, widgets multiply touch points with users. A few players have already rolled out solutions that let – via widgets and an html code associated to a piece of content – almost everyone offer content services to mobiles through users’ social network home pages. Such a strategy has been already employed for personalization services, but it will be soon extended to other interactive applications. In addition, the usage of viral tools such as “send to a friend” will harness even more widgets’ effectiveness. Second, some players are blending communities (on both mobile and web) with some types of content (e.g., games and music) aiming to entertain users, increase traffic and time spent on mobile/web sites and, in the end, make a transaction and retain the customer. Finally, some mobile retailers are taking advantage of strategic relationships with recognized brands (e.g., exclusive deals, storefronts’ empowerment) for building around such properties multiple micro-destinations with a customized offering depending on a player’s customer base (contextually integrating offerings with a property’s users).

• Services coupled tighter with other channels and environments where people are used to accessing to services, aligning the correspondent user experience and habits. For example, in the case of music services, a couple of mobile application providers have rolled out solutions aiming at synchronizing songs between PCs and mobiles and managing them where users are more comfortable to (usually on PCs).

• Pre-loaded applications. Such a model contributes to raising discoverability and awareness. For example, an application provider is recording the 40 percent of its overall traffic from a client pre-loaded on a few carriers’ devices.

• New featured smartphones and delivery platforms. These new channels are arising more consciousness about mobile browsing and media, leveraging tech-savvy users comfortable with application and content usage. The U.S. device base has dramatically changed starting 2008. In fact, looking at the smartphone subset, the penetration in the U.S. is as high as in Europe ; moreover, some mobile content players recorded a 5X increase of smartphone users within their customer base in 2008.

Pricing strategies

For accessing to mobile content services, users have to, depending on the carriers, preliminary buy a subscription data plan. This represents a huge barrier to consumer adoption, driving users to seek out other ways for getting mobile content (such as side-loading), customer service management problems, and failed transactions, keeping many users (particularly “casual” ones) away from mobile content services.
The second component of this barrier is carriers’ inability to offer, within a one-stop experience, all contents available around a show or artist, as well as bundle, promote, cross and up-sell such services. Telcos are currently struggling to enable this strategy due to technological constraints as various players manage different components of the content business and the separation between the Portal and Storefront (see the paragraph dedicated to platform standards and solutions for details) .


Mobile retailers, primarily carriers, should come out with clearer and more flexible pricing models, thereby attracting the mass market and, in the end, up-selling to acquired customers flat-rate data plans. Some avenues to take into account are: the combination of data traffic costs with the sheer price of a piece of content or application; bundling content services and applications with data, connectivity and voice plans; day pass or day charge solutions. The U.S. currently lags behind with regard to the first and third path, while a few carriers have started to heavily bolster “all-you-can-eat” packages, bundles of data services with some types of content (e.g., unlimited SMSs, data access and VOD streaming services), or unlimited content plans.

As a first result, the mobile browsing, particularly through the OffDeck channel, has seen remarkable growth rates. In fact, some mobile web publishers – supporting third parties in the development of mobile web sites – recorded in 2008 a 2 digit month over month traffic rise.

As regards bundle strategies, the focus should evolve from selling a single piece of content to the entire either artist or show-related content catalog, capitalizing on cross-selling opportunities. However, as already mentioned (and deeply analyzed in the next paragraphs), Telcos are struggling to enable it because of technological platform constraints.
Results recorded by one carrier – which is effectively leveraging bundling functionalities across personalization and music services – show a 20-30% content sale’s lift. Conversely, similar initiatives conducted by other carriers did not obtain any relevant results because of the lack of commitment and appropriate platforms.


The majority of players, except for content aggregators, throughout all types of offering perceives legal and regulatory aspects as a relevant problem (see figure 3). These issues have hampered both the OnDeck and OffDeck markets. In fact, carriers have rolled out stringent guidelines for both channels in regard to – for example – content allowed to be sold (e.g., adult services are banned) and price limits. In addition, other regulatory aspects are thwarting the OffDeck market. In the case of rich media content, such as videos and full tracks, policies are still unclear.Second, some Telcos do not allow the content downloading unless users subscribe to a data plan. Third, the access to “scarce” resources (such as Premium SMS short codes) is a very complex process. In fact, the approval process for a Premium OffDeck campaign is constituted by multiple steps, with each carrier having differing guidelines which increase risks and costs for both content providers and aggregators. Moreover, when a campaign is on air, carriers, through audit agencies, continue to tightly oversee it; in 2008, for example, a mobile billing integrator recorded a 100% increase of carriers’ audit actions while campaigns were on air. Additionally, carriers have tightly monitored devices, as well as features and applications running on them; some mobile operators have blocked for a long time the access to OffDeck services modifying handsets before releasing them, or not implementing web adaptation for the OffDeck browsing. Finally, pending litigation has led carriers to be even more concerned and cautious about this market since they are not willing to lose high margin customers for issues linked to the mobile content business, still a tiny fraction of their overall turnover. In fact, during 2007 and 2008, some carriers and mobile content and service providers had been sued for misleading advertising practices exploiting the usage of the word “free”, unauthorized charges or inadequate controls. This is affecting the reputation of the mobile content Premium market, particularly the Premium SMS, with impacts on both revenues, such as ringtones or interaction with media (sweepstakes) services, and players that fairly rely on an ad-supported model.

Figure 2 – The perception of problems linked to Customer Awareness and Pricing Strategies

Customer awareness and education as well as user habits and acceptance

As a result of few promotion activities on mobile content services and fiercer competitioncompared to other countries from other delivery channels (such as the Internet), most companies are struggling with low customer awareness and education as well as acceptance of mobile content services. For example, during the last two years, carriers had been committed to fostering the adoption of data plans, heavily promoting them, and obtaining remarkable results. Conversely, direct efforts on mobile content services accounted for a tiny percentage of their promotion mix .Moreover, the greater competition from the Internet and other alternative and free delivery channels has hindered the uptake of various types of service, while users are more accustomed to the Internet and side-loading mechanisms instead of the downloading or streaming of content services over the air. For example, ringbacktones have not grown as projected because of very low knowledge and acceptance by users, with results varying depending on carriers’ ability to bundle, promote and market them effectively. With regard to full track services, many players are recording a side-loading usage way higher than the over the air downloading (e.g., a service provider is seeing a 75-25% ratio). In fact, the business is challenged by difficulties at getting users accustomed to purchasing and listening to music outside the Internet and PCs mechanisms.


Besides the need of collaboration throughout the value chain for appropriately communicating and promoting mobile content services, the main factors which players are taking into account or are planning to leverage are:
• Social network mediums, viral effects and word of mouth.
First, widgets touch multiple points with users. A few players have already rolled out solutions that let – via widgets and an html code associated to a piece of content – almost everyone offer content services to mobiles through users’ social network home pages. Such a strategy has been already employed for personalization services, but it will be soon extended to other interactive applications. In addition, the usage of viral tools such as “send to a friend” will harness the effectiveness of widgets further.

Second, some players are blending communities (on both mobile and web) with some types of content (e.g., games and music) aiming to entertain users, increase traffic and time spent on mobile/web sites and, in the end, make a transaction and retain the customer.

Finally, some mobile retailers are taking advantage of strategic relationships with recognized brands (e.g., exclusive deals, storefronts’ empowerment) for building around such properties multiple micro-destinations with a customized offering depending on a player’s customer base (contextually integrating offerings with a property’s users).

• Services coupled tighter with other channels and environments where people are used to accessing services, aligning the corresponding user experience and habits. For example, in the case of music services, a couple of mobile application providers have rolled out solutions aiming at synchronizing songs between PCs and mobiles and managing them where users are more comfortable to (usually on PCs).

• Pre-loaded applications. Such a model contributes to raising discoverability and awareness. For example, an application provider is recording the 40 percent of its overall traffic from a client pre-loaded on a few carriers’ devices.

• New featured smartphones and delivery platforms. These new channels are arising more consciousness about mobile browsing and media, leveraging tech-savvy users comfortable with application and content usage. The U.S. device base has dramatically changed starting 2008. In fact, looking at the smartphone subset, the penetration in the U.S. is as high as in Europe. Moreover, some mobile content players recorded a 5X increase of smartphone users within their customer base in 2008.

Pricing strategies

For accessing to mobile content services, users have to, depending on the carriers, preliminary buy a subscription data plan. This represents a huge barrier to consumer adoption, driving users to seek out other ways for getting mobile content (such as side-loading), customer service management problems, and failed transactions, keeping many users (particularly “casual” ones) away from mobile content services.
The second component of this barrier is carriers’ inability to offer, within a one-stop experience, all contents available around a show or artist, as well as bundle, promote, cross and up-sell such services. Telcos are currently struggling to enable this strategy due to technological constraints as various players manage different components of the content business and the separation between the Portal and Storefront (see the paragraph dedicated to platform standards and solutions for details) .


Mobile retailers, primarily carriers, should come out with clearer and more flexible pricing models, thereby attracting the mass market and, in the end, up-selling to acquired customers flat-rate data plans. Some avenues to take into account are: the combination of data traffic costs with the sheer price of a piece of content or application; bundling content services and applications with data, connectivity and voice plans; day pass or day charge solutions. The U.S. currently lags behind with regard to the first and third path, while a few carriers have started to heavily bolster “all-you-can-eat” packages, bundles of data services with some types of content (e.g., unlimited SMSs, data access and VOD streaming services), or unlimited content plans.

As a first result, mobile browsing, particularly through the OffDeck channel, has seen remarkable growth rates. In fact, some mobile web publishers – supporting third parties in the development of mobile web sites – recorded in 2008 a 2 digit month over month traffic rise.

As regards bundle strategies, the focus should evolve from selling a single piece of content to the entire either artist or show-related content catalog, capitalizing on cross-selling opportunities. However, as already mentioned (and deeply analyzed in the next paragraphs), Telcos are struggling to enable it because of technological platform constraints.

Results recorded by one carrier – which is effectively leveraging bundling functionalities across personalization and music services – show a 20-30% content sale’s lift. Conversely, similar initiatives conducted by other carriers did not obtain any relevant results because of the lack of commitment and appropriate platforms.


The majority of players, except for content aggregators, throughout any types of offering perceive legal and regulatory aspects as a relevant problem (see figure 3).

These issues have hampered both the OnDeck and OffDeck markets. In fact, carriers have rolled out stringent guidelines for both channels in regard to – for example – content allowed to be sold (e.g., adult services are banned) and price limits. In addition, other regulatory aspects are thwarting the OffDeck market. In the case of rich media content, such as videos and full tracks, policies are still unclear. Second, some Telcos do not allow the downloading of content unless users subscribe to a data plan. Third, the access to “scarce” resources (such as Premium SMS short codes) is a very complex process. In fact, the approval process for a Premium OffDeck campaign is constituted by multiple steps, with each carrier having differing guidelines which increases risks and costs for both content providers and aggregators. Moreover, when a campaign is on air, carriers, through audit agencies, continue to tightly oversee it. In 2008, for example, a mobile billing integrator recorded a 100% increase of carriers’ audit actions while campaigns were on air.

Additionally, carriers have tightly monitored devices, as well as features and applications running on them; for a long time, some mobile operators have blocked access to OffDeck services modifying handsets before releasing them, or not implementing web adaptation for the OffDeck browsing. Finally, pending litigation has led carriers to be even more concerned and cautious about this market since they are not willing to lose high margin customers for issues linked to the mobile content business, still a tiny fraction of their overall turnover. In fact, during 2007 and 2008, some carriers and mobile content and service providers had been sued for misleading advertising practices exploiting the usage of the word “free”, unauthorized charges or inadequate controls. This is affecting the reputation of the mobile content Premium market, particularly Premium SMS, with an impact on both revenues, such as ringtones or interaction with media (sweepstakes) services, and players that fairly rely on an ad-supported model.


Figure 3 – The perception of Regulation problems

The entire value chain needs to collaborate for raising the bar. In light of case study outcomes, players are taking into account three main directions.

First, misleading companies approaching the U.S. market (an appealing one for spending capacity, size, and stage of development) with a short term investment outlook are to be excluded. Besides legal actions, players should develop reward systems based on refund ratings, billing process mistakes, etc., giving incentives to companies with fair conduct and punishing “rotten apples.”

Second, clearer, more effective, and standardized guidelines should be made evident. As already mentioned, diverse guidelines, at different stages, regulate the premium market. For example, the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) has developed a set of rules in order to standardize them, but Telcos still have their own guidelines for some aspects. Moreover, lawsuits in place are adding even more complexity to the market, with new rules not perfectly aligned with the MMA and carriers’ ones. A situation where a compliance board has the authority to audit for all the carriers through a single set of rules would be helpful from the perspective of consumer and compliant management costs; it represents, however, a chimera at this time since each carrier is structured in a different way in terms of customer service.

Third, the diffusion of new billing mechanisms would overcome the shortcomings of Premium SMS, such as difficulties in explaining terms and conditions, handsets enabled to download or play content services, etc. Starting in the second half of 2007, some carriers have opened their WAP billing systems to third parties, with a web-like sign up process, giving consumers a payment experience with which they are already familiar with. Some players are eager to lead the transition toward the WAP billing mechanisms and they are already recording remarkable results (aligned with the mobile internet taking off) although there are not so many players ready to embrace it yet. Moreover, the rapid shift from WAP to a consistent mobile Internet experience brings to envision changes in the billing mechanisms as well, with e-wallet solutions that might take off in the U.S. faster than in other countries.

Platform’s standards and solutions.

This problem is perceived particularly by content providers, application & infrastructure providers, and retailers, while it does not heavily affect content and billing aggregators (see figure 4). The mobile market has been traditionally characterized by multiple platforms and standards. The U.S. mobile content industry stretches this aspect through the coexistence of a plethora of differing standards with conditions becoming exponentially fragmentized instead of simpler. With regard to cellular networks, several standards, such as GSM, CDMA, iDEN, etc., are in place. From a content fruition standpoint, besides the coexistence between Java and BREW, new platforms and environments, such as Blackberry, Android, etc., have gained traction. Furthermore, players working globally are forced to deal with solutions adopted almost only in the U.S. (such as MediaFLO and BREW). Therefore, in order to reach scale effects, content and application providers have to be more flexible at developing solutions, working with differing platforms and technological configurations. As a result, a lot of artificial costs for porting, content ingestion and adaptation activities challenge the delivery of many types of mobile content services, whether building more versions of a mobile site or optimizing videos and games to carriers’ platforms (for example, a company involved in the gaming business recorded fivefold porting costs compared to production costs), etc.

From a content provisioning platform standpoint, the division between the Portal and Storefront environments has prevented a pleasant and unified user experience as well as cross and up-selling opportunities. In fact, to access different types of content, users have to start various applications: whether a browsing session to check text information, a media player for watching Mobile TV channels or a client for accessing to a social network site.

The critical areas which players should divert quite a few efforts for removing the aforementioned hurdles are:
• Evolution towards a blended, convergent storefront-portal environment thereby integrating browsing, downloading, streaming, etc. sessions; in the end, the turning point is harnessing the concept of “total package presentation,” being able to offer, within a one-stop experience, all contents available on a show or artist, and enabling a smooth experience without any side-loading interaction.
• Migration toward web-centric tools (such as RSS feeds and readers) as the key technology interface for content ingestion harnessing the smartphones diffusion.
• Development of “adds-on” functionalities in order for users to access, buy and share and for retailers to promote and bundle services easily in a win-win relationship. In 2008 carriers introduced interfaces within the Portal and Storefront environments, via both web and mobile, for improving customization features, discoverability and ease of use. For example, users can set up – through widgets – in which order sections and information appear within the home page and inner sections as well as organize and add shortcuts to preferred information and mobile sites.

Economics and monetization opportunities

Monetization is perceived as a challenge at many levels of the value chain and types of offering, although not evenly distributed throughout the matrix of reference (see figure 5). This problem can be split along three directions. First, revenue shares across the value chain are not always equally distributed. For example, OffDeck retailers can get as low as 10% of the full track price; infrastructure providers are struggling to recover platform costs in the case of video services because of revenue shares and scale limitations. Second, the higher complexity of the mobile channel challenges monetization aspects. For example, games require heavy investments for both development and porting activities and these costs are emphasized in the U.S. due to the rapid device transition and plethora of platforms. Finally, among factors specifically connected with the characteristics of the U.S. mobile content market, the most relevant refer to Premium SMS drawbacks. In some cases players are forced to rely on a standard rate model since it has less strict regulations and fewer risks of incurring legal challenges. For example, with regard to interaction with media services (such as voting and sweepstakes), some players are struggling to monetize the engagement and move beyond an experimentation stage, while the ad-supported business is still in its infancy stage.

Figure 5 – The perception of problems connected to Economics and Monetization Opportunities

Figure 4 – The perception of problems linked to Platform Standards and Solutions


In light of insights from the case study analysis, the main levers players should harness for overcoming this barrier are:
• Pricing strategies. The more that flat-rate data plans and clearer pricing models enter the market, the sooner users will massively adopt mobile content services and the market will reach scale effects for monetizing investments.
• New billing mechanisms. The more billing systems outside the OnDeck channel will thrive, the more carriers will be forced to re-think revenue shares (for details about billing mechanisms see the paragraph dedicated to regulation problems).
• Development of a viable mobile advertising model. So far, the majority of revenues and investments has come from display advertisements, as a result of the active role taken by web companies and the transposition of models based on display and search advertising from web to mobile. Starting in 2008, however, besides display advertisements, experimentation in other fields has been conducted, such as: full screen images, videos, scrolling banners at the beginning, end, or interstitially, of a game; pre/post/mid-roll advertisements for video offerings; location-based display advertisements; sponsorships along different types of services, such as video, audio and interaction with media campaigns; leveraging smartphones, new distribution platforms, and relative features such as larger screens, more animations, built-in GPS chipsets, etc.

OffDeck underdevelopment

This problem is thwarting the majority of players regardless of the value chain position and offering, with a representation similar to the one in figure 2. By contrast, it is not perceived as affecting critical success factors by players focused on the OnDeck market not willing to play a preeminent role on the OffDeck channel as well.

The OffDeck premium market started pretty late (in 2004) in the U.S. In addition, some carriers – particularly those BREW-based – opened up the channel even more recently (in 2006 and 2007). Compared to other countries, the OffDeck incidence is by far lower. In Italy, for example, its weight was, in 2008, as high as 53% (Bertelè and Rangone 2008). Conversely, the majority of players claims an incidence in the U.S. around 20% (or lower). As the market in the U.S. primarily relies on carriers’ decks (with lack of viable alternative distribution channels), the mobile content industry is a very competitive arena for getting a good placement.

A lot of players are still struggling to develop an effective OffDeck proposition due to:
• Barriers raised by carriers in terms of regulations and scarce attention to the channel (described previously in the regulation paragraph).
• Customer acquisition challenges: the customer unconsciousness is emphasized in the OffDeck channel, a high-spending segment in terms of marketing cost whilst returns are uncertain. As a result, some players have moved away from a Direct-to-Consumer involvement, not deliberately taking the B2B avenue but spurred by market conditions.


Despite the rough current status, findings from the case studies analysis outline that many factors will foster the OffDeck market taking off, with the division between the OnDeck and OffDeck channels blurring. The main levers are:
• New delivery channels. Starting with the App Store, the traditional mobile distribution channels are going to be turned upside down, while a new concept of delivery channels and stores has gathered significant momentum. For example, a player has recorded 5 times higher downloads on the App Store than on the traditional carriers’ decks. In such a new scenario, despite diverse models in place (in terms of revenue shares along the value chain and control by retailers), carriers will not oversee any application delivered to users and will be completely – or partially – cut out of the revenue stream; on the other hand, opportunities for minor mobile publishers/developers and new (ad-supported) business models may thrive.
• New billing mechanisms: billing systems outside the OnDeck channel (such as the OffDeck WAP billing) will convey more attention to the OffDeck market and greater monetization opportunities (for details about billing mechanisms see the paragraph dedicated to regulation problems).
• Social network mediums, viral effects and word of mouth (already described in the paragraph dedicated to customer awareness).
• Pricing mechanisms: as already mentioned, clearer and more flexible pricing policies, such as bundling the data traffic cost with the sheer price of a piece of content, enabling content downloading for both users without a data plan and pay-as-you-go customers as well as flat-rate data plans, can boost the OffDeck taking off. In fact, in 2008 many players have recorded a three digit year over year growth for the OffDeck mobile browsing (e.g., a media company has reached an incidence of the OffDeck browsing as high as 40%).
• Addressing regulation aspects (already discussed in the relative paragraph).


This paper has presented the main results of an exploratory analysis performed on the mobile content market in the U.S. Specifically, the research study accomplishes two objectives:
• The identification, classification and assessment of the main problems, at an industry level, thwarting players involved in the value chain.
• The analysis of drivers for breaking such inhibitor factors down.

The final goal has been the provision of a set of levers in order for companies to increase their performances and meet the industry’s critical success factors.

A sum-up of our findings is presented in figure 6.

We have identified six problems hindering the mobile content market in the U.S. at an industry level: customer awareness and education as well as user habits and acceptance; pricing strategies; regulations; platform’s standards and solutions; OffDeck underdevelopment; economics and monetization opportunities.
For each of them, we have analyzed levers that players have started taking into account, or are planning to harness, for overcoming such inhibitor factors. In particular, some drivers are leveraged through different problems; a few examples are: social network mediums, smartphones and new distribution channels, pricing plans, new billing mechanisms, and standardized guidelines for the premium market.

Further research projects may capitalize on this study for providing an in-depth analysis at a firm level, taking into account barriers specifically connected with a company’s position in the value chain, supporting players in identifying, handling and meeting not only Industry but also Position-related Critical Success Factors.

Figure 6 The Problems/Drivers matrix.


We would like to thank all companies that have taken part in our study. Listed below are the ones willing to be cited:
• 2ergo Americas Inc.
• A&E Television Networks
• Airborne Mobile Inc.
• Amdocs
• Bango
• Boost Mobile
• Clear Channel Online Music & Radio
• EMI Music
• Famous Frames Mobile Interactive (FFMI)
• FOX Interactive Media
• Fox Mobile Group
• GoTV Networks
• Greystripe
• Hearst Magazines Digital Media
• Intercasting Corporation
• IRIS Distribution
• Lionsgate
• Loopt
• mBlox
• MobiTV Inc.
• MocoSpace
• Moderati, a Bellrock Media Company
• mSpot, Inc.
• Myxer Inc.
• Oasys Mobile, Inc.
• Pandora
• PlayPhone Inc.
• Quattro Wireless
• ROK Entertainment Group USA
• SinglePoint
• Sybase 365
• Telescope
• The Walt Disney Company
• Thumbplay, Inc.
• Tribune Interactive, Inc.
• Tribune Media Services, Inc.
• Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
• YouTube, LLC


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Author Contact

The Neo-baroque in Lucha Libre – Kat Austin


Lucha libre displays a major trait of the (neo-)baroque: it presents us with illusions and then reveals their artifice to us, only to provide us with yet more illusions. Lucha libre is a neo-baroque form that plays with grand themes such as illusion and reality. This article attempts to prove the strong neo-baroque nature of Mexican wrestling by exploring its erasure of the lines between illusion and reality, its openness and dynamism, its emotive religiosity, and its use of allegory and mimicry.

Tres caídas me bastaron
Par darme cuenta
Que tú no eras mi aliada
No das la cara
Y nada lo que antes era
Arriesgo mi cabellera
Para quitarte la máscara [1]

Musician Sergio Arau sings these lyrics which invoke the language of lucha libre, Mexican wrestling. He, himself wears a wrestling mask indicating his own lucha, his own political combat against NAFTA. [2] Referring to NAFTA, he proclaims to his audience: “Now that we are going to be good neighbors… it’s time to leave hypocrisy behind. Let’s take off our masks” (cited in Arizmendi 1994, 109). The audience pleads for him not to remove the mask, because in lucha libre, unmasking results in a loss of honour, charisma, and ultimately, power. Then, “Arau hesitates, then in one fell swoop takes off the mask only to reveal a second leopard-skin mask underneath. The audience claps in surprise and relief, honor has been preserved, negotiations are not over yet” (cited in Arizmendi 1994, 109). Arau first presents us with illusion. He then attempts to free us from this illusion with his unmasking, but instead provides us with yet another illusion. Arau’s performance offers us a paradigmatic (neo-)baroque metaphor. Like Arau, the (neo-)baroque presents us with illusions and then reveals their artifice to us, only to provide us with yet more illusions. Lucha libre is a neo-baroque form that plays with grand themes such as illusion and reality. This article will attempt to prove the strong neo-baroque nature of Mexican wrestling by exploring its erasure of the lines between illusion and reality, its openness and dynamism, its emotive religiosity, and its use of allegory and mimicry.

Enmascarados: illusion and reality in lucha libre

Even those who know very little about wrestling can recognize the way in which it blurs and brings attention to the lines separating reality and illusion. Some will argue that the match’s outcome is decided beforehand or that the wrestlers’ movements are roughly choreographed. Meanwhile, in defense of the genre, others will argue that wrestling is real because of its improvisational quality, because its wrestlers are real athletes that can and do suffer injuries, because they fly acrobatically through the air using real muscles and skill, and because real blood oozes from their wounds. However, lucha libre’s real/fictive ambiguity runs far deeper than the question of the predetermined match or the existence of blood. In lucha libre, fiction and reality are inseparable: artifice is reality and reality is artifice.

Lucha libre is theatre that enters into reality. As Barthes claims, wrestling is not sport, but spectacle (1972, 15) and so, lucha libre and theatre share many similarities. Further, the theatre of wrestling, like baroque theatre, is the theatre of the world. “Professional wrestling is recognized and ultimately serves as a metaphor for structures and meanings. The squared circle, like the medieval stage, comes to represent the world itself” (Mazer 1998, 7). However, the world of lucha libre does not confine itself to the limits of the ring. The theatre of Lucha libre extends into everyday life and spaces, reminiscent of baroque theatre in which “theater met life and life met theater” (Ndalianis 2004, 198). Ndalianis recounts the wedding of Cosimo II during which a sea battle of the Argonauts was performed on the river Arno.

Theater spilled over the city of Florence…to the accompaniment of pyrotechnics, music, and songs, the theater spectacle included elaborately decorated barges on the river with astonishing ships, such as that of Hercules whose bow consisted of the heads of hydra, complete with flames emitting from each of the hydra’s nine heads. Other ships were drawn by sea horses, and yet another took the form of a giant lobster… (2004, 198)

Though the performance of lucha libre does not spill into the city streets of Mexico, its characters do in fact leave the theatrical space of the ring and continue the role of their persona in quotidian life. Lucha libre intensifies artifice with its characteristic use of masks which further complicates the separation of the supposed real and fictive worlds. A luchador never removes his mask except to his family and most intimate friends, and so, the entire public sphere becomes his theatre. One can find a masked luchador in the most mundane of situations: in a taquería, on a plane, in the mall. The luchador’s character and real identity are inseparable. He and his persona are the same entity. As Jean Rousset writes of the baroque, “C’est le personnage qui est la personne; c’est le masque qui est la vérité” [3] (1954 54). This unity of persona and person holds true in lucha libre as “a wrestler is not thought to ‘play’ a character so much as ‘be’ a character” (Levi 2002, 89). Mexican wrestling cannot present us with a clear distinction between pretense and reality.


Figure 1. One can find a masked luchador in the most mundane of situations.


The ambiguous nature of reality and illusion are materialized in the emblem of the mask and, perhaps not coincidentally, masking is key to post-colonial discourse. Octavio Paz insists on the colonial origins of masking in Mexican culture. “The Indians and mestizos had to sing in a low voice, as in the poem by Alfonso Reyes, because ‘words of rebellion cannot be heard well from between clenched teeth’” (Paz 1985, 43). He says that the lie and the truth are the same and that the lie “becomes a superior – because more artistic – form of reality” (Paz 1985, 43). This contradiction is beautifully synthesized in both the mask and in the postcolonial subject. “The masker signifies a double existence, for he is at once himself and someone else” (Smith 1984). The masker is both himself and someone else, the other, while simultaneously being neither himself nor the other. His identity is a third term which exists in a Derridian in-between space. This third term expresses the hybrid mestizaje [4] which embodies both the colonized and the colonizer, both indigenous and/or African as well as the Hispanic. Homi Bhabha suggests that cultural identity is born from this ambivalent hybrid space, the “Third Space of enunciation” (1994, 37). The mask is emblematic of this dual identity stemming from colonialism and hybridity. The post-colonial subject cannot help but be self-reflexive within his ambivalent double existence because the mask gives him the perspective of being an outsider, the other, while simultaneously being himself. Identity is questioned and problematized because it presents itself as being multivocal and illusive. The mask itself epitomizes artifice and yet, as Rousset argues, identity is found in masks (1954, 54). If the illusion of the mask is truth, then conversely, all truth is simply an illusion. The self-reflexive post-colonial subject recognizes the illusiveness of identity and how identity is simply artifice in its own right, an illusion, a construct. Nationalism itself presents a constructed/constricted mask. “To talk of ‘the nation’ is to mask difference(s) – to reconfigure and cover contradictory features in order to represent and lift the face of an imaginary national community” (Neustadt 2001, 414). However, Neustadt claims that “society’s marginalized Others can make use of masks as a performance strategy that calls attention to the masking process” (2001, 415). To use a mask is to enter into a dialogue about identity and the nature of reality and illusion.

Lucha libre performance epitomizes the problematic space between reality and illusion. Rousset writes of how the man of the baroque world, “il va d’illusions en désillusions et en nouvelles illusions, il doit apprendre que rien n’est qu’il paraît, que tout est ostentation” [5] (1954, 228). Lucha libre is densely layered with masks which create instability between being and seeming. The practice of bleeding best exemplifies the problematic real/fictive relation. The bleeding wrestler demonstrates to the public that the spectacle is not just artifice. The authenticity of blood and pain causes the spectacle to lose its artifice and enter into reality. However, the reality of the blood simply presents us with another mask seeing how “wrestlers are paid extra to bleed. Someone, maybe the wrestler, maybe the referee, makes small vertical incisions on the wrestler’s forehead. At the proper moment, the opposing wrestler hits the cuts to re-open them, and the other appears to bleed from the blow”. (Levi 2002, 48)

In lucha libre we cannot exit the world of illusions. The spectator is conscious of the illusion and how reality can enter into this artifice and vice versa. Wrestling fans are self-reflexive spectators who do not “so much suspend disbelief as they sustain it while looking for moments in which to believe. They look to see the fake and to see through the fake to the real” (Mazer 1998, 6). The self-reflective viewer who recognizes and appreciates the artifice in art is a (neo-)baroque viewer. “The baroque and neo-baroque create the illusion of the merging of an artificial reality into the phenomenological space of the audience while simultaneously inviting the spectator to recognize the deception and marvel at the methods employed to construct it“ (Ndalianis 2004,159).

The (neo-)baroque spectator recognizes that truth is vague and fleeting. If reality is illusion, then illusion can also be reality. Lucha libre demonstrates that truth, reality, and identity are rendered unstable constructs, and, like Narcissus’ image reflected in the pond, are only temporary and deceptive images projected on a fluid surface.

Beyond the ropes: open and dynamic spaces

Lucha libre is an open and dynamic form which metamorphoses and incorporates new signs into its body. Mexican wrestling owes its birth to change and adaptation. Lucha libre actually diverged from a US model that was introduced in the 1930’s and, because of its open and dynamic nature, it has become decidedly Mexican. Lucha libre represented lo naco, [6] the popular, and lo naco was celebrated by the neo-pop movement as being Mexican by essence (Levi 2002, 265). Although lucha libre and American wrestling exercise similar open and dynamic physical space within the performance, lucha libre extends this open space with the use of masks. Lucha libre also displays its open and dynamic form with its explosion of genres and its seriality.

What is immediately apparent about lucha libre is its open, dynamic, and interactive space. Unlike the commonly-seen stage à l’italienne whose back is closed to the audience, the wrestling stage is open to the audience on all sides. This openness ensures that the spectacle can extend beyond the bounds of the ring and into the space of the spectator. This extension of space allows for more dynamic interaction between performer and audience. The open stage also allows for multi-focal perspectives, making the spectacle intensely three-dimensional. The lines between performer and audience are blurred in a (neo-)baroque fashion. This is similar to Ndalianis’ (neo-)baroque concept of coextensive space where the audience’s space extends in the dimensions of the art and vice versa (2004, 163). The wrestlers are quick to contest the boundary of the ring, often flying into the spectator’s lap. The spectator also can enter the performance realm of the ring although (s)he more often exercises his or her part in the performance by interacting from the space of the audience. The divisiveness of the ropes framing the ring become arbitrary and useless as the audience itself forms part of the spectacle. The spectators exercise great power within the performance as they react to and judge the actions of the wrestlers. The opinions voiced by the audience shape the narrative of the spectacle. The wrestler will often ask the audience what action he should take and likewise, the audience will tell the wrestler and referee what actions they should take. In short, the audience is intensely involved in the story of the performance. A carnivalization is effected in lucha libre through the participation of the spectator. Octavio Paz calls this phenomenon the fiesta [7], where “the bounds between audience and actors, officials and servants are erased. Everybody takes part in the fiesta, everybody is caught up in its whirlwind. Whatever its mood, its character, its meaning, the fiesta is participation” (1985, 52). The fiesta constituted an essential part of baroque and especially Spanish baroque culture. The goal of the baroque fiesta was to inspire admiration through flamboyant pretension and artificiality (Maravall 1986, 241). This admiration contributed to “the irresponsible, stunned, and blind adherence of the masses” that the monarchy desired, and so “the public was allowed to enter the fiestas of the Retiro” (ibid.). While the Spanish monarchy had obvious motives for including all classes of people in its fiesta, lucha libre’s motives for inclusion are not as clearly nor as politically defined. However, it is safe to say that lucha libre carries on the baroque tradition of the fiesta with all of its artificiality, ostentation, admiration, and the participation of all social classes. Like the baroque fiestas which often took place in the open air of public spaces, the luchador brings his theatrical artifice into the public sphere. The limits between performance space and audience space in lucha libre are greatly extended when we consider that the luchador never abandons his persona while in the public sphere. When the wrestler leaves the domain of the amphitheatre in his mask, he brings his masked persona into our world and is only limited by its boundaries.

Lucha libre is also open and dynamic within the space of its text. Mexican wrestling is an adaptive hybrid form that extends across genres and incorporates cultural fragments. Lucha libre is a “liminal form between sport, ritual, and theatre” (Levi 2002, 13). Mexican wrestling destroys the borders between sport, ritual, theatre, dance, and film, unifying a variety of artistic forms. This explosion of generic boundaries echoes the baroque when “Baroque art came to abolish the borderline between the ‘three arts,’ and even between art and nature” (Panofsky 1995, 45). Mexican wrestling and its signs have also emerged in multimedia forms such as film, graphic novels, animation, music, and performance art. Ndalianis claims that our tastes for multimedia forms comes from the “corporate mergers that integrated companies with diverse media interests contributed to the emergence of an entertainment industry that not only thrived on investment of multimedia forms but aimed at dispersing multimedia entertainment products to a global market” (Ndalianis 2004, 39). Capitalism is strongly linked to multimedia aesthetics which partially explains the multiplicity of media forms that speak of lucha libre and its serial nature. “Neo-baroque seriality is the end product of an industry that is driven by cross media extensions and cross merchandizing” (Ndalianis 2004, 41).

The fact that capitalism produced the serial form is evident in the Mexican wrestling film. Hundreds of films were produced starting in the 1950’s as churros.[8] The seriality of lucha libre media ensures its open form because it is not enclosed or restricted by an overall linear or cohesive narrative. The unrestricted open narrative explains why so many lucha libre movies could be produced in so little time. For example, the most famous luchador, El Santo, starred in 50 films. These films are what Omar Calabrese would classify as being examples of the (neo-)baroque phenomenon of variation on a theme seeing as they have “no overall story acting as a frame for individual episodes” (1992, 39). The films starring El Santo are like the Colombo episodes that Calabrese cites in which the protagonist

is exactly the same in each episode… There is clearly a strongly repetitive iconic element. Other elements, however, such as the hero’s adversaries, the situations, and the environmental characteristics of the scenes, vary considerably. The thematic and narrative modes also appear to be fairly standard. (1992, 39)

As in Colombo, the narrative in every episode is also essentially the same: El Santo uses his extraordinary skill to conquer supernatural beings (vampires, mummies, aliens, evil scientists) that threaten the human world. Apart from the invariable Santo and the invariable plot, the rest of the episode is composed of variables which create neo-baroque variations on themes. Furthermore, testing our preconceived notions of time, space, and their relation to narrative, El Santo remains unchanged in every episode and acts as if the previous episodes had never happened. The lack of linearity and continuity between episodes makes each episode seem as if it took place in an alternate reality. The neo-baroque claims that multiple contradictory narrative paths can exist at the same time because the neo-baroque is “a world of multiple originals that intersect at certain points and diverge at others” (Ndalianis 2004, 80). The neo-baroque narrative is large, dynamic, intersecting and would appear chaotic. However, its reader must find order within its apparent chaos, its delicious labyrinth. “The unity of the neo-baroque embraces a more daunting task than that of the baroque, asking its audience to discover order from multiple and often contradictory paths” [9] (Ndalianis 2004, 91).

The Alternate Cathedral: Lucha libre’s (neo-)baroque religiosity

Lucha libre has a (neo-)baroque religiosity, an intense emotivity and ritual nature which sometimes borders on the sublime. “One of the repeated concerns of the baroque era…was that the individual be ‘moved from within’” (Ndalianis 2004, 219). Lucha libre effects an emotional and spiritual response similar to that of religion. In fact, lucha libre presents an alternative to the cathedral with its spiritual ritual nature and ostentatious emotionality that resembles that of Catholicism.

Mexican wrestling shares many connections with ritual and religious drama. It is immediately apparent how wrestling embodies a type of allegorical morality play of a cosmological battle between good and evil. [10] In lucha libre there is an inter-text of indigenous and European religious rituals which give the genre a spiritual and almost sublime quality. The wrestling mask, particular to Mexican wrestling, invokes the mask of ritual drama. For example, the mask has ritual traditions within Mexican culture such as in the p’askola, the sacred clown that dances on several feast days (Levi 2002, 143). The role of p’askola gives the masked man a spiritual power as “the masks themselves empower performance by facilitating the spiritual powers of the performer” (Levi 2002,146). Displaying uncanny parallels to Mexican wrestling, in the Nahuatl danza del tigre young men “dress as jaguars, wearing painted clothing and heavy wooden or leather masks that resemble lucha libre costumes. The youths fight each other with rope whips in order to shed one another’s blood as sacrifice” (Levi 2002, 144). The blood sacrifice of these young dancers recalls the flagellation of Christ, a suffering for a greater end. In the case of the danza del tigre, the end goal of the blood sacrifice is rain. The dancers transcend their human bodies, taking on the power of their jaguar masks, their ritual masks. When the spectator watches men who wear the ritual mask he “watches men greater than himself” (Smith 1984, 10) and so, the performers transcend to a divine level. In the danza del tigre, the dancers represent the divinity himself, the jaguar deity. This sublime [11] nature of this ritual drama could not have been achieved without the use of the mask which transcends the human because

the protagonist, grand and remote in his mask, suffers horribly and endures magnificently beyond the human scale. The masker no longer has a human identity: he is transformed, he shares a moment with divinity. Effecting the union with the god, he acts out the struggle on behalf of the entire community”. (Smith 1984, 50)

This divine agony represented in wrestling alludes to and allegorizes Christian suffering. The gestures and body of the wrestler give substance to Catholic themes of suffering, making this divine experience tangible in the immediacy of the material body. Barthes’ genius recognized the similarities between wrestling and how it represents a type of martyrdom which is eerily Christian. He claims that:

wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel… offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering; like a primitive Pietà, he exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an intolerable affliction. (1972, 19)

Christian allusion continues in the defeat of the wrestler as:

defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned as soon as it is understood; it is not an outcome, but quite the contrary, it is a duration, a display, it takes up the ancient myths of public Suffering and Humiliation: the cross and the pillory. It is as if the wrestler is crucified in broad daylight and in the sight of all. (Barthes 1972, 21)

Further, this embodiment of the sublime belongs to the baroque. The baroque attempts to make material and immediate what is abstract and remote from human experience. Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647-52), brings “what is limitless and incomprehensible into the realm of the visible and tangible” (Rupert Martin 1977, 104). Bernini is able to sculpt in stone the saint’s sublime ecstasy of her union with God. However, the artist can only express the divine on human terms and so, he employs the emotionality and sublime experience of orgasm in order to convey her experience. Lucha libre also employs a similar physicality to represent sublime experience.

Figure 2. Lucha libre’s (neo-)baroque religiosity: El Santo

Figure 2. Lucha libre’s (neo-)baroque religiosity: El Santo

However, this sublime experience only comes from the representation used to elicit emotional response from the audience. The baroque theatricality is essential to move the spectator, just as the Counter-reformation used the baroque’s theatricality and emotive power to seduce its audience and convince them of the supremacy of the Catholic Church. The goal of lucha libre is to move the passions, so that the audience becomes angry with the match’s injustices, pitiful from the wrestlers’ suffering, and filled with awe from witnessing their superhuman acrobatic skills. Consequently, all the signs of wrestling must be amplified, exaggerated, and ostentatious in order to more forcefully communicate their message to the audience. The spectacle necessitates excessiveness because “in wrestling reserve would be out of place, since it is opposed to the voluntary ostentation of the spectacle, to this Exhibition of Suffering which is the very aim of the fight” (Barthes 1972, 19). Likewise, the baroque shows, amplifies and intensifies the interior emotions and psychology (Martin 1977, 73). This amplification of emotionality has been connected to kitsch, kitsch being “anything that is considered too obvious, dramatic, repetitive, artificial, or exaggerated” (Olalquiaga 1992, 41). Lucha libre could also be deemed as kitsch seeing as it shares all the qualities that Olalquiaga cites, not to mention its pop culture nature and its large low-brow appeal. However, baroque Catholicism can also be seen as kitsch because of its inherent materiality. Olalquiaga perfectly sums up Catholicism’s relation to kitsch:

Catholicism facilitates through its imagery the materialization of one of the most ungraspable of all experiences, that of the transcendence of spiritual attributes. Because of the spiritual nature of religious faith, however, iconolatry… is often seen as sacrilegious, as the vulgarization of an experience that should remain fundamentally immaterial and ascetic. In this sense… the whole of Christian theology has been accused of lacking in substance, and therefore of being irredeemably kitsch. Like kitsch, religious imagery is a mise-en-scène, a visual glossolalia that embodies otherwise impalpable qualities: mystic fervor is translated into upturned eyes, a gaping mouth and levitation… passion is a bleeding heart; and evil is snakes, horns, and flames. In kitsch, this dramatic quality is intensified by an overtly sentimental, melodramatic tone and by primary colors and bright, glossy surfaces. (ibid., 41)

Essentially, lucha libre and the baroque church perform the same function: they make material the immaterial while intensifying the dramatic and emotional qualities of this spectacle. The Catholic Church is the greatest theatre (Smith 1984, 49) and lucha libre capitalizes on the seductive techniques of the church. The baroque is where the transcendental is made secular (Martin 1977, 54) and the secularized material nature used by both Catholicism and lucha libre to embody the transcendental has the potential danger of falling into the category of kitsch. However, in this supposed vulgarization and emotionality of Catholicism and lucha libre, lie their expansive power and effectiveness.

El gran teatro del mundo: allegory and mimicry’s staging of socio-political dialogue

Two key (neo-)baroque devices that lucha libre employs are allegory and mimicry. Both strategies are characteristically post-colonial. Post-colonial discourse employs allegory because, having been used by colonial discourse as a tool of domination, allegory has been appropriated as a form of counter-discourse in postcolonial literature (Ashcroft 1998, 9). Colonial and post-colonial mimicry come from the legacy of the imitation of the colonizers by the colonized. However, mimicry results in a

‘blurred copy’ of the colonizer that can be quite threatening. This is because mimicry is never very far from mockery, since it can appear to parody whatever it mimics. Mimicry therefore locates a crack in the certainty of colonial dominance, an uncertainty in its control of the behaviour of the colonized. (Ashcroft 1998, 139)

Mimicry, mockery, and parody are inseparable and will be treated as similar phenomena. The concept of the copy, the simulacra, is also (neo-)baroque and relates to the imitative nature of mimicry. When mimicry becomes threatening, it transforms into mockery and parody. Parody is an essential component of the neo-baroque (Sarduy 1980, 123). Both allegory and mimicry hold the power to create and stage dialogues concerning important social and political issues.

In the ring itself, wrestling performs an allegorical function. The ring “comes to represent the world itself. Its oppositions, hierarchies, conventions, and transgressions become at once more and less than what might actually be perceived in the ring itself“ (Mazer 1998, 7). The wrestlers stage an allegory of the narratives of our world. We witness how the técnico, the “good” guy represents the established citizen who plays mostly within the rules. He is balanced and orderly compared to the rudo, the “bad” guy, who is erratic and easily impassioned. The técnico practices classical restraint and maintains the status quo. Heather Levi links técnico to the technocrats of the PRI and suggests that “support for the técnico wrestler might be read as a kind of support for the government” (2002, 109). The rudo, however, disrespects authority and breaks the rules. He dissimulates and comports himself unpredictably. He resembles the vato loco [12] because he is tough, “someone from the city with little formal education but plenty of street smarts. The rudo, in this sense, is both product and master of his urban environment” (2002, 109). The rudo could represent the marginalized of society who must use deception in order to gain power within a system that is inherently in their disfavour. Not only do the rudo and the técnico allegorically stage the story of the marginalized in combat with the established class, but these types could also be seen “as two competing models of urban comportment, contradictory notions of what is appropriate behaviour in a situation of perpetual and disorienting modernization and urbanization” (2002, 109).

Many activists and performance artists combine the signs of Mexican wrestling with mockery/parody in order to more effectively communicate their message and empower their cause. “Because of the importance of the metaphors of masking and struggle, lucha libre was easy to adapt as a form of parodic political commentary” (Levi 2002, 179). The classic exemplification of mockery and lucha libre is the figure of Superbarrio. Superbarrio was a chubby middle-aged representative from the Asamblea de Barrios in Mexico City who dressed up as a masked wrestler in order to represent the housing needs of the poor. At first this masked wrestler seems to derive his power in his allusion to Superman and the superhuman qualities associated with super-heroes, however, his mask renders him more powerful than any allusion to Superman could. Superbarrio foremost finds his power in his mask because “the mask liberates man. Behind it he is free both to express joy, pain, or anger without social or religious restraints and to mimic and mock those that impose those who sanction and impose the restraints” (Smith 1984, 2). In his mask, Superbarrio can fight any politician because of the inviolability and power the mask gives him. His power also comes from his mockery because when

Superbarrio enters the struggle (lucha), and Superbarrio appears in the office, the functionary behind the desk feels absolutely disoriented, out of order. He’s the one who starts to stutter, who stumbles and knocks things over… Because he knew by the presence of Superbarrio that we were mocking him. (Rascón quoted in Levi 2002, 175)

Masks by their very nature, draw attention to the issue of artifice and the masks people wear. The political world is filled with deceit and pretense and thus, Superbarrio “parodies the deception behind official masks” (Neustadt 2001, 423). Overall, mimicry, mockery, and parody present effective tools for the oppressed to resist their oppressors.


Lucha libre is one of the great theatres of our world. Through its blurring of illusion and reality, its openness and dynamism, its emotive religiosity, and its use of allegory and mimicry, it demonstrates strong neo-baroque forms. However, beyond this neo-baroque display, how does it aid us in understanding and improving our world? The exploration of lucha libre directs us to diverging paths: it can provide us with a new model of identity or it can continue to deny any fixed identity.

The new model of identity that lucha libre proposes establishes itself in its ability to move beyond the confines of time, space, and social divisions. Mexican wrestling surpasses time’s boundaries because it maintains its historicity without possessing the dead fixedness of tradition. The history of lucha libre “is rooted in the urban, modernizing environment of Mexico City in the 1930’s, and its link with the indigenous practice is filtered through the nationalist discourse of the post-revolutionary state” (Levi 2002, 178). Not only are lucha libre’s historical roots multiform, but the genre itself is in continuous flux, continuously incorporating new signs and forms, and therefore cannot be relegated to the past. Mexican wrestling also transgresses social divisions of race, class, and gender. Lucha libre incorporates the indigenous, primarily by its use of the mask. Contrary to popular belief, the Mexican wrestling audience includes all ages, social classes, and genders. There are also female luchadoras who are not sexualized in the way that female American wrestlers are, but are instead valued for their athletic prowess. The ring is also frequented by gay and transvestite wrestlers. The inclusive nature of lucha libre recalls the carnivalesque inclusion of which Octavio Paz speaks where “in certain fiestas… the customary hierarchies vanish, along with all social, sex, caste, and trade distinctions. Men disguise themselves as women, gentlemen as slaves, the poor as the rich” (1985, 51). The carnivalesque nature of lucha libre which excludes no social group, would serve as a very desirable metaphor for Mexican culture and identity.

However, though this identity may seem agreeable because of its hybrid and inclusive nature, we must recognize it for what it is: another construct, another mask. As Neustadt asks us, “How can subaltern writers and artists reject the masks of ethnicity, nationality, gender, and class without substituting essentializing myths of identity?” (2001, 429) His answer is nihilistic and simple. These artists must negate their own identities with parody and “conjugate collective (non)identities that face, and performatively efface, the masks of nationalism” (2001, 429). When dealing with identities, we must make the (neo-)baroque realization that our identities are formed from illusive masks, and yet, these illusive masks form our very identities.


Arizmendi, Y. 1994. “Whatever Happened to the Sleepy Mexican?: One Way to Be a Contemporary Mexican in a Changing World Order.” The Drama Review. 38 (1): 106-118.

Ashcroft, B., G. Griffiths, and H. Tiffin. 1998. Key Concepts in Post-colonial Studies. London; New York: Routledge.

Barthes, R. 1972. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bhabha, H. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Calabrese, O. 1992. Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times. Trans. Charles Lambert. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Harmon, W. and C. Hugh Holman. 2000. “Sublime”. In A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Levi, H. 2002. Masked Struggle: An Ethnography of Lucha Libre. Dissertation Abstracts International, Section A: The Humanities and Social Sciences, 62 (8): 2797+

Maravall, J. A. 1986. Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of a Historical Structure. Trans. Terry Cochran. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Martin, J. R.. 1977. Baroque. New York: Harper & Row.

Mazer, S. 1998. Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi.

Ndalianis, A. 2004. Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press.

Neustadt, R. 2001. “(Ef)Facing the Face of Nationalism: Wrestling Masks in Chicano and Mexican Performance Art.” In Studies in Twentieth Century Literature. 25 (1): 414-32.

Olalquiaga, C. 1992. Megalopolis: contemporary cultural sensibilities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Panofsky, E. 1995. “What is Baroque?” In Three Essays on Style, edited by Irving Lavin, 31. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Paz, O. 1985. The Labyrinth of Solitude and The Other Mexico. Trans. Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos, and Rachel Phillips Belash. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Rousset, J. 1954. La Littérature de l’âge baroque en France. Paris: Librairie José Corti.

Sarduy, S. 1980. “he Baroque and the Neobaroque.” In Latin America in its Literature, edited by César Fernández Moreno. Trans. Mary G. Berg. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Smith, S and V. Harris. 1984. Masks in Modern Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press.


[1] “Three falls were enough / For me to realize / You weren’t my ally / You don’t face up / And nothing is what it used to be / I’ll risk my mane / To rip off your mask” (Sergio Arau cited in Arizmendi 109).

[2] North American Free Trade Agreement

[3] “It is the character who is the person; it is the mask that is the truth” (translation mine).

[4] Mestizaje is cultural and racial blending.

[5] “He goes from illusion to disillusion and to new illusions, he must learn that nothing is what is seems, that everything is ostentation” (translation mine).

[6] Naco is defined by urban dictionary.com as being “classless, pretentious, obtrusive, the Mexican version of white trash. Mostly blue-collar undereducated people, but can be applied even to a wealthier crowd (nouveaux riches, snob)” Levi defines naco as being “simultaneously urban and provincial, modern and backward, unpretentiously inauthentic” (2002, 264).

[7] festival, feast day

[8] Churros were fast and cheaply-made films owing their metaphoric name to the Spanish word for “doughnut”.

[9] This ordering impulse does not constitute a contradiction between the (neo-)baroque and the classical. “The very aim of requiring the audience to discover order out of chaos suggests that neither the baroque nor the neo-baroque can be defined as a formal structure that is in opposition to the classical” (Ndalianis 2004, 91). The (neo-)baroque includes the classical.

[10] What may seem to be a Manichean duality is not really this simple. See section, “El gran teatro del mundo: allegory and mimicry’s staging of socio-political dialogue.”

[11] “Sublime,” within this text describes that which transcends the human, a seemingly spiritual quality which is not articulable with human devices which could stem from either ecstasy or extreme suffering. In the context of suffering, “sublime” refers to Edmund Burke’s definition where the sublime passion is caused by the painful thought and “concentrates the mind on that single facet of experience and produces a momentary suspension of rational activity, uncertainty, and self-consciousness” (Harmon and Holman 2000, 501-502).

[12] Vato loco is interchangeable with the term “cholo.” Cholo culture goes back to the 1930’s in the urban borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico. The original vatos were zootsuiters (pachucos) who created their own style and hybrid language. They were often involved in criminal activity. The vato loco maintains the urban, rebellious, and criminal character of the pachuco but is now typified by his own contemporary style. Today’s vato stereotypically dresses in chinos, a wife-beater tee-shirt or a plaid flannel shirt, and wears a bandana that half-covers his eyes. Vatos locos are often gangsters.

Author Bio

Kat hails from the bustling metropolis of London (Ontario) where she finished her MA, performed in amateur theatre productions and sold cheese. She recently moved to Montreal after having been lost in Japan for two years and is currently working on a PhD in Hispanic studies.

Ryan Is Being Beaten: Incest, Fanfiction, and The OC- Jes Battis


This essay interrogates the concept of queer incest within The OC by exploring the relationship between principle characters Ryan Atwood and Seth Cohen, both on the show and in fanfiction. The goal of this discussion is not to offer any sort of recuperative reading of ‘incest’ per se, but to address the indefinably queer relationship that viewers have constructed between these two characters (who are adoptive brothers.)

And I have learned that even landlocked lovers yearn,
For the sea like navy men;
‘Cause now we say goodnight from our own separate sides,
Like brothers on a hotel bed.
-“Brothers on a hotel bed,” Death Cab For Cutie

“I’ve always pushed for the big marriage that the whole entire audience has always seen coming: Ryan and Seth walk down the aisle hand in hand”
– Setoodeh 2006

The television drama series The OC (Fox Network, 2003–2007), created by Josh Schwartz, focuses primarily on the relationship between adoptive brothers Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood, who come from oppositional class backgrounds. Fan-fiction and fan-produced media about these characters tends to underscore their solid foundation as brothers, but slash fiction – that is, fan writing that focuses on same-sex romance – has transformed the filial bonds between Ryan and Seth into overt eroticism. Since Ryan and Seth are legally but not biologically connected, this erotic refashioning opens up a lot of critically interesting and provocative spaces for the proliferation of alternative sexual discourses, including queer sexuality and consensual incest. The goal of this essay then, will be to explore what I see as the textured and ambiguous space between what the show itself implies, and what the slash fan-fiction makes explicit. In doing so, I will analyze some key moments from The OC alongside three fan-fiction cycles that are currently published online. I will also discuss the possibility of same-sex incest within other programs, including Supernatural (Eric Kripke, WB Network, 2005–present).

I am approaching the topic of same-sex incest from both a psychoanalytic and textual studies methodology, using dialogue from specific episodes as well as excerpts from fan-produced narratives in order to position The OC as a unique case study for critical queer analysis. The show begins with the arrival of Ryan Atwood into the wealthy bubble community of Newport in Orange County, California. Ryan is eventually adopted (both symbolically and legally) into the Cohen family, becoming a surrogate brother to Seth and an unexpected child to Sandy and Kirsten Cohen. A number of fanfic cycles have now been produced by writers who see the Seth/Ryan relationship as one that uniquely collapses the boundaries between brothers, friends, and lovers. The show itself gestures playfully to this by continually placing Seth and Ryan in homosocial, and potentially homosexual, situations, playing up this potential through dramatic aesthetics, for example by dressing Ryan in tank-tops and having him brood artfully while emo music plays in the background.

I will treat three fanfic cycles specifically here – “Yelling,” by M.F. Luder (2007), “The Complete Book of Questions,” by Zahra (2005a), and “Towards the Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005b) – in order to interrogate their flexible and erotic deployments of queer sexuality, incest, and family violence. The authors have generously allowed me to cite their work in this article under pseudonyms. I also want to contextualize both the show and its fanfic adaptations within a critical discussion of same-sex incest by addressing broadly the role of incest in feminist and queer analyses. As I will discuss, although heterosexual incest (specifically father/daughter) has been treated quite expansively since its enshrinement within Freudian discourse, homosexual incest (brother/brother, or father/son) has been given comparatively little attention. My goal with this discussion is not to offer any sort of recuperative reading of queer incest, nor to suggest that Seth and Ryan’s relationship on The OC is patently incestuous; rather, I want to explore the difficult and highly charged relational space that may be said to exist between incest and queer sexuality, with Ryan and Seth’s relationship as a unique touchstone. In doing so, I will draw principally upon the work of queer-feminist and psychoanalytic theorists Judith Butler and Juliet Mitchell.

From its very first episode, The OC is a show concerned with issues of class, property, exchange, use value. Who or what can be used, what or who can be exchanged? In a wealthy community like Newport, any transaction seems possible, even the wholesale exchange of human beings. The pilot begins, in fact, with an act of theft: Ryan Atwood and his older brother, Trey, are caught stealing a car. Trey, due to his prior record, is given jail time, but Ryan ends up meeting Sandy Cohen, his new public defender. When Sandy brings Ryan home to stay, “just for the weekend,” his wife Kirsten responds as if he’s brought a particularly dangerous animal into her house. She keeps asking Sandy to “take him back,” as if he were a purchase – and Ryan himself, after later giving his court papers a cursory glance, concludes that “I’m the property of the state now” (2.01).[1] Sandy and Kirsten see Ryan as a potential family-member, but their language actually configures him as an object of exchange, a commodity. When Sandy decides that Ryan might benefit from spending time with his birth mother, he simply whisks Ryan’s mother away to Newport and presents her proudly to a stunned Ryan, as if he were offering a gift. In Newport, which is filled with “pod people,” as Seth calls them, social exchange endlessly returns to Marx’s commodity fetish.

According to Levi-Strauss, incest is also a form of exchange. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship, he states that “the prohibition of incest is less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister, or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister, or daughter to be given to others. It is the supreme rule of the gift” (1971, 481). If incest, as Levi-Strauss also suggests, is the ground of culture, “the fundamental step because of which, by which, but above all in which, the transition from nature to culture is accomplished” (1971, 24), then this machinery by which culture emerges is really a factory, an operative conditioning based upon strict principles of exchange. Feminist analyses have generally labeled this as the exchange of mothers and daughters, but if we can just un-moor incest for a moment from the field of exclusive reproductive heterosexuality, it might equally apply to brothers and sons. I will not marry my sister, I will giver her up; I will not marry my brother, I will give him up – and my neighbor will do the same. In the case of The OC, Ryan Atwood becomes the outsider who disrupts the incestuous community of Newport, but he also becomes the object (or subject) of queer incest, a kind of loving twin to Seth Cohen. He is first described jokingly as “the cousin from Boston,” (1.01) then he and Seth become “like brothers,” or “almost brothers,” but the exact nature of their paternity is never quite ironed out.

What this has to do with Ryan, specifically, is something that I hope to make clear by citing some of the incestuous fanfic written about him. Many fans would argue that incest, in fact, has nothing to do with Seth and Ryan’s relationship, since they aren’t bound by the laws of consanguinity – they aren’t brothers by blood, or even by law. The OC is deliberately cagey about defining the exact placement of Ryan within the Cohen family. The word adoption is never used, although Sandy and Kirsten do admit to being “legally responsible” for Ryan, at least until he turns eighteen. They are not precisely his foster-family, and not his adoptive parents, either. So what, then, is Seth to Ryan? Are they brothers, or… others? He is the changeling, the outsider-child who turns Newport upside down upon his arrival, whose very proximity in a room full of “Newpsie” girls can create a grumbling undercurrent of aggression from their possessive boyfriends.


Figure 1: Ryan and Seth. Brothers, or… others? The OC © Fox Network, 2004.

In “The Debut” (1.04), after Ryan has been legally inscribed within the Cohen family (when Sandy signs the paperwork for his guardianship), Seth gives him a performative entrée as well: “Dude. You’re a Cohen now. Welcome to a world of insecurity and paralyzing self doubt.” Like the priest’s “I now pronounce you,” Seth’s utterance closes the legal circle, completing the transaction that has Ryan as its end-product. But, as I have asked before, who exactly is Ryan to Seth? When Ryan leaves at the end of Season One, Seth also abandons Newport, claiming that he can’t bear it without Ryan. Summer, Seth’s girlfriend at the time, clarifies this as “running away like a little bitch,” but Seth sees it as a necessary flight from – what? A flight from Ryan, or a running toward him? For Seth, Newport holds no meaning without Ryan. Sandy actually has to send Ryan after Seth, like an erotic courier, and Ryan’s arrival in Oregon (where Seth is staying with, of all people, Luke’s gay dad , is what actually forces Seth to return home. In this sense, as well as in other scenarios, Ryan usurps the role of the symbolic father, becoming the parent who must discipline Seth as a wayward boy. Seth, in turn, feels that he is paternally educating Ryan, giving him a sort of cultural tutelage in Newport society, even as Ryan continues to watch his back and protect him from – well, just about everyone.

The pilot episode ends with an impromptu embrace between Ryan and Seth, just before Ryan is forced to return to his biological family. After Sandy drives him back to Chino, they both discover that Ryan’s house is empty – his mother has literally abandoned him. But just before this happens, Ryan comes up to Seth’s room to say goodbye, thinking that it might very well be forever. What makes this moment significant? Perhaps it is the duration and tightness of the embrace; perhaps it is the fact that Seth, having been woken up by Ryan in the middle of the night, is wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts; perhaps it is Seth’s gentle “c’mere” as he deflates Ryan’s handshake and pulls him into a hug, knowing that his only friend in Newport is about to leave. Most likely, though, it is the curious expression on Ryan’s face: confusion, at first, and then a kind of disbelief, as if he is asking himself, do people actually do this? Then, the disbelief fades into warmth as he hugs Seth back, allowing himself to be held, just for that moment. Seth is so thin beneath his undershirt that we can see the curve of his spine, his shoulder blades – he appears so flimsy, a fragile bundle of nerves and love that could be blown away at any moment – unless Ryan holds on.

I’ve deliberately chosen not to draw any ironclad distinctions between what’s queer and what’s homosocial within The OC, since I don’t believe those distinctions exist legibly in the outside world. If every homosexual act is produced by and interpellated within an original homosocial kickoff or flashpoint, then both terms are really just part of the same emanation. This is the touchstone for any queer reading of canon, as it were, and in this sense it becomes easy to mediate the same-sex affection shared by Ryan and Seth as something that straddles both realms.

After he has been legally sworn into the Cohen family, Ryan is forced to attend a cotillion—a coming-out party for the debs of Newport. As he takes Marissa’s hand, leading her, quite literally, into society, into culture, we realize that Ryan himself is also coming out here as a social being. He is a “white knight,” but he is also a debutante, just like Marissa, being led into a painful and uncertain future. After a fracas predictably occurs – this time centering on Marissa’s father and his money problems, not on Ryan – Seth claps Ryan on the back and tells him: “that’s quite a little debut you had tonight” (1.04). Now that Ryan has stepped into Newport society, where does he go from here?


Figure 2: Ryan and Seth. Where do they go from here? The OC © Fox Network, 2004.

What Ryan doesn’t realize is that he has actually been written into the role of femme fatale. From the moment that he arrives in Newport, every girl wants to possess him, and every boyfriend wants to expel him. Sandy wants desperately to understand him, Kirsten feels like she has to protect Seth from him, and Seth just wants to be him, or at least to be seen by him. Ryan spends most of Season One wearing a dirty white tank-top, very much Brando in Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), brooding silently or appearing just in time at parties where his presence will cause the maximum amount of sexual panic. The only time he appears even remotely happy is when he’s playing video games with Seth, and many fanfic writers have grasped this practice as a unique mediating tactic between the two boys. Whenever anything in Ryan’s life gets too overblown, whenever he is about to come undone, we always find him playing video games with Seth. The console, the digital violence, the kinship, all act as sublimatory devices for the anger and turmoil that he is always feeling just below the surface. Rather than see this as repression, however, fanfic often reimagines these game-playing sessions as a kind of extended foreplay between Ryan and Seth. This can be seen in the work of fic-writers like Zahra and MF Luder, as well as other fanfic cycles on Fanfiction.net or LiveJournal.com.


Figure 3: Ryan and Seth. Domestic/erotic in the pool. The OC © Fox Network, 2004.

The OC continually dramatizes the close bonds between Ryan and Seth by pushing, ever so gently, on the sexual and cultural boundaries that separate homosociality, homosexuality, and fraternity (and no more so than college fraternities themselves, as well as companies like Abercrombie and Fitch that celebrate them.) For Ryan, moments of quietude and safety always come from playing video games with Seth or watching TV with the Cohens, as the domestic bleeds and swirls into the potentially erotic. In season one, especially, when Ryan first moves into the Cohens’ pool-house, he seems constantly to be in a state of tantalizing undress while Seth stammers and watches him, clearly embarrassed but also unmistakably curious. In “The Proposal,” when Seth walks in on Ryan as he’s toweling off from the shower, he practically faints:

SETH: Hey! Oh… sorry. I’m surprised that hasn’t happened before. Not saying I’m disappointed it hasn’t happened before just saying the mathematical probability—
RYAN: Yeah. Crying during chick flicks…walking in on me getting dressed—
SETH: Yeah, what’s your point? Okay, I’m not seeing what you’re getting at. Do you work out?
RYAN: Not really.
SETH: Cool, me neither. I’m gonna go watch some hockey.
RYAN: Hockey season’s over. (1.23, “The Proposal”)

The embrace that they share in the pilot episode is rare for two male characters on television, and is especially unusual here since at this point in the show’s narrative arc the two haven’t yet been produced/mediated as ‘family.’ When Seth runs away to Portland (to live with Luke’s gay dad, let us remember), only Ryan can convince him to come home – and the scene that ensues, with Seth’s foot tapping nervously as the music swells, then Seth and Ryan running to the front door simultaneously, is worthy of any John Hughes moment of romantic drama. Their dialogue is playfully romantic: after running to the door, Ryan says “hey, so, ah, I was thinking – “ and Seth replies “I was thinking too. You know, they don’t even have a water polo team here. That’s just gonna be a problem for me” (2.01). Newport’s water polo team is the source of multiple gay jokes in the series, but aside from this, Ryan’s “I was thinking” echoes so many other cinematic and televisual moments of reconciliation that the audience half expects them to kiss. Summer constantly jokes about how hot Ryan is (Seth jokes that “we all know you get a lot of mileage out of a tank top” [1.04]), and later in the series, Seth even plans a birthday celebration for Ryan with huge cardboard cutouts of him (including Fireman Ryan and Policeman Ryan) in a metatextual nod to about a dozen stereotypes of queer iconography. Their relationship is, in Seth’s own words, “extremely minty.”

In his famous fantasy-scenario, “A Child is Being Beaten,” Freud illustrates a collective repressed memory by which all of us first come into being as desiring subjects. It begins with hazy edges, very much like a dream: a child is being beaten. At first, it seems as if the child is being beaten by “a crowd” of other children, but as the scene resolves itself, we see that there are only two figures. Freud writes: “[m]y father is beating me (I am being beaten by my father). This being-beaten is now a meeting place between the sense of guilt and sexual pleasure. It is not only the punishment for the forbidden genital relation, but also the regressive substitute for it” (1997, 184). Freud offers different scenarios for boys and girls, but he is clearly more concerned with the little girl’s fantasy; he dismisses this by saying that “I have not been able to get so far in my knowledge of beating-phantasies involving boys, perhaps because my material was unfavorable” (1997, 192). Both fantasies are ultimately the same, since, despite the fact that the boy sees his mother in place of his father, this is simply a screen-memory for the placeholder father, the name of the father: “In both cases, the beating-phantasy has its origin in an incestuous attachment to the father” (1997, 195). I mention this scenario because it forms an incestuous linchpin in the workings of the Oedipus complex. The child first desires the parent, but sublimates that desire into a masturbatory fantasy (a child is being beaten), and turns instead away from the family for erotic fulfillment.

What Freud fails to factor into this primal scene, however, is the defining presence of siblings. Why must it always be the father who is doing the beating, and why must the father be critically set up as the superego within the child’s developing consciousness? Why couldn’t it be a brother or sister, especially in cases where an older sibling is the family’s primary caregiver? Juliet Mitchell frames the question this way:

Classically in the theoretical explanation, this [superego] ideal is postulated as being modeled on the real object of the father…but isn’t it also likely that the original model may be another child, a heroic or critical older (or other) sibling? For most of us, when our conscience is putting us down, making us feel inferior, the voice we hear is reminiscent of the tauntings not of adults but of other children. (2003, 12)

The title of this paper, “Ryan is Being Beaten,” refers just to this possibility, as well as to the flexibility of Freud’s fantasy-scenario. This could actually be the subtitle for The OC, since almost every episode defines Ryan in relation to an economy of beating, violence, the exchange of blows, blood, fists, overlaid by the exchange of capital. Ryan is either being beaten, or he is the one doing the beating. In the pilot episode, Ryan gets into a fight while defending Seth from a group of bigger kids, only to end up getting pummeled himself. “That’s how we do things here,” says Luke, who will become Ryan’s nemesis for the season (as well as his romantic competition for Marissa Cooper, who is literally the girl of his dreams). As Ryan is beaten, kicked, and left groaning on the beach, we are reminded of the first conscious phase of Freud’s beating-scenario: a child is being beaten by a crowd.

After they drag themselves home, Seth and Ryan stumble drunkenly into the poolhouse – Ryan’s dwelling, just adjacent to the Cohen residence, which also represents his erratic ambit and placement within the family. Then a curious thing happens. Seth falls asleep, and Ryan watches him – just watches him. Not in an overtly sexual way, but in an entirely ambiguous way, a possibly brotherly, possibly otherly way. Mitchell reminds us that:

[s]ibling incest is taboo… but, rather than this being strongly repressed and hence so unconscious a desire that it can only return in a disguised form in psychopathic symptoms… it is instead transformed into a preconscious, sometimes vaguely remembered possibility, prohibited metaphorically by the mother, but easily indulged in when parents are absent (2003, 21).

Since Kristen and Sandy are almost exclusively working and away from home during the day, at least in the beginning of the series, this “easily indulged in” practice becomes a kind of erotic slippage for Ryan and Seth. Fanfic writers like Zahra and Luder, whose work I will discuss below, have seized upon what Mitchell calls a “vaguely remembered possibility,” (2003, 21) and spun it quite liberally into countless stories, one-shots, epics, blog entries, and even fan-made videos, all devoted to sexualizing Ryan and Seth’s relationship. This strategy, in part, depends upon not defining the relationship, or over-defining it until it loses all symbolic currency within the family system. They are, after all, not “really” brothers.

Supernatural, a recent show about two fraternal demon-hunters looking for their father, also provides a fascinating cultural ground for looking at same-sex incest. Sam and Dean Winchester (named after the rifle) are typical “middle-American” siblings, despite the fact that they were raised on vampire lore and strategies for demon-killing. Dean reappears in Sam’s life after an extended absence, saying cryptically that “dad’s on a hunting trip… and he hasn’t been back in a while” (1.01). Sam, having previously dreamt of law school and a ‘normal’ life, must then accompany Dean on a season-long quest for their father, John. Given the intimate relationship, sarcastic banter, and close spatial proximity of the brothers in nearly every episode – they spend most of their time in cramped hotel rooms, or driving a righteously phallic Chevy Impala – fans have produced an already large collection of incest-fiction relating to the Winchesters. There are several online communities already dedicated to Sam/Dean “slash” fiction (the show only began last year), and one of the bigger archives boasts over four-thousand stories on Supernatural alone (http://www.fanfiction.net).


Figure 4: Demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester. Supernatural. Source: http://www.cwtv.com © CW Network, 2006.


Figure 5: Dean (left) and Sam in “Hell House”, Season 1, episode 17. Supernatural. © WB Network, 2005.

In one fic called “Conversations Over the Front Seat,” Sam and Dean are trapped in the Impala in the middle of a rain storm, and so they resort to talking about their fantasies in order to pass the time. Sam unwittingly relates an incest fantasy to Dean, who responds with surprising tenderness. “We’re working a job,” Sam begins, “and they capture us, tie me down”:

They’ve got your hands tied behind your back so one of them has to position you but once the hand moves away, it’s just all you and me and I’m holding my breath and I don’t know how I could want something so much and hate it so much all at the same time. And then you lean into me, enter me… (A sniff, a gasp, more crunching of leather as legs and hips shift and rock.) It hurts and I cry out and I can feel your face against my back and feel tears because you think you’re doing something so terrible to me. (Sam’s voice is scratchy and stuffy sounding and almost like hiccups the way he gasps between every few words.) And I just want to tell you it’s okay. And all I can do is think it and hope that you get it. Because sometimes it’s like that between us, we don’t have to speak to each other to get it. (Sampson 2006).

As the show progresses, we begin to get hints of Sam’s own demonic heritage, which arguably divides the brothers and seems to make them appear less related biologically. Yet, as Sam’s own powers grow, he relies on Dean more and more, even as Dean suspects that he might not really know this person who calls himself Sam Winchester – that he may never have really known anything about his own brother. What does this do to their relationship? Would you still love your sibling if he developed demonic powers? I’d like to suggest that this space of hesitation between Sam and Dean – this interruption of their consanguinity through demonic intervention – also opens up a similar space of erotic flexibility. Fans seem to have seized upon this space by crafting stories, videos, graphic manipulations, and other visual/textual mediations that make the subtle eroticism between the Winchesters overt. What remains to be seen is whether this eroticism is attractive to fans – many of whom identify as straight women – precisely because it is ambiguous, or rather, because it is unambiguously taboo.

The incest prohibition is itself a paradox, simultaneously instituting precisely what it is supposed to prevent, and containing within itself the very possibility that it should foreclose. In Antigone’s Claim, Judith Butler explains this paradox as the means by which all subjects are formed: “To the extent that the incest taboo contains its infraction within itself, it does not simply prohibit incest but rather sustains and cultivates incest as a necessary spectre of social dissolution, a spectre without which social bonds cannot emerge”. (2002, 10) What we have lost, through numerous Freudian, Kleinian, and other analyses of incest, is that “vaguely remembered possibility” that is incest’s actual inchoate form, the possibility for it to occur in ways that can’t be defined clearly as ‘abusive’ or ‘harmless,’ the various and silent relays between brother/brother and sister/sister by which it can short-circuit our own clinical taxonomies. In her essay, “Quandaries of the Incest Taboo,” Butler clarifies this by saying:

I do think that there are probably forms of incest that are not necessarily traumatic or which gain their traumatic character by virtue of the consciousness of social shame that they produce… the prohibitions that work to prohibit nonnormative sexual exchange also work to institute and patrol the norms of presumptively heterosexual kinship. (2004, 157)

Ryan/Seth slash fanfic explores these bonds, which, in Butler’s hedging words, are “not necessarily traumatic”. As a concept, slash is generally understood to be queer relationship- or sex-fiction between television or cinema characters, its title denoting the ‘/’ that joins those characters together in a romantic tryst. It can also extend to comics, miniseries, novels, cartoons, and just about any other media where sex and romance are possible. The slash tradition emerged from the K/S (Kirk/Spock) slashers, who recast the homosocial relationship between Kirk and Spock on the original Star Trek. Angela Thomas, in her 2006 article “Fan Fiction Online,” summarizes the data from a critical study of “a 400 participant fan fiction world,” an online community called Middle Earth Insanity. Exploring the roots of fanfiction, she states that “[its] origins… can be traced back to the 1930s pulp magazine Fanzines, and it enjoyed a surge in the late 1960s with the popularity of Star Trek” (Thomas 2006, 226).

The K/S slash community produced an amazing network of erotic zines in the 1970s and ‘80s, made all the more impressive by the fact that they only had access to the most conventional of fan technology – a VCR, a printer, a public photocopier, and so on. Constance Penley (1997) discusses this fan community in detail in the introduction to her book NASA/Trek, describing how the Trek slashers, who are primarily heterosexual women, don’t radically reposition Kirk and Spock so much as give their relationship the nudge from “homosocial” to “homoerotic” – which always remains the impossible boundary to cross in network television. In “Slashing the Romance Narrative,” Anne Kustritz writes about the “Renegade Slash Militia,” a collective of female slash writers who “reserve the right to slash anyone, anywhere, at any time” (2003, 371). Kustritz originally defines slash as any type of “noncanonical romantic relationship,” and later specifies that slash fiction, as well as fanfic in general, allows “fans [to] discuss the narratives and characters provided for them by the mass media, and then alter those hegemonic messages to reflect their own needs” (2003, 374). Lest we see her definition as too uncritically utopian, she also adds that “there [are] however alternative types of fan activities besides wholesale adoration” Slash fiction can be elegantly critical, repositioning characters in “noncanonical” situations from which unique choices and strategies might emerge, as well as which disrupt the conventional hetero-narrative of the original text itself.

There are two main online sites for OC slash: Fanfiction.net, which is a clearinghouse for all kinds of different fic (it includes hundreds of shows and films), and a separate LiveJournal” posting-board specifically for OC slash-fic (The OC Slash: http://community.livejournal.com/theoc_slash). While sites like Fanfiction.net allow the user to custom-search for different types of fic, using different keywords (like “slash,” or “Ryan/Seth”), The LiveJournal site only contains fic with slash elements. Other LiveJournal sites focus on het pairings and romance, as well as fan-produced media. Various predictable partnerships emerge, like Ryan/Seth, Marissa/Summer, Marissa/Alex, as well as some more unorthodox ones, like Sandy/Ryan, or Ryan/Luke. Often, the most slash is written about the characters who seem the least romantically compatible, since, like the incest taboo, it is the very impossibility of their partnership that contains a sort of germinal potential, a maybe or might-have-been, or even must-be.

“Yelling,” by M.F. Luder (the author gave permission to include this pseudonym), is an ongoing series that focuses on Ryan’s abusive sexual relationship with the invented “Mr. Dart,” an old family-friend of the Cohens. There is actually very little romantic subtext between Ryan and Seth in these stories, which is what makes them rather unique among the other slash-fic. “Yelling” begins with a traumatic childhood memory of abuse, a past-phantom that returns to Ryan when he unexpectedly meets Mr. Dart again after managing to stay away from him for nearly six years. We discover that, when Ryan was eleven, his mother worked as a personal assistant of sorts for the wealthy Mr. Dart, and would frequently leave Ryan in the older man’s ‘care’ while she ran errands. These episodes of parental absence were just the opportunities that Mr. Dart needed to sexually abuse Ryan, swearing him to silence unless he wanted his mother to lose her job. Ryan, ever the young pragmatist, agreed to keep silent. But when his abuser returns, Ryan finds himself entering into their familiar ‘relationship’ once again, offering his body to Mr. Dart, who in turn agrees to keep the Newport Group from sinking financially. Once again, we are given a transaction where sex, violence, and money are all contiguous:

Eyes were wide shut, as much as he could, trying to block everything out. He took a deep breath a second before there was pain on the edges of his eyes and his head, on his back as it was pushed forward, stomach on top of the green velvet of the pool table. The wood edge cut into his hips, but that was nothing, that pain was nothing, against the one in his hips and lower legs… “I like you, Ryan. I really like you. You’re special.” The words are whispered, low in Ryan’s ear, making the boy shudder and shake. “You’re so special. So pretty, so young. So perfect. Hmm… Perfect. (Luder 2007)

As Ryan submits once again, six years later, to sex with Mr. Dart, a question crystallizes within his own scarred, torn-up, avulsed life, constantly being cut open and sutured messily back into shape: who are you? He asks this question as an eleven-year-old boy, staring into the mirror after being anally raped by Mr. Dart, and then again, as a seventeen-year-old, after enduring the same act. Who are you? The same question that lies at the bottom of the incest prohibition, the same question that inaugurates and installs culture, like a movie that we’re all doomed to watch without ever understanding the plot. Six years later, as he once again finds himself bent over that familiar pool-table, his body pressed painfully into an act of violent, non-consensual sex, Ryan finds himself thinking of… Seth. His safe place. His lighthouse. Even as Mr. Dart begins to pant as he nears climax, Ryan dreams of Seth:

Seth’s laughing, curls a mess, heart light, as he makes his way down the harbor with his skateboard. Ryan’s laughing as well, in this picture Ryan has in his mind’s eye. He’s laughing, grin on his lips, mouth wide open in happiness. He’s riding his bike along Seth’s side, the two of them, like it’s always been. It’s just the two of them. (Luder, 2007)

Incest has been critically understood, within feminist analyses, as an act existing along the continuum of rape, an expression of violent patriarchal intrusion. “The feminist analyses of incest,” says Vikki Bell, “see incestuous abuse as an extreme form of the training that all girl children receive. The normalizing aim of such training is feminine, subordinate girls and women” (1993, 168). But Bell herself, who is critiquing these analyses in her book Interrogating Incest, also states that “incest is theoretically placed at the intersection of discourses on predatory masculine (hetero)sexuality, children as sexually attractive, and children as possessions” (1993, 79). This idea of “children as possessions” harkens back to my earlier discussion about Ryan as human property, a possession of the Cohens. He belongs to them in the sense of being a part of the family, being included in their family-text of love, but he also belongs to them literally as a legal responsibility, a child with no money and no prospects who must be cared for, provided for, fed, clothed, and watched constantly.

How do we locate incest as a crime, and what happens when something defined as ‘criminal’ occurs between two siblings who claim to be consenting? Freud argued that all homosexual attachments were by nature incestuous and narcissistic, since they sublimated hatred towards the same-sex parent into an ‘obsessive’ desire. If we follow this theory to its conclusion, then Ryan’s queerness is actually the product of his troubling relationship with Trey, his older brother. A great deal of slash fic includes memories of Trey, specifically memories where Trey acts as a kind of mothering influence, substituting for their absent parents. In the fan fiction piece “Towards the Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005), Ryan remembers an instance where Trey, only a few years older himself, cooked dinner for him (powdered mac and cheese), then tucked him into bed. Interestingly, in the show itself, one of Ryan’s first acts in the Cohen household is to cook everyone breakfast, telling Kirsten sheepishly that “my mom’s not much of a cook.” (Pilot, 1.01). While Seth envisions taking a “pancake tour” of America, just like Jack Kerouac – while safe in he knowledge that he will eat pricey Thai-takeout every night – it becomes clear that Ryan actually grew up on pancakes and mac and cheese, since his mother was constantly absent. Juliet Mitchell clarifies the question that emerges from this essential relationship of care between Ryan and Trey, a relationship that crumbles once Trey is sent to jail: “[w]here older siblings rather than parents are the main carers of younger children, where children are left alone in their peer groups, are prohibitions accepted and internalized? Can siblings in themselves be each other’s lawgiver?” (Mitchell 2003, 53). In essence, if Ryan has become his own “lawgiver,” or if Trey has been installed as Ryan’s own critical superego, than what possibilities does this open up for an unorthodox relationship between two adoptive brothers – Seth and Ryan? If we’re all inside various enactments of the incest prohibition, all moving the machinery ourselves, then what happens when two erotic circuits converge in an unexpected way, when two desiring subjects suddenly decide to remake the law?

In “The Complete Book of Questions”, Zahra (2005a, pseudonym used with permission) explores this question, triangulating her story of Ryan/Seth with the phantom of Trey. In the actual show, Trey survives a shooting (by Marissa, no less), and then removes himself from Ryan’s life, ostensibly to give him a chance at being ‘normal.’ In this fic, however, as well as in several others, Trey actually dies, and Ryan is left to deal with his grief. Like most Ryan/Seth slash, “Towards the Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005b) hinges upon parental absence – Kirsten and Sandy are away on a trip, and Ryan and Seth have the house to themselves. In actual fact, they are also sharing the house with Trey, since Ryan still has an urn with his ashes in it. This slash, I would contend, is actually a spectral threesome, a Ryan/Seth/Trey encounter, which is erotic in the classical sense because it involves a triangulated sense of lack. After returning home with the urn, Ryan appears to come undone, and Seth moves to comfort him, entirely unsure of what he is doing, how such a thing should be done, what should be said. Seth realizes that “Ryan had spent over a month sleeping in the same room as his dead brother’s ashes” (Zahra 2005b) and doesn’t know how he failed to notice this ghostly invasion, as if an outline of Trey was sleeping in Ryan’s bed with him, curling up to Ryan, holding his little-brother in cold, unreachable arms.

As Ryan ponders what to do with the urn in this fic piece, he finds himself desperately trying to escape from this phantasmal presence of Trey: “[he] used to lie like Trey lies, with this slippery charm that eases people into the lie. Eases people into believing in him. I swear on Mom, Ry. Ryan hates himself for the pieces of Trey that still live within him, that show up when he looks in the mirror” (Zahra 2005b). Meanwhile, in attempt to establish some sort of intimacy with the unusually taciturn Ryan, Seth resorts to asking him questions from the eponymous book of the title. It is through these questions, this peculiar and fragile dialogue, that Seth and Ryan’s desire for each other slowly emerges in “Towards the Limits of Maps”. When Seth asks Summer for advice, her reply is tart and incisive, as usual: “Cohen… you and me? Ryan and Marissa? That’s not how this turns out, that’s not where the, like, lines get drawn in our little four-square box.”

Where the lines do get drawn is a matter of some contention, especially since, as is spelt out in the show itself, Seth doesn’t “feel gay,” even though he admits to having a “huge man-crush” on Ryan. He protests that Ryan isn’t “exactly” his brother, and Summer replies firmly that: “If he’s not your brother, then you’re like, way spicy” (Zahra 2005b). This is a creative corruption of Seth’s favorite gay adjective on the show, “minty,” which he uses to describe just about every situation where he and Ryan are pushing queer subtext; it emerges after Ryan admits to having performed musical theater in junior-high, and Seth says “that’s extremely minty of you. I didn’t even know they had musicals in Chino” (1.11). Minty, like spicy, is also a kind of subtext, a scent, an odor of desire that one has to sniff or suss out (and that one can take pleasure in sniffing out).

In the fic “Questions” by Zahra (2005a), Ryan begins sleeping in Seth’s bed, although the two of them only touch by accident. One morning, however, as Seth wakes up and spies Ryan by the window, he makes a voyeuristic discovery:

Ryan is standing by the window, his back to Seth, and the light is edging his silhouette, burning an outline around his messy hair and his muscles and his narrow hips, and Seth can’t tell but he’s pretty sure that Ryan, in that moment, is glowing (Zahra 2005a).

Later, as they get drunk and spin more questions from the book, Ryan finds himself getting closer and closer to Seth, who resists/invites the contact like a classical ephebe, never quite asking for, but never quite declining, the attentions of the erastes. As desire sparks, leaps the gap, enflames the air between them, how can it be characterized? Are they two brothers in love? Ryan seems to reject their fraternal connection, but Seth insists upon it, understanding that, whatever is happening between them, their brotherhood is its ground, its field:

Seth feels Ryan moving closer to him. He expects the press of Ryan’s front against his own back before he feels it, and when he feels Ryan’s nose against the nape of his neck he isn’t surprised by it. He doesn’t move, but he lets Ryan’s arms tighten around him. ‘I don’t want another brother,’ Ryan whispers against Seth’s t-shirt. Seth feels the words vibrate there, even more than he hears them. ‘I ruin people, Seth. I don’t want you to go anywhere.’ (Zahra 2005a)

Their kiss is “also a crash,” (Zahra 2005a) and although it occurs as the climax of the fic, it also seems subservient to the real desire, which occurs through recollection. Fetish items, like Ryan’s leather wrist cuff, the necklace that he only wore for part of the first season, the bottle of tequila passed between them, snippets of things that Trey once said to him, all culminate in a kind of mnemonic sexuality, an erotics of memory that is more powerful than the actual sex that eventually occurs. This is also the case in “Towards The Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005b), by the same author, where Ryan and Seth embark an erotic road-trip that never seems to arrive at any acceptable destination.

Unlike “Questions”, which is roughly contiguous with Trey’s shooting in season two, “Maps” occurs several years later—Ryan has become a successful architect for the Newport Group, and Seth has moved to San Francisco, where he is haphazardly working on “a novel that is in no way like a comic book” (Zahra 2005b). Mostly, he is sleeping with a girl who reminds him of Summer, and not doing much of anything else. When Ryan arrives at his door and asks him to go on an unexpected road-trip, Seth agrees because he has nothing else to do, but also because Ryan is asking. Like all picaresque journeys, this one has a hidden truth – Ryan and Marissa are engaged, and Ryan can’t quite bring himself to tell Seth.

Ryan first takes him to Fresno, his childhood home, where he points out the empty parking lots, concrete playgrounds, and other desolate, in-between spaces where he grew up “as part of a pack” with Trey, Arturo, and Theresa(Zahra 2005b). Once again, Ryan finds himself animalized, rendered as something not quite human, and this remediation is firmly bound up with his own sense of shame over being poor. “I know it sounds like it was really bad,” he starts to tell Seth. But, it was something else entirely. It was a life lived with other people, with friends, a life with connections and lifelines. Being part of a pack has always been Seth’s dream. Being part of anything has always been Seth’s dream, anything beyond a life lived in Japanime action-films and secret conversations with his confidante, a plastic horse named Captain Oats:

He is remembering days sitting alone underneath the jungle gym with his Luke Skywalker action figure and Captain Oats while the kids climbed overhead and pointed at him through the bars. He is remembering coming home from school and sitting cross-legged on the floor of the laundry room with his comic books, listening to Rosa sing songs in Spanish under her breath. He is remembering skateboarding down the pier alone and watching Luke and Marissa and Summer and Chip and Holly and all their stupid shiny friends tossing French fries at one another, sneaking closed-mouth picante-flavored kisses and laughing. ‘No,’ he says again, ‘it doesn’t sound like it was really bad at all’. (Zahra 2005b)

As with “The Complete Book of Questions” (Zahra 2005a), although this slash-cycle culminates in more than one sexual scene, the real desire in “Maps” (Zahra 2005b) sleeps in these little moments, these erotic attenuations of lost time and memory, time passed and bodies passed out of existence, houses exchanged and parks filled in with concrete. Ryan actually visits his old house, only to find that the wallpaper in his former bedroom, “rocket-ships, or maybe racing cars,” is just barely visible beneath the new coat of paint. In “Towards the Limits of Maps” Seth begins to feel, after a time, that he is walking in Trey’s footsteps, but also that he is becoming something different to Ryan, a partner for which there really is no definition. Talking to Summer, Seth insists that he’s “not gay,” but “just Ryan gay,” (Zahra 2005b) as if Ryan-gay is actually a variation on bisexuality – as if Ryan himself, his mysterious body, the way his skin glows against the window, as if all of these things signal a primary frustration of the sexual binary, a ‘/’ between gay and straight that may be no punctuation at all, or may be everything.

I am not naive enough to suggest that incest has the same positive flexibility as queerness, that it is an area ripe for deconstruction, rather than a force that has the power to sexually cripple the lives of children. Rather, like many fanfic writers, I want to explore a continuum of incest that allows for potential expressions of non-traumatic sexuality, while keeping in mind Judith Butler’s claim that:

If the incest taboo is also what is supposed to install the subject in heterosexual normativity, and if, as some argue, this installation is the condition of possibility for a symbolically or culturally intelligible life, then homosexual love emerges as the unintelligible within the intelligible; a love that has no place in the name of love, a position within kinship that is no position. (2004, 160)

The prohibition against incest remains always the prohibition against homosexuality, and in order to avoid creating exiled-loves, shadow-loves, “a love that has no place in the name of love,” (ibid) we need to be willing to acknowledge a continuum along which sexuality – both queer and straight – gender, power, and incest all exist as nodal points, linked threads, or competing energies and intensities, capable of deep annihilation and paradoxically loving expression at the same time.


Bell, V. 1993. Interrogating Incest: Feminism, Foucault, and the Law. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. 2002. Antigone’s Claim. New York: Routledge,

———. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

Freud, S. 1997. Sexuality and the Philosophy of Love. New York: Touchstone.

Kustritz, A. 2003. “Slashing the Romance Narrative.” Journal of American Culture. 26.3, Sept .

Levi-Strauss, C. 1971. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston, MA: Beacon.

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Film & Teleography

A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan, 1951.

Supernatural, Eric Kripke, Warner Brothers Television, 2005-Present.

The OC, Josh Schwartz, Fox Network, 2003-2007.


[1] The citation convention for television episodes used in this paper indicates season followed by episode number.

[2] Luke is Marissa Cooper’s ex-boyfriend, a typecast jock who antagonizes both Ryan and Seth until discovering that his dad is actually gay and having an affair with man.

Author Bio

Jes Battis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Regina, specializing in Fantasy and Science Fiction, Queer Studies, and Children’s Literature. He is also a novelist.

The Bill 1984 – 2009: Genre, Production, Redefinition – Margaret Rogers


This paper examines the British series The Bill as an example of, and benchmark for, the television police genre. Although the series holds a special position within the genre, not least because of its longevity and embedding within Australian and British popular culture, it has attracted very little academic analysis. Existing research in relation to the television police series genre focuses on history and output of specific production companies and television industries; textual analyses of specific and defunct television police series; form and ideology; moral lessons and the place of crime in public life; the effect of changing cultural discourses; and anxiety about violence. However, this paper focuses on The Bill as a television series rather than the issues raised by The Bill as a television series. In doing so, a number of issues are explored. These include an overview, from the 1950s onward, of the television police genre within Australia, Britain and the USA; the interplay of elements of repetition and difference in a balance acceptable to producers, audiences and critics; four production eras and the influence of individual Executive Producers Michael Chapman, Richard Handford, Paul Marquess and Jonathan Young on the format and style of the series over a twenty- five year period from 1984 to 2009; and the blurring of generic boundaries in response to contemporary imperatives. In relation to these issues, it is argued that the television police genre is shaped by national, rather than global, discourses and is displayed in iconography that reflects national attributes and cultural context. It is further argued that the interplay of elements of repetition and difference impacts on viewer loyalty, and this interplay has been driven by a small number of individual Executive Producers, each constrained by contextual features such as industry trends, changes in cultural norms, falling ratings, and the need for a change in audience demographics. In accommodating these contextual features, traditional generic boundaries have blurred so that The Bill, exemplifies the merging of a masculine genre such as television police with a feminine genre such as soap opera.


Since its inception as a series the British television police drama The Bill (Geoff McQueen, 1984-present, UK) has regularly redefined the boundaries of the television police genre in relation to production values, characterisation, memorable characters and the creation of an active fandom. First broadcast in 1984 as an example of the police procedural category of the television police genre, it was hailed by critics and audience for its authenticity and gritty realism, for its production values and for its storylines.

Twenty years and some 2000 episodes later The Bill had incorporated, in a deliberate production strategy to attract more viewers, numerous elements of the soap opera genre. The emphasis was no longer on gritty realism and police work but rather on personal relationships and morally questionable behaviour within a specific police community. Traditional generic conventions of law and order gave way to anarchy, chaos, and a focus on the private, rather than the public, lives of protagonists. It is not the only police series to incorporate soap opera elements but was, in 2004, the only police series to incorporate so many of them. However, with the advent of executive producer Jonathan Young (2005 – present), The Bill refocussed on a balance between contemporary realism and personal relationships. As producer Tim Key said after the series won the Screen Nation Award for Diversity in Drama in February 2009, “The programme aims wherever possible to accurately reflect multi-cultural life in modern Britain… ” (http://www.thebill.com/videos/videodetail/item_200014.htm)

Such a progression is a feature of television police series on international screens. As McQueen (1998, 28) notes, shifts in generic conventions allow for creativity within the boundaries of tried and tested formulas, but an imbalance in the interplay of repetition and difference may lead to confusion or disinterest on the part of the audience. Blue Heelers (Hal McElroy and Tony Morphett, 1994-2006, Australia) features the private lives of characters but eschews anarchy and chaos. Law & Order (Dick Wolf, 1990-present, USA) features anarchy and chaos but eschews the private lives of characters. Both series have maintained viewer loyalty by balancing the interplay of repetition and difference in the depiction of national attributes and cultural context and by remaining within the boundaries of tried and tested formulas. The Bill, in contrast, has challenged generic conventions so strongly and varied the interplay of repetition and difference so much that it has blurred the boundaries between the television police and soap opera genres. In doing so, it has acquired a new audience in the form of soap opera viewers and has reversed falling audience ratings. The strategy of blurring boundaries has been successful: in March 2004 various media channels announced that ITV1 had commissioned a further 480 episodes of The Bill at a cost of 200 million pounds. The ‘golden handcuffs’ deal ensures that The Bill will be screened until at least 2010.

From 1984-1997 the major Executive Producer was Michael Chapman, who had worked on various television series since the 1960s. His production edicts shaped The Bill in its pre-1997 incarnation as a police procedural drama with strong documentary overtones. Falling ratings and a changing societal environment led to his replacement in 1997 by Richard Handford, who had previously worked as a producer on The Bill. Handford varied the interplay of repetition and difference by introducing elements of romance and a glimpse into the private lives of his characters but failed to arrest falling ratings. He was replaced in 2002 by Paul Marquess, from 1999-2001 a producer of the British soap opera Brookside.

Marquess abandoned the pre-1997 semi-documentary overtone of The Bill, reshaped the series as a serial, and focussed on sensational storylines, sexuality, and soap opera stereotypes. He organised a live episode in October 2003 to celebrate 20 years of production and hinted that one of the episodes transmitted in 2004 would feature an interactive element. Viewers who lost interest in the new format were outnumbered by a younger and more diverse audience with expectations shaped by familiarity with the television soap opera genre.

Jonathon Young replaced Marquess as Executive Producer in 2005, toning down sensationalist storylines and, whilst keeping an element of interpersonal relationships, aiming for a more realistic representation of contemporary policing in London.


In order to investigate the longevity of The Bill it is necessary to examine the ways in which the series conforms to, and the ways in which it departs from, generic protocols. The Bill holds a special position within the British television police genre. Pre-1997 it was used as a benchmark by industry and audience judging British television police series but was also classified by its critics as pedestrian, dull and boring because of its focus on the small currency of daily life and because of its emphasis on realistic police procedure. Metropolitan Police surveys (pre-1997) indicate that it was the main television police program through which viewers are provided with an insight into the world of real life policing. By introducing elements not usually associated with the television police genre and by focussing on the minutiae of day-to -day policing rather than on the big pictures of crime statistics and terrorism, and by incorporating narrative elements more readily associated with the television soap opera genre, The Bill continually redefines generic boundaries. It has become embedded within Australian and British popular culture but, unlike Dixon of Dock Green (Ted Willis, 1955-1976, UK), Z Cars (Troy Kennedy Martin, 1962-1978, UK), Miami Vice (Anthony Yerkovich, 1984-1989, USA), and Hill Street Blues (Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, 1981-1987, USA), has not yet been the subject of detailed academic analysis.

Existing research in relation to the television police series genre focuses on history and output of specific production companies and television industries (Moran 1985); textual analyses of specific and defunct television police series (Hurd, 1981; Clarke, 1982, 1986, 1992; Moran, 1985; Laing, 1991; Thompson, 1996); form and ideology (Buxton, 1990); moral lessons and the place of crime in public life (Sparks, 1992); the effect of changing cultural discourses (Nelson, 1997); anxiety about violence (Brunsdon, 1998) and fandom, social commentary and construction of identity (see Allen, 2007).

Tulloch (2000, 33-55) provides an overview of theoretical approaches to the television police genre and implicitly acknowledges that the television police genre is shaped, in the first instance, by national, rather than global, discourses and is displayed in iconography that reflects national attributes and cultural context. Iconography used by producers and expected by viewers in examples of the television police genre includes specific uniforms, equipment, vehicles, and jargon. Audiences remember Joe Friday’s dry ‘Just the facts, ma’am’ and the staccato theme music of Dragnet (Jack Webb, 1951-1959, USA), George Dixon’s ‘Evenin’ all’, the catchy lyrics of Car 54, Where Are You? (Nat Hiken, 1961-1963, USA), the black Granada crashing through a plate glass window in The Professionals (Brian Clemens, 1977-2983, UK), the heroes of The Sweeney (Ian Kennedy Martin, 1975-1978, UK) snarling ‘Get yer trousers on, you’re nicked’ or ‘We’re the Sweeney, son. So if you don’t want a kicking… ’, the operatic soundtrack of Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter, 1987-2000, UK), and the guns of many USA examples of the genre. Iconography is evident in the sub-industrial Melbourne back streets of Homicide, and in Blue Heelers, visually replete with the markers of a Australian country town. It is evident in The Bill, which is full of what Brunsdon (2001, 43) describes as the iconography of London. It is evident in the weapons, poverty, and gritty urban landscape of Hill St Blues and in the crowded precincts and courtrooms of NYPD Blue (Steven Bochco and David Milch, 1993-2005, USA) and Law & Order (Dick Wolf, 1990-present, USA).

As Fiske (1987, 222) notes, the television police genre, like all genres, modifies its conventions in a dialectical relationship with changes in social values. Neale (1980, 22-23) argues that particular features which are characteristic of a genre are not normally unique to it but that it is their relative prominence, combination and functions which are distinctive. Thus police series and sitcoms feature protagonists in everyday life but assign different foci to their activities. The television crime genre is a case in point. It usually depicts characters dealing with criminal activities rather than juggling romantic and sexual activities. It encompasses programs about amateur sleuths, private eyes, professional crime fighters, and real life crime-watch depictions. The boundaries of the television police genre are more limited in that the genre deals specifically with the actions of police officers. But it too has wide and shifting boundaries. Perhaps the most obvious and unarguable point is that television police series portray some aspect of police work.

In general, television police programs before the 1980s avoided topical and controversial subjects. Examples of the genre tended to focus on a no-nonsense, factual presentation as in Dragnet, or to focus on specific neighbourhoods as in Homicide and Division Four (Lynn Bayonas and Marcus Cole, 1969-1976, Australia), or the promotion of specific cultural values as in Dixon of Dock Green. The Bill, in contrast, featured topical and controversial subjects on a regular basis. Within the British television police genre Dixon of Dock Green shared similarities with The Bill in that it was set in a police station in London’s East End and focused on routine police procedure and low-level crime, but, unlike The Bill, it avoided controversial subjects. In the 1960s, Z Cars, another landmark British television police series, focused on routine police procedure. However, it redefined the boundaries set by Dixon of Dock Green by structuring one episode around the issue of pornography (Happy Families, 1964) and by portraying police officers as fallible human beings. In the 1970s, The Sweeney and The Professionals focused on combating armed robberies and terrorism. The one episode of The Professionals that dealt specifically with racism (Klansmen, Series 1, episode 13, filmed in 1978) was never shown on British terrestrial television because its subject matter was thought by London Weekend Television to be offensive to some viewers.

In contrast, The Bill dealt with controversial topics on a regular basis and, in doing so, redefined the boundaries of the British television police genre by moving closer to the generic conventions of British soap opera. Clutching at Straws (1984) dealt with child molestation, Burning the Books (1985) with pornography, Homebeat (1985) and Domestics (1987) with racism, and The New Order of Things (1987) with a suicidal AIDS victim. Storylines in The Bill were topical, immediate, and raw. Police officers were sometimes shown as sexist, racist, and politically incorrect, yet the same officers were also shown as caring, sensitive and heroic. From the first episode of The Bill (Funny Ol’ Business-Cops And Robbers, 1984), characters were multidimensional. Some of them, such as Sgt Bob Cryer and WPC June Ackland, echoed character types embedded in the national consciousness. Many of them had histories that were revealed to viewers over time.

History of The Bill

From that first episode, too, as Lynch (1991, 15) notes, storylines were multi-stranded so they could accurately reflect both the routine work and the diversity of cases dealt with by a single relief (‘A’ relief) in Sun Hill, a typical Metropolitan police station. Funny Ol’ Business – Cops and Robbers opens with a briefing from Sgt Cryer and Sgt Alec Peters, shows PCs Carver and Francis ‘Taffy’ Edwards arresting a car thief who is revealed as an informant for DS Burnside from Barton Street nick, PC Dave Litten assisting CID with a case involving a series of house break-ins related to a double-glazing company and WPCs Ackland and Martella unsuccessfully attempting to arrest a gang of pickpockets. Viewers learned that Sgt Cryer disapproved of ‘bent’ (dishonest) coppers and that he strongly suspected DS Burnside was one of them. They learned that ‘snouts’ (informants) were not to be trusted, and that DS Burnside was capable of treating colleagues and villains with equal callousness.

As an example of the television police genre The Bill met with some initial opposition. A number of critics voiced their disapproval of police officers portrayed as fallible beings rather than exalted gods of irreproachable morals. The then Police Commissioner objected to the projection of unprofessional and unrealistic attitudes and actions. The editor of Police Review decried the tendency of the series to show police officers virtually at war with society. Overall, however, audience reception of the early episodes of The Bill was encouraging enough for further series to be commissioned. Lynch (1992, 17) argues that the initial popularity of The Bill was due to its production excellence, its realistic look, the fact that it was character driven rather than relying on plot and effect, the fact that its characters were believable, and the fact that the audience could identify with the characters. However, Kingsley ascribes its success differently, agreeing with Sparks (1992) and Brunsdon (1998) that violence and fear play a part in persuading viewers to embrace the television police genre. She writes:

The Bill came to the screen in a year when few people were neutral about the role the police were taking in society. The service lost popularity, seeming to be no more than a tool of the Tory government when riot police charged against demonstrations by striking miners. But incidents such as the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in April and the terrorist bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the Tory Party conference which occurred only four days before the first episode of the first series in October [1984] perhaps moved public opinion in the other direction. (Kingsley 1994, 28)

Sun Hill’s iconography reflects that of the real London Metropolitan Police. Although Sun Hill does not exhibit what Thomas (1997, 186) identifies as a ‘visual expression of Englishness… village greens and gardens, medieval lanes and churches, and wood panelled interiors where log fires burn even in high summer’, it does show a distinctive iconography in keeping with its fictional site somewhere in London’s East End. The iconography of The Bill is urbanised and somewhat bleak. It does not rely on the visually pleasing heritage nostalgia iconography so obvious in, and arguably so essential to the success of, Inspector Morse and Heartbeat (Patrick Harbinson and Stephen Leather, 1992-2009, UK). The site that Sun Hill occupies is indicated by what Brunsdon (2001, 43) refers to as London iconography – a geographical position defined by double decker buses, red telephone boxes, the river Thames, smart housing enclaves and bleak council estates such as the Bronte, the Abelard and the Jasmine Allen – which adds to the generic convention of ‘gritty realism’ pioneered in Z Cars and used with such effectiveness in The Sweeney and The Professionals. The Bill features the bobby on the beat idealized by earlier British police series such as Dixon of Dock Green and the meeting places of pubs and cafes so important in creating a sense of community in British soap operas such as Coronation Street (Tony Warren, 1960-present, UK).

Although The Bill drew on a tradition of notable British television police series from previous decades such as Dixon of Dock Green; Z Cars; and The Sweeney, unlike its predecessors, it had a large ensemble cast and there were no ‘stars’. Parallel narratives meant that the focus was never on only one or two members of the team. While Dixon of Dock Green is inextricably linked with George Dixon, Z Cars with Charlie Barlow, and The Sweeney with Jack Regan, viewers of The Bill would be harder pressed to name a single character or actor who exemplifies the series. DS/DI Frank Burnside is arguably the most memorable character of The Bill, but he does not exemplify the series in the way that he does in the spin-off series Burnside (Lizzie Mickery and Steve Griffiths, 2000, UK), that George Dixon does in Dixon of Dock Green and that Jack Regan does in The Sweeney.

One of the factors that impacts on the longevity and cultural embeddedness of The Bill 1984-1997 was a tradition of excellence in writing, direction, and technical production. In keeping with the gritty realism that typified the early years of The Bill, episodes were shot using a handheld M2 Ikegami camera. Camera shots, sometimes jerky and almost always from the viewpoint of a police officer, conveyed a sense of immediacy, familiar from news broadcasts, that helped to establish credibility in the eyes of viewers. Naturalistic lighting was preferred and rehearsals were minimal or non-existent. Editing techniques featured long takes with the camera panning from character to character rather than the more traditional shot-reverse-shot cutting.

Lynch (1991, 76) reports that the ensemble cast and the necessity of producing 104 half hour episodes each year dictated a tight production schedule. Two separate and colour coded production teams were formed. Each team was headed by a producer and divided into teams that worked on episodes at various stages of production. Each team produced two episodes every two weeks. Each episode was allocated four weeks of preparation, five days of shooting, ten days of editing, and four days of sound dubbing. When necessary, as for example in the move from North Kensington to South Merton, a third team was used to create a stockpile of episodes.

Episode ideas, in the form of a two or three paragraphed outline, were provided by scriptwriters, and considered at weekly script meetings attended by the Executive Producer, other producers, script editors, assistant script editors, police advisors (ex-Metropolitan Police officers) and the project coordinator. Scriptwriters were asked, after outlines had been considered for dramatic content, procedural credibility and the feasibility of shooting on a five-day schedule, to provide a three-page storyline. If the storyline fitted relevant criteria the writer was asked to provide a full script. Scriptwriters were expected to research their storylines in some detail. This involved visits to police stations, courts, social service agencies and hospitals. Attention to correct police procedure was considered essential and was ensured by the presence of two police advisers who organised actors’ visits to real police stations to introduce them to police operations, procedures and duties. The names of characters were checked against those of serving police officers. Such protocols, combined with acceptance and approbation from the Metropolitan Police, helped to mirror the realism of British policing that was so important in audience acceptance of the series.

Geoff McQueen (the original writer and a driving force behind the program) said:

We agreed that it would always be the police officer’s story, that nothing should be shown without one of our police men or women being there… we also agreed to keep out of the police officers’ homes. I wanted to see how it was affecting their work at the station rather than how the work at the station was affecting them at home. Immediately you go into the police officers’ private lives, it’s the kiss of death to police series, as I see it. (cited in Kingsley 1994, 25)

Although it was episodic rather than serialised, in its location and subject matter The Bill did not rely completely on established television police generic conventions but shared common strands with examples of the British soap opera genre such as Coronation Street (Tony Warren, 1960–present, UK) and EastEnders (Julia Smith and Tony Holland, 1985-present, UK): an urban working class neighbourhood, a clearly defined hierarchy and a focus on the minutiae and topicality of daily life. This, in a national culture that embraces the soap opera genre in print, radio and television media, is a factor in the longevity and institutionalisation of the series. In addition, unlike most contemporary television police series, The Bill incorporated, in many episodes, an element of the humour more commonly seen in British situation comedies. In Blind Alleys, Clogged Roads (1987) Inspector Roy Galloway’s arrest of a taxi driver caused a traffic jam in front of the police station. In Beer and Bicycles (1989) Chief Inspector Derek Conway (Ben Roberts) followed several false trails while searching the station for caches of alcohol and PC Tony Stamp (Graham Cole) objected to having to transport a flatulent police dog in his Area Car. Dancers (1996) involved a tea dance for retired police officers, a disappearing rabbit, a disrupted bridal celebration, a stolen car, a tray of cream cakes, and a villain who fled (‘had it on his dancers’) after a bank robbery in the 1970s but returned for his granddaughter’s wedding.

The Bill differed from other television police series in its approach to characterisation. Laing quotes the casting director of Z Cars’ first series as saying:”Before we began rehearsals I spent a clear week with [the actors] discussing the complete social background of every character – age, parentage, why they were in the police force, what they wanted out of it. We filled it all in, in great detail. Not one of these blokes would say a line without knowing why he was saying it” (1991, 128). In contrast, Kingsley (1994, 45) quotes Pat Sandys, one of the producers of The Bill, as saying, ‘When a new regular joins, he or she is given the character’s professional background – then that actor is left to find his own space’. Some actors were comfortable with this approach. Others were not, and their characters quickly disappeared from the personnel list at Sun Hill. The character that emerged was usually a meld of the producer’s vision and the actor’s interpretation.

From episode 1 of Series 1 (Funny Ol’ Business-Cops and Robbers, 1984) until the end of Series 3 (Not Without Cause, 1987), The Bill consisted of weekly fifty-minute episodes. Episode 1 of Series 4 (Light Duties, 1988) heralded, in a direct challenge to established British soap operas such as Coronation Street, the era of two twenty-five minute episodes per week. Some five years later, with the transmission of episode 1 of Series 9 (Dying Breed, 1993), The Bill’s twice-weekly broadcasts were increased to thrice weekly twenty-five minute episodes on the basis of favourable ratings. Australian viewers were introduced to The Bill in 1986 courtesy of the government funded Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). The series achieved consistently favourable ratings and has been a staple series on the ABC ever since.

In 1997 Michael Chapman’s position as Executive Producer was taken over by Richard Handford, whose brief was to revamp the series in an effort to reverse falling ratings. As The Bill was ITV’s pivotal program, broadcast three times a week, it was considered particularly important that the series regain and increase audience ratings. Figures quoted in the popular press at the time showed that The Bill’s audience shared had dropped from 50% to 40% within a year. The men who directed the revamp – apart from Handford, who had been a producer under Michael Chapman – had a solid background in the soap opera genre so it was perhaps unsurprising that they turned to the conventions of that genre and moved The Bill in a new direction that focused less on a semi-documentary style of police procedure and more on sensationalist and farfetched storylines that left little to viewers’ imaginations. The new direction for The Bill, while somewhat atypical of the masculine television police genre, confirmed the ability of the series to adapt to changes in industry and audience expectations and to challenge, with its interplay of repetition and difference, the generic boundaries of the television police series.

While acknowledging the traditional high production values and the meticulous writer influenced plots which aided the institutionalisation of The Bill, the new regime argued that viewers wanted to learn about the experience of being a Metropolitan police officer in the 1990s, and that such experience included racism, alcoholism, sexual harassment and sexual relationships in officers’ professional and private lives. They argued, too, that viewers wanted younger, more attractive officers in the corridors of Sun Hill. As there was no increase in budget, this meant that by April 2003 over 20 regular characters were written out of the series.

In early 2002 Paul Marquess (Alas, Vegas, 1998; Picking up The Pieces, 1998; Brookside, 1999-2001) was appointed Executive Producer. His brief from ITV, as reported in multiple media channels, was to boost ratings, and his experience was solidly in the soap opera genre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his strategy to gain audience share incorporated elements of soap opera that went far beyond those introduced by Handford. All pretence at achieving quality television was dropped. Marquess claimed in the print media that ITV and Thames Television had decided the serial aspects of The Bill were very successful and that audience research supported this belief. His appointment reputedly included very definite instructions to turn the series into a serial. The Guardian reported his view that The Bill was a product held in affection by viewers: “No one here wants to piss that away and it gets 7m viewers as it is, but if you look at The Bill‘s core demographic, it is white men over 50. And guess who it was being written, produced and directed by? White men over 50. I’m not here to slag it off, as there have been some terrific episodes. I’m here to make it more relevant”. (Marquess 2002) Marquess revamped the official website of The Bill (http://www.thebill.com), terminated the official on-line fan forum and erased all mention of program history prior to his regime. In April 2001, he introduced a regular electronic newsletter alerting fans to upcoming developments and new characters. Despite claims in the May 2001 electronic newsletter that ‘crime stories will now come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and durations – much more like real life in fact’, long term fans argued that the only crimes visible on The Bill were the sensationalism and simplistic storylines combined with stereotypical and shallow characterization that changed their favourite series beyond recognition and altered the interplay of repetition and difference so drastically that The Bill appeared to have migrated to the feminine soap opera genre. Fans who visited the official website of The Bill were invited to subscribe to the newsletter to keep abreast of developments. However after a few months the newsletter was relegated to the backburner and made only sporadic appearances. On the rare occasions it did appear Australian and New Zealand fans (several months behind the UK) were infuriated to discover that it was written for the British fandom and contained major spoilers (exposition of as yet unseen storylines) in relation to events at Sun Hill.

The Bill post-1997 continued to redefine the boundaries of British television police genre with its production techniques and intensive schedules. Both Handford and Marquess, aware of budgetary constraints and logistical requirements, continued the use of colour-coded production units. The production site remained based at South Merton and, as in the Chapman era, the show remained the star, but the post-1997 years were notable for an increased use of actors from soap opera programs. The focus of an episode or storyline was often on one or two members of the team and the use of parallel narratives became less frequent. Handford, for instance, was responsible for the Fox/Santini storyline (Deep End, The Party’s Over, Bang Bang You’re Dead, and Team Spirit, 1998), in which PC Eddie Santini sexually harassed PC Rosie ‘Rosebud’ Fox; and for the DS Beech as bent copper storyline (The Rate For The Job and The Personal Touch, 1998; Walking On Water, 1999; Supping With The Devil and Touch And Go, 2000; Fake Fur, In Safe Hands, Find The Lady, Fifty-Fifty, and The River, 2000) which culminated in the removal of Chief Supt Brownlow and most of the Sun Hill CID team (All Fall Down, Parts 1 & 2, 2000).

Handford was also responsible for the return of mean and menacing DCI Frank Burnside (Cast No Shadow, 1998), last seen as a DI at Sun Hill in 1993, and for Badlands (1999), in which PC Dave Quinnan was beaten by a fifteen-strong gang of local youths at the local sports club. Conforming to pre-watershed conventions, the severity of the beating was emphasised through the reactions of the characters involved rather than an explicit depiction of the incident. Viewers saw PC Quinnan hit the panic button on his radio, causing the alarm to sound in the CAD room, and heard the horrifying sounds of the attack. They saw PC George Garfield’s frustration at being locked outside the club, unable to rescue his colleague. They saw the reaction of police officers in the CAD room at Sun Hill. Badlands was the beginning of a storyline, extending into the Marquess era, that involved a competition between PCs Quinnan and Garfield for the affections of a nurse, the resignation of PC Garfield, an affair between PCs Quinnan and Polly Page (Lisa Geoghan), the break up of PC Quinnan’s marriage, the rejection of his marriage proposal to PC Page, his breakdown and transfer and her breakdown and extended sick leave. Stephanie crystallised the thoughts of many fans in regard to the Handford era, writing, in a comment posted to the BillFans.net forum on February 6, 2003: “I feel… that once Handford had let certain genies out of bottles there was no way they could be put back, and I also feel the nineties audience just wanted a lot more personal stuff than an eighties one did”. Post-1997 The Bill gradually changed from a series to a serial in the television soap opera tradition. Although this was explicitly attributed to falling ratings, it was also an implicit acknowledgment not only of the fragmentation of audiences due to an increasing diversity of media channels but also of Feuer’s (2007, 27) argument that ‘the distinction between ‘serialised’ [with some continuing story arcs] and ‘series’ television that once defined the difference between daytime and prime-time television formats no longer really exists’.

Episode titles were abandoned in 2002 when Marquess took over and storylines often covered ten or more episodes. Romantic relationships and sexual exploration took centre stage. However, given that British culture embraces the soap opera genre, this probably saved The Bill from cancellation. Marquess was unrepentant about changing the program. He insisted that the focus would remain firmly on crime, but that The Bill would show how crime affected the characters on a personal as well as professional level. Much of the iconography embedded during the Chapman era was replaced. This was partly due to the need to mirror changes in uniforms, equipment, vehicles, and identification codes within the Metropolitan Police force and partly to signify a change in the generic interplay of repetition and difference. The iconic plodding feet seen in the credits disappeared in early 1998 and were replaced with iconic police images such as epaulettes and hats. Thereafter the title sequence, credits and logo that established the program as a recognisable example of the British television police genre were changed on a regular basis.

As a result of the changes instituted by Marquess, actors no longer had the freedom to create their own characters. Several actors left the series after disagreements over the direction their characters’ lives were taking. Many more were removed as a result of sensational storylines that disposed of large numbers of officers (the exposure of DS Beech as a bent copper and the Sun Hill station firebombing). By 2003 The Bill had effectively changed its audience profile from ‘white men over 50’ to a younger demographic and had doubled its target audience in the 16-34 year old bracket. Marquess (cited in Tibballs 2003, 13) said ‘serialisation has delivered a younger audience and a much bigger female audience’. His words underline the validity of Pearson’s assertion:

The increasing fragmentation of the audience… meant that a programme’s demographic profile counted for more than sheer numbers, with advertisers seeking the ‘right’ viewers, those with disposable income and inclined to spend it… by the end of the twentieth century demographic thinking had become the norm among industry executives. (2007, 15)

Both Handford and Marquess abandoned short episodes in favour of one-hour episodes. Although audience research indicated that viewers liked tight half hour storylines, the rationale given by production executives for the expanded episode format was that it enabled producers to meet contemporary audience demand to develop characters’ personal lives and that it served as a platform for stronger and more challenging storylines. In 2002 Marquess challenged television police genre boundaries by changing The Bill from a series to a serial. Episodes were no longer given titles but were assigned numbers. Ep 1 dealt with an undercover operation in a lap-dancing club. Ep 2 introduced the race riots storyline that resulted in Chief Inspector Conway’s death in a car bombing, and the deaths of a number of officers in the firebombing of Sun Hill police station.

Transmission frequency in Britain was subject to scheduling variations but in Australia the ABC continued to broadcast new episodes every Tuesday and Saturday nights, except when a block of eight Tuesday nights during November 2003-January 2004 was taken over by MIT: Murder Investigation Team (Paul Marquess, 2003-2004, UK), a spin-off of The Bill. From early 2008 the ABC dropped the Tuesday night transmission and presented a ‘double bill’ of back to back episodes. Although regulatory authorities prohibit depictions of graphic violence in The Bill’s pre-watershed timeslot, both Handford and Marquess oversaw storylines that dealt with issues of extreme violence. In an attempt to boost ratings, both producers also focussed on the personal lives of Sun Hill police officers and emphasized aspects of modern living such as drug taking, sexual harassment, child pornography, personal vendettas, murder, extramarital activity, and divorce. While fans were not happy with the direction taken by both producers, the most virulent fan criticism was reserved for Marquess. Australian fan sdbrown wrote on the Billfans.net forum on February 6, 2003:

A key criticism of Marquess has been his use of ‘controversial’ storylines. I guess this depends on what one considers to be ‘controversial’ – personally, I have no problem with storylines about gay police officers, corrupt police officers, or police infighting, because in actual fact all are aspects of police work and the police lifestyle. A friend of mine who worked for the NSW police told me many stories about the extremely political, competitive, and harsh nature of the police… On a personal level as a fan, I enjoy watching my favourite show, whilst undergoing significant change, remain an entertaining, engaging, and relevant TV show. Like everything in life, a TV show must change and grow if it is to survive, and I believe The Bill is doing this.

Marquess instituted regular story conferences at which he indicated how future storylines were to be delineated. The pre-1997 refusal to explore the private lives of Sun Hill police officers was vetoed, with the result that well crafted crime solving gave way to gratuitous groping and clichéd coupling. It was noticeable that by 2003 many former writers and directors had left the series. However, post-2005 under Jonathan Young, the interplay of repetition and difference changed to incorporate more elements of the original police procedural concept. In order to accommodate grittier storylines ITV announced in January 2009 that the program would be shifted to a weekly post watershed slot in the UK.

Another of the factors that impacted on the longevity and cultural embeddedness of The Bill was a tradition of incorporating humour – sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant – into episodes and storylines. This, too, almost disappeared post-1997. As kerry holmes_protégé noted wryly on the Billfans.net forum on May 2, 2003:

In the good old days The Bill had a sense of humour and irony. Now whenever I laugh during an episode I’m not sure if that’s the intended effect or just woefully bad scripting.

Nevertheless, there were some humorous moments. Some, particularly in the Marquess era (exemplified by the following example), were centred around dialogue, as when Sgt Craig Gilmore and PC Nick Klein watched PC Cathy Bradford pole dancing during a covert operation. Klein said: ‘Well seriously though Craig, doesn’t she do anything for ya?’ Gilmore replied: ‘Look, I’m just more interested in the pole, alright?’ (Ep 1, 2002)

Not everyone was happy with the changes in form and content. In Britain, media reports indicated that audience share dropped from 9.74 million for the week ending 15 June 1997 to 8.89 million for the week ending 14 June 1998. Ratings at this time indicated an audience share that fluctuated between 42% and 32%. Research indicated that viewers liked The Bill and its format of a single story contained in each 30-minute episode, which allowed them to dip in and out of the series. Journalist Stephanie Bentley (1998, n.p.) reported that John Hardie, ITV’s marketing and commercial director, announced a three-month heavyweight promotional campaign for a ‘new, improved’ version of The Bill, one that explicitly advertised a change in generic conventions. One-hour specials, allowing more time for character development, and the use of continuing storylines to keep viewers hooked, were planned. Hardie promised that authenticity would not be lost, arguing, ‘The Bill is not a soap. It is an authentic police drama. We don’t want kitchen sink drama, we want crime stories.’ Fans saw the situation somewhat differently. One, anon, argued cynically on the Billfans.net forum on March 6, 2003:

The answer to why more people watch The Bill now is simple. The show now is watched not only by the type of viewer who watched it years ago and watches it for the crime, but also by another very large audience: the ‘soap viewer’- the result is a very high following. Unfortunately there’s no shortage of the ‘soap viewer’ wanting to watch the latest sensationalist story.

Despite tension between audiences in an increasingly diverse digital environment, Marquess’s strategy was successful in attracting and maintaining audience figures. In October 2003 he celebrated twenty years of The Bill with a live episode that was transmitted in Britain from two broadcast units at the studio and used 104 technical crewmembers in six production teams and 22 cameras rather than the usual 24 technical crewmembers, one production team and one camera. Media reports indicated that ratings averaged 9.9 million (peaking at 10.4 million in the final 15 minutes) with a 40% audience share. Shortly afterward, in March 2004, The Sun announced that, in a 200 million pound deal, ITV1 had ordered 480 new episodes of The Bill. Nigel Pickard, head of ITV drama, told The Sun that the deal was done in order to stop rival networks poaching the series. Five years later, in 2009, media reported that The Bill, at the heart of the ITV1 schedule, was to be repositioned in a weekly post watershed transmission (http://www.thebill.com/productionnews/articledetail/item_100012.htm). It seems that, in the evolution of The Bill, pushing generic boundaries, attracting a soap opera audience and acknowledging industry trends has been successful.


Since its inception as a series the British television police drama The Bill has regularly redefined the boundaries of the television police genre in relation to production values, characterisation, memorable characters and the creation of an active fandom. From 1984 to 2004, The Bill challenged generic boundaries, moving within and from a police procedural format notable for authenticity and gritty realism to a hybrid that combined police procedure with soap opera elements. From 1984 to 1997 it was well known for its authenticity and gritty realism, for its production values and for its storylines.

However, falling ratings dictated a series redefinition and post-1997 The Bill attracted a number of audiences, the main ones of which were long-term fans (many of whom had grown up with The Bill) and soap opera viewers with different expectations shaped by familiarity with British soap operas such as Coronation St and Eastenders. Long-term fans looked for quality drama; the soap opera audience looked for sensationalism. The existence of such diverse audiences showed that The Bill, regardless of its age and thousands of episodes, was still evolving, still challenging generic boundaries, and still balancing the interplay of repetition and difference. With its institutionalised geographic and culturally specific setting, the series provides a readymade bridge between the traditionally masculine genre of police drama and the feminine one of soap opera and highlights a pathway to contemporary industry realities.


Bentley, Stephanie. 1998. “The Bill moves to arrest ratings fall”, Marketing Week 2 July
http://www24.brinkster.com/shchronicle/ (accessed 24 March 2003).

Brunsdon, Charlotte. 2001. “London Films: From Private Gardens to Utopian Moments”, Cineaste (Fall).

Feuer, Jane. 2007. “The Lack of Influence in Thirtysomething” in The Contemporary Television Series, edited by Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon. Edinburgh University Press,.

Fiske, John. 1987. Television Culture. London: Routledge.

The Guardian.co.uk http://media.guardian.co.uk/mediaguardian/story/0,7558 ,651855,00.html (accessed 19 February 2002).

iTV.com. 2009. “ITV Announces a new format for The Bill” 23 Jan http://www.thebill.com/productionnews/articledetail/item_100012.htm (accessed 4 March 2009).

iTV.co. 2009. “The Bill Wins Award for Diversity in Drama” 23 Feb http://www.thebill.com/videos/videodetail/item_200014.htm (accessed 4 March 2009).

Kingsley, Hilary. 1994. The Bill: The First Ten Years. London: Boxtree.

Laing, Stuart. 1991. “Banging in Some Reality: The Original Z Cars,” in Popular Television in Britain, edited by John Corner. London: BFI Publishing.

Lynch, Tony. 1992. The Bill: The Inside Story of the Successful Police Series Seen on ABC TV. Crows Nest, NSW: ABC Enterprises.

McQueen, David. 1998. Television: A Media Student’s Guide. London: Arnold.

McLean, G. 2002. “From corner shop to cop shop”, Guardian, 18 February 2002.

Neale, Steve. 1980. Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1980).

Pearson, Roberta. 2007. “The Writer/Producer in American Television”, in The Contemporary Television Series, edited by Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon. Edinburgh University Press.

Thomas, Lyn. 1997. “In Love with Inspector Morse,” in Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader, edited by Charlotte Brunsdon, Julie D’Acci and Lynn Spigel, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1997).

Tibballs, Geoff. 2003. The Complete Low-down on 20 Years at Sun Hill Sydney: ABC Books.

Tulloch, Joh. 200. Watching Television Audiences: Cultural Theories and Methods. London: Arnold.


Blue Heelers 1994-2006. Hal McElroy and Tony Morphett, Seven Network, Australia.

Burnside 2000. Lizzie Mickery and Steve Griffiths, ITV, UK.

Car 54, Where Are You? 1961-1963. Nat Hiken, NBC, USA.

Coronation Street 1960-present. Tony Warren, Granada Television, UK.

Dixon of Dock Green 1955-1976, Ted Willis, BBC, UK.

Division 4 1969-1976. Lynn Bayonas and Marcus Cole, Nine Network, Australia.

Dragnet 1951-1959. Jack Webb, NBC, USA.

Eastenders 1985-present. Julia Smith and Tony Holland, BBC, UK.

Heartbeat 1992-2009. Patrick Harbinson and Stephen Leather, ITV, UK.

Hill Sreet Blues 1981-1987. Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, NBC, USA.

Homicide 1964-1976. Lynn Bayonas, Seven Network, Australia.

Inspector Morse 1987-2000. Colin Dexter, ITV, UK.

Law and Order 1990-present. Dick Wolf, NBC, USA.

Miami Vice 1984-1989. Anthony Yerkovich, NBC, USA.

MIT:Murder Investigation Team 2003-205. Paul Marquess, ITV, UK.

NYPD Blue 1993-2005. Steven Bochco and David Milch, ABC, USA.

The Professionals 1977-1983. Brian Clemens, LWT, UK.

The Sweeney 1975-1978. Ian Kennedy Martin, Euston Films, UK.

Z Cars 1962-1978. Troy Kennedy Martin, BBC, UK.

Author Bio

Dr Margaret Rogers is an Independent Scholar. She completed her doctoral dissertation, ‘Previously on The Bill: Factors in the longevity of a British television police series’, in 2004. She holds undergraduate and postgraduate Business degrees majoring in Organisational Communication and Communication. Her research projects encompass pub rock, masculinity and Australian identity; the impact of the ‘ten pound’ migrants on Australian popular music; Australian media and cultural identity in the 1970s; Australian television series; television police series in Australia, Europe and the USA; slash fiction and the television police series; and virtual communities in fandom. She is currently writing a crime novel, the first in a series featuring the Australian Federal Police, set in Canberra.

Contact Email: margaret.rogers2@bigpond.com

Digital Intervention: Remixes, Mash Ups and Pixel Pirates – Amanda Trevisanut

The art of remix and mash-ups is a contemporary cultural phenomenon that has been facilitated by the mass availability of digital software. Remix effectively describes the process of taking samples of existing media – for example audio tracks, film and television images – and knitting these samples into a new text. The active and creative use of cultural products by individuals challenges the paradigm of the passive spectator that is the corner-stone of traditional film theory. For instance, in the psychoanalytically based theories of Jean-Louis Baudry (1975), Laura Mulvey (1975) and Christian Metz (1983), the cinematic apparatus has been conceptualized as hegemonic instrument of ideology that interpolates the viewer into the world of the diegesis. The characterization of the spectator as a passive site of cultural and ideological reproduction is mirrored by the legalities of copyright that seek to indemnify the economic rights of the authors and producers of audio-visual media. In Digital Copyright and the Consumer Revolution: Hands off My iPod, legal scholar Matthew Rimmer asserts that, in copyright jurisprudence, the users of audio-visual media are decidedly absent, and that with the advent of digital technology there is an imperative to recognize:

consumers are not just mere ‘culture vultures’, engaged in the mindless, passive, bovine consumption of new artistic forms and technologies. The users of copyright works are engaged in a multitude of activities, including political expression, cultural transformation and technological tinkering. Moreover, the relationship of consumers to the dictates of copyright law is also a complex one, ranging from obedience to resistance and opposition to indifference and ignorance (2007, 13).

Consumers/users/spectators use of digital software to remediate – meaning that they “adopt aspects of prior, established media” (Ruston 2006) – copyright works draws attention to the failure of traditional theoretical and legal paradigms to recognize spectatorship and/or consumption, as a dynamic site of cultural (re)production. The use of digital technology to remix, remediate, re-master, re-imagine and re-member media artifacts into alternative configurations testifies to the interactive engagement of individuals with cultural artifacts by “blurring the boundaries between the real world of the reader/participant and the crafted world of the narrative” (Ruston 2006). The operations and aesthetics of digital technology, of “archives and databases”, ultimately “offer artists a vehicle for commenting on cultural and institutional practices through direct intervention” (Vesna 2000, 155). This essay does not presuppose that the advent of digital technologies have fundamentally altered the ways in which individuals engage with media. Rather, through an examination of Soda_Jerk and Sam Smith’s 2002-2006 film Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone this essay will aim to show how the specific use of digital software to sample and remix audio-visual images testifies to an existing (if largely theoretically neglected) dynamic relationship between individuals, society and media artifacts.

Between 2002 and 2006, Sydney artists Soda_Jerk – aka Dominique and Dan Angeloro – collaborated with video, sound and installation artist Sam Smith to produce Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone. This sixty minute “sci-fi / biblical epic/ action movie with a subplot of troubled romance” (sodajerk.com.au/sj/ppii.html) is entirely – and illegally – constructed of samples from Hollywood film, television, popular music, audio tracks, studio trademarks, DVD menus, copyright advertisements, games and online software. Using widely available digital software such as After Affects and Photoshop, Soda_Jerk together with Smith have “remixed” these samples into a narrative that challenges the economic and theoretical paradigm of the passive spectator. The film is set in the year 3001, where a team of Pixel Pirates formulate a plan to combat the evil tyrant Moses and his oppressive Copyright Commandments. In order to continue practicing the ancient art of remix they abduct Elvis Presley from 1955, create his video clone, who is then sent back to the year 2015 to assassinate Moses. By transforming into the Incredible Hulk, and later into the resurrected Jesus Christ, Elvis completes his mission, but only after he has overcome the Copyright Cops, and an assortment of action heroes including Indiana Jones from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the Ghostbusters from the 1984 film of the same name and its 1989 sequel, Daniel-san of the Karate Kid (1984), Luke Skywalker of Star Wars (1977) and Lara Croft of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).


Figure 1: Courtesy of the Artists

The process of remix or “mash-ups” is thematically rendered as well as formally employed in Pixel Pirate to narrativise the ways in which digital technologies are being utilised by “consumers” to “engage in self-expression and creative play” (Rimmer 2007, 8). The form and content of the film ultimately challenges the delineation of cultural production and consumption by highlighting the dynamic nature of media, and situates the spectator/consumer/citizen as an agent of narrative meaning.

Soda_Jerk’s sample and remix of filmic icons into an anti-establishment narrative in Pixel Pirate is indicative of how the relationship between cultural production and consumption is being affected by widely available digital technologies. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich asserts that: “As we work with software and use the operations embedded in it, these operations become part of how we understand ourselves, and others, in the world. Strategies of working with computer data become our general cognitive strategies” (2001, 118). Manovich’s uses the term selection instead of sample to indicate how “in computer culture, authentic creation has been replaced by the selection from a menu” or a database of ready-made parts (2001, 124). He uses the term compositing, whereby the selections made are blended to “create continuous spaces out of disparate elements” to show how remix is influenced by the advent of digital culture (Manovich 2001, 155). This process of selection and compositing is explicated in the companion booklet to the Pixel Pirate DVD. In the chapter entitled “Shot Breakdowns: #2 The Final Showdown” a single frame from the film’s sequence in which Elvis as the Incredible Hulk is being vanquished by the Ghostbusters is shown to be a composite of six images – or parts thereof (see figure 1).


Figure.2: Courtesy of the artists

The setting is a mash-up of the Paramount Studio’s logo, the ominous skyline from the conclusion of Donnie Darko (2001) and the desert from The Ten Commandments (1956). The crowd of debaucherous spectators and Moses are also from The Ten Commandments, whilst the Ghostbusters are taken from the 1984 film Ghostbusters, and the Incredible Hulk from the Hollywood incarnation of the comic book character in the 2003 film Hulk. The process of selection and compositing inherent to remix is shown by Soda_Jerk to be “transformative”, it remediates artistic forms authored by others in order to create a new product with a different – though related – set of cultural meanings (Rimmer 2007, 140). For instance, by including the Paramount logo in the composition of the film’s final showdown between champions of copyright law and its adversaries, Soda_Jerk manufacture a meta-narrative space (Manovich 2005) that articulates how Hollywood studios are a site of cultural production inhabited by their creations as well as spectators. Consequently, digital media “become simultaneously technical analogs and social expressions of our identity, we become simultaneously both the subject and object of contemporary media” (Bolter and Grusin 2000, 243). The Paramount logo ordinarily appears as an extra-diegetic element at the commencement of a given film to signify authorship and ownership, however in Pixel Pirate Paramount is shown to be only one component of the cultural landscape. Soda_Jerk utilise the operations of digital culture to understand the legacy of copyright law, who it protects, and how this affects the ability of individuals to engage with cultural artifacts.

Although the operations specific to digital software offer new methods and techniques for engaging with and producing filmic narratives, terms such as selection and compositing are not dissimilar to the techniques of postmodernism such as bricolage and parody. Manovich’s statement that “authentic creation has been replaced by the selection from a menu” echoes the argument forwarded by Frederic Jameson in his 1985 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. Here Jameson argues that the remediation of popular images annihilates the original referent which both jeopardizes historicity through over-mediation and retards the development of an aesthetic that is able to represent “our own current experience” (1985, 117). Following Jameson, Manovich posits that the process of selection naturalises “the flow of a different logic” which displaces the practice of “creating from scratch” (2001, 129). Although I agree with Manovich’s argument that the operations of selection and compositing have become a part of how we understand ourselves and others in the world, his assertion that an “authentic” form of authorship has been displaced is ultimately a utopian myth that he has inherited from the postmodern theory of Jameson. In Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever – Bunuel’s Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative, Marsha Kinder refers to the operations of digital software as a “database aesthetic”, and articulates that this aesthetic does not alter communicative practices in any fundamental way, but rather “exposes or thematises the duel processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and that are crucial to language” (2002, 6). In other words, selection and combination/ compositing/remix is an inherent component of both language and authorship. However, what has changed is how “new digital media and their critical discourse encourage us to rethink the distinctive interactive potential of earlier narrative forms” (Kinder 2002, 6). The ability to replicate, fragment and dismember cultural artifacts, and then remix, re-master, re-imagine, remediate and re-member that media in multifarious combinations not only generates alternative narratives, histories and memories, but also indicates the dynamic quality of media that has already entered the public consciousness.

The process of remix, particularly the operation of selection, used to construct Pixel Pirate elucidates the interactive and experiential nature of film spectatorship. That is to say that the remix reflects the ways that “film [already] circulates in fragmented form throughout not only the exterior landscape of popular culture, but also the interior landscape of the mind” (Columpar 2006). In order to vanquish Moses, Elvis is transformed into the Incredible Hulk.


Figure 3: Courtesy of the Artists

However, before he is able to complete his mandate, he is annihilated by the Ghostbusters. Here Soda Jerk attribute fragments of disparate films to a single body, collapsing the distinction between screen and spectator, product and consumer. Having foreseen this sticky end, the Pixel Pirates have programmed the Elvis clone so that he will resurrect in three days in the guise of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Elvis plays upon the cultural myths and conspiracy theories that claim that Elvis did not die on the 16th August 1977. The manifestation of Elvis as a Christ figure parodies his mythical status as “The King”, and the religious dedication of his fans which has kept his image alive for the thirty-one years since his death. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk explain that “[o]ur hero is not the ‘original’ Elvis; it is the Elvis phenomenon – the figure multiplied, mashed and endlessly imitated.” Soda_Jerk utilise the image of Elvis as a symbol of the “ancient art of remix”, which illustrates Kinder’s assertion that the process of selection and combination precedes digital technologies. Although digital technology enables the reproduction, selection and compositing of canonic images and texts, the selection of Elvis as the protagonist of Pixel Pirate signals these operations as a legacy of pre-existing forms of parody, fandom and spectatorship; interactive practices that belie the seemingly hermetic narrative structure of traditional cinema.

Pixel Pirate exemplifies the ways in which artists and consumers challenge the binary relationship of authorship and spectatorship by drawing attention to the character, function and possibilities of imaging and audio technologies in the digital age. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk define remixing as a “conceptual frontier that collapses the archaeology of contemporary commodity culture with the science of time travel”, one which reassembles the fragments of a bygone era to recognise “the hidden forces contained within the outmoded artifacts and myth-systems of the recent past”. Soda_Jerk echoes archaeologist Juan Antonio Barcelo’s assertion that archaeologists and historians are “not looking for objects, but actions which produced objects with special features” (2007, 437). Like archaeologists of a more traditional ilk who use archaeological data “to understand the dynamic nature of present society” (Barcelo 2007, 437), Soda_Jerk understands that the legacy of film history bears upon the ideological conditions and embodied experience of individuals in the present. As Paul Arthur asserts, discussion of history in relation to digital technology is “generally dominated by the very practical aspects of information preservation and retrieval” (2006). Soda_Jerk’s narrativisation and act of copyright infringement treats media samples as found cultural artifacts and reassembles them to illustrate the tension that exists between practices of production and consumption, and history and memory in the digital era. In the DVD booklet Soda_Jerk qualify their practice of remix:

To clear the vast number of samples involved in this project would not only have been astronomically time consuming but also financially impossible. The present cost of sample licensing is notoriously prohibitive…This situation places the art of remix squarely in the hands of those with money – branded artists and corporate advertising. A depressing fate which owes its evolution to fan communities, the avant-garde and Afro-diasporic audio cultures…copyright is not just about cash, it’s also about control. Money doesn’t buy you sample rights unless you’re using those samples in a way that is pleasing to the proprietor (i.e. not mashing Elvis with Jesus). The battle over copyright then is also the battle over history – what is at stake is the very relationship of the past to the present.

Soda_Jerk’s characterisation of copyright as a battle over history reflects the positions of cultural theorists Alison Landsberg (2004) and Marita Sturken (1997), who characterize the immediacy of the moving and photographic image in contemporary culture as inextricable from personal memory, cultural memory and official history. Sturken offers the example of veterans of World War II whose experience of battle have been subsumed “into a more general script” as a result of watching Hollywood movies that dramatise the war (1997, 6). This example exemplifies how personal experience of media is inextricable from lived experiences, and how a relationship to personal history is compromised by laws that prohibit an active engagement with and use of culturally produced audio-visual technologies. By remixing samples from discreet and disparate media texts into the body of a single text, Soda_Jerk illustrate how “texts decreasingly take the material form of durable marks inscribed on paper and increasingly manifest themselves as electronic polarities, the bodies within (and without) electronic documents undergo correlated transformations in embodiment” (Hayles 2004, 257). Like bodies that remember the disparate temporalities of viewing this or that film – memories which are formative of individual experience and identity – Pixel Piratelike other remixes and mash-ups come to represent this postmodern experience of being in a world mediated by audio-visual technology.

Despite this philosophical affinity with archaeological practices, Soda_Jerk exceed the archaeological mandate and employ digital technology to creatively fragment and reassemble popular cultural media and propel the past and present “into a new constellation”, a process that they describe as “retro-futurism”. This new constellation reveals how the new technological frontiers of cinema depend upon the “reflexivity of embodied spectatorship” and not “fantasies of disembodiment and absorption into virtual worlds” (Rabinovitz 2004, 100). Landsberg contends that the affective traces left by experiences of spectatorship facilitate the “conditions for ethical thinking precisely by encouraging people to feel connected to, while recognizing the alterity of the ‘other’” (2004, 9). Landsberg here situates herself in opposition to Jameson by arguing that it is the age of consumerism, of technological reproducibility, that enables the cinema to facilitate a political action because the experiential nature of spectatorship dissolves the differences between authentic and mass-mediated memories (2004, 15). Although Landsberg’s own focus is the potential of cinema to form political alliances between marginalized communities, her recourse to embodied experience to argue that mass reproduction in late-capitalist culture is precisely what enables a political cinema is coextensive with the position articulated by Soda_Jerk. However, Soda_Jerk claim mass-produced visual and aural images as a personal and cultural history, and utilise these images to render a database narrative that subverts the dominant narrative of the passive spectator. By remediating cultural images, Soda_Jerk adhere to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of history which states that to “articulate the past historically… means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger…which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history” (1968, 255). Benjamin regards the subjective and inter-subjective nature of memory as a potent political weapon for affecting “both the content of tradition and its receivers” (1968, 255). The database aesthetic and digital software are utilised in Pixel Pirate to open up narrative possibilities: the act of remix triggers personal memory, cultural memory and official film histories to claim media as a dynamic cultural experience.

As illustrated by Kinder, the rhetoric of digital software operations has offered a new language of interactivity that is able to re-imagine the spectator as a site of cultural production. Furthermore, as was elucidated through an analysis of Pixel Pirates, digital software has offered a new means of expressing the interactive relationship shared between individuals, society and various media. By illegally sampling copyright works using widely available digital software, Soda_Jerk and Smith also exemplify the political potential of contemporary media, directly challenging the status quo. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk conclude by stating:
“The remix is nothing less than a politics of time, and one worth the battle. We believe that we have used each of the samples fairly. But whether our sampling constitutes an act of “fair use” is a matter we can discuss with your lawyers”. What emerges in the stated politics of Soda_Jerk is a tension between the individual and cultural experience of media, and economic and histrionic power structures that rely upon a strict delineation of production and consumption. Pixel Pirate illustrates how access to, and expression through cultural artifacts is an essential means of understanding contemporary conditions of existence. This is due to the immediacy of audio-visual media in consumer culture, and its affective nature. Remixes and mash-ups utilise digital technologies in a manner that elucidates the ways that bodies are transformed by, and in turn transform, media.


Arthur, P. 2006. “Multimedia and the Narrative Frame: Narrating Digital Histories”. Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media 9 (July), http://blogs.arts.unimelb.edu.au/refractory/2006/07/04/multimedia-and-the-narrative-frame-navigating-digital-histories-paul-arthur/

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Baudry, J. 1986. The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality. In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Phillip Rosen, 299-318. Originally published in 1975 in Communications (23) and translated in 1976 Camera Obscura (Fall), (1):104-28.

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Donnie Darko. Directed by Richard Kelly. 2001.
Ghostbusters. Directed by Ivan Reitman. 1984.
Hulk. Directed by Ang Lee. 2003.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1989.
Karate Kid, The. Directed by John G. Avildsen. 1984.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Directed by Simon West. 2001.
Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone, Soda_Jerk and Sam Smith, 2002-2006.
Soda_Jerk. (Cited 7 November 2008). Available from http://sodajerk.com.au
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Directed by George Lucas. 1977.
Ten Commandments, The. Directed by Cecille B. DeMille. 1956.


[1] Copyright is a pertinent issue in relation to new digital technologies; however it is a concern that is tangendental to the focus of this essay. For a detailed analysis of how copyright laws in Australia and the United States impacts upon remix culture see Rimmer, (2007).

[2]“Fair use” is a grey area in copyright law in both Australia and the United States. At present it covers transformative uses such as parody, however its extension to cover mash-ups is still a largely contested area. See Rimmer (2007).

Author Bio

Amanda Trevisanut is a PhD candidate in the Department of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She is currently working on her thesis entitled ‘Multi-Cultural Identity and SBS Commissioned Content’.

Contact Email: a.trevisanut@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au

The Classic Hollywood Town at the Dawn of Suburbia – Stephen Rowley


This article examines the depictions of small towns in a number of Hollywood films from the 1940s, and describes some of the ideals of community that were shaping (and reflecting) the community attitudes that would underlie the post-war suburban boom. Two points are of particular interest. Firstly, what are some of the common physical and social characteristics of the communities as depicted in these films? And secondly, what can we glean from the films about the attitudes to community and suburbanisation that existed at the dawn of the suburban age?

The origins of the modern suburb can be traced back to the mid 19th Century, with streetcars and the railroad spurring the development of commuter suburbs, and industrialisation increasing the urge to escape the pollution and overcrowding of cities and also spurring the creation of company towns for workers. [1] The appeal of the suburban ideal is not hard to understand, with urban hinterlands long having been recognised as harbouring the potential to provide the best of urban and rural lifestyles. Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 conception of “three magnets” is a classic expression of this urge, with “town” and “country” each offering a dubious mixed bag of blessings and faults, but “town-country” giving an irresistible blend of both:

Beauty of Nature, Social Opportunity. Fields and Parks of Easy Access. Low Rents, High Wages. Low Rates, Plenty to Do. Low Prices, No Sweating. Field for Enterprise, Flow of Capital. Pure Air and Water, Good Drainage. Bright Homes & Gardens, No Smoke, No Slums. Freedom, Co-operation (1946, 46). [2]

Howard conceived of stand-alone master-planned garden cities, but the edges of existing cities represented a more readily accessible site to pursue the balance of the space and beauty of the country and the opportunities and society of the city. Yet the mass adoption of the suburbs as a dominant mode for middle-class residential living – rather than as a haven for the extremely wealthy – can be traced to the period immediately after World War II, to the point where the popular conception of suburbia is inextricably linked to the 1950s: the expression “sitcom suburbs” raises an instant image of a particular type of lifestyle, most stereotypically embodied in 1950s sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver (Gomalco Prodcutions and Kayro-Vue Productions, 1957-1963), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (Stage Five Productions, 1952-1966), and Father Knows Best (CBS, NBC and ABC, 1954-1960). [3] At the conclusion of World War II, a number of factors combined to lead to the mass expansion of suburbs in the United States and Australia (and to a lesser extent in Europe and the United Kingdom). Without war and depression to stifle growth, automobiles could realise their latent potential to reshape the built landscape (Kay 1997, chapter 10); mass production reduced construction costs, with home construction shifting sharply away from owner-builders to developer-builders; (Hayden 2003, 132) and affordability was artificially spurred by direct and indirect government subsidies for suburban development, including highway construction and direct financial assistance such as the United States’ Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944. [4] With suburbia more accessible than ever before, populations eager to realise the hard-won fruits of victory (and in the midst of a post-war baby boom) flocked to suburban communities. Between 1950 and 1970, central cities in the United States grew by 10 million people, but their suburbs added 85 million (Fishman 1989, 182). The paradox created by this mass adoption of the suburban lifestyle was quickly recognised, and has been much discussed since: the scale of the suburban roll-out meant that the original “best-of-both worlds” ideal was quickly extinguished. Road networks became increasingly extravagant even as they became ever-more congested; the dispersal of uses meant the urban environment became vast and centreless; the mass-production of houses led to dull and lifeless street environments; and the actual urban / rural interface continually leap-frogged each new ring of development, stripping communities of the access to open landscape they had previously enjoyed. Such problems were quickly apparent: as urban historian Lewis Mumford noted in 1961, “[a]s soon as the suburban pattern became universal, the virtues it at first had boasted began to disappear” (490-491). Yet despite this prompt identification of the perils of suburban development, the continued popularity of the model attests to the powerful pull of the suburban dream. If anything, disappointment in actual suburbs only strengthens the urge to find that elusive community that can approximate the imaginary ideal of community, spaciousness, and aesthetic appeal. These are essentially the qualities associated with the quintessential small town, to the point where the imagined virtues of suburb and small town are inextricably linked: suburbs are an attempt to mass-produce an affordable version of the perfect small community. It is therefore of interest to look at the ideal of the small town as depicted in Hollywood films at the dawn of the suburban explosion. These have much to tell us about the community ideals that drove post-World War II suburban expansion.

As Rob Lapsley has noted, “[i]t has become a cliché of contemporary writing that the city is constructed as much by images and representations as by the built environment, demographic shifts and patterns of capital investment” (1997, 187). As is often the case, this notion has become a cliché because of its common-sense usefulness and intuitive correctness: it is easy to appreciate how our mental conception of a place such as New York City is shaped by its frequent depiction in film, television and literature. However, the importance of representation becomes even more important when one considers the case of notional places: representations that we use to define and describe a general category of place (eg “suburbia,” “small town,” “big city,” “Main Street”). In these cases, there is no single real-world referent, and so the overlay of multiple depictions of such communities becomes all-important. Our idea of the small town is, as Kenneth MacKinnon puts it, “an amalgam of elements much less to do with actual American small towns than with manifold literary descriptions and repeated cinematic treatments” (1984, 18). Such depictions are of interest because, as MacKinnon argues, the imaginary small town is a “storehouse of American values” and as such a study of the depiction of them is a means of exploring the nation’s psyche; the ubiquity of Hollywood entertainment means that these then have wider international currency (1984, 16). In the current context, it is the ideals of community enshrined in Hollywood’s depictions of the small town that are of interest. In this article I will therefore examine the depictions of small towns in a number of Hollywood films from the 1940s, to attempt to describe some of the ideals of community that were shaping (and reflecting) the community attitudes that would underlie the post-war suburban boom. Two points are of particular interest. Firstly, what are some of the common physical and social characteristics of the communities as depicted in these films? And secondly, what can we glean from the films about the attitudes to community and suburbanisation that existed at the dawn of the suburban age?

Two films are of particular interest in framing this discussion. The first is Our Town (Sam Wood, 1940), based on Thornton Wilder’s play from 1938. As both MacKinnon and Eugene Levy argue in their respective studies of small town films, the 1930s saw a proliferation of particularly sympathetic portrayals of small-town life, with the Depression prompting a romanticisation of traditional values and rural lifestyles in response to the perceived failure of urbanisation and industrialisation (MacKinnon 1984, 9; Levy 1990, 66-67). Wilder’s play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, appeared towards the end of this cycle of works and its film adaptation appeared at the start of the 1940s sequence of small town films. The film therefore represents a very useful starting point, as a work that makes a determined claim to a status as a definitive depiction. Our Town’s deliberate authoritativeness is marked by many factors: the title; its omniscient birds-eye narration; the focus on typical “day-in-the-life” goings-on; the humorously ultra-rational account of the town’s geographical and anthropological history; the narration’s insistence on the town as representative of many others; and the decade-spanning storyline. Equally interesting is It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), which has a strikingly similar sense of summation: it has been described variously as both a “culminating work” for Capra, and as an “ideological summation of an era” in Levy’s study of small town films (Maland 1980, 131; Levy 1990, 88). Whether by coincidence or design Capra’s film repeats many specific motifs from Our Town: the omniscient point of view, with the narrator manipulating the “playback” of events; characters who are resistant to embracing the commitments of domestic life; divine intervention allowing someone to view and reappraise their own life from the outside; and the climactic expression of a will to live. It also shares the earlier film’s strong thematic emphasis on the positives and negatives of small town life. Capra’s film, as will be discussed, is unusually explicit in its consideration not only of the attractions of small town life versus big city life, but also of its hero as a potential developer / urban planner (George Bailey declares he wants to “build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities”) whose actions shape a particularly malleable urban environment. It’s a Wonderful Life is also of note as the most widely revived and remembered of the 1940s small town films, due to the ongoing popularity of its star and director, and its status as a seasonal “standard”. [5] Its vision of the small town therefore remains one of the most culturally pervasive of Hollywood’s depictions. Turning to the questions posed above, we find that in both these films, and the other films considered – The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942), Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943), Meet Me in St Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944) – there is a high degree of consistency in the physical and social landscape of the imagined small town. Interestingly, however, the thematic approach to notions of community suggests a great deal of anxiety about such communities both in their historic form as small towns, and also as a model for future communities.

The Physical and Social Properties of Hollywood’s Small Towns

The recurring features of the depicted communities in Our Town and the other small town movies cited can be summarised as follows:

A distinct retail and social hub (particularly a Main Street).
Institutions prominently present in social hierarchies and architectural design.
Locally owned and socially integrated businesses.
Predominance of classical forms of architecture.
Fluid interface between the public and private realm.
A walkable community (compact physically).
An intimate and well connected community (compact socially).
A close link between town and country.
Family units as the essential building blocks of the community.
A population that has a multi-generational link with the community.
De-emphasis of cars and emphasis on various forms of non-car transport.
A period setting, or a sense of the place being “out of time.”

These points will be explained further and elaborated upon below.

A Distinct Retail and Social Hub (Particularly a Main Street)

“Running right through the middle of the town is Main Street,” declares the narrator, the druggist Mr Morgan, at the opening of Our Town.[6] The idea of a strongly defined commercial and social hub, usually in the form of a central shopping street but also present in other forms, such as a town square, is integrally associated with conceptions of small towns. “Main Street” can be identified and studied as a distinct notional place in itself, as historical geographer Richard Francaviglia has, notably in his book Main Street Revisited: Time Space and Image Building in Small-Town America. Francaviglia studies the role that various actual Main Streets play in real communities, as well as the influence of artificial Main Streets in literature, film, and historical / theme park recreations. Francaviglia notes the way in which Main Street becomes an icon closely equivalent to small towns themselves, and in particular one associated with nostalgia for small town life:

As it evolved in time and space, Main Street became the commercial and social heart of the American small town; as it developed in our collective thought, Main Street became an integral part of American culture. Because many people left small towns in the early to mid-twentieth century, these places became repositories of memories (1996, 130).

The Main Street is both a key ingredient in conceptions of the small town (as its commercial and social heart), and also as an iconic – in the semiotic sense of a part that stands for the whole – representation of the town. [7] In a design sense, too, Main Street also serves an important function in underlining the presence of a geographically centred community: this is not the dispersed, placeless built form of the suburbs. Main Street’s power as a signifier increases as real Main Streets become less familiar due to the populations leaving small towns (as Francavaglia suggests) and also as real examples become less common, displaced by other modes of retailing such as stand-alone car-oriented malls, “big box” retailing and highway-side shopping strips. The depiction of Main Street in these 1940s examples therefore deserves a particularly detailed consideration.

In Our Town, we see relatively little of Grover’s Corner’s Main Street, despite its prominent name-check in the opening lines of dialogue; the focus in this film is much more firmly on residential areas. Where Thornton Wilder’s stage play stipulated that no scenery should be used (strengthening the idea of Grover’s Corners as a generic and imagined place rather than a specific locale) (Wilder 1938, 9) [8], the film uses relatively elaborate backlot sets, but these are predominantly of houses and residential streets. Main Street is vaguely suggested in the distant aerial view of the town at the opening of the film, and there is one Main Street set: a shopfront for Morgan’s drug store, which we see most prominently as Morgan hosts us a scientific account of the town (from a professor and the town’s newspaper editor) and then later (from the interior) when it is the setting for the young couple Emily and George to discuss their future. In the discussion with the newspaper editor, the editor leans out of the upper storey window, but we see nothing else of the facade: this economising with sets means Our Town’s notional Main Street is largely constructed through editing and imagination rather than an actual physical construction or a visual depiction. The editing of the conversation between the druggist and newspaper editor establishes that these two important commercial enterprises are within extremely close proximity, but otherwise we see little of the physical setting of the Main Street. What we do see, however, establishes the sense of the street as an “old-fashioned” space: a few brief shots establish that the drug store’s Victorian shopfront is in extremely close proximity to the un-made street surface, behind large trees, and with a pitching post for horses in front (figure 1a). This latter point reflects Morgan’s dialogue at the start of the film describing the town in June, 1901: “Along Main Street there’s a row of stores with hitching posts and horse blocks in front of ’em. The first automobile is going to come along in about five years.” A later shot (figure 1b), as George and Emily enter the drug store, lets us see from the interior to the exterior: this shot shows us the prevailing Victorian architecture, and implies through the orientation of visible buildings that the drug store (and hence the newspaper building) actually faces an unseen town square. (The town square is the other prominent model for a community hub and serves essentially the same role as Main Street in films; however, it is somewhat less common and appears comparatively fleetingly in the films examined for this article) [9].


Figure 1: Drugstore Interior and Exterior, Our Town

Similarly curtailed views of Main Street are found in the predominantly residentially-set Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Meet Me in St. Louis. In Kings Row we see Main Street only in one scene, when Drake McHugh visits the bank: while only briefly seen, it is attractive and well populated, with a wide median (figure 16a) and a monument prominently erected at the centre of the street. In The Magnificent Ambersons Main Street is present through several long shots (see, for example, figure 5) and in close-up as George Minafer and Lucy Morgan discuss their estrangement; while the close-up scenes in particular give a sense of it as busy, there is little sense of Main Street as a distinct place in Welles’ film. Similarly, Meet Me in St. Louis features one scene – its most famous, the Trolley Song scene – on a Main Street that is shown most clearly through a brief scene at the trolley depot as the passengers gather to board the trolley, and then through largely obscured back-projection. Nevertheless, despite its brief appearance, the Main Street we see is clearly prosperous, with well-kept shopfronts and wide streets. [10] Compared to these period films (all set around the turn of the century), Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt makes an interesting comparison: like Meet Me in St Louis, it presents a cosy image of a small town through its depiction of leafy tree-lined streets with grand housing. However, its Main Street is the odd one out in the films studied here, being the only one that is both set at the date of production (1943) and also shot on real streets, in the actual town – named in the film – of Santa Rosa, California (Reeves 2006, 347-348; Neuman 2008, 89-90). Its street scenes (see figures 2a – 2d) are notable for a number of factors: unsurprisingly given the use of real streets, there is a strong sense of verisimilitude in its street scenes, and the streets are noticeably busier than in the other examples, in some shots feeling decidedly urban in their character. The establishing shot of Santa Rosa (figure 2a) gives a sense of the clash of small town versus urban iconography. Urban elements include the crowdedness of the streets, dominance of cars, and the subservience of pedestrians to vehicle traffic: pedestrians cross as directed by traffic police. However, there are also still comforting elements of the small town community in this shot: the classically inspired architecture, prominent civic buildings, the inviting streetscape element of the verandah framing the shot, and the reassuring presence of the local policeman (who is picked out through close-ups at several points through the film). Later, as Charlie and her uncle walk to the bank, we get a brief shot of a town square fronted by civic buildings (figure 2b) and a long view of the streetscape showing a street level vibrancy but also urban elements such as the high billboard style signage visible in the background and a disproportionately wide vehicle carriageway (figure 2c). An early shot showing the family driving to the station to pick up Uncle Charlie (figure 2d) underlines the sense of a small town teetering on the edge of urbanisation: this shot – which pans right to reveal the railroad station – gives a strong sense of the size of the town, with the railroad station apparently on the town’s fringe and a Main Street receding to a town centre distantly visible in the background. It should be noted that all these elements are contextualised by their contrast with particularly seedy urbanism (see figure 18) earlier in the film and the aforementioned attractiveness of the residential precincts; furthermore, Dimitri Tiomkin’s jaunty musical cues emphasise the positive aspects (vibrancy, excitement) of the Main Street rather than any negative connotations. The predominant view is therefore still of a Main Street that represents a social hub and civic centre, rather than a degenerated, urban style “downtown”.


Figure 2: Main Street, Shadow of a Doubt

Preston Sturges’ wartime comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek also depicts a noticeably bustling town centre, although here Sturges’ intent is humorous, emphasising the way the town has been overrun by soldiers and (through his consistently busy compositions) creating a general sense of comic hubbub. Sturges, however, was using a back lot: his town is Paramount’s back lot street set, which had been used in other films during the 1930s, and (probably apocryphal) accounts suggest Sturges wrote the film partly to save the set from demolition (Neuman 2008, 92-93). While Sturges’ approach to the material is aggressively comedic and subversive in tone (with its emphasis on scandal and its provocative plot about an unmarried mother), the film is notable for the loving attention it gives the small town environment. Sturges stages several long dialogue scenes that unfold over extended tracking shots that follow characters through the backlot set, and these scenes are rich in detail of Morgan Creek’s Street Life. A particularly good example occurs as Trudy and Emmy Kockenlocker discuss Trudy’s scandalous pregnancy while walking through the centre of town. In one lengthy shot, the camera follows the pair from the lawyer’s office, past a series of wooden buildings that would not look out of place on a western set (figure 3a), attractive shopfronts, a miniature town square consisting of a planted median with seating and a small rotunda, and more substantial brick buildings. As they walk, the pair pass various bits of small-town “colour:” a street vendor (figure 3b), shoe-shiner (figure 3c), a policeman chatting to an attractive woman, and a street cleaner (the last three figures all in figure 3c). Despite Sturges’ satirical tone throughout the film, the overwhelming impression in its presentation of the Main Street is of a vibrant, functional community hub.


Figure 3: Street Activity Details, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – probably the best-remembered of the mid-twentieth century depictions of small town life – offers a similarly rich back lot Main Street. The film was shot on a three block long purpose-built set on RKO’s ranch in Encino, California (Willian 2006, 6; Neuman 2008, 95). The Main Street (Genesee Street) is shown at various time periods: first in 1919; then prominently shown again as it exist in the late 1920s and early 1930s; and finally as it exists in 1945. (It also appears as “Pottersville,” an alternate urbanised version of the town, in the fantasy sequence, but the implications of this form of the street will be discussed later.) We are first shown the street in the flashback to 1919, when the young George Bailey is working at the drugstore: as in Our Town, the drugstore is shown as a centre for socialising where sodas, milkshakes and sundaes are enjoyed, and romances blossom. Later, in the 1928 sequence, the drugstore is shown as particularly busy and well-patronised (figure 7). The street itself is wide, bound by one and (predominantly) two storey buildings, generally of loosely Victorian appearance, along each side. It has an avenue of established trees along the centre, with seating installed (figure 4a); this recalls both the two-lane avenue seen in Kings Row (figure 16a) and the similar centre-of-the-street seating shown in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. While cars are present on the street in all the sequences, the street remains a pedestrian dominated space: in the first shot of the street, George and his friends hold up a car by linking arms as they walk along the street (figure 4a), and in other scenes characters freely walk along the roadway (figure 4b). Capra sets enough action on the street, and frames enough of his shots to prominently feature the businesses in the background, that it is possible establish the tenancies for most of the three-block set. As reconstructed by Michael Willian, on one side the street features the sporting goods store (where George Bailey picks up his bag at the start of the 1928 sequence), an antique shop, a bakery, “Bedford House” (presumably a boarding house), a florist / beauty shop, barber, telegram office, emporium, bank dance academy, a café, and library. The other side of the street features a candy shop, art store, music store, theatre, Gower’s drug store, The Bailey Building and Loan, a butcher, newspapers office, tailors, bicycle shop, garage, and a bowling alley/pool hall. At one end Genesee Street is terminated by a cross-street, which features civic buildings, such as the courthouse (which faces up Geneesee Street), gas company, telephone exchange and police station (Willian 2006, 8-9). The intersection of these two streets is marked by a monument and a small circular garden that transforms this into a miniature town square (figures 4c and 4d; these are part of the same shot, with the camera panning left from the frame 4c to that at 4d). The basic layout of a circular ceremonial garden within a street intersection is very close to the circle-in-a-square “Philadelphia” plans used in some real American towns, and which was later an inspiration for the layout of Disneyland’s Main Street USA (Francaviglia 1996, 97-100). This end of the street also houses the library building on the opposite corner, and its role as a civic precinct is underlined by its use as the setting for the Homecoming celebration in honour of Harry Bailey. The street therefore is shown to include both a bustling retail precinct and a more ceremonial civic area: while viewers of the film are unlikely to put together this geography of while watching the film, the overall effect of this attention to detail is a remarkably convincing portrait of a functioning and attractive town centre.

Figure 4: Genesee Street details, It’s a Wonderful Life

It is especially interesting to compare Capra’s Bedford Falls with Hitchcock’s Santa Rosa from Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock’s film, as noted, presents a particularly realistic Main Street: the buildings and streets are genuine, and in many of the longer shots, it seems likely that much of the background action consists of genuine passers by (since some shots, such as that in figure 2c, would have required closing multiple city blocks if the production had attempted to control the entire street). There is therefore an almost documentary-like sense of realism in these street scenes, and to some extent the realism cuts against the portrait of Santa Rosa as a sleepy haven of old-fashioned values that is established in the rest of the film. In Capra’s film, there is enormous attention to the layout of the town, with a great deal of set detailing and background action dedicated to selling the community as real. At the same time, however, that extent of stage-managing allows the town to be unfailingly picturesque (excepting, obviously, the Pottersville scenes), and through design and necessity the street and buildings are of a more intimate scale than Santa Rosa streets (compare the street in figure 4a with that in figure 2c, or the square and courthouse in figure 4c with that in figure 2b). The resultant street scenes create an imaginary town that in many ways is more persuasive, and with more distinctive character as distinct “place,” than Hitchcock’s more reality-based Santa Rosa Main Street. It’s a Wonderful Life (and, to a lesser extent, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) emphasises the ability of a fully controlled back-lot set to create a “realer-than-real” archetypal environment. In his study of classical Hollywood set design, Juan Antonio Ramírez quotes production designer William Cameron Menzies on this idea:

…if, for example, you film a romantic place [on location] like a picturesque European street, you can achieve an exact reproduction – but that will still be minus the atmosphere, texture, and colour. So it’s always better to replace it with a set [erected in the studio] which gives the impression of the street, as it exists in your mind, slightly romanticized, simplified, and overly textured (2004, 86).

It’s a Wonderful Life’s Genesee Street is a particularly compelling example of this principle; it as at once so attractive and persuasive – so full of “atmosphere, texture and colour” – that it approaches the ideal of what architect Paul Goldberger (speaking of Disneyland’s Main Street USA) has called a “universally true” Main Street (Francaviglia 1996, 160).

Institutions Prominently Present in Social Hierarchies and Architectural Design

The presence of a prominent civic precinct (comprising courthouse, library, police station and utility buldings) in Bedford Falls raises the importance of civic and religious institutions and their buildings in the archetypal small town. This is emphasised by the Morgan’s description of Grover’s Corners at the start of Our Town:

Running right through the middle of the town is Main Street. Cutting across Main Street on the left is the railroad tracks. Beyond the railroad tracks is Polish town; you know, foreign folks who come here to work in the mills, a couple of Canuck families, and the Catholic church. You can see the steeple of the Congregational church; the Presbyterian is just across the street. The Methodist and the Unitarian are up a block. The Baptist church is down in the hollow, by the river. Next to the post office is the town hall. Jail’s in the basement. [William Jennings] Bryan once made a speech right from those very steps. It’s a nice town, know what I mean?

This succinct description of the layout of the town as anchored by its civic facilities (post office, town hall, jail, railway station) and religious institutions (six churches, four specifically identified as within about a block of each other near the centre of town) emphasises the importance of such institutions in framing the community. The prominent role of religious institutions on this list is notable for reinforcing the emphasis on traditional and conservative values (we later learn the town is 86% Republican), and would be of interest to critics focussing on Althusserian notions of the role institutions play in perpetuating ideological frameworks (Althusser 1994, 151-162). This is not, however, my focus here. The presence and proximity of all these institutions (religious and civic) is instead of interest primarily for their role as centres of community engagement and participation. Decreased involvement in community activities is an often-cited failure of the retreat to dispersed, privatised suburban lifestyles: as Mumford put it in 1938 – co-incidentally the same year Wilder’s play was published – suburbs represent “a collective effort to live a private life” (1938, 215). Intriguingly, while declining community participation is often identified as a post-1950s (and hence post suburbia, post-television) phenomenon, Robert D. Putnam’s study of community engagement suggests many measures of social participation – church attendance, for example, as well as membership in chapter based associations, the PTA, unions, and professional associations – showed similar slumps also occurred during the 1930s, as communities were buffeted by the Depression, before rising again in the 1940s and then dropping away again after the 1950s (Putnam 2001, 54, 57, 70-71, 81, 84). This suggests that there may have been some recent impetus for nostalgia for the participatory communities of earlier days even in the early 1940s, and particularly in 1938 when Our Town first appeared as a play. Regardless of the cause for such nostalgia, a strongly defined and localised presence of civic institutions is a meaning-laden trait of the archetypal small town, symbolising a close-knit community and a strong social order.

As suggested by the above monologue, the church plays a particularly strong role in Our Town. The wedding of George Gibbs and Emily Webb is a central sequence, and the church is one of the few non-residential buildings we see in Grover’s Corners. The church is also a centre of socialising and gossip; a subplot concerns the interest of the town’s women in the drinking problem of the church organist, and his eventual suicide. The context in which the church appears reinforces my suggestion that it is less important, here, as a source of religious and moral guidance (the drunkenness of the organist and the uncompassionate response of the townsfolk make that clear). Instead, the church acts as a source of community cohesion, both as a gathering place for socialising and as the socially sanctioned means for couples to form unions. Where in daily urban and suburban life it is increasingly common for socialising to be centred on the workplace, in Our Town we never see any characters’ place of employment, with a few very telling exceptions: Morgan is shown at work in his drugstore, but this is itself a community hub; we see the newspaper office only from the street, a place of public interaction; and we see several characters – the newspaper boy and the milkman – whose workplace is the street. [12] The other films studied for this article share this de-emphasis of places of workplace socialising in favour of concentrating on the institutions that define the town physically and socially. In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we see community celebrations in the church basement and at the country club. A similar party occurs at the local high school in It’s a Wonderful Life where George and Mary start their romance. Those people we see at their place of employment are usually involved in enterprises that are involved one way or other in linking or building the community: newspaper offices are shown in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and, as mentioned, externally in Our Town; and we see a lawyer’s office in Kings Row and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. (The father in Meet Me in St. Louis is also a lawyer, but we never see his workplace, in accordance with the film’s extremely strong focus on the domestic sphere). Banks also figure prominently: the family patriarch is employed at a bank in It’s a Wonderful Life and Shadow of a Doubt, as is the aspirational patriarch Norval in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; scenes take place in the bank in all three films. Drake McHugh also visits the towns’ bank in Kings Row; the plot-line in which he is ruined by a bank scandal and turns to property development anticipates It’s a Wonderful Life, and both films emphasise the importance of the bank in the welfare of the community.

The importance of all these community institutions is emphasised by their prominent featuring in the films and their close physical integration into the fabric of the town. As noted, the geography of Grover’s Corners in Our Town is laid out in terms of the location of churches and other civic buildings. We later see a shot of an impressive schoolhouse, standing on what seems to be a hill outside of town; likewise the opening shots of Kings Row show us that town’s school. Banks have prominent positions on the Main Streets in It’s a Wonderful Life, Kings Row, Shadow of a Doubt and The Magnificent Ambersons (in which it is one of the only Main Street buildings we clearly see – although a long shot also shows a prominent civic building, probably a town hall, facing down the street, see figure 5). Shadow of a Doubt’s streetscape also features what is probably a town hall (figure 2b), and the town has a particularly attractive ivy-covered public library. As already discussed, It’s a Wonderful Life’s Genesee Street terminates in a town hall and a miniature civic precinct; in a similar fashion, the Main Street in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek terminates in the newspaper building and a fire station (figure 6). In Hail the Conquering Hero, made by Sturges in the same year and using the same Main Street set, a church sits in this position (Neuman 2008, 93).


Figure 5: Main Street, The Magnificent Ambersons


Figure 6: Main Street, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Locally Owned and Socially Integrated Businesses

I have already noted the prominence of the drugstore as a social centre in both Our Town and It’s a Wonderful Life. The drugstore takes the role for meeting and socialising that might be fulfilled by either a coffee shop or a bar in more recent films, but without the negative connotations of the somewhat seedy bars we see in the Pottersville sequence of It’s a Wonderful Life, or in Shadow of a Doubt. Indeed, as Nezar AlSayyad points out, the drugstore is notable in the film as a social space that brings children and adults together (2006, 87). It is a safe, socially acceptable place for boys and girls to meet and thus be initiated into the social rituals of courtship and dating: it is in the drugstore that Mary and Violet first compete for the attention of George Bailey, and in Our Town it is in the drugstore that George Gibbs and Emily Webb discuss their future. In It’s a Wonderful Life, particularly, the drugstore is seen as a bustling, wildly popular venue for young and old alike, with people crammed around tables and at piled up at the bar (see figure 7). Crucially, both druggists are known by name – Morgan in Our Town, Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life – and are seen to be well-recognised by the townsfolk. They also know their customers well, to the point where Morgan doesn’t hesitate to let George leave the store without paying for his drinks. (Even when George offers to leave his watch as surety and come back with the money in five minutes, Morgan insists that won’t be necessary: “I’ll trust you for ten years.”) This kind of one-on-one relationship with local retailers recurs throughout the small town films studied, and stands in contrast to most modern experience of retailing. Shops are shown as locally owned, by a recognisable storekeeper, as opposed to the multi-national or chain branding that dominates retailing today. Where retail signage in modern shopping centres tends to identify only an established brand, which is trusted to communicate function (eg “Borders,” not “Borders Books”), signage on the depicted Main Streets is overwhelmingly directed to identifying an owner’s name and the store’s function: hence along Genesee Street we have Gower Drugs (visible in figure 7), Peterson’s Tailer Shop, Violet’s Beauty Shop, Jenkins Art Store, and so on. (An example of such signage from The Magnificent Ambersons can be seen in figure 9, and function-only signage – “Pharmacy” – is visible in figure 6, from Miracle of Morgan’s Creek).


Figure 7: Drugstore as a social centre in It’s a Wonderful Life

This identification of owners is one example of the way in which business owners are integrated into, and well known by, the community. So in Shadow of a Doubt the whole family knows Mrs Henderson from the postal union office; while in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek a passerby knows that the soldiers will be able to find the attractive – and, it is implied, available and promiscuous – Trudy Kockenlocker at the music store. The passer-by also knows that Trudy is the policeman’s daughter. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey has a strong personal relationship not only with Gower the druggist but also the owner of the luggage store, and bar-owner Martini. George also has a close relationship with his customers at the Bailey Building and Loan. The whole film turns on this point, when at the conclusion many of his customers come to his aid, but George’s close relationship is demonstrated earlier in the film by the way he addresses them when there is a run on deposits: as he pleads with customers not to panic and sink the business, he refers by name to “Charlie,” “Joe,” “Randall,” “Ed,” “Tom,” “Mrs Thompson,” and “Mrs Davis” (as well as the houses belonging to “Mrs Maitland” and “The Kennedys”) and can cite details of their individual financial circumstances. He also echoes Morgan’s actions in Our Town by not asking for paperwork as he gives out loans from his own money: “You don’t have to sign anything; I know you, you pay it when you can, that’s okay.” Even Bailey’s rival Potter, the symbol in the film of the hard-nosed and uncaring businessman, is well known to the community (although he makes a point of not knowing them).

Another striking example of social integration of local business people is seen by the various figures whose place of business is the street and the home. This is most striking in Our Town, where in the opening minutes we are introduced to Joe Crowell delivering the papers, Howie Newsome the milkman, and Doc Gibbs returning from a house-call to deliver twins. The doctor chats to both Crowell and Newsome, exchanging community news (the marriage of Joe’s teacher, the birth of the Polish twins) with each. Howie Newsome’s relationship with his customers is shown as particularly intimate: his horse stops out of habit at particular houses even after they have ceased delivery, and Howie enters the houses of his customers (whom he addresses by name) to place milk directly into their iceboxes (figure 8). In Meet Me in St. Louis, Mr Neely the ice man has the same problem with his horse having memorised his route, and knows the family well enough to take the 5-year-old Tootie along on his deliveries. In addition to Doc Gibbs in Our Town, doctors are also shown making house calls in Meet Me in St. Louis and in Kings Row. As in Our Town, the various doctors we see in Kings Row (Dr Gordon, Dr Tower, and in the latter parts of the film Parris Mitchell) are seen as deeply embedded in the social fabric of the town, with the good Mitchell and Dr Tower fighting the corrupting influence of the malignant Dr Gordon. In It’s a Wonderful Life we get further prominent examples of the on-street community with Bert the policeman and Ernie the cab driver, both of whom know George Bailey by name and who collaborate on the staging of his romantic wedding night. All these figures contribute to the sense of a residential population closely interweaved socially with the community’s businesses, and where socialising occurs in business spaces and business occurs in social spaces.


Figure 8: Deliveries to the icebox in Our Town.

Predominance of Classical Forms of Architecture

The architecture of the depicted small towns emphasises stability and traditional values. On Main Street, it takes the form of a domination of Victorian architectural styles, particularly more formal designs such as elaborate Italianate shopfronts, or classically inspired civic buildings (figures 2 and 5). Richard Francavaglia notes that in the United States shopfront design “came of age” in the mid 1840s to 1850s, with increased mobility allowing increased awareness of European design styles, and improved technology (plate glass) allowing much larger windows for the display of goods (1996, 23-26). He argues that the emergence of this style at this time then solidified a more unified, formal style on typical Main Streets:

Whereas many earlier (pre 1850) buildings on Main Street were vernacular in design and a few reflected high styling, things changed rapidly when trained architects entered the picture. Most new buildings on Main Street were now likely to be formal in style and more standardized in construction, for high-style fads or trends were promoted in journals and magazines that became commonplace after about 1870. By the mid-nineteenth century, Victorian Italianate and Gothic styling influenced all types of buildings – residential, institutional, and commercial. Victorian styles superseded earlier styles such as the Greek Revival by the late 1860s, and the 1870s witnessed the nearly complete acceptance of Victorian styling for commercial architecture… It is this wholesale acceptance of Italianate commercial style architecture that gives Main Street such a recognizable identity by the late nineteenth century (1996, 24-26).

The ubiquity of the Victorian shopfront on real American Main Streets was increased by the retrofitting in the late nineteenth century of earlier buildings with catalogue-ordered false shopfronts, and a general standardisation of design sweeping the country during a period of early industrialisation and prosperity. In the films studied there is some diversity with regards to elaboration and materials, but variations of the large-windowed, formally designed Victorian shopfront can be seen throughout the films studied (see figures 1a, 1b, 4b, 6, and 9). In film, the use of such a style obviously simply reflects in part the reality of these constructions, particularly for the examples set at the turn of the century. However – as the real California street landscape of Shadow of a Doubt streetscape seen in figure 2 hints – such street forms were under pressure by the mid twentieth century, as building technologies changed, and as cars altered both the way the street was viewed, and the way it needed to be laid out physically (to allow for parking, vehicle carriageways, and the like). [14] The dominance of particularly fine examples of such streetscapes therefore carries an element of nostalgia and reassurance. It should also be noted that in the case of the back lot streets in Our Town, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and It’s a Wonderful Life, the Victorian shopfront has a pragmatic advantage in that the style is based on a dominant facade that conceals the roof form behind, and which is constructed boundary-to-boundary: this makes it an ideal template for set construction, since only one face of a building generally needs to be built.


Figure 9. Shopfront with Italianate detailing and large windows, from The Magnificent Ambersons.

As Francaviglia notes, such Victorian styling can also be seen in residential architecture in small town films, although here there is more variation: residential precincts are less formalised and more variable spaces than Main Streets. However, most prominent are Victorian and Edwardian examples, with associated architectural adornments such as turrets, dormers, bay windows, canopies, and verandahs (see examples in figure 10).[15] Detached family homes are the overwhelmingly favoured housing model, and they also tend to be, by modern standards, extremely spacious: in Meet Me in St. Louis the children complain of having to move to New York and being “cooped up in tenements,” and well they might given the lavish accommodation on evidence in these examples. The houses are usually two storey and set on relatively large grounds, with ample setbacks from the street (although there are exceptions: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, for example, shows houses with a more intimate relationship with the street: see figure 11c). Architectural harmony is a consistent feature of the residential areas shown: while there is some variation in architectural styles across examples, there is a general consistency of architectural styles evident on the streetscapes within the examples. This is of note because it shows streetscapes resisting trends away from such stylistic uniformity. In the first half of the twentieth century mass-production of kit houses had eroded the notion of localised architectural traditions, and led to an eclectic variation along streetscapes in emerging suburban communities as owners chose pre-fabricated versions of the traditional styles of their choice (Hayden 2003, 106-110, 116). [16] Such chaotic streetscapes are not in evidence in the films studied, which evoke earlier patterns of development through their depiction of harmonious streetscapes bound together by a common architectural style. As illustrated in the examples in figure 11, streetscapes are also generally wide, lined by mature trees, with houses having either low timber picket fences or no fences at all. The timber picket fence is significant in marking property boundaries in a manner that does not seek to aggressively exclude the private space beyond from the public realm; indeed, the adoption of the common fencing material means that the fence itself becomes a contribution to the shared streetscape architecture. Exceptions, such as the iron pickets for Dr Tower’s residence in Kings Row or the high front fence for the Ambersons’ mansion in The Magnificent Ambersons, tend to be revealing of character: these are figures who see themselves as above the community, or who wish to keep the community at a distance. Gardens are well tended and attractive. Residential streets are places of activity, with children in particular playing in the street and in the front yards of houses. Together these elements typify an ideal of the residential street that can still be seen in film and television (for example, in the street scenes of a television program such as Desperate Housewives), as an ideal for both small town and suburban streets.


Figure 10: Housing


Figure 11: Residential Streets

Fluid Interface between the Public and Private Realm

As suggested by the preceding discussion, these small town films show the street as an active and inviting space in both residential and commercial precincts. This is reflected by the way that domestic spaces interact with public spaces; the boundary between the public and realm and private realm is constantly shown as fluid. In the residential sphere, for example, much use is made of transitional spaces such as front yards and verandahs as a setting for action. These spaces (particularly verandahs) are notable for being private, domestic spaces, but ones which are actively conducive to involvement in public life and enjoyment of the activity occurring on the street. In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, in particular, Preston Sturges stages a great deal of important action on verandahs: for example, Norval and Trudy discussing their engagement, and Norval’s conversation with Trudy’s father as he cleans his gun. In Meet Me in St. Louis Vincente Minnelli’s fluid camerawork shows the way a party spills between exterior and interior by starting on the verandah (figure 12a) and moving in a single shot through the door into the interior space (figure 12b), underlining the permeable nature of the public / private interface. Earlier in the film we see the potential for verandahs as a social space when Esther and Rose admire their neighbour and attempt to be seen by him (underlining that verandahs are a space for display, as well as simply surveillance; see figure 13). In It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey discovers the perils of the private surveillance of the public realm when he is heckled by a verandah-bound resident for his clumsy courtship of Mary. Characters are also shown interacting with characters outside their houses from their windows. Most prominently, in Our Town, George Gibbs and Emily Webb talk about their homework from house to house; in other examples, Parris addresses Drake from the street to an upper storey window in Kings Row, as George Bailey does to Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life.


Figure 12: From exterior to interior, Meet Me in St. Louis


Figure 13: Domestic verandah as a space for social display, Meet Me in St. Louis

Commercial buildings show similar traits. As already noted, the Victorian shopfront is characterised by its large window to address the street. While the primary purpose of such a large window is of course for display of goods, it also serves a purpose in linking the interior of shops and offices to the public life occurring out on the street. Given the complications of constructing sets and staging action so that exteriors are visible from the interior, it is conspicuous how much trouble the directors in these films take to stage scenes in a manner that shows the street life occurring outside. Such depictions are sometimes very rudimentary, as in Our Town (figure 1b), but in other cases sets have been deliberately constructed alongside the standing street set to allow interaction between interiors and exteriors. It’s a Wonderful Life’s Genesee Street features three shop sets constructed adjacent to the backlot street: in addition to the drugstore (figure 7) there is also the sporting goods / luggage shop (figure 14) and the bank. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek also features three interiors with visible exteriors: the music store (figure 15), the newspaper office, and the bank. In Kings Row our best view of the town’s Main Street is through the door of the bank (figure 16a). While in the bank Drake McHugh takes the president’s chair and shows off to Randy Monaghan, thereby explicitly addressing the exterior space (figure 16b). All these scenes highlight the semi-public nature of these interior spaces: the businesses address the street and the spaces along each side of the Main Street become a transitional space that form a continuum with the civic space outside. This reinforces the previously discussed role of the local retailing as part of the community, and their close physical integration on the Main Street (as opposed to a remote, privatised location such as a shopping mall.)


Figure 14: Shop with visible exterior, It’s a Wonderful Life


Figure 15: Music Store, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek


Figure 16: Interaction between interior and exterior, Kings Row

A Walkable Community (Compact Physically)

I have already noted the pedestrian friendliness of most Main Streets depicted in these films, the level of street activity evident in residential areas, and the close link between businesses and the community that is evident. All of these factors point to the physical compactness of the towns depicted, in which residents can walk to their friend’s houses, institutions such as churches and schools, and the Main Street. Throughout these films, it is striking how many scenes are staged with characters walking through their community. In Our Town, George walks Emily home, and in another scene to the drugstore. Doc Gibbs walks home from Polish town after delivering twins, and the women of the church choir walk home by themselves after dark. In Kings Row, Drake and Parris first bond over an afternoon spent roaming the town. In Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie and her uncle seem to walk from their home to the bank; Charlie also walks around town with detective Jack Graham. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George and Mary walk home from the school dance. I have already discussed one of the several scenes in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek where characters walk around town, but another particularly interesting scene is that in which Norval and Trudy walk to the cinema: in one unbroken three minute shot, they go from typical picket-fence residential street (figure 17a) to the movie theatre on the typical Main Street (figure 17b), making quite explicit a physical proximity that is usually only implied. A similar single shot transition from residential to commercial precincts occurs in The Magnificent Ambersons as George and Lucy discuss their future while travelling by horse and cart; although the characters are not on foot in this instance, Welles’ unbroken shot serves a similar purpose of showing the close proximity of the two precincts. The emphasis on walking emphasises the compactness of the towns depicted, and strengthens the impression of a strong community. Walkability is closely connected with the idea of social connectedness, since the presence of people on the street, combined with the previously discussed physical attributes that activate the public realm, means that streets become social spaces rather than purely functional circulation spaces.


Figure 17: Walking to the movies, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

An Intimate and Well-Connected Community (Compact Socially)

Many of the points already discussed have noted the importance of social interconnectedness and familiarity to the depiction of the small town, with retailers knowing their customers intimately, and so on. This one-on-one connectedness emphasises the small scale of the communities in question (the population of Our Town’s Grover’s Corners, for example, is explicitly stated to be 2642). In addition to the aspects of interpersonal familiarity already discussed, two other points are worth making that underline the sense of the town’s population comprising as an identifiable, unified community (rather than people being part of a larger undifferentiated mass of residents, as might occur in a suburb). The first notable point is the downside to social interconnectedness, with the power of gossip being a recurring theme. In Our Town, it is implied that the organist has taken his life at least partly because of the gossip of the congregation. In The Magnificent Ambersons the townsfolk are seen gossiping about George Minafer and hoping for his downfall. In Kings Row both Dr Tower and Dr Morgan are motivated at various points by the desire to hide the hysteria of their daughters. Good-time girl Violet feels the need to leave town in It’s a Wonderful Life after, it is hinted, one personal scandal too many. Similarly, the plot of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is propelled by Trudy Kockenlocker’s fear of public shaming after she becomes pregnant but can’t remember who she married. All these points show the negative side of small town life, but they still underline the sense of community: the gossip would not exist, or at least not have the same power, in the anonymity of the suburbs. A more positive aspect of the sense of community interconnectedness is the emphasis on communal celebration: events that bring much of the community together to mark events together. Such occasions include the dance at the school in It’s a Wonderful Life, Harry Bailey’s homecoming ceremony in the same film, and the dances for the troops in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. In addition to this, there are the large domestic parties we see in Meet Me in St. Louis and The Magnificent Ambersons: the latter, in particular, is noted as “the last of the great long-remembered dances that everybody talked about,” suggesting the departure of the days in which an event held by a single family can be remembered as an important occasion for a whole community.

A Close Link between Town and Country

The idea of compactness, both physical and social, reinforces the sense of the town’s clearly defined geographic identity. Unlike suburbs, which tend to bleed into each other with a continuous built form, small towns such as those depicted in these films can be distinguished by a change at their boundaries to non-urban forms. In practice, in the American small town movie, that non-urban form is a rural setting. A close link to rural landscapes emphasises the desirable proximity to the countryside that cities and suburbs lack (harking back to the ideal of a balance of community and accessed to nature embodied by conceptions such as Howard’s “Three Magnets”); while a link to rural lifestyles evokes a nostalgic sense of simpler times and old-fashioned values. Our Town underlines Grover’s Corners’ rural situation through its framing device: Morgan narrates the film from a hilltop overlooking the town, giving a clear visual sense of its location in the countryside. In keeping with the film’s economical but very communicative use of sets, the hilltop sports a dilapidated boundary fence and a smattering of trees, evoking both farmland and a genteel form of wilderness. Morgan further underlines the town’s closeness to farmland by contrasting the townsfolk’s sleeping habits with those of the rural workers in its hinterland:

The only lights on in the town are in a cottage over on Polish town where a mother’s just giving birth to twins, and down in the depot where Shorty Hawkins is just getting ready to flag the 5:45 to Boston… Of course, naturally out in the country all around there have been lights on for some time, what with milking and so on, but townsfolk sleep late.

While a contrast is drawn between the farmers and the townsfolk here, the proximity between the two is nevertheless underlined, and dawn is still marked by a rooster crowing. In Kings Row, the rural context is instead emphasised through scenes that highlight the availability of rural landscapes for healthy recreation: Drake McHugh’s vitality prior to losing his legs is communicated largely by his fondness for buggy rides into the country, and a number of scenes take place in the idyllic countryside around the town. The film particularly emphasises the countryside as a location for romance. In the opening scenes the young Parris Mitchell and Cassandra Tower play together along a stream, and as adults both Drake and Parris have romantic encounters in the countryside around the town (Drake with the Ross twins and later Randy Monaghan, and Parris with Cassandra and Elise Sandor). A similar trip through the countryside is shown in The Magnificent Ambersons, when George Minafer’s buggy encounters Eugene’s car in the snow-covered landscape just out of town. Again the sequence emphasises both wholesome outdoor activities (the occupants of the two vehicles laugh and frolic in the snow) and romance (George steals an awkward kiss from Lucy after they fall off their buggy). There is, however, something of a bitter edge to the sequence, and the pressures on the rural landscape are hinted at by the spluttering smoke from Eugene’s car (the spoiling of the landscape by cars is a recurring theme to which I shall return).

It’s a Wonderful Life echoes the themes evident in these earlier films. It, too, shows the landscape around town as a site for youthful adventure, with the first scene in Bedford Falls showing George and Harry Bailey, as children, tobogganing with their friends in the woods. Even in this early sequence, however, there is a subtle foreshadowing of the potential loss of the rural land: a sign behind George Bailey reads “No Trespassing – Henry F. Potter,” implying that this is the land that will become the Potter’s Field housing estate. This almost subliminal hint that the land development on which the plot turns is eating up the rural land around town is made more explicit later in the film, when Potter’s rent collector describes how the site of George Bailey’s housing development had been fifteen years earlier: “squirrels, buttercups, daisies – I used to hunt rabbits there myself.” Even as he helps contribute to the town’s growth, however, George Bailey clings to the ideal of the town as a rural haven, and shares the predilection of Drake McHugh in Kings Row for using the countryside as a site for seduction. After telling his mother (of all people) that he is off to “find a girl and do a little passionate necking” he meets the sexually aggressive Violet in the centre of town and suggests they “make a night of it.” His idea of the night is steeped in appreciation of the enjoyment of the natural environment:

Let’s go out in the fields and take off our shoes and walk through the grass… Then we can go up to the falls; it’s beautiful up there in the moonlight. And there’s a green pool up there, and we can, ah – swim in it. And then we can climb Mount Bedford, and smell the pines, and watch the sun rise against the peaks, and we’ll stay up there the whole night, and everybody’ll be talking, and there’ll be a terrific scandal!

Violet, although initially keen, is at first puzzled and then aghast at George’s suggested activities: “Why, it’s ten miles up to Mount Bedford!” Robert Beuka has argued that this scene shows that George is “clinging to his nostalgic vision of a primarily rural Bedford Falls” and is largely oblivious to the changes that have come across the town since his childhood. I will return to this idea of the town being under pressure from development, but more important here is George’s attitude to the countryside, rather than whether or not that landscape has already been spoiled. Violet’s concern is not so much how far away the grass is: she is appalled at the very concept, which underlines her romantic unsuitability for the more whimsical George. Yet George, always the human embodiment of everything that is best about Bedford Falls, understands the importance of the town’s rural hinterland to the community. Despite the film’s wider difficulty reconciling the competing aims of affordable housing and preservation of the environment, George’s speech underlines the importance of a pastoral setting to the idealised small town.

Family Units as the Essential Building Blocks of the Community

The scene between George and Violet immediately precedes his visit to the more responsible Mary Hatch; his marriage to Mary is the primary narrative expression of George’s embrace of a domestic life and responsibility. This key turning point underlines the primacy of family groupings in structuring society in these small town films. This is of interest because of the particular importance of family housing in post-World War II suburbia developments. While families have long held a central role in the structuring of societies, the ad-hoc construction of traditional cities and towns ensured a variety of housing types, including smaller apartments to cater for different household sizes. Mass-produced suburbs, however, entrench the family as the key social structure in their very fabric through the embrace of multi-bedroom detached houses on large grounds as their basic unit of construction: suburbia is made up of little other than family housing. The resulting monoculture is one of the key criticisms of the suburban model of urban development, and is criticised for isolating the very families whose needs it is supposed to serve. As Lewis Mumford puts it:

Instead of centering attention on the child in the garden, we now have the image of “Families in Space.” For the wider the scattering of the population, the greater the isolation of the individual household, and the more effort it takes to do privately, even with the aid of many machines and automatic devices, what used to be done in company often with conversation, song, and the enjoyment of the physical presence of others.

The perils of such social isolation are often underestimated in traditional suburban development because the social life is expected to occur primarily at home, in the family unit. Suburbs represent a structuring of the city based on the assumption that family is community.

This family-centric outlook is reflected in the films studied. Families are the window through which we view these communities, with the films centering on family groups: The Webbs and Gibbs in Our Town; the Ambersons / Minafers in The Magnificent Ambersons; the Newtons in Shadow of a Doubt; the Smiths in Meet Me in St. Louis; the Kockenlockers in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; and the Baileys in It’s a Wonderful Life. Only Kings Row, where the crucial relationship for the parentless Parris Mitchell is with the surrogate father figure of Dr Tower, bucks the trend somewhat (although an important subplot relates to the dysfunctional relationship between Dr Tower and his daughter). These family groups are the window through which we see the towns depicted, and as such, the fates of the families and towns are closely intertwined. In The Magnificent Ambersons, for example, the decline of the Amberson / Minafer family parallels the declining fortunes of the town, the wider shift to an industrial economy, and the resultant passing of a way of life. In Shadow of a Doubt the small town family is susceptible to the malign influence when Uncle Charlie arrives from Philadelphia; the family dynamics play out a wider collision of their small town values with his corrupting urban influence. The role of families in reconstructing the town by replicating the family structure from generation to generation is also foreground through an emphasis on inter-generational relationships and child-rearing. In most of the films we see three generations of the central family, and explore the lessons passed from one to the other (most directly in the paternal lectures delivered to George Bailey and George Gibbs by their fathers in It’s a Wonderful Life and Our Town). Children are much more prominent than in most Hollywood films, with significant time spent chronicling their activity and play in Our Town, Shadow of a Doubt, Meet Me in St. Louis, and It’s a Wonderful Life. In two of the films (Kings Row and It’s a Wonderful Life) we follow characters from childhood to marriage, and in Our Town we have a similar flash-forward from late adolescence to marriage and children. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek derives comedy from taking this reproductive obsession to its extreme, with the titular miracle being the birth of sextuplets. This emphasis not just on romantic coupling – which is ubiquitous in all Hollywood genres – but also on growth, intergenerational relationships, and having children, underlines the role of the family in constructing and reconstructing society.

By placing families in such a central role, small-town films are closely associated with the genre of family melodrama, although in fact only two of the films studied here – Kings Row and The Magnificent Ambersons – comfortably fit the description [17]. However, the link to melodrama, a genre frequently analysed in terms emphasising its subversive depiction of families as repressive and dysfunctional, raises the issue of whether there is a darker undertone to the foregrounding of family. Thomas Schatz has argued that in the 1940s “even apparently optimistic films… rely for their impact on the gradual erosion of our cultural confidence in the nuclear family”, (1981, 227) and Eugene Levy makes a similar point about small-town films across time periods: “The inadequacy and malfunctioning of the nuclear family (single or two-parent) has been a dominant motif in small-town films: the family is often a malignant structure… The attitude to the family is at best ambivalent: it can be supportive but, more often than not, is repressive” (1990, 263, emphasis in original). Levy finds this idea of familial repression to be more strongly found in the small town films of other decades, notably the 1950s, and indeed the warmth of many of the family scenes in the studied films would not support a generalised conclusion that family life is seen as repressive. However, it is interesting to note that the two films that make the structure and functioning of the town most central to their narrative (Our Town and It’s a Wonderful Life) both foreground the ambivalence of their protagonists about marriage and family.

In Our Town, the idea that there is something almost suspect about not marrying and starting a family is stated unusually baldly as Morgan introduces the film’s second section, which he titles “Love and Marriage.” Summarising the events of the three years since the introductory sequence, he notes:

Nature’s been pushing and contriving in other ways, too. A number of young people fell in love and got married. Most everybody in the world gets married; in this town there aren’t hardly any exceptions. Most everybody climbs into the grave – married.

In Our Town the courtship of George and Emily is a compressed version of time-honoured structures for romantic narrative: he seems stand-offish, but they resolve their differences and resolve to spend their life together. Yet instead of placing the wedding at the conclusion of the film, Our Town makes it a central scene about two-thirds through the film, throughout which the film focuses on the attitudes of the various participants by giving us their thoughts in voice-over. These offer a far from conventionally romantic view of the ceremony, starting with the jaded attitude of the minister:

I’ve married two hundred couples in my day. “M” marries “N” – millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the country, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will. Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.

The couple themselves are even less enthusiastic. As Emily stands in front of the church, her internal monologue is one of loneliness and resistance:

I’ve never felt so alone in my whole life. I don’t want to get married! Why can’t I just stay for a while as I am?

Meanwhile, George is pacing nervously, with similar misgivings:

Gee, I’m going to get married. I’m grown up. I’m getting old. I don’t want to get old. Taking on all these responsibilities. Why’s everybody pushing me so? All I want to do is be a fellow. And I’m gonna get married.

Yet when his teary mother enters, he suppresses his thoughts, telling her: “Cheer up mom, I’m getting married!” The film ends on an ultimately upbeat note; in a departure from the source play, Emily survives after nearly dying from complications related to the birth of her second child. Her will to live is affirmed after she is magically able to observe her earlier family life; seeing her parents and her younger self she learns to appreciate the bonds that underlie everyday domestic events. Yet the idea that unspoken fears and regret hang over the institution of marriage significantly qualifies Our Town’s otherwise affectionate depiction of family life.

This depiction is closely echoed in It’s a Wonderful Life, which amongst its other themes is an extended reflection on George Bailey’s reluctance to settle for a conventionally domestic existence. As an adolescent, George boasts of being nominated as a member of the National Geographic Society and talks of far-off lands, and is largely oblivious to the infatuated Mary. Yet George’s life of adventure is constantly thwarted by family obligations. At first these are those of his immediate family: first he is pressed into working for the family business after his father’s stroke, and then the marriage of his brother Harry prevents him offloading those responsibilities. In the later parts of the film, Mary and his children become the source of his frustration. This is most clearly articulated in the scene where the pair finally starts their romantic relationship after previous false starts. As already discussed, George has been urged to visit Mary by his mother, but only does so after Violet – the film’s embodiment of commitment-free sex appeal – rejects him. Mary is transparently desperate to recommence their interrupted romance, but George is at first surly and rude to her, cruelly rebuffing her advances. Yet his attraction to her overwhelms his doubts as they both talk on the phone to potential romantic rival Sam Wainwright, who offers to get him in on the “ground floor” of the plastics industry.[18] Overcome by his attraction to her, he drops the phone and seizes her roughly, telling her:

Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married ever, to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do… and you’re… and you’re…

Unable to continue, he breaks down, hugs and kisses her – and we cut to their wedding. George’s barely repressed resentment of Mary is further underlined as they honeymoon in Bedford Falls, in a run down house Mary has purchased for them and decorated with pictures of the island paradises he had earlier talked of visiting. By the time he hits rock bottom after the loss of $8000 from the Bailey Building and Loan, George’s bitterness has extended to his children as well. In a nightmarish sequence that anticipates the more literal nightmare of the Pottersville sequence, George paces through his house on Christmas Eve, pestered by his children and voicing his dissatisfaction with his life, starting with an expression of disgust when told their families will be visiting: “Families? I don’t want the families over here!” As Mary tells him of their daughter’s cold he continues, bitterly venting his frustration at the life that Mary has dragged him into:

It’s this old house – I don’t know why we don’t all have pneumonia. Drafty old barn! It’s like living in a refrigerator. Why did we have to live here in the first place, and stay around this measly, crummy old town?… You call this a happy family? Why did we have to have all these kids?

As in Our Town, it is a magical intervention that turns George around. After visiting the alternate world of Pottersville – which is populated by singles and broken families, with Mary now an “old maid” and cab driver Ernie having been deserted by his wife – George finally comes to appreciate the value of his domestic bonds. Yet as in the earlier film the bitterness cannot be entirely expunged. As Robin Wood puts it: “It’s a Wonderful Life manages a convincing and moving affirmation of the values (and value) of bourgeois family life. Yet what is revealed, when disaster releases George’s suppressed intentions, is the intensity of his resentment of the family and desire to destroy it… ” (1977, 49). Both films give voice to anxiety about family life, and particularly the sacrifices it requires people to make. Yet this doubt actually only underlines the film’s insistence on family as the building block of community: the entrapment of these characters occurs largely because the social pressure on them to start a family is so overwhelming. This sense of family existence as either inevitability or even something close to a civic responsibility foreshadows the social organisation of suburbia. The lesson learnt by George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life – that domestic bonds are ultimately all that is needed to make life rich and rewarding – can be seen as an expression of the principles that would underpin postwar suburban development.

A Population that has a Multi-Generational Link with the Community

The emphasis on family as the structuring element of society, and on inter-generational reproduction of that social structure, raises the closely related idea of the town’s continuity over time. We have seen a suggestion of this in the town’s physical form, with the emphasis on classical forms of architecture: these imply a reassuring permanence and a link with history. However, we also see a similar historical grounding in the town’s social structures. The social equivalent of the long-standing civic building is the long-established family that is widely known to the townsfolk: the Ambersons in The Magnificent Ambersons are the definitive example of such a respectable “old money” family in the films discussed. Yet such links are not confined to the aristocracy. In Our Town Morgan notes that many local families have a history with the town that extends back to the seventeenth century:

The earliest dates on the tombstones up there in the cemetery say 1670. They’re Grovers, and Cartwrights, and Gibbses, and Percy’s. Same names as you’ll find here now.

This point is reinforced in the film’s final part as Morgan takes a walking tour of the cemetery, commenting upon the lives of those buried there. This kind of link with history is echoed in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey, drunk, drives his car into a tree. A resident emerges from a nearby house and scolds him: “My great grandfather planted this tree!” Interestingly – and in defiance of the story’s internal logic – when George Bailey is in the nightmare version of the town, that history has been erased. The same man walks past and George asks him where his car has gone, referring to himself as “the fellow that owns the car that ran into your tree.” Yet now the man makes no reference to his personal tie to the tree, simply asking: “What tree?” Here the specific logic that the Pottersville sequence hinges on George’s non-existence is overwhelmed by the underlying sense that in Pottersville everything good about Bedford Falls is subverted: that includes the population’s link to its history, even if there seems no way that George could have effected the actions of the man’s great grandfather. What the town loses when its history is erased is a key differentiation from suburbs. Suburbs are a form of town with no history: recently constructed, populated by new arrivals with no shared background, and thrown together by a property developer. The emphasis on the history of small towns, by contrast, makes the community seem somehow more genuine and permanent than their ersatz suburban equivalents.

De-Emphasis of Cars and Emphasis on Various Forms of Non-car Transport

Cars are present in most of the films studied, and in some cases (notably The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Shadow of a Doubt) we see streets that are bustling with cars. However, cars are de-emphasised both in their visible presence, and in their influence on the physical environment. This occurs in a number of ways. Firstly, cars are generally seen in motion, with relatively few parked cars visible on streets, particularly in residential areas. There are no signs of a physical environment that has been redesigned for cars: we see no parking lots, for example, and the Main Streets we see are still pre-car era streets that happen to now be used by cars (rather than, for example, highways with roadside retailing). In residential areas, garages are not a prominent element in the streetscape architecture: even in Shadow of a Doubt, where the presence of a garage on the family house is a plot point, it is tucked away beside the house and is not prominent in establishing shots (figures 10c and 11e). As already noted, Main Street remains a pedestrian-dominated space and the fabric of the town remains sufficiently physically compact that many trips can be completed on foot.

The role of cars is also downplayed through the prominence given to non-car forms of transport. This is, for obvious reasons, most notable in the period films mentioned, in which horses and carts are prominent on the street. However, Preston Sturges also frequently shows horse-drawn vehicles in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, suggesting the old-fashioned nature of that community, even as it is buffeted by the social change embodied by the visiting troops; cars, meanwhile, are associated with sexual promiscuity as Trudy Kockenlocker drives from party to party during the binge in which she falls pregnant. In Kings Row Drake McHugh is frequently seen on his buggy, and some dialogue scenes take place as characters travel on it; Orson Welles stages scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons in the same manner, most notably as Lucy rebuffs George Minafer’s discussion of marriage. In Meet Me in St. Louis and The Magnificent Ambersons we see streetcars employed. In the former film they signify excitement and romance, while in Ambersons they typify a slower and more dignified time, as explained by the narrator:

The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the girl what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.

The other particularly prominent non-car transport is the railroad. In Our Town, the start of the day is marked by the arrival of the train, and the train station is a recurring feature in these films, marking important arrivals and departures: Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt; Parris Mitchell in Kings Row, George and Isabel Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons; and Harry Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. As the chief form of intercity transport, and the jumping off point for international travel, railroads suggest adventure (or, for George Bailey, foregone adventure). The trips taken by characters by train would almost certainly be undertaken by car or plane today, but trains provide a stronger focal point for to mark such comings-and-goings: unlike cars, they provide a central building from which trips commence; while unlike airports, the railroad station can be located within small towns and close to the centre of town, and thus become a true civic building physically embedded in the fabric of the community.

The passage of time, of course, has made the train a more exotic form of transport than it was at the time these films were made; much of the romance of the railroad perceived by the present-day viewer may be applied retrospectively. However, there is still basis for assuming that the railroad was considered in a somewhat nostalgic light even at the time of production when one considers the strong antipathy shown towards cars in the films. The association of cars with the decline of small towns is striking. In Our Town, after George concocts a story about Emily nearly being struck by a horse and cart, Morgan observes how the arrival of cars threatens to change to town:

Now with all these automobiles coming along, it looks to me like the only safe place to stay is the home. Gracious, I can remember the time when a dog could lie in the middle of Main Street all day long without anything coming along to disturb him.

I have already mentioned the way the car fouls the rural environment in The Magnificent Ambersons, and throughout that film automobiles are used to amplify the interpersonal conflict between the aristocratic George Minafer and the inventive industrialist Eugene Morgan. The exchange between Eugene, George, Uncle Jack, and Major Amberson about automobiles is particularly prophetic in its discussion of the impact of the car on the town. Discussing the opening of a new horseless-carriage shop “out in the suburbs”, Major Amberson suggests: “perhaps the two of you will get together and drive all the rest of us off of the streets.” Eugene, with characteristic geniality, responds that “we’ll even things up by making the streets bigger,” anticipating the changes that traffic engineering would visit upon the urban fabric. They discuss the implications of running streets out to the county line (Jack fears this will cause a slump in property values in the old town), and Major Amberson asks if Eugene really thinks cars will “change the face of the land.” Eugene responds that this is already happening and can’t be stopped, prompting an outburst from George that “automobiles are a useless nuisance.” This prompts Eugene’s expression of doubt about the genie that he has helped unleash:

I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilisation. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls. I’m not sure. But automobiles have come. And almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. It may be that George is right. It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but would have to agree with George: that automobiles had no business to be invented.

The automobile thus becomes a key sign of the decline of the town: while we are encouraged to sympathise with Eugene, rather than the spoilt George, the film’s tone is elegiac and suggests that the rise of the industrial age – and the car in particular – is extinguishing a particular way of life. Late in the film, the narration spells out the fate of the town: “it was spreading incredibly, and as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its sky.” The speed, mobility and pollution of cars are here painted as fatal to the small town way of life.

A Period Setting, or a Sense of the Place Being “Out of Time.”

The anxiety expressed about the coming of the car, and the sense of anxiety about the golden age of small towns passing or having passed, helps explain the setting of so many of the films in the past: the romanticising of the town is nostalgic in tone, with the town associated with values of an earlier time. Even the films explicitly set contemporary with production show towns that hark back to earlier times: in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek horses remain commonplace, and It’s a Wonderful Life includes flashbacks that show the centre of town to have changed little between 1919 and 1945. The use of an approximately turn-of-the-century time period is particularly common in these 1940s examples. Our Town commences in 1901, and concludes in 1913; Kings Row takes place between 1890 and 1905, and the start of the new century is specifically marked in a sequence set in 1900; The Magnificent Ambersons takes place between 1873 and 1904; and Meet Me in St. Louis takes place in 1903 and 1904. A number of complementary reasons can be suggested for this. In discussing the appeal of Disneyland’s Main Street USA, Francaviglia has argued that the very loose time period between the end of the American Civil War and World War I is the subject of a “deep collective longing for pre-urban Anglo America that was and indeed still is widely embraced by Americans of all backgrounds” (1981, 143). With World War I having been closely followed by the Great Depression and then the onset of World War II, the attractiveness of the period of perceived calm between the Civil War and these events is not difficult to understand. As alluded to in the preceding discussion of The Magnificent Ambersons, this was also a period of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, with much of the population moving from small towns, and the towns themselves being transformed by the presence of industry (or swallowed up by the cities as railroads and then cars increased the ability to commute). As has been noted, the car becomes both a symbol of the wider industrialisation, and also a chief agent of change in its own right. The turn-of-the-century setting therefore strategically allows the films to address industrialisation and the arrival of the automobile. Finally, there may simply be a tendency to always locate the site of idealisation a few decades before the time in which cultural works are produced; this is a time in living memory, in the youth of many of the film’s contemporary audience, and the association of nostalgic yearning with such recent past is easily understandable.

This latter point is supported by the fact that in more recent films such as Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1999), and Blast from the Past (Hugh Wilson, 1999), the 1950s or early 1960s become the time period associated with many of the idealised traits identified in this article. In those films, however, the location embodying the ideals has switched from the small town to early suburbia, suggesting some of the continuity between the ideal of the small town and that of the idealised suburb. Of course, such films often mingle genuine nostalgia with a mocking, ironic awareness: they contrast the (perceived) naivety of the 1950s, and the expectations of communities at that time, with the realities of modern suburban lifestyles and values. However, I would suggest that we tend to overestimate the credulity of previous generations. This leads into the next point for consideration: the attitude to suburbanisation in the films discussed.

Portents of Doom: The City and Suburb in the 1940s Small Town Movie

Thus far, I have concentrated on those aspects of the small town life that typify the idealised form of such communities, and have referred only in passing to the elements of the films that suggest threats to that existence. The small town is, I suggest, generally painted as an alluring and attractive place; even in a film such as Kings Row that spends a great deal of time on the community’s hidden scandals, the town itself seems very attractive. However, there are also suggestions in the films studied of the perils facing the small town. These are expressed both through anxiety about the town’s vulnerability to corruption from malign urban influences, and also in the consideration of the ability of the small town to survive the coming age of suburbanisation.

I have already noted that Shadow of a Doubt is of some interest for showing the small town on the cusp of suburbanisation, with its relatively urbanised Main Street. Hitchcock, still new to America, clearly wished to use the film to explore the United States’ self image, rather than simply its potential as a family melodrama: revealingly, he brought in Thornton Wilder, who wrote Our Town, and Sally Benson, author of the original stories that inspired Meet Me in St. Louis, to help provide an appropriate sense of small-town flavour and to strengthen the depiction of the family (Philips 1984, 104; Spoto 1992, 117). In this context, it is interesting to note the film’s association of Uncle Charlie with the moral and physical corruption of the city. The film’s opening sequences associate Uncle Charlie with a particularly bleak, run-down vision of Philadelphia (figure 18). The city is defined visually by industrial waterfront, huge bridges, abandoned vehicles, empty lots, abandoned buildings, rubbish in the streets, and a lack of pedestrian activity. As Colin McArthur notes, the scenes foreshadow images of the inner city as an urban wasteland that would become prominent in American films of the 1980s and 1990s (McArthur 1997, 27); when contrasted with the Santa Rosa scenes, the film becomes a veritable advertisement for the abandonment of the inner city. More interesting, though, is the way Santa Rosa itself becomes more urban and threatening as Charlie becomes suspicious of her uncle. The town centre is increasingly seen at night, and assumes noir-ish overtones. The first hint of this is in the night-time scene when Detective Graham tells Charlie that her uncle may be a wanted man. Later, as Charlie’s hysteria grows, she half-runs through the streets and Hitchcock’s compositions become more cluttered and busy: we see Charlie through store windows, surrounded by people and with the background filled with signage and cars (figure 19a). Moments later, her distress is marked by her being nearly run over by a car. Later, when Uncle Charlie pursues her to confront her about her suspicions, the imagery becomes even more urban and threatening: the pair enter a seedy-looking late night bar (“’Til Two”), marked by neon signs advertising cocktails (figure 19b). The younger Charlie protests that she’s “never been in a place like this:” the bar is dark and smoke-filled, and packed with disreputable characters and sullen waitresses. It is as if Uncle Charlie’s corruption, and his view of the world as a “foul sty,” has reshaped Santa Rosa into a previously suppressed noir urban form[19].


Figure 18: Decaying City, Shadow of a Doubt


Figure 19: Noir Santa Rosa, Shadow of a Doubt

A similar moment of association between vice and urbanity occurs early in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George, Bert, and Ernie ogle the attractive Violet. Violet is established as sexually aggresive, in contrast to the domestically inclined Mary. Capra echoes Hitchcock’s approach by emphasising her looser morals through more urbanised imagery: as she leaves, we get a shot of her on the street that is the most urbanised view we get of the “real” Bedford Falls (figure 20). Capra uses a long lens, and positions the camera facing down the street, so that layers of signage, telegraph poles and street furniture are cluttered together, in contrast to the more sedate compositions we see of the street elsewhere. [20] The shot is framed with a car on the right, and another enters on the left mid-shot: again the device of someone nearly being run over is used as punctuation, although here for more comic effect. Violet has a similar influence later in the film, in the sequence already discussed in which George meets her in the street and tries to lure her into the countryside. In this sequence we once again see a more urbanised Bedford Falls: as Robert Beuka puts it, the town here seems to have become “a rather sophisticated, even racy town” (Beuka 2004, 51). Again there is a sense that the town’s visual landscape responds to the morals and interests of the characters who inhabit it.


Figure 20 – Good time girl as force for urbanisation, It’s a Wonderful Life

A much more dramatic explosion of urbanity, however, is the “Pottersville” sequence, in which guardian angel Clarence creates a world in which George Bailey hasn’t been born. The nightmare of the sequence is conveyed not only by what has happened to the people of the town – depravity, prison, and spinsterhood – but also through the physical changes to the town. As both Frank Krutnik and Robin Wood have argued, Pottersville sees the intrusion of a noir city into what has previously been an idealised Middle-American community (Krutnik 1997, 85086; Wood 1977, 49) (figure 20). Instead of the benign retailing previously seen along the street, the street is filled with uses associated with vice: bars, dance halls, burlesque / strip joints, pawnbrokers, and boxing establishments. Signage has switched from traditional painted signs to a proliferation of neon and other illuminated signs: even the discreet “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” sign (figure 4d) has been replaced by a strident neon “POTTERSVILLE” sign (figure 21d). As Michael Willian points out, even the road signs take a hectoring tone, suggestive of the way in which the pedestrian’s freedom of movement exhibited in Bedford Falls has been curtailed: signs read No Parking, Keep Moving, No Left Turn, No Dogs Allowed, No Loitering, and Keep Off the Grass (Willian 2006, 105). Importantly, what distresses George the most is his anonymity. While this is motivated in the film by the fantasy premise of his never being born, it underlines the way in which the intimacy of the small town has been snuffed out and replaced by the anonymity of the city. As Krutnik puts it, a structure of society bound by social norms and shared experience has been replaced by a community characterised by impersonality and self-interest:

The folk community of Bedford Falls resembles Thomas Jefferson’s pastoral ideal, a realm of localized Americanism protected from the pestilence of urbanity. And Pottersville is a corrupted city of strangers that has betrayed the Edenic promise of America – a world in which consensual social bonds have been obliterated under the pressures of unchecked capitalism (1997, 87).

Those two extremes are, in this instance, represented visually by the binary opposition of “small town” versus “urban;” Clarence’s magical intervention has swung the town from one side of that opposition to the other. As is often noted, however, one of the slightly unnerving things about the film is the narrowness with which it avoids the all-pervasive gloom that it contemplates as George loses his faith and descends into Pottersville (Ray 1985, 202, 213-215; Wood 1977, 49). As Robert B. Ray puts it, the film “implicitly [discredits] every common man but George, without whom average citizens become drunkards, poisoners, old maids, prostitutes, bullies, madmen, and embittered old women” (1985, 202). In the current context what is interesting is how little needs to change for the city to overrun all the virtues of the small town. The small-town character of Bedford Falls is literally shown to hinge on one man; without George Bailey the rapacious developer (Potter) would overrun the town.

Figure 21: Pottersville, It’s a Wonderful Life

In these examples the tension is between the loss of small town charm in the face of urbanising forces: the city represents anonymity, sin, and unbridled capitalism. However, there is also some reflection in the film of the tension underlying the conversion of small towns to suburban living, as ways are found to accommodate all those who need housing. In its preoccupation with this theme It’s a Wonderful Life echoes and expands upon Kings Row. In that film, Drake McHugh and his girlfriend Randy Monaghan take a sojourn in the country: Drake, it is clear, has sex on his mind but Randy takes him to an idyllic piece of countryside (figure 22a) and suggests he buys it. “This junk?” he says incredulously, but Randy persists: “It can be cleared and drained. After all, there are lots of people who work in the claypits and the mills and the coal mines who would like to own homes too.” Later, after Drake loses his legs in an accident, he supports himself by realising Randy’s idea: we even see the plans of his subdivision (figure 22b), the first tract of which has been sold. It is a classic residential grid, with no sign of anything other than housing lots and the creek that bisects the land. [21] “The claypit workers took most of them,” says Drake with pride. “Low prices but they make wages and pay off.” The role as a community builder gives the otherwise shattered Drake a sense of purpose. There is no intimation in Kings Row of the loss of the countryside that might go with the exercise of building cheap and plentiful homes for all, and at the film’s conclusion Drake’s recovery is signalled by his desire to take one of the lots and move out of the cheap downtown accommodation he shares with the Monaghans, and to take an allotment in his subdivision.

Figure 22 Subdividing the countryside, Kings Row

It’s a Wonderful Life also shows us how George Bailey’s life is given meaning by his community building, but delves into the subject in some more detail. As such, it exposes more of the conflict inherent the process of suburbanisation. George’s role as community builder is crucial to the lesson he learns in the film, as he comes to appreciate the town he repeatedly disparages early in the film (referring to it as a “crummy old town” and expressing disbelief that someone could miss Bedford Falls). His thwarted ambitions as an architect / urban planner are redirected into the Bailey Building and Loan, which is gradually revealed to be crucial to resisting Potter’s urbanisation. The film neatly sums up the genuine concerns with pre-suburban and inner-urban housing by using Potter to highlight the poor quality of residences prior to widespread suburban rollout. Potter is depicted as a slum landlord, keeping residents renting – “living like pigs,” as former resident Martini puts it – in his Potter’s Field estate. During the run on the Building and Loan, George tries to dissuade the townsfolk from busting him by reminding them of the poor quality of Potter’s housing. We briefly glimpse Potter’s Field as Martini moves out of it: the estate is shown to have an almost shanty-town appearance, with run-down buildings and unfeasible number of people milling around the frame (figure 23a). Martini has now achieved the dream of home ownership, and Potter’s business is dwindling: his rent collector enthuses about the quality of the Bailey Park Estate and its homes, telling Potter that “Potter’s Field… is becoming just that.” The struggle over the built form of Bedford Falls that occurs in the film’s fantasy sequences, and (as previously mentioned) at times in its visual structure, is made more literal in the struggle between George Bailey and Potter over how the town’s residents should be housed. George has realised his ambitions by making housing affordable for everybody in Bedford Falls, and this is key to the appreciation of the community that drives the redemptive final sequence. Capra thus suggests George is the agent of a more benign type of developer, one for whom personal profits are secondary and community building is paramount. At one level, therefore, the optimistic and populist Capra strongly endorses the suburban ideal of home ownership, suggesting the actions of George Bailey make housing affordable for everybody.


Figure 23: Potter’s Field and Bailey Park, It’s a Wonderful Life

What is striking about the Bailey Park sequence, however, is how drastically Bailey Park differs from downtown Bedford Falls, and the ideals of community discussed in this article. As Robert Beuka notes, Bailey Park seems “… a visual aberration, in that it depicts a landscape so markedly different from everything else we have seen in the film… the small, fairly uniform ranch houses of Bailey Park, with their distinctly postwar suburbia look, seem a step out of the film’s timeframe” (2004, 62). The Bailey Park we see is filled with characterless bungalows and largely devoid of trees (figures 23b-23d); it completely lacks the charm evident throughout the sequences in the old town of Bedford Falls. Nezar AlSayyad notes this contradiction:

…in contrast to Bedford Falls, there is no street life in Bailey Park. There are no trees, only lawns; no porches, only private back patios. Moreover, it is constructed on what was once the cemetery, thereby erasing traces of lineage and history… George and Mary continue to live in the old part of town, making it new by rebuilding and repairing it (2006, 58).

Both AlSayyad and Beuka suggest that this somewhat conflicted view of Bailey Park reflects “anxiety… over the sense of the small-town American landscape in transition,” (Beuka’s phrase) where Bedford Falls finds itself in limbo “between inside and outside, present and future, small town and big city, community and society, tradition and modernity” (AlSayyad’s description) (Beuka 2004, 62; AlSayyad 2006, 58). Much of this underlying tension in the film as a whole is clearly deliberate, given the way Capra sets up Potter and George Bailey as competing forces fighting for the soul of the town. Yet I would argue that given Capra’s unequivocal association of George Bailey as a force for good (and for the protection of the town), and Potter as force for evil (and for the debasement of the town), it was not his intent that the sequence at Bailey Park be ambivalent. On the contrary, this is the moment where by associating suburbia with George Bailey, Capra is expressing confidence in the suburban future. George Bailey is shown not only to preserve the traditional character of Bedford Falls (by averting its urbanisation) but he is able to make it affordable for all.

The difficulty with the Bailey Park scene arises because of shortcomings with the iconography of the attractive community. Capra has established Bedford Falls as an attractive place to live by trading on the multi-faceted iconography of the small town that have been discussed. I have suggested that the appeal of the suburb is based on the notion that it can deliver the benefits of the small town, and I think it should be apparent that many of the traits outlined in this article inform the stereotype of the idealised suburb that we now tend to associate with the 1950s sitcom. In this sense, the idealised suburb and the idealised small town blur together. Kenneth Mackinnon notes this in his study of small town movies, suggesting that while he considers Meet Me in St. Louis a small-town film, it is a difficult film to categorise because “movies set in the suburbs of cities deliberately take on the look, and therefore share the charisma, of the small town movie” (MacKinnon 1984, 24). I would suggest that of the films studied here, Meet Me in St. Louis is of particular interest as an early example of the idealised small town depiction transforming into the stereotyped / idealised suburb. In particular, its virtual absence of any sense of a town centre, and reliance on a purely residential conception of community, foreshadows suburbia’s separation of uses and focus on the domestic sphere as the main site of community togetherness. The problem Capra faces in the Bailey Park sequence is that this equation of “good suburbia” with the properties of a small town leaves him with no established system of signs for showing an estate that is not a small town (since we need to understand we are in Bailey Park, not old Bedford Falls) but which is nevertheless suburban and good. To visually signify that Bailey Park is suburban, rather than the old town, Capra has no choice but to make it visually less appealing. This gives us a hint of the semiotic problem suburbia faces. If there is a need to distinguish a space as specifically suburban, and not a small town, its suburban-ness will tend to be defined in the negative: through the absence of a Main Street, the absence of people on the street, and so on.


In this article I have outlined in some detail the qualities of the iconic filmed small town, as it existed at the dawn of the postwar suburban boom. I expect few of the traits I have outlined are surprising, as such: my point is more to highlight the sheer pervasiveness of those traits. This is of interest when we consider the extreme disconnect between the depictions of community in these films and typical lived experience in a modern suburb; the familiarity of the idealised small town tends to obscure its strangeness. Compare, for example, the experience of buying a suitcase from a typical suburban mall with that of George Bailey in It’s Wonderful Life. In real life this would be a humdrum excursion, most likely undertaken by car, and with little scope for community engagement or social interaction. George, by contrast, walks to a store that fronts a high street, rather than driving to inward facing mall tenancy; the shop owner knows his name; the luggage is paid for by another shop-owner with whom George has a longstanding friendship; he marches out of the store and is hailed from windows by his friends; a beautiful woman makes a pass at him as he goes. It is at once irresistible and yet completely alien.

It is little wonder that our everyday experience of suburbia feels wanting by comparison with such a life. This generalised dissatisfaction with the suburban environment, and its relationship to our cultural depictions of community, raises important questions about how our expectations of our social and physical landscape are shaped. There is a complex interplay at work here. In one sense, it could be argued that the disparagement of suburbia is based on a confusion of fantasy and reality. When we compare our cities, and our lives, to those of characters in films, we will always come off second best, as their environment is always narratively purposeful. Characters know everybody they meet because it conveys story information and conveys information about character; their interactions are meaningful because they all serve the relentless drive of a classical narrative pattern; their physical environment is attractive because it is designed in support of an escapist genre entertainment. The randomness of real-life events, and the messiness of genuine environments, will not bear comparison with such a world. On the other hand, that fantasy is not without a real-world basis. In seeking to depict a pleasing idea of community, filmmakers draw on particular real world precedents, and draw on the much the same design principles as real-world architects, planners, and urban designers. These are design approaches that were frequently forsaken in suburban planning after World War II, and the problems of physical and social isolation in such suburbs are genuine. The nostalgia that is at work when we watch Our Town or It’s a Wonderful Life is not purely sentimental, or the product of misplaced confusion between fantasy and reality. It also reflects real shortcomings in our physical environment. Our filmed depictions of community are of interest not only as escape: they have become important shared reference points in the quest to find (and rediscover) better ways to build our urban environments.


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Althusser, Louis. 1994. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, edited by John Storey, 151-162. Cambridge: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Beuka, Robert A. 2004. SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film. Palgrave Macmillan.
Bruegmann, Robert. 1989. Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Fishman, Robert. 1989. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books.
Francaviglia, Richard. 1996. Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image Building in Small-Town America. Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press.
———————-. 1981. “Main Street U.S.A.: A Comparison/Contrast of Streetscapes in Disneyland and Walt Disney World.” The Journal of Popular Culture. 15, no. 1: 141-156.
Haberman, Donald. 1989. Our Town: An American Play. Boston: Twayne.
Hall, Peter. 2002. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. Third edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hayden, Dolores. 2003. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. New York: Pantheon Books.
—————-. 2006. “Building the American Way: Public Subsidy, Private Space.” In The Politics of Public Space, edited by Setha Low and Neil Smith, 35-48. New York: Routledge.
Howard, Ebenezer. 1946. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Edited by F.J. Osborn. London: Faber and Faber.
Jackson, Kenneth T. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kaufman, Gerald. 1994. Meet Me in St. Louis. London: British Film Institute.
Kay, Jane Holtz. Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America, and How We Can Take It Back. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
Krutnik, Frank. 1997. “Something More than Night: Tales of the Noir City.” In The Cinematic City, edited by David B. Clarke, 83-109. London & New York: Routledge.
Lapsley, Rob. 1997. “Mainly in Cities and at Night: Some Notes on Cities and Film.” In The Cinematic City, edited by David B. Clarke, 186-208. London & New York: Routledge.
Levy, Emanuel. 1990. Small-Town America in Film: The Decline and Fall of Community. New York: Continuum, 1990.
MacKinnon, Kenneth. 1984. Hollywood’s Small Towns: An Introduction to the American Small-Town Movie. Metuchen, N.J. & London: Scarecrow Press.
Maland, Charles J. 1980. Frank Capra. Boston: Twayne.
McArthur, Colin. 1997. “Chines Boxes and Russian Dolls: Tracking the Elusive Cinematic City.” In The Cinematic City, edited by David B. Clarke, 19-45. London & New York: Routledge.
Mumford, Lewis. 1961. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. San Diego, New York, London: Harvest Books, 1961.
—————–. 1938. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1938.
Neuman, Robert. 2008. “Disneyland’s Main Street, USA, and its Sources in Hollywood, USA.” The Journal of American Culture 31 (March): 83-97.
Peary, Danny. 1981. Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful. New York: Delta.
Phillips, Gene D. 1984. Alfred Hitchcock. Boston: Twayne.
Putnam, Robert D. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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Ray, Robert B. 1985. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Schatz, Thomas. 1981. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Spoto, Donald. 1992. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. Second Edition. New York: Anchor / Doubleday.
Wilder, Thornton. 1938. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. New York: Coward McCann.
Willian, Michael. 2006. The Essential It’s a Wonderful Life: A Scene-by-Scene Guide to the Classic Film. Second edition. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Wood, Robin. 1977. “Ideology, Genre, Auteur.” Film Comment 13, no. 1: 46-51.


[1] For complementary overviews of various pre-World War II suburban models including semi-rural garden communities, industrial towns, and railroad / streetcar suburbs, see Hayden (2003, chapters 3, 4 and 5); Mumford (1961, chapters 15 and 16); Bruegmann, ( 2005, chapters 2 and 3); Jackson (1985 chapters 1 to 10); and Hall (2002, chapter 4).

[2] This book originally appeared in a somewhat different form, as To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Land Reform, in 1898.

[3] The phrase is Hayden’s (2003 chapter. 7).

[4] Federal subsidy of housing commenced in the United States during the 1930s – during which time its impact on suburban expansion was counterbalanced by the Great Depression – and continued in the more prosperous post-war era, when it led to an explosion in housing construction. See Hayden (2006, 35-48); Jackson (1985, chapters 11 and 13); Hayden (2003, 121-132).

[5] The film’s afterlife and ongoing appeal as a seasonal classic is discussed in Peary (1981, 162-163).

[6] I have referred throughout this article to the film’s narrator as Morgan (the surname of the druggist), as this is the way he is presented in the film. In Wilder’s play it is clearer that the narrator (“stage manager”) is not actually the druggist, but “steps into” the role of Morgan for the scene in the drug store.

[7] That the notion of Main Street still serves a powerful rhetorical value as representative of the best of middle-America was underlined by the contrasting of “Wall Street” and “Main Street” in the dialogue of candidates in the 2008 US presidential election; here a real place – Wall Street, New York – and a notional place – Main Street – are pressed into service as representations not just of different sectors of the economy, but the values seen to be held by participants in those sectors. For example, both candidates contrasted and parallelled the issues facing Main Street and Wall Street in the first presidential debate on 26 September 2008. For transcript see “First Presidential Debate – McCain and Obama – Transcript,” New York Times Website, September 26, 2008, http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/president/debates/transcripts/first-presidential-debate.html. Accessed 1/2/09.

[8] For a detailed discussion of Wilder’s use of an empty stage to create “realism and generality,” see Haberman (1989, 18-22).

[9] Francaviglia sees linear (Main Street) and nodal (town square) town centres as essentially identical and treats them as such in his study of Main Streets (1996, xx). It seems likely that Main Streets are more popular in cinematic representations because they are more suited to the construction of sets on finite budgets and within constrained spaces of studio backlots.

[10] The classical appearance of the street is scarcely surprising: while the set for the trolley depot was purpose built for this film, the street in the back-projected footage is almost certainly part of the MGM studio’s pre-existing complex of sets at their Culver City studios (Kaufman 1994, 18; Neuman 2008, 90-91).

[11] This similarity is strengthened by the fact that – from the limited visual evidence in the film – the Bedford falls set seems to use much the same rounded-off triangle “cheat” that Disney’s Main Street USA uses to create the impression of a circle in a constrained, terminating space.

[12] In Bowling Alone Putnam discusses the idea of a shift to “vocational communities” and suggests that while such socialising does account for increased proportions of our social networks, such friendships are less likely to be “intimate and deeply supportive.” This would support the idea that there is a sense of nostalgic longing associated with widespread use of other non-workplace institutions as social hubs (2001, 85-87).

[14] For the mid twentieth century pressures on such streets, see Francaviglia (1996, 41-51). Discussion of the physical impacts of the car on Main Streets can be found throughout Kay (1997) but see especially chapter 7.

[15] Interestingly, two of the houses, from The Magnificent Ambersons (figure 10d) and It’s a Wonderful Life (figure 10f) are so very similar – except for a lengthened second storey and heightened turret – that the house in the latter appears to be a redressed version of the same set: shots elsewhere in It’s a Wonderful Life establish that even the design of pickets on the front fencing and detailing of balustrading matches.

[16] After World War II the pendulum would swing back to conformity of a more industrial kind as post-war developers mass-produced estates with minimal variation in housing types.

[17] For consideration of the link between the small-town film and melodrama, see MacKinnon (1984, 47-52. Of the films discussed here, MacKinnon considers only Kings Row a melodrama “in the sense in which the term might be used after [Douglas] Sirk” but notes the affinity with the genre of both The Magnificent Ambersons and Shadow of a Doubt.

[18] Sam’s repeated insistence on plastics as the growth industry of the suburban age is an interesting foreshadowing of the more famous such reference in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967).

[19] Robin Wood notes this explosion of noir in the “’Til Two” scene in his famous essay on Shadow of a Doubt and It’s a Wonderful Life (1977, 50).

[20] At one other point in the movie we see a view of the non-Pottersville Bedford falls resembling this; this is in the sequence where George and Uncle Billy search for the missing money out on the street. In that case the more hectic composition echoes their panic and harassed state of mind.

[21] Whilst one would not want to ascribe too much significance to the throwaway detail of the subdivision diagram, it is intriguing to compare the plan to genuine subdivisions from the film’s approximate timeframe, as found in Hayden (2003, 63, 81, 85). Drake’s plan lacks the attention to street form, landscaping and general refinements of plans prepared by architects such as Fredrick Law Olmsted; in its more “industrial” approach it is a more genuinely pre-suburban design.

Author Bio
Stephen Rowley is an urban planner, and a PhD candidate in the Cinema Studies program at the University of Melbourne. His article “False L.A.: Blade Runner and the Nightmare City” appeared in The Blade Runner Experience, ed. Will Brooker (London: Wallflower Press, 2005). He is co-editor of the magazine Planning News.

Guiding Stars – Carly Nugent


‘Guiding Stars’ investigates the relationship between celebrities, as contemporary models of moral behaviour, and new religions such as Scientology. It discusses how the development of the star figure coincided with changing views of identity towards the end of the nineteenth century. By examining the shift from communal definitions of identity as ‘character’ to the more individualistic notion of ‘personality’, ‘Guiding Stars’ investigates how celebrities came to embody these new ideals, and compares them to new religious movements such as Scientology that present themselves as speaking to the modern human condition by advocating the advancement of the individual. ‘Guiding Stars’ uses the relationship between Tom Cruise and Scientology as a case study to describe the way celebrities support religious movements and vice versa, and how, if celebrities can be treated like gods, religion can be treated as a celebrity.

Imagine the world being struck to its core by extraterrestrial lightning, people reduced to puffs of smoke as they run screaming down the street, and gigantic robotic tripods striding across states leaving flame and general destruction behind them. Now imagine Tom Cruise standing strong amidst the chaos, surviving, prevailing… and doing it all by himself.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 epic War of the Worlds tells the story of Ray Ferrier, an ordinary working class father caught up in an extraordinary event – a worldwide alien invasion. Throughout the course of the film Ferrier overcomes his initial happy-go-lucky irresponsibility to discover that he has the power to survive and protect his children. His achievements are a result of his own strength and determination; they are achieved alone, in the face of hysterical crowds and distant, disconnected military personnel. Two potential companions, a female acquaintance of Ferrier’s and her daughter, are separated from him and his children not five minutes after they are introduced. The only other person that offers to help them goes mad, and is killed by Ferrier. War of the Worlds is a tale of individual rather than communal strength, of the realisation of personal potential. Who better to portray the central protagonist in such a film than Tom Cruise – arguably the most successful and powerful celebrity in the world?

Contemporary culture has seen celebrities rise to the status of role models. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the development of the star figure coincided with changing views of identity and the rise of modernity. An examination of the shift from communal definitions of identity as ‘character’ to a more individualistic understanding of ‘personality’ indicates how celebrities embody these new ideals and serve as examples of how to pursue them. New religious movements, particularly Scientology, also present themselves as speaking to the modern human condition, advocating the development of the individual. By discussing celebrities such as Tom Cruise (someone who influences modern society both as a star figure and a member of the Church of Scientology) the ways in which stars support religious movements and vice versa may be better understood. Just as celebrities can and have been treated like gods, so too can religion gain the status of celebrity.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the ways in which people existed radically changed. The rise of industry in the Western world saw the dissolution of small, rural communities in favour of large, urban cities. Mass production entailed an increase in consumption, and a social consciousness that focused on material accumulation. Needless to say this period, commonly referred to as “modernism” or “modernization”, involved a “radical shift from one kind of social existence to another” (Barker 2000). For Steve Bruce, that shift was extreme enough to mean “the end of the old world” and the development of a new, capitalist culture (Bruce 1998).

Living in an environment where so much had been altered it is no surprise that people began to wonder how to understand themselves. As Jib Fowles notes, in the new world “the abiding question became one of self-definition” (Fowles 1992). Before modernism, identity was “sharply defined” by an individual’s relationship with things such as their cultural and family history and, most importantly, “community” (Fowles 1992). People understood who they were according to their position in a social group, according to how they related to others. The movement of people, during the period of modernization, from rural communities to urban centres saw the loss of small, close-knit groups. In the bustling, hugely populated environment of the city people were “lost in the crowd”, rather than identified by it (Fowles 1992). Constantly surrounded and yet at the same time alone, identity could no longer be derived from one’s relationship with other people. This resulted, Fowles suggests, in a “general manifestation of anxiety and mental distress” – in a growing need to find new ways of understanding the self (Fowles 1992).

If identity can no longer be derived from one’s peers, from people outside of oneself, it seems that it must come from individuals. Isolation in the new “urban milieu” of modernization meant that people were forced to look for identity internally, rather than from the world around them (Fowles 1992). This idea sat nicely alongside the thriving capitalist ideology of individual success, the ‘every man for himself’ doctrine of hard work for material reward. Individuals came to see themselves as not simply the sites of their own identities, but also as the creators. The idea that identity was something that could be made, shaped and perfected according to an individual’s preference was an enormous change from previous understandings of the self. Fowles, in discussing the different opinions of “self-help manuals and behavioral guides”, notes that before the twentieth century people were encouraged to “strengthen their “character” in order to gain inner strength (Fowles 1992). Identity as ‘character’ is something that may be developed and improved, but is nonetheless essentially a fixed, unalterable part of a person. As a new century dawned, however, this sort of self-help advice began to change. Guides began to emphasise the development of “personality” – the idea that one could create oneself in order to “get others to like him” (Fowles 1992). Such advice seems to suggest that identity is fluid, and may be changed to suit a given situation. ‘Personality’, unlike the set and stable idea of ‘character’, is a view of identity that is open to individual interpretation and manipulation.

Identity as personality is bound up with the modernist notion of a society that consists of unique individuals. This is evidenced in the change in focus in art, particularly writing, in the early twentieth century. Modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James recognised “the variety of personal responses” and the “subjectivity of each individual”, and strove to present their characters as people with conflicting and changing identities (Faulkner 1990). With modernism, character became personality – mysterious, constantly changing and “impossible simply to sum up” (Matz 2004). The rise of capitalism during this period also put the onus on individual responsibility and success, encouraging the idea, suggested by Richard Dyer, that each person ‘makes’ their own life (Dyer 1987). People were no longer expected to consider their wellbeing as part of a larger group, but rather saw themselves as “discrete human person[s]” responsible for their own advancement in the world (Dyer 1987). As Dyer notes, the capitalist system is supported by the idea of the individual as personality, working on “the basis of the freedom (separateness) of anyone to make money, [and] sell their labour how they will” (1987).

This new world brought with it new goals and new ways of behaving in society. People became concerned with how to be beautiful, confident, rich and extraordinary. Prominent figures of the nineteenth century – writers, philosophers, royal and religious leaders – were no longer relevant role models. New models were required “who could help in defining the individual” (Fowles 1992). And the recently risen stars, also often aptly termed “personalities”, were soon looked to as people who could fill those roles (Fowles 1992).

Guiding stars

The rise of capitalism and industry coincided with the creation of “the star role” (Fowles 1992). This was, he argues, no coincidence, but the result of a desperate need in the changing culture for “models of the well-integrated self” (Fowles 1992). Celebrities filled this need, as Dyer articulates, by serving as examples of how to be human in modern society (Dyer 1987). Particularly, he suggests, they show people how to live in relation to production and how to be successful as individuals (Dyer 1987). In a changing world stars presented ideal and “perfected” ways of living to an uncertain population (Fowles 1992). They represented confidence and youthfulness, demonstrated “pluck” and the ability to “overcome the forces of evil, authority and tedium” (Fowles 1992). Stars showed the world how to be complete and happy people (Fowles 1992). The burst of interest in stars in the early twentieth century is indicative of a rising interest in “how we are human” (Dyer 1987). The public’s fascination with celebrities comes from the ways in which they demonstrate what it’s like to live within a capitalist form of production. It is not just their extraordinary, seemingly perfect personas that are attractive, but also their “ordinariness” – the way in which they relate to their fans as ‘normal’ people (Holmes 2004).

Joshua Gamson argues that in the early twentieth century the presentation of celebrities shifted slightly – no longer were the public content with watching the glamour of Hollywood from afar (Gamson 2001). These things were fascinating, but they were not directly relatable to the everyday lives of those observing them. Stars that fans could not relate to were no longer enough, and as a consequence, in the 1930s, celebrities were made “more and more mortal” (Gamson 2001). They were still extraordinary in many ways, but now their extraordinariness was presented as being rooted in the ordinary. Stars were the boy or girl next door, they were ‘just like you’, with the same basic wants and needs – they ate and drank, worked, slept and played. As Gamson quotes from a 1940 issue of Life magazine, “[s]tars now build homes, live quietly and raise children” (Gamson 2001). The same magazine, according to Gamson, includes photographs of celebrities eating breakfast and playing with kids in backyards (Gamson 2001). The only thing that really separates celebrities from the rest of the world, it seems, is that they are famous, while those watching them are not. This shift in focus to the similarities between the lives of stars and those of fans created a feeling of “connection and intimacy” between the famous and their audience (Gamson 2001). Celebrity lives have become simply “a blown up version of the typical”, ourselves writ large and in lights, showing us, as Dyer suggests, “how we are human now” (Gamson 2001; Dyer 1987).

There is a certain irony in the fact that the ordinariness of celebrities is in part what elevates them to the status of deities. For it seems that, in the modern, predominantly secular age, celebrities have overtaken religion and religious figures as models of moral behaviour and as objects of worship. The gods of the twentieth and twenty first centuries are brand names, self-help gurus and movie stars; walls are adorned, no longer with Bible verses, but with larger than life pinups of Brad Pitt; and models of Jesus Christ bleeding on the cross have been replaced by cans of Coca Cola and iPods. It is these people, and objects, to which people have come to relate to as “human personalities and mythic figures” (Walker 1970). The modern obsession with all of these cultural products, it may be argued, is not necessarily empty or mindless, however. Rather, the deification of celebrity figures is a way of meeting a need that traditional religion is no longer able to meet – that is, the need to know who we are in the world, and how we should behave.

Bruce David Forbes argues that popular culture and religion have similar functions (Forbes and Mahan 2000). Both act as examples of how to locate oneself within the world, offering guidelines for every aspect of life from morality to clothing, relationships to diet. Whether the example takes the form of Jesus feeding the masses or Madonna adopting orphaned children from third world nations, there is an implied code of behaviour to be found. Both celebrities and traditional religions like Christianity work to help people deal with everyday problems (Forbes and Mahan 2000). And it is not surprising that, in today’s modern, consumer driven society, people are more ready to look for meaning in American celebrities adopting Malawian children than in loaves and fishes. It seems entirely legitimate to argue, as Forbes does, that popular culture works more and more like religion (Forbes and Mahan 2000). And it is understandable, then, when individuals who are part of that religion are “conferred a sacred status”, representing as they do the predominant feeling of the modern world (Hunt 2003). As Stephen J. Hunt notes in a discussion of stars as religious figures, the actors from TV shows such as Friends – a program that earned huge success through its representation of ‘ordinary’ people – are given “almost a divine status” by fans (Hunt 2003). One of the most widely quoted examples of fans ‘deifying’ a celebrity is that of Elvis Presley. As Erika Dross notes, since the singer’s death in 1977 “a veritable Elvis religion has emerged” (Dross 2001). Along with the seemingly infinite amount of general Elvis memorabilia, there is also a proliferation of Elvis churches, shrines, rituals, and online “temples” (Dross 2001). Dross argues that this immense devotion indicates that Elvis culture has crossed over into the realm of “religious faith” (Dross 2001). However it is not just Elvis’s status as an extraordinary figure, as “virtuous, transcendent and even miraculous”, that inspires people to worship him (Dross 2001). His ability to relate to the public, to situate people in a particular culture and reflect their wants and needs, makes him a sort of poster boy for a larger set of beliefs and values. One woman interviewed by Dross stated that her devotion to Elvis came from seeing him as a man sent “to wake us up, to shake us, to ask us, what are we doing, where are we going?” (Apostolakis, qtd. in Dross 2001). It seems that Elvis has become something of a prophet for popular culture, a ‘guiding star’ for people to follow as they attempt to navigate life in the modern world.

Though it may have been given a run for its money, so to speak, in the new, capitalist world, organised religion has not been completely overtaken by the rise of the celebrity ‘godhead’. Many people still look to religious groups for guidance, requiring something more than a picture of Elvis or a Brad Pitt film to make sense of their world and define their identity. Such religious institutions, however, have had to adapt to the changes of the twentieth century in order to maintain their following. Religion and Popular Culture in America, edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, presents a collection of essays that argue that religion has recreated itself to suit what has become a “consumer-oriented, mass-media culture” (Forbes and Mahan 2000). It has done so, in some cases, by using techniques of modern marketing – working with, rather than against, contemporary society. Some religions have also understood the shift from a community based conception of identity to a more individualistic notion of personality, and have tailored their services accordingly. As Roy Wallis observes, new religious movements are often based around the individual, rather than a group of people (Wallis 1976). And Steve Bruce argues that the “individualism” encouraged by modern society has changed the culture of religion to become one that believes in “the divinity of the self” and the power of the individual to mould their own meaning (Bruce 1998). God, like identity, is no longer sought externally, but inside ourselves. It is not surprising, then, that so many religious movements during the twentieth and twenty first centuries have developed ‘self-help’ mentalities. As Stephen J. Hunt notes, the twentieth century saw strategies of self-help become “psychologically based self-improvement movements” (Hunt 2003). These movements offered to do just what the modern individual wanted – to release their inner potential.

Religion in the modern world remains strong largely because it has “commodified” and “personalized” its practices (Hoover 2001). Like the role of the celebrity, religion today serves to explain what it means to be human and to help people define themselves “against the backdrop of urban anonymity” (Dyer 1987). If celebrities can become religious figures, it seems so too can religion gain the status of celebrity. The relationship between new religious movements and stars is illustrated by the example of Tom Cruise as a highly successful celebrity and a member of a ‘New Age’ religious organization, the Church of Scientology. An analysis of Cruise and his religion highlights the ways in which celebrities serve as models of behaviour for the individual in the modern world, as well as how religion has been able to make itself relevant to today’s society. It also identifies the relationship between stars and religion as one that is mutually beneficial – Tom Cruise, for example, is an outspoken supporter of Scientology, and is in turn rewarded by the church for promoting it. “There is a fluidity among the relationships between religion and popular culture” – a flow of elements back and forth from one to the other, a symbiosis that may give us insight into the state of contemporary culture (Forbes and Mahan 2000).

Tom Cruise

The website Forbes.com ranks Tom Cruise “>number one on the ‘Forbes Power 100’ – a list of the world’s most powerful people. The website suggests that a combination of Cruise’s success in the 2005 blockbuster War of the Worlds and his marriage to actress Katie Holmes is responsible for Cruise’s status as one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors. Indeed, this assessment should not be surprising to anyone who has been even slightly exposed to today’s celebrity culture. Love him or hate him, it is difficult to deny that Tom Cruise is an incredibly successful, rich and famous public figure. Cruise burst into the ‘big time’ in the 1980s, starring in Top Gun (1986), The Color of Money (1986) and Rain Man (1988) – movies that all made it big at the box office. By the 1990s Cruise was averaging, according to IMDb, 15 million dollars per film, making him one of the world’s highest paid actors. He is certainly a person whose fame and fortune, lifestyle and domination of the big screen make him larger than life. Multi-million dollar blockbusters such as the Mission Impossible trilogy (1996, 2000, 2006), The Last Samurai (2003) and War of the Worlds (2005) have made Cruise not only an international superstar, but have created an image of him as someone constantly surrounded by action, adventure and fantastic, extraordinary events. Cruise is an enlarged figure of a man, blown up by the big screen and outlandish, romanticized scripts. His lifestyle off-screen is similarly engorged. According to the website for People magazine, Cruise inhabits a “$35 Million Beverly Hills Mansion” of “1.3 acres”, “seven bedroom (sic) and nine bathrooms” (People). He also loves putting on a show – whether jumping on Oprah’s couch or proposing to his girlfriend on top of the Eiffel Tower, his stunts are often enlarged and outrageous. Cruise certainly presents an image of an extraordinary individual, someone “special… even miraculous” (Dross 2001). However, there are elements of Cruise’s image that relate him to the ordinary – to the everyday existence of his fans. Films like War of the Worlds, while on the one hand presenting extraordinary circumstances, also present Cruise as an ordinary, working class father, someone who is just as challenged by his children as he is by alien invaders. Fan websites, also, are often preoccupied with Cruise’s battle to become the star that he is today – TomCruiseFan.com describes him as a person whose life has, up until now at least, been a struggle. According to the site’s biography, Cruise came from a family that was not well off, and that forced him to take on a heavy load of responsibilities. The website relates that before stardom, Cruise was “[i]mpoverished and barely scraping by” (TomCruiseFan.com). It also humanizes Cruise by describing him as a “kind and thoughtful man” who is popular within the Hollywood community (TomCruiseFan.com).

It is easy to see Cruise as an example of the way in which celebrities exemplify the modern idea of the individual. Through his success within the contemporary capitalist world, as well as his presentation as a strong, confident and yet ordinary human being, Cruise serves as a model for behaviour, playing out as he does “the ways that work is lived” in a capitalist structure (Dyer 1987). The public can see in Cruise “perfected, confident behavior” that Fowles argues people in the new “unanchored” modern world crave (Fowles 1992). To be successful in one’s field of work, to have material wealth, and to be attractive – as Fowles notes – are all concerns of modern society (Fowles 1992). Cruise symbolizes all of these things, while maintaining his connection to the ordinary man by having had to ‘struggle’ to get where he is today. The fact that, like the character of Ray Ferrier in War of the Worlds, Cruise has struggled alone, and has (seemingly) single handedly created his own success, supports the idea of identity as defined by the individual, of identity as “personality” (Fowles 1992).

Another important aspect of Cruise’s celebrity identity is his attachment to the Church of Scientology. Scott Bowles notes that to really understand Tom Cruise it is necessary to understand his connection to Scientology: Bowles quotes Cruise as stating that his involvement with the Church has helped him to find his “center” in the midst of his fame (Bowles 2003). According to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, this is exactly the aim of the religion – “to renew a person’s sense of full responsibility by the reorientation of his spiritual center” (Hubbard, qtd. Hogarty [19–]). In other words, Scientology is about discovering one’s identity, and finding an anchor for the self in what Fowles calls “the backdrop of urban anonymity” (Fowles 1992). And it works by focusing on the satisfaction of individuals.

Scientology, founded by Hubbard in 1954, began as a program called Dianetics, which, Roy Wallis notes, “has a place in a continuing tradition of self-improvement movements” (Wallis 1976). Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) is essentially a self-help manual with some scientific twists. The basic thesis of Dianetics is to do with clearing one’s Theta (something akin to the idea of a soul) of all the emotional debris it has collected throughout its life in a world where “morals are at a low ebb” (Scientology 1994). Clearing is achieved through a process called auditing, carried out by a trained “auditor” with the assistance of a machine known as an electropsychometer or E-Meter. The E-Meter, Scientologists claim, measures and registers “mental energy” in a subject (Scientology 1994). The goal of these auditing sessions is to rid the subject of the disruptive aspects of their mind, leaving them in “a new state for man – Clear” (Scientology 1994). According to information from the Church of Scientology, becoming Clear makes one’s individuality stronger.

Scientology is a religion that has developed itself in accordance with the modern world, and as such fits easily into the capitalist system It is run like a business – as Hunt notes, Scientology is more like a “corporate commercial enterprise” than a church – and deals with “customers” rather than parishioners (Hunt 2003). More importantly, though, the Church of Scientology is concerned with advancement for the individual, rather than a group – a way of thinking that recognizes and speaks to the modern isolated, self-concerned city dweller. As Wallis notes, Scientology owes its success to its ability to offer explanations for the modern lives of individuals (Wallis 1976). Scientology offers to answer the question of “self-definition”, or rather, to help us create our own answers to this question. There is great emphasis in Scientology on the “responsibility” of the individual – as Paul Bannigan Hogarty notes, “Hubbard cannot state emphatically enough… that the person is his being” (Hogarty [19–]). The religion claims that “only by allowing an individual to find his own answers to life’s problems can improvements be made” (Scientology 1994). By putting the onus on the individual Scientology supports the notion that we are in charge of the creation of our personalities, that we can be the people we choose to be. Indeed, the Church’s late founder L. Ron Hubbard is treated like a prophet by Scientologists, and has been called a “powerful personality” (Wallis 1976).

Scientology may be one of the most successful of the self-help organizations, but it is also one of the most controversial. According to John Sweeney, a BBC journalist who recently made a documentary about the religion, “Scientology has two faces – nice and smiley, and sinister and dark” (Sweeney 2007). Rumours of Scientology’s cultish practices are not uncommon: there are stories of people joining Scientology and “disconnecting” from their families; reports of brainwashing and, in 1995, accusations that the church was responsible for the death of one of its members, Lisa McPherson (Frantz 1997). Reports that Scientology is nothing more than a money-making venture – according to Operation Clambake, Hubbard once stated “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is” – detract even further from its credibility. Then there is the fact that Scientology’s metaphysical beliefs seem to be drawn from science fiction. It has been widely reported that a core belief of the Church of Scientology is that human beings were brought to Earth 75 million years ago by “an intergalactic space lord called Xenu”, who “dumped them in volcanoes and blew them up with atomic bombs” (Sweeney 2007). Despite these extraordinary and mysterious aspects, however, around 800,000 people call themselves Scientologists. From this it may be argued that Scientology’s strange, extraterrestrial nature is in fact part of its attractiveness. By combining a concern for the individual with modern business practices and a spectacular science fiction-esque belief system, Scientology has tapped into what today’s society wants from religion. That is, the ordinary combined with the extraordinary – the same product, in fact, presented by celebrities like Tom Cruise.

New religions such as Scientology and celebrities such as Tom Cruise not only relate to society in similar ways, they also support each other. According to an online biography, in 1990 Tom Cruise “renounced his devout Catholic beliefs and embraced the Church of Scientology” (IMDb). He has since gained the title of an Operating Thetan (someone who has passed the status of Clear) and is currently, according to Rolling Stone magazine, at one of the highest levels of the Church known as OT VII. Cruise speaks openly to the media about his Scientologist beliefs, and was recently married to actress Katie Holmes in a Scientology ceremony at which the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, was his best man. “I think it’s a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist”, Cruise has said (Cruise, qtd. Ross 2004). Cruise has greatly supported and promoted Scientology: according to Rolling Stone, the Church reported that in 2005 it received “289,000 minutes of radio and TV coverage” and that much of this publicity was due to the popularity of Tom Cruise, who promoted the religion and its beliefs to interviewers such as Oprah Winfrey and Matt Lauer (Reitman 2006). Scientology has returned the favour to Cruise and other celebrities, offering them “free courses” and setting up special “celebrity centres”, such as the elaborate Celebrity Centre International situated in Hollywood Hills (Figure 2) (Reitman 2006).

Celebrity Centre International

Figure 1. Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International located in Hollywood, California, USA (accessed 15th May 2009)

In 1955, the Church created a policy called ‘Project Celebrity’ that aimed to recruit famous people from different fields – such as the arts, sport and business – in order to promote Scientology (Reitman 2006). According to the official website, Scientology reveres “the great artist” and recognises that “society as a whole looks upon them as not quite ordinary beings” (Scientology 1994). The Church has been able to use the extraordinary quality possessed by celebrities to its advantage, embracing them as spokespeople for Scientology and role models for society. For their ability to “truly communicate” Scientology rewards celebrities such as Cruise – in 2004, the actor was awarded the “Freedom Medal of Valor” by Scientology for his promotion of the religion (Ross 2004). According to the ‘International Scientology News’, “[e]very minute, of every hour – someone reaches for LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] technology… simply because they know Tom Cruise is a scientologist” (Ross 2004). And in January of this year, Cruise was dubbed “the new “Christ” of Scientology”, with David Miscavige predicting that in the future the celebrity will be “worshipped like Jesus for his work to raise awareness of the religion” (Smith 2007).

Just as celebrities like Tom Cruise support Scientology, so too does Scientology support its stars. Both aspects of modern culture – the celebrity and the new religious movement – have evolved and become successful by responding to a changing society. By recognising the shift in emphasis from a communally to individually defined identity that came with modernization, Scientology and star figures like Tom Cruise were able to offer guidance where it was most needed. Both ‘religions’ are models for how to behave, for how to be in the modern world. They indicate, by emphasising individual responsibility and potential, how to create a ‘personality’, and how to operate in a business-oriented civilisation. Both Scientology and stars like Cruise successfully link the ordinariness of the everyday person to the extraordinary, out-of-this-world life that the everyday person aspires to. By joining forces to support each other’s causes that link is made even stronger, and the line between religion and popular culture becomes more blurred. As Stewart M. Hoover notes, the two are meeting on a “common turf” – the experience of living in the modern world (Hoover 2001). It is by recognising this everyday world and life within it that celebrities and Scientology are able to speak so clearly within contemporary culture.



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Scientology: Something can be done about it, © 1994, 2004, L. Ron Hubbard Library.

Author Bio

Contact Email: frizzle84@hotmail.com

Televisual Control: The Resistance of the Mockumentary – Wendy Davis


This paper argues that television articulates an operation of power that can be usefully conceptualised through the Deleuzian notion of control. Drawing on the writings of Gilles Deleuze and other French philosophers, the paper examines television’s cultural and technological force through the notion of control with specific reference to the television mockumentary. Through a discussion of the Australian mockumentary We Can Be Heroes (Chris Lilley 2005) the paper also outlines the capacity of television to offer opportunities of resistance to its operations of control. Beginning with an acknowledgement of Deleuze’s position on the role of television (cf short essays 1995a; 1995b, 1995c), this paper proposes that televisual control holds the potential for a mode of “inhabited resistance”. Exploring the mockumentary television mode and its theorisation, the paper develops the concept of inhabited resistance to describe a complicit, pragmatic and creative formation of resistance. This type of resistance works from within the televisual operations of control. Generated from control and unable to escape it, the relation of control and inhabited resistance assists in describing the formation and practice of the television mockumentary as an idiosyncratic and particular televisual form.


Written and performed by Australian comedian Chris Lilley, We Can Be Heroes is a six part mockumentary first screening in Australia on the ABC television network in 2005. Following the stories of five characters who have each been nominated for the annual Australian of the Year awards, We Can Be Heroes is a biting, blackly comic satire on contemporary Australian culture and values. Lilley plays each of the characters, and the series never strays from the strictly documentary style and aesthetic, which is a feature of the mockumentary. In this paper We Can Be Heroes is employed as an example illuminating television’s connection to the contemporary operation of power, described by Gilles Deleuze, as one of control (1995a; 1995b; 1995c). The particular resonance of the mockumentary with the quintessential television practices of documentation, observation and surveillance allows us to consider television’s operation of control: for the mockumentary explicitly calls into question television’s capacity to capture and broadcast real events. In this way, television mockumentary can be viewed as reflexively addressing the medium’s technological qualities. Connected to the spread of reality television, and with a common ancestry in documentary practice and technique, the mockumentary tells us much about the state of Western television in the early 21st century. In particular, it is in the mockumentary form that we can observe television’s potential to offer up formations of resistance to the operation of control, what I term here “inhabited resistance”. While the question of resistance in television studies can be seen as somewhat problematic, here I offer the concept of inhabited resistance to describe pragmatic, creative televisual practices and movements of resistance.[1]

The Age of the Mockumentary?

The mockumentary is now a recognisable and popular television style. As such, it invites further consideration both in terms of specific programs like We Can Be Heroes, as well as the way in which the television practice of mockumentary may be theorised. Looking back at the past few years of television production, we can observe an increase in the production of television mockumentaries. In Australia alone we have seen We Can Be Heroes and its later counterpart Summer Heights High (Chris Lilley 2007, ABC TV), as well as Frontline (Working Dog 1994–5, ABC TV; 1997), Kath and Kim (Jane Turner and Gina Riley 2002–4, ABC TV; 2007, Seven Network) and The Librarians (Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope 2007 ABC TV). Similarly, the form is evident overseas with Britain’s The Office (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant 2001–2003, BBC TV), together with Arrested Development (Mitchell Hurwitz 2001–2003, Fox) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David 1999; 2000–-present, HBO) in the United States. These television mockumentaries have precedents in film, with productions such as Rob Reiner’s infamous This is Spinal Tap (1984, Embassy Pictures, USA), as well as the later works of Christopher Guest such as Best in Show (2000, Warner Brothers, USA), Waiting for Guffmann (1997, Sony Pictures, USA) and A Mighty Wind (2003, Warner Brothers, USA).

As its name suggests, the mockumentary is constructed using the documentary style, and it mocks both the characters and scenarios it presents, as well as documentary’s traditional, social, realist functions. These features have been summarised by John Corner as documentary’s ‘project of democratic civics’, its ‘journalistic inquiry’ mode, and ‘documentary as radical interrogation and alternative perspective’ (Corner 2002, 259). What happens when documentary becomes mockumentary is analysed at length by Roscoe and Hight (2001). They note that while the central function of the mockumentary is parody, there is an ‘ambivalence’ and ‘ambiguity’ to this parody, whereby the mockumentary generates both ‘contempt’ and ‘sympathy’ towards the object of its parody (2001, 30). They also observe that ‘parodic texts talk to a knowing viewer’, working as parody ‘only if we are familiar with the codes and conventions of documentary and its serious intent’ (2001, 31). Roscoe and Hight classify three levels of mockumentary. ‘Parody’ focuses on an aspect of popular culture rather than documentary practice (2001, 68). ‘Critique’ includes some critique of documentary practice (2001, 69) and ‘deconstruction’ involves a sustained critique of the documentary (2001, 72). Roscoe and Hight, in effect, are defining a genre, one that reflexively references the documentary through a comic practice. However, as well considering mockumentary in terms of genre, I would argue it is productive to consider it more broadly, as a television practice or style. This allows us to engage with a mockumentary series such as We Can Be Heroes in terms of what it demonstrates about the current field of television, not only in terms of content and genre, but also in terms of plays of force, power and the televisual mobilisation of resistance.

This perspective resonates with John Corner’s identification of a ‘postdocumentary’ culture of television (2002). In his essay, Corner observes that there has been a ‘radical dispersal of documentary energies across the schedules’ (2002, 263). We can understand mockumentaries (as comedies that utilise a documentary style) as connected to the radical dispersal Corner describes. While he does not specifically mention the mockumentary form, what he describes as the most recent transformation in documentary style – the ‘documentary as diversion’ (2002, 255-269) – connects strongly with We Can Be Heroes and other television mockumentaries. So as a fictional comedy, the veracity of We Can Be Heroes, as a truthful account of supposedly everyday Australian heroes, is not the source of its success or appeal. However, We Can Be Heroes also employs the aesthetic style of the documentary that Corner defines as ‘documentary as journalistic enquiry and exposition’ (2002, 259) with the structuring mode of ‘reporting’ where the camera functions as a ‘witness to visual evidence’ (Corner 2002, 259).

We Can Be Heroes is performed outside the traditional three camera sitcom studio, without a live audience or laugh track, instead using location shooting and thus coding its images with the authenticity associated with the documentary function. We Can Be Heroes also employs the unseen narrator typical of documentary, using the authoritative voiceover of well-known Australian journalist Jennifer Byrne to connect the stories of the five protagonists. It is this combination that produces We Can Be Heroes in the style of the mockumentary (rather than a traditional TV sitcom) and is arguably the source of its attraction for television audiences, as well as for television studies.

Corner’s description of the dispersal of documentary energy across the television schedule (2002), visible in the mockumentary form, is particularly relevant with regard to television’s operations of control. That is, what Corner describes as “documentary energy” (2002) can be understood as the disciplinary procedure of observation. As he notes in some earlier writing, ‘[t]he idea of unseen observation’ is ‘central to documentary aesthetics’ (Corner 1996, 85). In documentary’s journalistic, reporting mode the role of the television camera is to “impartially” observe incidents and occurrences, providing a record of them in audiovisual form.

Corner’s characterisation of such procedures as “energy” is particularly suggestive in terms of my present discussion. If, in the contemporary television landscape the documentary impulse to observe now operates as energy, it is potentially able to move and insert itself into various television styles and formats. This allows the observational, surveillance practice of the traditional documentary mode to infuse other genres and television practices. Thus, images and sounds are produced that might perform different functions, with different effects to those of the traditional mode of the documentary. In understanding the mockumentary as an adaptation of the documentary impulse for surveillance and observation, we can use the form as an example for discussing television’s technological operations of control, as well as its potential for offering a mode of inhabited resistance.

Television: A technology of control

The potential connection between television and control invites further investigation. In Deleuze’s discussion in ‘Letter to Serge Daney’ (1995a) he comments on the relationship between television and cinema, highlighting their differences through television’s operations of control. Together with some of Deleuze’s other short writings, this essay enables us to see more clearly the resonances between television and control under consideration here.

Deleuze defines the differences between television and film in this essay in terms of questions of form and function. Cinema is an aesthetic form, while, in comparison, TV is characterised by a social function: a consequence of its operations of control. As Deleuze describes: “TV’s social functions … stifle its potential aesthetic function. TV is, in its present form, the ultimate consensus: it’s direct social engineering, leaving no gap at all between itself and the social sphere, it’s social engineering in its purest form”. (1995a, 74) In his essay, Deleuze sees TV’s social engineering, and its capacity to intervene directly in the social sphere, as significantly endangering cinema’s viability as a cultural and artistic form. Indeed, Deleuze somewhat gloomily notes that ‘it’s from television that there comes the new threat of a death of cinema’ (1995a, 75). Deleuze explains that this is ‘[b]ecause television is the form in which the new powers of “control” become immediate and direct’ (1995a, 75).

To clarify just what Deleuze means when he signals the concept of control we can look to his ‘Postscript on Control Societies’ (1995b, 177-182). Here Deleuze describes the society of control, drawing points of distinction with the operation of disciplinary power. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s powerful analysis of discipline (1977), Deleuze (1995a, 1995b, 1995c) argues that a change in social formations of power can be observed with the contemporary operation of control. We could summarise Foucault’s project in terms of his detailed description of mechanisms of disciplinary power (surveillance, observation), which are visible in various modern institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals), and have the correlative effect of making visible the resistive practices of delinquency (1977).

It is important to realise that the relation between discipline and control is not characterised by opposition, or a linear transition from one form to the other. Rather, there is a connection and overlap between the two forms. As Brian Massumi notes, in the society of control, ‘disciplinary command functions are not dismantled, but rather released. They disseminate and vary, coming to be even more finely distributed throughout the social field’ (1998, 56). Control, then, might be characterised as the intensive dispersal of particular disciplinary operations. Specifically, Deleuze discusses control through its transformed operations of force, its smoothing of boundaries, and as a mode of capitalism and production. More significantly, Deleuze’s comments also act as a starting point for formulating the concept of inhabited resistance which connects strongly with the television form of the mockumentary. In this paper, I consider how television can be understood as a technology of control in terms of these qualities. This grounds my discussion of how control is evident in the television mockumentary, as well as the potential realised in this form for inhabited resistance to televisual control.

Control operates through what Deleuze describes as processes of ‘modulation’ (1995b, 179). He observes how, ‘[c]ontrol is short-term and rapidly shifting, but at the same time continuous and unbounded, whereas discipline was long-term, infinite and discontinuous’ (Deleuze 1995b, 181). As Rodowick points out, here we can see a “wave-like” conception of force emerging, ‘[w]here the idea of waves or currents becomes the dominant conception of force’ (2001, 208). Hence, Deleuze’s observation that controls, in contrast to discipline, ‘are a modulation, like a self-transmuting molding continually changing from one moment to the next’ (1995b, 179).

This image of continual modulation is crystallised in Deleuze’s metaphor: [s]urfing has taken over from all the old sports’ (1995b, 180), a description that articulates the undulations and modulations of the operations of force in the control society. Clearly, there is a resonance that can be observed between control’s characteristics of force and television’s operations as a technology. Given television’s constitutive technical processes of scanning and transmission, Deleuze’s association of television with control would seem to be appropriate. Modulation and waves are also apt descriptions of the way the technology transmits a fluctuating stream of images and information. And in this technical description we find a resonance with the technological concept of liveness, as well as TV’s capacity to observe and broadcast “real” events, seemingly as they happen.

There is a strong relation between these technical capacities of television and the practice of documentary. That is, to varying degrees the premise of the documentary is that television observes, captures and broadcasts the “real world”. Television’s predilection for documenting the world, and the connected assumption that this is a worthwhile and interesting practice, is what is reflexively addressed by the mockumentary, with its frequently absurd and banal parodies of everyday life.

Connected to control’s modulating operation of force, Deleuze (1995b) describes a second characteristic of control as the smoothing out of institutional barriers. As Deleuze notes, ‘[w]e’re in the midst of a general breakdown of all sites of confinement – prisons, hospitals, factories, schools, the family’ (1995b, 178). He describes further how:

In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything – business, training and military service being coexisting metastable states of a single modulation, a sort of universal transmutation. (Deleuze 1995b, 179)

Thus, in disciplinary societies there was a conceivable separation between institutions and spaces such as those of the family, school and work. With the boundaries between institutions and spaces that produce distinctive behaviours blurring, then individuals can be produced as child-student-worker in the open field of the control society. They modulate between each of these positions depending on the variable intensities of force at particular moments.[2]

These features of control also resonate with the technological operation of television. In its production and flow of images, television also has the capacity to smooth boundaries; between public space and private space (arguably anachronistic concepts), between local events and the saturating worldwide broadcast of them. The technology is mobile, with a reach that extends to all corners of the globe. Television has become an inescapable part of our culture, neatly described by Uricchio as “ubiquitous” (1998). TV transmits everything, from wars, floods and famines, to cats trapped up trees, throughout our social field. This means that all places and events in our contemporary culture are implicitly or explicitly “televisual”. They have the potential to receive a television broadcast and they are potential sites for the generation of new television images. By executing its technological mobility through an intense dispersal in our social and institutional fields, television is indeed a technology of control.

Despite the time that has passed since Deleuze made these comments regarding television and control, his essays remain useful starting points for considering contemporary television practice. We would no doubt question Deleuze’s privileging of cinema over television, and his use of aesthetic criteria to do so, together with his lack of consideration of cinema’s potential operations of control. However, the value of looking to these essays is not only the specific reference to televisual control. Deleuze’s discussions in these essays form part of his oeuvre, and the concepts I refer to here are more fully explored in his other writings, both individually and in collaboration with Felix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus 1987; Foucault 1988). So, although we may have some minor reservations, these essays are valuable for initiating further discussion and as points from which to develop new analytical concepts.[3] For while television has clearly transformed as a cultural technology, in the intervening years I would argue that the technological operations of control have not waned, but rather, intensified.

Considering these characteristics of control, what is particularly incisive about We Can Be Heroes is that it holds up to ridicule the celebration of mediocrity and ordinariness on the very medium and technology that was part of the mobilisation of this strong vein in Australian culture in the first place. The role of television is clearly under the microscope in this, and other mockumentaries. For is it not through TV that audiences have become schooled and accepting of the dramatisation of the everyday life? In the now ubiquitous genres of reality TV, we can clearly observe the collapse of public and private domains which Deleuze notes is characteristic of the society of control. Writing on The Office Tara Brabazon neatly summarises one effect of such contemporary media practices: ‘[w]hen ordinary people are placed in an extra-ordinary situation and granted value and celebrity, cultural and critical literacies are devalued. Mediocrity is celebrated…the consequences of feted ordinariness are revealed’ (2004, 107). Indeed, as with The Office, We Can Be Heroes furthers our understanding of this aspect of contemporary media that Brabazon identifies. We Can Be Heroes satirises our culture’s tendency to place “ordinary” and “everyday” people in the spotlight, shifting the frequently unremarkable details of their daily lives into the public domain. In this way, not only is the public-private boundary irretrievably blurred, but their lives accrue the added value of celebrity, merely by being seen on television. And it is the disjunction between the characters’ growing belief in their own uniqueness, and the audience’s recognition of the absolute ordinariness that provides both the humour, and the pathos, of these programs.

We Can Be Heroes also utilises a flexible camera perspective, discarding the three camera set up traditionally found in studio based sitcoms. This means scenes can follow the characters wherever they go. As is the case with so much television documentary, the boundaries between public and private, inside and outside are fluid and open, meaning that nothing is out of bounds. Technologically, this feature of the documentary, and the mockumentary, connects to the operation of control, where television’s globalising, modulating force means traditional oppositional boundaries can be smoothed out through the technological production of the television image. The mockumentary then, adopts the same technique, but with the addition of its satirical intent it also questions the reality of such images.

Deleuze also describes the new procedures of the control society in terms of a “mutation in capitalism” (1995b, 180) in a way that resonates with television’s operations. Specifically, he comments on the contrasting capitalist modes of production between discipline and control:

[N]ineteenth-century capitalism was concentrative, directed towards production, and proprietorial… But capitalism in its present form is no longer directed toward production … It’s directed toward metaproduction. It no longer buys finished products or assembles them from parts. What it seeks to sell is services, and what it seeks to buy, activities. It’s a capitalism no longer directed toward production but toward products, that is, toward sales or markets. Thus it’s essentially dispersive, with factories giving way to businesses. (Deleuze 1995b, 180-81)

What Deleuze describes here is a widely accepted view of the changes in capitalism that have accompanied the explosion of consumer society since the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, Massumi provides a succinct summary of this transformation in capitalism that supports Deleuze’s description when he states that, “[c]apitalism is now more processual than it is productive, more fundamentally energetic than object oriented” (1992, 134). We need look no further than the proliferation of media and mass communication technologies, including television, for the type of service, market-oriented capitalism that Deleuze identifies as characteristic of control.

Indeed, contemporary culture’s fetishization of fame for its own sake (seen for example in the celebrity figure of Paris Hilton) is placed under the microscope in We Can Be Heroes. For each character (all of them played by Chris Lilley) uses their nomination as a stepping-stone for seeking fame in an unrelated area. Canberra student Ricky Wong has invented a groundbreaking solar panel, but what he really wants is an acting career on the popular Australian television soap opera Home and Away (1988-present Seven Network). Foul-mouthed South Australian teenager Daniel Sims is donating his eardrum to his twin brother, but he wants to be a famous rapper.

Daniel and Nathan Sims ABC 2005

Figure 1: Daniel and Nathan Sims. Source http://www.abc.net.au/tv/heroes/daniel/photos1.htm ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

Ex-policeman Phil Olivetti from Brisbane saved some children from a wayward jumping castle. He dreams of becoming a motivational speaker. Snobby Sydney schoolgirl J’aime King sponsors up to 80 children in the third world, but mistakenly believes she is supermodel material.

Jaimes sponsor board ABC 2005

Figure 2: J’aime’s sponsor board. Source http://www.abc.net.au/tv/heroes/jamie/photos.htm ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

While middle-aged housewife Pat Mullins in Western Australia has perfected the little known sport of “rolling”, setting a world record in rolling from Perth to Fremantle and during the course of the series is preparing for her next challenge. In seeking entry into contemporary culture’s (and particularly television’s) machinic production of fame and celebrity, what we see here in the characters Chris Lilley develops and portrays is a microcosm of control’s capitalist metaproduction of activities and services, reproduced thematically in the mockumentary.[4]

By outlining some of control’s central characteristics, including its modulating operations of force, the smoothing of institutional and social boundaries, and new procedures of capitalism, this paper has highlighted connections and resonances between television and control. Moreover, if television has been instrumental in this fusing of public and private into a modulating open space, where the ordinary and everyday become prime fodder for surveillance, observation and display, then television might also have the potential to question and critique such practices of force and power. In We Can Be Heroes this happens with a vengeance, not only thematically, but also formally through the practice of mockumentary.

Not only does Deleuze’s description of the control society provide an instructive perspective on television’s operation as a contemporary technology, the theory of control can also generate a discussion about the potential for forming modes of resistance as part of television’s operation. In order to look at how a television mockumentary like We Can Be Heroes makes an operation of resistance to control visible, we can first consider in more detail the formation of resistance within the televisual operation of control.

Television Mockumentary as Inhabited Resistance

If the operation of control represents a shift in the formation and workings of social power, then it is possible also to consider the political dimension of this transformation. As We Can Be Heroes clearly demonstrates, the mockumentary has a great potential for cultural critique and political comment. This is the kind of process Michael Hardt might be referring to when he notes that ‘[t]he place of modern liberal politics has disappeared’ (1998, 142). Although, rather than simply bemoaning our deficit of political action, we can now (somewhat more optimistically) explore whether the places and spaces of politics may have shifted. Surely in our contemporary digital, media, image-affluent culture, forms and technologies like television offer opportunities for political and culturally resistive constructions.

Implicit in Hardt’s comment is that, with the transformation of the control society, oppositional critical positions are fast becoming both ineffectual and anachronistic. However, a more pertinent question is not whether control constructs an apolitical culture, but rather how the notion of politics and resistance changes with the emergence of the control society. What mockumentaries show us is that, in the televisual field of control, our entire conception of resistance must change, allowing us to see how movements and practices of resistance no longer work from an oppositional, outside position. Rather they “inhabit” the very forms they also resist.

Deleuze is not very optimistic about the possibility of constructing effective modes of resistance in the society of control.[5] His comments in shorter writings in this regard are fairly brief and a little speculative. In ‘Letter to Serge Daney’ Deleuze asks, ‘whether this control might be reversed, harnessed by the supplementary function opposed to power: whether one could develop an art of control that would be a kind of new form of resistance’ (1995a, 75). Deleuze also questions control’s politics of resistance in the conclusion of the ‘Postscript’ essay, asking whether trade unions still have a role to play, ‘or will they give way to new forms of resistance against control societies?’ (1995b, 182). Indeed in these writings he seems rather despondent at times about the consequences of control, somewhat pessimistically noting: “Compared with the approaching forms of ceaseless control in open sites, we may come to see the harshest confinement as part of a wonderful, happy past. The quest for “universals of communication” ought to make us shudder”. (Deleuze 1995c, 175) The central difficulty with the control society seems to be that there is no outside position from which resistance might be developed and maintained. With the smoothing out of boundaries and the operation of control no longer specific to particular institutions, there is no escape from control’s operations. Thus, indistinctness and flexibility in terms of critical positions also develop.

This connects to Deleuze’s point of dissatisfaction with television. Deleuze’s description of the technology allows for no “gap” between its operation and the “social sphere”. If that is the case, then it is extremely difficult to resist television’s operations, because, as a technology of control, television does not accommodate locations from which to escape or oppose its operation. However, rather than simply be defeated by the seemingly endless power of televisual control, we can also consider ways in which formations of resistance might be constructed to counter the intense and modulating forces of control.

Massumi describes control in terms of ‘the principle of complicity, or untranscendable control’ (1998, 58): a key point for any consideration of control and resistance. Deleuze hints at the type of complicit behaviours such resistance might encompass in his interview ‘Control and becoming’ (1995c): “It’s true that even before control societies are fully in place, forms of delinquency or resistance (two different things) are also appearing. Computer piracy and viruses, for example, will replace strikes and what the nineteenth century called ‘sabotage’ (‘clogging’ the machinery)”. (Deleuze, 1995c, 175) These comments by Deleuze suggest that the kind of resistive practice required for the operation of control is one generated from within the system, rather than from outside it.

This is a significant point in terms of control’s politics of resistance, and the suggestion is elaborated on further by Rodowick in his discussion of the resistive strategies appropriate to control, which he conflates with digital culture. He writes:

The question then is how to introduce some friction into “friction-free” capitalism… The ethics and tactics of the “digital underground” are exemplary in this respect: culture jammers, guerrilla media, cyberpunk culture, warez or software pirates, hackers and phone freaks all provide rich material for examining the creative possibilities that already exist for resisting, redesigning, and critiquing digital culture. (Rodowick 2001, 233-34)

Again, the types of resistive behaviours Rodowick describes are practices that inhabit and take advantage of a system, disrupting and resisting from a position within it. Such practices recognise the unavailability of an oppositional, outside critique.

By noting these examples’ complicit mode of operation and their “inside” relation with the system they are disrupting, we can see the potential of certain practices to produce new locations from which to operate in different ways to that which the system proscribes. As Rodowick notes, this is a “tactical” and “creative” response to the operations of control. However, it is important to emphasise here that the endpoint of such a complicit mode of resistance is that ultimately it is reassimilated into the modulating flows of capitalist control.

The practice of producing a mockumentary can be understood in these terms. That is, by infusing the televisual documentary style and practice of observation and surveillance with the comic tendencies of parody and satire, the mockumentary is a peculiarly disjunctive synthesis of comedy and documentary: it is both these things at once and the tension between the comic and documentary mobilises a creative, pragmatic televisual practice that can be conceptualised as an inhabited resistance. This tension between the comic and the documentary resistively inhabits the televisual field to produce a different form, a different televisual practice. That is, We Can Be Heroes is neither simply comedy nor documentary but combines elements of both into an unusual viewing experience. It is funny, dramatic and often uncomfortable viewing.

A good example of this is the comic pathos which emerges throughout the Ricky Wong storyline. There is comedy here in Ricky’s seemingly ludicrous efforts to play the lead indigenous character in the student musical, “Indigeridoo”. This comedy exists somewhat uneasily with the dramatic scenes between Ricky and his father (who is less than enthusiastic about his son following his acting dreams). So while We Can Be Heroes documents the difficult relationship between Ricky and his father without emphasizing any comedy, the other aspect of the Ricky storyline conforms to the comic mocking we would associate with the mockumentary. So we can see how the inclusion of the comic as part of the televisual documentation of Ricky Wong can be conceptualised as inhabited resistance. The comic inhabits the documentary, resisting its more serious impulses and connotations. In doing so, a new television form is created, the mockumentary. In this way we can see how the televisual field is resistively inhabited by the mockumentary, however, ultimately any transformation of television’s operations is only ever fleeting and transitory, in so far as it only lasts until the start of the following program.

As a concept, inhabited resistance resonates with Deleuze’s suggestions on the forms which resistance might take: ‘The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control’ (Deleuze 1995c, 175). Deleuze’s choice of words is significant here. That is, we may momentarily “elude control”, but we cannot escape it. Again, his comments point to a tactical and complicit practice of resistance, rather than an oppositional mode of operation. The need for tactical, complicit responses to control is also evident in Deleuze’s more explicit request for creativity to form part of control’s transformed relations of power and resistance. He declares: ‘Our ability to resist control, or our submission to it, has to be assessed at the level of our every move. We need both creativity and a people’ (Deleuze 1995c, 176).

Massumi also sees that there is potential for resistance in the society of control but specifies that it must take a particular form. He points out that such resistance ‘would define itself less as an oppositional practice than as a pragmatics of intensified ontogenesis’ (1998, 60). Massumi also comments on the particular characteristics of such a pragmatic form of resistance:

Productive interference patterns that fail to resonate with capitalist legitimation, either by excess or by deficiency or with humor, are at least momentarily unassimiliable by the supersystem … Tactical noncommunication might take a ritualistic form, mimicking the ritual legitimation of capitalist power, to very different effect – and affect. For it would not be sadistic but joyful, not exorcistic but invocational, calling forth what are, again from the point of view of the supersystem, vague and alien powers of collective existence whose determinations escape. (Massumi 1998, 61)

Again, we can see a reference to tactics here, as well as the potential of such tactics to encompass excess, humour and joy as ways of operating in a resistive relation to the processes of control. This is a point that it is useful to consider further in developing the concept of inhabited resistance for television, defined by pragmatic, tactical and complicit ways of operating in the control society. Moreover, Massumi’s description hints at the potential Michel de Certeau’s writing on the tactical practice of everyday life has for developing the concept of inhabited resistance for the society of control. The notion of everyday life being a tactical practice is thematically evident throughout most of the characters’ stories of We Can Be Heroes. For example, what the five protagonists have in common is a desire to inhabit their lives in different ways. They are striving to create new identities for themselves: Phil Olivetti as a motivational speaker, Ricky Wong as an actor, Daniel Sims as a rapper, Pat Mullins as a “roller” and J’aime King as a philanthropist turned celebrity. We see them creatively using the “heroic” events of their Australian of the Year nominations for different purposes. That is, they are tactically self-serving in their pursuit of fame.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau explores how everyday life can be understood as a “politics”. Through a consideration of the “tactical ways of operating” available to individuals in contemporary culture, his theory has some extremely productive resonances with Deleuze’s concept of control. De Certeau also points to the possible humour and joy that tactical practices of resistance can mobilise. Like Deleuze, de Certeau observes a transformation of the contemporary social field into a modulating and contingent space, describing both its freedoms and its intense, multiple procedures of control. De Certeau writes: “The system in which they [consumers] move about is too vast to be able to fix them in one place, but too constraining for them ever to be able to escape from it and go into exile elsewhere. There is no longer an elsewhere”. (de Certeau 1984, 40) Distinct from the quasi-criminal practices discussed by Rodowick and Deleuze, de Certeau’s ideas resonate with Massumi’s comments suggesting the political potential of a resistive practice of humour, as well as the overall joy this might produce. De Certeau points out that, ‘such a politics should inquire into the public… image of the microscopic, multiform, and innumerable connections between manipulating and enjoying, the fleeting and massive reality of a social activity at play with the order that contains it’ (de Certeau 1984, xxiv). Here de Certeau invokes a joyful, contingent mode of resistive practice, one that is part of the social field as well as using it to a different purpose. Such a practice is defined by a playful, creative relation, producing an alternative mode of existence.

De Certeau’s writing furthers the concept of an inhabited mode of resistance with some evocative images of tactical practice: ‘It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse’ (de Certeau 1984, 37). Moreover, de Certeau observes a potential connection between this mode of tactical practice and “wit”. By manipulating and enjoying the unexpected opportunities for resistance in the social field through ‘[c]ross-cuts, fragments, cracks and lucky hits in the framework of a system, consumers’ ways of operating are the practical equivalents of wit’ (de Certeau 1984, 38). Again, this theoretical observation is thematically and narratively evident in the journeys of the We Can Be Heroes characters. So often we see characters take advantage of a situation and twist it for their own personal ambition. Daniel Sims’ crude attempts at rapping for the camera during interviews is one example. Similarly, J’aime King’s continual selfish preening for the cameras, overshadowing her sponsoring of third world children is another instance of a manipulation of an individual opportunity for self-advancement. Whether or not they are successful is ultimately beside the point. It is in the attempt to manipulate an opportunity that we can observe a tactical, inhabited mode of resistance.

Phil olivetti ABC 2005

Figure 3: Phil Olivetti and the jumping castle. Source http://www.abc.net.au/tv/heroes/phil/photos.htm © Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

This engagement with critical theory allows us to now return to We Can Be Heroes with fresh eyes and concepts to better understand its significance in the television landscape, not simply as an increasingly popular television genre, but as a practice that highlights the capacity of television to accommodate tactical and resistive movements within its field of operation. Through the flexible utilisation of techniques of surveillance and observation in combination with the mockumentary’s comic, satirical tendencies, we can understand the mockumentary not only as “mocking” the documentary tradition, but also as one fulfilment of the televisual operation of control. That is, mockumentaries, such as We Can Be Heroes, can be described not only generically, but also as one way in which television reveals to us how the disciplinary impulses of documentary transform. That is, as part of the televisual operations of control, documentary combines its energies with other televisual practices such as humour. While I have noted a number of thematic and narrative examples here so far, we can also understand the mockumentary as a stylistic or aesthetic practice of inhabited resistance. The mockumentary’s comic tendencies infuse and inhabit the documentary practice of television observation that structures the look and feel of the series. It is in this practice that we can locate an operation of inhabited resistance.

Apart from the satire mobilised in the construction of the characters and the narrative, this mockumentary (and others like it) can be understood as “playing” with the forms and field of television production, albeit from a place within it. In other words, to recall de Certeau, the mockumentary is a tactical televisual practice of inhabited resistance. It draws on those quintessential features of television (the capacity to record and broadcast real people and events). Yet, as these practices increase and flow through the television field accompanying TV’s technological intensification of control, they infuse and combine with other forms, such as television comedy, creating new forms like the mockumentary. By seeing the mockumentary as a televisual practice of inhabited resistance, at once complicit with, yet also creatively resisting, television’s well-established practices, we can begin to comprehend the flexibility and potentially resistive characteristics of this form. This is most evident in the moments of awkward discomfort mobilised through the mockumentary’s fusion of comedy and drama. We can think particularly of the resolutions of the various characters’ stories. One of the scenes that is most difficult to watch is when Phil Olivetti’s deception of his family is exposed at the Australian of the Year ceremony in Canberra. Here, the mockumentary demonstrates its capacity to swiftly shift from comedy to drama. To a large degree, the flexibility in the tenor of the program allows allows the mockumentary to resist categorisation simply as comedy. We Can Be Heroes functions as cultural critique, drama, comedy and even sometimes horror. The boundaries between different television forms and the whole notion of genre becomes fluid, arguably in a way that corresponds with the smooth-striated institutional fluidity of the control society. As Brett Mills notes, ‘the conventional sitcom form has been repeatedly challenged in recent years’ (2004, 68). And indeed the television mockumentary represents a clear challenge to the sitcom.

By portraying its characters through the comic techniques of excess and exaggeration, to the point where some of them tip from the realm of the comic to the horrific and tragic, We Can Be Heroes also creatively inhabits audience expectations of the comic to produce a different formation. In this series, the mockumentary has a flexible relation between comedy and drama. We Can Be Heroes swings effortlessly between each of these different tenors. One minute the audience may be laughing, the next minute we can cringe in horror or feel genuine empathy for the characters. Phil Olivetti and J’aime King are both monstrously selfish and self-serving creations at whom we conceivably gape in horrified awe.

pat terry mullins ABC 2005

Figure 4: Pat and Terry Mullins. Source http://www.abc.net.au/tv/heroes/pat/photos.htm ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

In contrast, the gentler portrayals of Ricky Wong and Pat Mullins arguably evoke such empathy. Indeed, the passing away of Pat in the final episode is a stunning example of the way in which in the mockumentary, “the distinction between the ways in which the comedic and the serious are conventionally signalled have begun to be dismantled”. (Mills 2004, 68) Pat’s death was a particularly affecting moment, as was the earlier conflict between Ricky and his father regarding Ricky’s dream to follow his desire to act.

Ricky ABC 2005

Figure 5: Ricky being dramatic. source http://www.abc.net.au/tv/heroes/ricky/photos.htm ©Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

In these instances We Can Be Heroes shifts away from the functions of parody, critique and deconstruction that Roscoe and Hight (2001) identify as characteristic of the mockumentary. Arguably then, this is a mockumentary that inhabits the mockumentary form while also resisting its comic tendencies in moments of true drama. Here, we can see the potential that lies in the practice of inhabited resistance for such movements to reflexively turn and twist in even more complicit play.


Arguably, the continuing popularity of mockumentary production tells us much about the television landscape at this time. Programs such as The Office, Curb your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and We Can Be Heroes are as much about the specific characters and narratives they depict, as they are about the cultural and political force of contemporary television. By locating a discussion of the mockumentary within considerations of television’s technological operations of power, we can see certain resonances between content, form and style through the Deleuzian concept of control. If indeed television is a quintessential technology of control, then it is crucial that we consider the potential television holds for offering places and formations of resistance to control. What my discussion in this paper has shown is that even though television is strongly connected to the operation of control, such operations always hold possible complicit, and frequently playful, movements of resistance.

As the mockumentary demonstrates, in the technological operation of control our whole understanding of resistance must change, allowing us to see how resistance actually “inhabits” the very forms it resists. It acts as part of them, rather than from some outside, oppositional position. In a parasitic, pragmatic fashion, the potential for inhabited resistance accompanies all of television’s operations, and is made visible when the televisual field is disrupted and occupied in creative ways, that nonethless remain “inside” the televisual field. By recognising these technological and political capacities, we can see that despite certain claims to the contrary, television remains a peculiarly contemporary and vital technology.


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Massumi, B. 1992. A user’s guide to capitalism and schizophrenia: deviations from Deleuze and Guattari,.Cambridge Massachussetts, MIT Press.

Massumi, B. 1998. Requiem for our prospective dead (toward a participatory critique of capitalism power). In Deleuze and Guattari: New mappings in politics, philosophy and culture, edited by E. Kaufmann and K.J. Heller, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Mills, B. 2004. “Comedy verite: Contemporary sitcom form.” Screen. Vol 45(1); 63-78.

Rodowick, D.N. 2001. Reading the figural, or, philosophy after the new media. Durham; London, Duke University Press.

Roscoe, J. and C. Hight 2001. Faking it: mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality. Manchester; New York; Manchester University Press.

Uricchio, W. 1998. “The trouble with television.” Screening the Past. Vol 3; 1-10
http://www.latrobe.edu.au/www/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fir998/Wufr4b.htm (retrieved 16 August 2000).

Wise, J.M. 2002. “Mapping the culture of control: Seeing through The Truman Show.” Television and New Media. Vol 3(1); 29-47.


A Mighty Wind 2003, Christopher Guest, Warner Brothers.

Best in Show 2000, Christopher Guest, Warner Brothers.

This is Spinal Tap 1984, Rob Reiner, Embassy Pictures.

Waiting for Guffman 1997, Christopher Guest, Sony Pictures.


Arrested Development 2003-2006, Fox, USA.

Curb Your Enthusiasm 1999; 2000-, HBO, USA.

Frontline 1994-95; 1997, ABC TV, Australia.

Kath and Kim 2002-2004, ABC TV, Australia.

Kath and Kim 2007, Seven Network, Australia.

Summer Heights High 2007, ABC TV, Australia.

The Librarians 2007, ABC TV, Australia.

The Office 2001-2003, BBC TV, UK.

We Can Be Heroes 2005, ABC TV, Australia.


[1] For example Richard Dienst (1994) offers a critical position to the seminal work of John Fiske (1987). In Television Culture (1987), Fiske presents analyses of television concerned with resistive pleasures. However, his perspective on television has not been without its detractors of what is seen as an overly celebratory approach to the technology. Dienst somewhat sarcastically argues that : ‘Fiske… whistles a happy tune of resistance whenever the dark clouds of ideology gather’ (1994, 31). Stephen Heath also criticises the approach to television and popular culture represented by Fiske’s work, characterising its embrace of resistance as ‘patronizing’ (1990, 285).

[2] Deleuze’s comments on institutional breakdowns have had broader consequences and application for other theorists. For instance, Hardt (1998) engages with this aspect of control, pointing out how Deleuze’s comments provoke a new conception of space. In this ‘collapse of the walls that defined the institutions’ (1998, 140), Hardt describes how “[t]here is progressively less distinction, in other words, between inside and outside’ (1998, 140). There are connections here also to A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), where Deleuze collaborates with Felix Guattari. Of particular relevance is their discussion of smooth and striated space, where they note: “smooth space is constantly being translated, transverse into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space” (1987, 474). This description resonates with Hardt’s later observation where he observes that in the society of control, “[s]ocial space is smooth, not in the sense that it has been cleared of the disciplinary striation but rather in the sense that those striae have been generalized across society” (1995, 35). These ideas can also be employed in considering other contemporary cultural sites and technologies. For instance, Wise provides an illustration of control’s smoothing of boundaries with the increasing trend toward product placement in the media. As he observes: “[p]roduct placement represents the migration of advertisements from separated, regulated spaces into the spaces of programs, films, and eventually out of the media and into our lives” (2002, 37). This all too familiar cultural practice is an instructive example of the smoothing of boundaries between advertising, entertainment and everyday life. These aspects of media production connect in what Deleuze would describe as a “coexisting metastable state” (1995b, 179) characteristic of the operation of control.

[3] The potential cinematic operation of control is discussed in more detail in my 2006 PhD thesis, Event TV: The Production and Inhabited Resistance of Images of Control.

[4] For a discussion of the relation between television’s “machinic” qualities and its images, see Chapter Two of Dienst’s Still Life in Real Time: Theory after Television (1994).

[5] However, the notion of resistance is not one that is absent from Deleuze’s writing. In both Foucault (1988) and A Thousand Plateaus (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) resistance appears as a theme throughout, although it is not always named as such. The conceptual language of A Thousand Plateaus is filled with notions that connect to my terminology of “inhabited resistance”. Examples abound, including “lines of flight”, “becoming” and deterritorialization” (1987). Similarly, their commentary on language and linguistics where they discuss the connection and relation of major and minor languages (1987; 75-110) encapsulates to some degree my notion of inhabited resistance. For instance, Deleuze and Guattari propose that we, “[u]se the minor language to send the major language racing”(1987; 105). By “racing” they would seem to mean language can be inhabited by pragmatic, creative variations and transformations that are at once complicit and resistive. Furthermore, in Foucault (1988) Deleuze explicitly addresses the notion of resistance as he sees it emerging in Foucault’s writings. Here we understand that the potential for resistance is always present: “the final word on power is that resistance comes first” (1988; 89). Moreover, “the diffuse centres of power do not exist without points of resistance that are in some way primary; and that power does not take life as its objective without revealing or giving rise to a life that resists power.”(1988; 95). Such conceptualisations of resistance offer alternatives to more traditional notions of oppositional or dialectical formations power and resistance. In this way, they are more relevant to the complex threads and interminglings of force in the contemporary culture of control.

Author Bio

In 2006 Wendy Davis completed a PhD entitled “Event TV: The Production and Inhabited Resistance of Images of Control” with the School of Humanities at Central Queensland University. She has since published articles in Media International Australia and Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture and is currently employed as a lecturer with CQU’s Division of Teaching and Learning Services.

Contact Email: w.davis@cqu.edu.au

‘Reality is in the performance’: Issues of Digital Technology, Simulation and Artificial Acting in S1mOne – Anna Notaro

Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.
(Jean-Luc Godard)
Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our capacity to detect it.
(Viktor Taransky)/

Abstract This essay is concerned with the use of digital technologies in Hollywood cinema to argue that they perpetuate the illusionism and verisimilitude of its representations. An initial discussion of the use of digital technology in the cinema will provide the basis for an historical account of the move from avant-garde experiments in virtual, or non-human performance. Such a history is then contrasted with Hollywood appropriations of digital technologies, and its elaboration of a virtual performer – represented in a film like S1mOne (Andrew Niccol, 2002) – which is put in the service of such naturalism and illusionism. In order to appreciate their relevance, the above arguments are placed within the broader contexts of digitization, simulation and virtuality as theorized, among others, by Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard.

It was exactly thirty three years ago that Umberto Eco, following a trip to America, wrote Travels in Hyperreality. Three years later Baudrillard’s “La précession des simulacres” (1978) came out, thus marking the emergence of the ‘age of simulation’. Since then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge of critical debate, and yet some of the early observations are still common currency within today’s discussion, often marked by an uncompromising division between pessimistic (Apocalyptic) and optimistic (Integrated) intellectuals, who either condemn or embrace emergent technologies.[1] Especially in pessimistic quarters it has become a cliché to quote Baudrillard’s view that society has been reduced to simulation or to stress, in the way Eco did with reference to the USA, the commercialized aspect of the recreations and themed environments that now proliferate around the world. Today the age of simulation has acquired a new twist: it has ‘gone digital’. Its culture is one of copying, sampling, animating, imitating, hybridizing, morphing, re-enacting, re-mixing, and re-membering. Our desire to create realistic fabrications has not weakened, rather it has become stronger since we now possess the technological tools to create an alternative (virtual) reality whose seductive appeal we find irresistible.

Contemporary (popular) culture is certainly influenced by the extensive use of digital tools in domains as diverse as entertainment and news broadcasting, so much so that distinctions across media begin to blur. Interesting re-mediations (to use Bolter and Grusin’s terminology) take place for example between games and cinema – one only needs to consider films such as Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), Joysticks (Greydon Clark, 1983), Super Mario Brothers (Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton, 1993), Toys (Barry Levinson, 1993), Mortal Kombat (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1995), Wing Commander (Chris Roberts, 1999), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001), Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2001) and Resident Evil (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002), to name just a few. These films testify to a digital culture that operates in a ‘convergence mode’: the convergence of filmmaking, animation & game development; of art and technology and popular culture; of art and science.[2] It is not surprising then that different disciplines also converge in trying to provide an answer to some of the most pressing questions humanity has ever faced: what happens to our bodies and our identities in a (post-human) digital age? How do we define truth in the midst of codes and copies? How can we distinguish between the authentic and the synthetic? Cinema, itself an elaborate system for synthetic representation, is contributing to the debate in the way it knows best: by creating stories that speak to our innermost fears and desires. Maybe the contemporary craving for (hyper)realistic representation, which seems to mark our dealings with computer technology in most applications (including the cinematic) is not so much a matter of once more simulating the real – we only do that in order to recognize the way in which reality is perceived – but of learning how to build a complex world which has reality content.[3] More specifically, the status of the realism of a film’s diegetic space and its transformation under the increasing employment of digital imaging has long been a chief subject of debate in cinema and new media studies.[4]

In Future Visions Hayward and Wollen have even suggested that the “development of audiovisual technologies has been driven not so much by a realist project as by an illusionary one”. (1993, 2) Birk Weinberg in his “Beyond Interactive Cinema” (2002) has argued instead that: “The aesthetic history of media can be described on the basis of a drift towards greater realism for improved immersion of the viewer”. Others have advanced the controversial opinion that “today the real has become the new avant-garde”. (Rombes 2005) In this perspective, Rombes argues, it is rather ironic that “the re-emergence of realism in the cinema, thanks to the digital, could be traced directly to a technological form that seems to represent a final break with the real.”(2005) “But,” he asks, “is it possible to talk about the real today without being accused of a sort of retrograde orthodoxy, a naive or unreflective reversion to Bazin?” (Rombes 2005) The answer is yes, since “post-humanist theory… has told us what was always already obvious: that reality itself is an apparatus further deconstructed by cinema. In today’s landscape of self-theorizing media… it is once again safe to speak of representations of the real without putting that word in quotation marks.”(Rombes 2005) Post-humanist theory informs the reading of SimOne (Andrew Niccol, 2002) offered by Sydney Eve Matrix in “‘We’re Okay with Fake’: Cybercinematography and the Spectre of Virtual Actors in S1M0NE” (2006). In what follows below I will refute some of the conclusions drawn by Matrix to propose my reading of S1mOne as a film that demonstrates Hollywood’s ambiguous response to the crucial issues of virtuality and simulation.

Simulation One (S1mOne)

As is often the case, key concepts within academic discourse find expression in popular media – a sort of prêt à porter collection of concepts – which renders them more palatable to the general public. The issue of simulation, recurrent in a plethora of Hollywood movies, is emblematic of such a process and of its mixed results. When S1mOne by Andrew Niccol was released in 2002 critics reacted with lukewarm enthusiasm, a far cry from Niccol’s previously acclaimed achievements as a writer/director (Gattaca, 1997) and writer (The Truman Show, 1998). This was “the case of a pregnant premise being wasted by a script that takes few chances and manages to insult the intelligence of everyone in the audience”. (Berardinelli, 2002)

I share Berardinelli’s criticism, however, I would argue that the film’s shortcomings and inconsistencies are exactly what makes it worthy of critical analysis. They are to be considered in the context of Hollywood’s ambivalent attitude towards the use of new digital technology, a technology, which, while it is happily embraced (not least for the huge economic returns that it provides at the box office), is also represented in ‘apocalyptic’ terms.

The plot tells of Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), an ‘arty’ director, who gets into trouble when his prima donna, Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) storms off the set because her trailer is not big enough. Viktor’s career is saved by Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), a dying and deranged computer engineer who has created a synthetic actor that Viktor can ‘cast’ in his movie without anyone being able to tell the difference. She is the ultimate director’s fantasy, an instrument that Viktor can exploit at will for his creative purposes. In spite of his declared computer illiteracy, he manages to digitally replace Nicola with Simone and the film is a hit. At first Viktor is reluctant to use ‘Simulation One’ (shortened to Simone), but he changes his mind when he realizes that “our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it”. Viktor’s justification for creating his digital star is based on the recognition that “since we all live in one big lie… why shouldn’t [she] live too?” So, ‘a star is digitized’, and Simone soon becomes a world celebrity. In truth, Viktor’s intention was to reveal it all after the first reviews were in, since he believed that people would immediately spot the deception. However that is not the case: Simone is just another of Hollywood’s many ‘invisible effects’.[5] In the end, inevitably, like Dr. Frankenstein – tellingly, also a Victor – before him, Viktor is eclipsed by his creation. He may have created Simone, but her image is beyond his control.

Much of my interest in this film stems from the fact that it contradicts its own premises: on one side, it seems to take a stand against our digital ‘age of simulation,’ the ‘big lie’ as Viktor puts it in which we all live, on the other, it celebrates it. As Simone herself puts it: “If the performance is genuine, does it really matter if the actor is real?” Niccol seems to suggest that it does matter: in one scene Viktor is moved to tears by the performance of the ‘human’ actress Nicola Anders. Nicola’s breathtaking performance shows the sublime irony inherent in the acting profession: the more ‘authentic’ an actor qua actor. Performance, like the body and its subjectivity which embodies and enacts the performative, might have been extended, challenged and reconfigured by technology and yet, this scene suggests, the ontology of the performance (its aura and humanness) maintains a unique privileged status. Moreover, Viktor’s hubris for creating the perfect actress is in the end punished, thus warning us against the perils of misusing technology to play God and create (artificial) life. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Viktor’s Pygmalion-style manipulation of Simone is short-lived demonstrates how “Hollywood’s willingness to experiment with new technologies cannot contemplate the possibility of its own extinction”. (Notaro, 2006, 93) What could have been a witty satire of the star system and of the dangers of cinematographic illusion is blatantly contradicted by S1mOne’s marketing strategy by New Line Cinema. Besides the official S1mOne web site (http://www.s1m0ne.com/) a whole set of ‘fake’ web sites were produced for each of Simone’s movies, for some of her co-stars, for Viktor Taransky and even one for Amalgamated Film (http://www.amalgamatedfilms.com/), the fictional counterpart of New Line Cinema, thus blurring the line between cinematic fabrication and the ‘real’ studios’ need to push the film. This marketing strategy is a further indication, in a film apparently concerned with authenticity and sincerity, of Hollywood’s hypocritical stance on issues of virtuality and simulation. Also, despite Niccol’s initial statements that he wouldn’t reveal whether the character was real or not he later changed his mind, explaining that Simone’s voice and body were augmented by computer with elements of other actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, but Roberts was the principal source. The idea, according to Niccol, was to make a hybrid that was “contemporary but not so trendy that she would be quickly dated”. (rottentomatoes.com, “S1m0ne,” 2002) A commodified digital star with a long expiry date! In addition, Niccol commented, “We’re coming to the point where you won’t know if an actor or newscaster is computerized or flesh and blood… What’s more, you won’t care, as long as they impress us or move us, because as Taransky believes, ‘in our phoney world reality is in the performance”. (rottentomatoes.com, “S1m0ne,” 2002) I find it significant that Niccol himself is perfectly willing to employ technologies in a film that apparently deplores them. The reason for such an ambivalence resides in the fact that Niccol is not outside, but rather implicated in, Hollywood’s economy of manufactured celebrity and in the myth of the authentic performance. Although Niccol’s screenplay does indicate, as Matrix argues, that “digital cinema has the potential to shake up, disturb, and disrupt the methods of production in Hollywood,” (2006, 215) such a potential appears contained (and mitigated) within Hollywood’s well ‘rehearsed’ strategy to wrestle with the dilemmas of technological simulations in a fictional realm rather than in reality. In contrast to Matrix’s arguments, I propose that Niccol’s film engages but, crucially, does not disrupt the discourses concerning the impact of digital animation on Hollywood. (2006, 215)

Also worth a mention are the DVD extras which include two featurettes about the film’s production and the real-world potential for virtual actors. What emerges from the DVD extras is the view held by the special effects specialists that virtual actors (vactors) will soon be a reality (no pun intended). We discover that Rachel Roberts in order to ‘become’ Simone had to go through a process of ‘de-humanization’, in other words she had to learn how not to blink for two minutes and to control her bodily mannerism. This is an interesting turn away from what is usually required of an actor (i.e. to humanize the character), but Rachel Roberts was no actress before featuring in S1mOne, she was a model. One might argue that the true reason behind her choice is not because her face was not known in the business (hence the marketing ploy could work), rather she was perfect for the purpose of modeling the ‘look’ of the artificial actor for the ‘next season’ and, above all, willing to lend her body to be shaped into this new ‘thing to come.’ Unfortunately for Roberts, she has not become a movie star like the character she portrays; maybe she remains too human in spite of the CGI tears implanted in her eyes – ironic really if one considers that “in modern day society, being a star does not always depend upon possessing a mortal soul, but instead an aura of sexuality”. (Flanagan, 1999) Sexuality and gender have both been long standing points of interest in the world of stardom, as is visible in movies, television, music, etc. [6] Interestingly, Mary Flanagan argues that digital stars are now rising into celebrity, paralleling the rise of cinema stars in the early twentieth century. Like their cinematic counterparts, the appeal of digital stars such as Lara Croft (2001) depends heavily on their sexuality. I would argue that the difference between Lara and Simone is that for Lara the ‘authentic’ self never existed whereas Simone’s digital persona heavily relies on a ‘real’ one. The real referent, however, does not alter Simone’s status as an apt representative of the insubstantial film star who cannot actually act, a mere construction of studio publicity departments. In this sense the film falls into a tradition of satires about Hollywood (from within Hollywood itself) that stretches back at least to the 1920s. In any case, Lara and Simone have a great deal in common: they inhabit screen worlds and are both produced by the star system, commodities to be consumed by audiences, products to be desired, and ultimately, acquired. The representation of Lara and Simone is essential to understand the issues of (dis)embodiment of computer personalities and the place of gender in these embodiment relationships. There is little doubt that their bodies are nothing but an interesting culmination of numerous western ideals of beauty. Looking at the future, I don’t fully share Flanagan’s optimistic view that one day digital stars won’t be represented as ‘stereotypical female sex objects’.(1999) On this issue, I agree with Sidney Eve Matrix when, inspired by Balsamo’s arguments in Technologies of the Gendered Body (1999), she argues that “Viktor approaches digital cinema not as a technological innovation that can allow him to think outside the box, but as a tool for telling the same [masculinist] stories.” (emphasis mine 2006, 223) [7]

When Viktor, like a novel Pygmalion, creates Simone in his dark director’s room he is re-telling an old story, in that he’s re-enacting the ancient masculine dream of the creation of the ‘ideal’ woman, while realizing the more contemporary aspiration of every (digital) celebrity fan. Dissatisfied with just looking at the conventional stars within the filmic world, we now wish to embrace the very real pleasure of controlling these desired bodies through playing/interacting with them, being in a video game, or by receiving a direct customized service of sorts. This was the case for Ananova, a Web-oriented news service that featured a computer-simulated animation of a woman newscaster, named Ananova, programmed to read newscasts to Web users. Thanks to the morphing technique, Ananova’s face was the result of blending the traits of a ‘real star’ who could not sing, the former Spice Girl Posh – now better known as Victoria Beckam – and of a digital one Lara Croft. [8]


Fig. 1 Ananova (from http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2007/05/01/double-trouble-posh-spice-and-ananova/)
In this light, it becomes important to trace back that direct line from which the ‘fake’ synthespian Simone is descended in order to substantiate my claim: in Hollywood virtual actors and digital technologies are wholly in the service of a naturalistic illusion and this is in stark contrast to the anti-naturalist tendencies which characterize the (modernist) history of the artificial actor.

Artificial Actor: A Brief History

The idea to dispense with the services of human actors dates back to the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. Gordon Craig, one of the true giants of modern theatre, in his article “The Actor and the Ǚbermarionette” states: “in the beginning the human body is by nature utterly useless as a material for an art”. (1907, n.p.) [9] Craig also held the controversial conviction that actors should serve as marionettes for the guiding vision of the director, a view that a ‘real’ director Hitchcock for whom actors were cattle and a fictional one and Taransky, the puppet master would gladly share. The list of possible substitutes for the human actor includes, besides Craig’s űbermarionette, Artaud’s puppets, Mejerhold’s bio-mechanical actors, Brjùsov’s springing dolls, Schlemmer’s geometric dancers and the technological fantasies of the Italian Futurists Prampolini and Depero. Inspired by these early examples the French surrealist Hans Bellmer in 1936 built his first ‘doll’ (poupée), using in his painting a technique called morphing.[13]

The reason for dwelling on the early history of the acting profession deprived of its humanity, is to consider – as we shall see later on – contemporary trends within both theatre and cinema as the coming of age of issues first posed a century ago. In particular, I would also argue that some of the most regressive aspects in contemporary virtual representations, such as the gender issues highlighted above find an historical precedent in the more inherently problematic qualities of the avant-garde experiments with their emphasis on the controllable performer and technophiliac tendencies.

Moving to more recent times, the word synthespian, meaning an artificially-created human actor, was coined by LA-based digital effects expert Jeff Kleiser when, together with Diana Walczak they created the industry’s first virtual actor (or vactor) for the 1988 short film Nestor Sextone for President (premiered at SIGGRAPH in the same year). The satirical film featured a synthespian, Nestor Sextone, going for president of the Synthetic Actors Guild, complaining that live actors had been masquerading as synthetics, thus robbing them of jobs (a reference to Max Headroom who was portrayed in a television series by the real-life actor Matt Frewer).[14] A year later, Kleiser and Walczak presented their first female Synthespian, Dozo, in the music video ‘Don’t Touch Me’ (available at http://www.poetv.com/video.php?vid=15102).

Sextone for president
Fig. 2 Sextone for President Written and Directed by Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak © 1988 (from http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0526.html)

The female synthespian Dozo
Fig. 3 The Female synthespian Dozo performing ‘Don’t Touch Me’ Directed by Diana Walczak and Jeff Kleiser © 1989 (from http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0526.html)

1991 was an important year in that it saw the production of the first truly believable computer-generated character in the morphing metal cyborg of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Four years later, Toy Story (John Lasseter) was released, the first computer generated film in history populated entirely by digital characters in a world made of bits and bytes. By 1996, the word synthespian was common currency in Hollywood and had made its appearance in the world of literature as well, namely in the novel Idoru by William Gibson. After the release of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) it was clear for the major studios that CG life forms could be integral, even indispensable, characters in their films. The question was whether the performances by synthespians were ever going to be more convincing than the ones by human actors. Nowadays synthespians are used as background extras and for stunts too dangerous for stuntmen to perform, since fully interactive, lifelike digital humans are still far from coming on the scene. What is certain is that real actors are connected to their audience via emotion (empathy), hence the presence of a digital actor on screen is uncanny, it demands too much ‘suspension of disbelief’. [15] As Kleiser argues in his electronic piece “Synthespian“:“This is much more important than merely making an actor look indistinguishable from a human, and in many ways, much more challenging.” [16]

Let us consider Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2001) the first film with an entire cast of hyper-realistic, computer-generated human characters. Similarly to Lara Croft, Aki Ross “is the very model of a modern movie heroine: brunette, lithe, headstrong and confident.” (Hiltzik and Pham) Undoubtedly, “the producers of Final Fantasy were counting on these qualities to make the audience forget that,despite her astonishing resemblance to a living person, everything about her, from her form-fitting spacesuit to the twinkle in her eyes, was created inside a computer”.(Hiltzik and Pham) With a strategy opposite to that of the New Line that marketed the (mostly) human Simone as if she was a digital creation, Columbia Pictures marketed Ross as though she were flesh and blood. In a move that parallels what the fictional Studios Amalgamated Films did for S1mOne, the Columbia Pictures marketing campaign for Final Fantasy included a photo spread for Aki Ross in the men’s magazine Maxim and Sakaguchi, like Taransky, talked about casting Ross in a range of roles in new movies, as though she was a ‘live’ actress. (Hiltzik and Pham) Two questions are worth raising at this point: if it is true that digital techniques are making some of the most expensive aspects of filmmaking – sets, location shooting, extras, stuntmen – unnecessary and thus cutting costs, on the other hand, as Kleiser points out in his electronic article Synthespianism, “there exists a trade-off between what level of realism is possible versus how much computing time can be spent on each frame”. Final Fantasy required an extraordinary amount of money to make and the results did not pay off at the box office. However, it had the merit to reanimate, as Kleiser aptly reminds us, a 30-year debate over the role of synthespians, an idea that has intrigued programmers since Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973). With the latest generation of digital tools at their disposal (for example the motion capture technique that allows actual movement to be recorded and applied to digital characters) filmmakers are offered a range of possibilities as never before, possibilities which are having a huge impact on the whole industry. Already in November 1997 Wired magazine featured a special report on the future of Hollywood filmmaking titled “Hollywood 2.0.”. The traditional film industry based on studios, theaters and stars was depicted as evolving, under the impact of new technologies, into something completely different, “Hollywood 1.0’ was soon to become ‘Hollywood 2.0”, an entertainment world where: “computer-generated actors are competing with flesh and blood. Studios are not studios: feature films are created on desktop computers for less than US$1,000” (Daly, 1997, 1). Two years earlier another report regarded “The New Hollywood: Silicon Stars” (Parisi, 1995). In typical Wired techno-enthusiastic style readers were presented with the following ‘tantalizing’ prospects.

Digital artistry will allow actors to bioengineer themselves, or be fully bioengineered, to perfection. A performer with no aptitude for dance, for example, can have all the right moves programmed in. Stars will be constructed from the choicest body parts, in the same way dozens of animators work in concert to create a Disney character (Parisi, 1995)

Under the heading ‘Digital Frankenstein’, the article went on to present Scott Billups “the first person – in Hollywood, at least – to reach deep into the heart of his bit-circuited incubator and pull out something imbued with a spark of electronic life.” Billups is “a special-effects meister with an attitude, complaining that ‘carbon-based’ actors are glamorous ‘only until you’ve had to work with them.” He is presented as a bit of a rogue, “The first postmodern effects cowboy,” talking about a filmmaking “shift from the organic bias to the inorganic,” skeptical of commonly held beliefs – for him “a set is little more than a synthetic representation of an actual or imagined environment rendered in organic materials.” The report concluded by hinting at some of the implications of digitalization for the acting profession. Current Screen Actors Guild rules prohibit the reuse of actors’ images if it would substitute for hiring the actor, however, it was argued, “It’s reasonable to speculate that the studios will negotiate for ownership of digital rights, either during an actor’s lifetime or posthumously”. (Parisi, 1995) Since 1995 when Wired’s report was published, the most disquieting of visions, the eclipse of the human actor, has not come true and it will probably be a bit longer than the four years some programmers predict for a credible synthespian to compete with a human actor. Digital rendering is wide spread, as nearly all contemporary movies are edited to some extent by computers. Interestingly though, after years of watching movie after movie often oblivious to the seamless combination of live action and computer generated special effects we are now presented with a string of comic book movies, Sky Captain (Kerry Conran, 2004) and Sin City (Frank Miller, 2005) among others, which are a continuous visual reminder, for the spectator, of the level of artistry reached by CGI. [19]

While the time spent by human actors in front of the camera has decreased, that spent ‘inside’ a computer, in post-production, has increased dramatically. Actors might get a bit more ‘cartoon-like’, as Wired predicted, but this does not seem to hinder their (very human) acting skills (as Micky Rourke’s excellent performance as Marv in Sin City shows). The day when an artificial actor will be as convincing as a human actor impersonating a cartoon character is still far off, in the meantime though we can try and imagine how such an artificial actor might perform in the future.

The Shape of Things to Come

Synthespians (or vactors) working in movies are only one of the possible applications for digital characters whose ‘field of action’ has expanded rapidly from video games, to simulation and training, manufacturing, animated web pages, etc. Some of the most interesting concepts for willing avatars and virtual film stars are among those developed at MIRALab in Geneva. For several years this research center has worked on various ‘Humanoid’ projects whose aim is “to provide games designers, multimedia designers and film producers with the technology for creating simulations of realistic interacting humans.” (http://www.miralab.unige.ch/) The founder and director of MIRALab, Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, makes no mystery of her desire to take virtual humans to a new level. “I’m not so much interested to see pictures, which you watch passively,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to be able to live in the virtual worlds, and to meet virtual humans that are collaborators.” (Tyler, 2000)

Thalmann is not alone. Computer game developers have begun experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI), endowing game characters with the capacity to learn and interact with their environment and the game player. The applications for both the cinema and the theatre are tantalizing. The above mentioned movie director Scott Billups is also keen to bring synthespians to a new level. For the Rival comic-book spinoff Eye of the Storm, he has built Synthia, one of several vactors that, thanks to software written by Billups and his partner Mark Lambert, “will have the ability to be driven by synthetic protocol, with synthetic muscle groups.” As Billups puts it: “You just type a command. There’s no puppeting, nothing. They come up with their own scenario.” (Parisi, 1996) Billups is also following the experiments, in appropriately prosaic speech, carried out by Catherine Pelachaud and Scott Prevost at the University of Pennsylvania and designed to construct 3-D virtual agents that can execute simple commands online. Their system enables synthetics to associate appropriate speech and corresponding facial and body expressions with the task they’ve been assigned. These are all steps towards the creation of a ‘smart’ synthetic star, one that responds independently to stimuli and has its own digital consciousness, a potentially less ‘controllable’ performer than the one envisaged by the modernist avant-gardes. Words of caution, however, are not uncommon, even from insiders such as the digital effects specialist Jeff Kleiser. In his electronic article “Synthespians” he points out that: “the animator of the future will need to be a talented actor if he or she intends to create a dramatic performance in a synthetic actor. I don’t believe that performances that include this level of dramatic impact can be routinized to the level that a programmer could use for an automated animation system”. [21]

In the field of theatre, experiments with digital actors (not necessarily anthropomorphic) have also been under way. Particularly interesting is the one carried out by Claudio Pinhanez at the MIT Media Laboratory called It/I: An Interactive Theatre Play (1997). It/I, the first play ever produced involving a character reactively controlled by a computer, is a two-character theater play where the human character I is taunted and played by an autonomous computer-graphics character It. As we learn from the project’s description: “The computer playing It monitors the scene with video cameras and reacts to I’s actions by displaying real time computer graphics objects and synthesizing sound. After the play, the public is invited to go up on the stage and interact with It.” (Pinhanez, 2000) [22]

Also worth mentioning is the Virtual Theatre project directed by Barbara-Hayes-Roth at Stanford University and whose aim is to build “computer characters that can perform direct improvisation… Directors (who may be human users or others computer agents) give the characters abstract instructions. The characters work together to improvise an engaging course of behavior within the constrains of the directions”. [23]

What is worth noting about the above pioneering projects is that in the attempt to imitate human skills what has been lost is the human body. In the case of It/I the actor is ‘embodied’ so to say, in a complex set of tools on the stage (images, lights, sounds), in the second the virtual context is uniquely text based. The conceptual links between such contemporary experimentations and the ones carried out by Craig, Schlemmer, Depero or Prampolini in the early years of the twentieth century are all too clear. Their rejection of the actor-figure typical of the naturalistic, bourgeois theatre of the time in favor of new, allusive and metaphysical forms finds its contemporary counterpart in the post-human, mixed realities of cyber-performance. This is a world where the human body has no physical substance, it has become an ‘avatar’, the Sanskrit word that means ‘the descent of God’ or simply ‘reincarnation’. The avatar is just one of the latest reincarnations of the human actor, like in the case of the Colliders: four women who came online together in 2001 to form Avatar Body Collision, a collaborative performance troupe who devise and rehearse using free chat software and live (mostly) in London, Helsinki, Aotearoa/New Zealand and cyberspace.[24]

The issue which arises at this point is how to reconcile the hyper-realistic trends (i.e. the realization of the anthropomorphic ‘smart’ synthespian) with the (not necessarily human-like) figure of the cyber-performer. The answer is that the two are irreconcilable, what one can envisage is that to these two types of virtual actor will probably correspond two different types of cinema (and theatre). On the one hand, we will be presented with artificial actors as realistic as real humans, on the other with actors whose bodies have lost every anthropomorphic characteristic. The final realization, it seems, of the anti-naturalistic tendencies emerged in the early part of the twentieth century. One cannot help wondering whether the current push towards a more sophisticated reality effect, as far as the representation of the human body is concerned, will continue until the frame that demarcates a distance between reality and representation is obliterated. The most likely answer is yes. There will always be a type of cinema which feeds us exactly the illusion realities we want. However, it is not difficult to foresee a new cinematic experience emerging from the changed technical standard, a cinematic experience in which interactivity has dramatic effects on traditional Hollywood-type narrative models of storytelling. Also, given our old habit of thinking of cinema (and theatre) as the collaborative enterprise of a human triad – author, director, actor – it is fascinating to speculate on what will happen if/when any one of the triad would not be human anymore, or on what would be the impact on the same idea of authorship. [26]

In conclusion, looking back across history, we have argued that the contemporary interest in the perfect human-like synthespian should be considered in the context of humanity’s fascination with the idea of artificial life created from inanimate materials. Our digital age demonstrates such a fascination with the proliferation of stories and artifacts which express the mingled fear and desire for autonomous machines (often anthropomorphic = cyborgs) which can either make humans entirely redundant or, in the more optimistic scenario, provide a solution to the limitations of our imperfect bodies. Western subjectivity seems to be undergoing a period of transition that, according to Matthew Causey, can be constructed as a re-birth of tragedy. In his words:

Like Nietzsche’s model of the birth of tragedy rooted in the movement from the divine body to the body inscribed and reduced under the rule of societal law which finds representation in the sacrificial rituals of dismemberment (sparagmos), the ontological shift from organic to technological, televisual, and digital beingness is tragic. The tragic, in this case, finds representation and is projected in the fantasies of the fragmented and digital, medical and postcolonial body as articulated in the art of Stelarc, Orlan, and Gómez-Peña. (1999, 393)

I find Causey’s comments relevant, however, I would amend his conclusions to point out that like in Greek drama where it was not uncommon to mix the tragic with the comic (the sublime with the grotesque) a more accurate assessment of contemporary mediatized representations of the body should take such an aspect into account. The recurrence of Surrealist image motifs – mannequin, doll, body fragment, automaton – in both the visual and performing arts signals the complex and long-standing relationship between embodiment and technology. The issues raised by robotics, machine intelligence, gene technology and information processing vitally concentrate around the question of what is to be human: as (popular) cultural representations they picture irrational fears and utopian hopes; spectacular achievement as well as disturbing uncertainties. These seem to me to be the far more pressing issues raised by emergent technologies, rather than the commonly rehearsed arguments about technophobia and technophilia. By focusing on the figure of the artificial actor in its past, present and possible future reincarnations this essay has offered a contribution to the hotly debated question of the increasing symbiotic relationship between human beings and digital technologies.


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[1] Apocalyptic and Integrated is the title of a study by Eco, published in 1964 (English translation, Apocalypse Postponed, 1994). Eco was referring to the polarized manner in which the intellectuals of the time viewed mass culture. I find the dichotomy which characterizes contemporary debates about the impact of emergent technologies on the human body and society at large similarly unhelpful. We need to move beyond the technophilia/technophobia divide and advocate a more civic involvement in the development and use of technology. On this point see Feenberg (2002).

[2] The convergence of cinema and video games is attracting growing critical attention, thus demonstrating how much film aesthetics and game theory can learn from each other. See: Krzywinska & King (2002); Jenkins, (2006); Simons (2007); Matteo Bittanti (2008). Also worth mentioning is Machinima which, as defined in the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences web site “is the convergence of filmmaking, animation and game development.” http://www.machinima.org/machinima-faq.html

[3] Or “learning to live within simulations,” as Baudrillard would have it (1990).

[4] See Prince (1996: 27-37) and Manovich (1997).

[5] As Manovich aptly reminds us “An invisible effect is the standard industry term… in 1997 the film Contact directed by Robert Zemeckis was nominated for 1997 VFX HQ Awards in the following categories: Best Visual Effects, Best Sequence (The Ride), Best Shot (Powers of Ten), Best Invisible Effects (Dish Restoration) and Best Compositing” (Manovich 2006)

[6] The literature on the Hollywood star system and its significance is extensive, of particular note is the work of Dyer (1979); Gledhill (1991), Gamson (1994); Ndalianis & Henry (2002); Redmond & Holmes (2007).

[7] A discussion of the uses of women’s bodies as a representational ground within new media technologies is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say though that current examples display a worrying tendency towards telling the same stories.

[8] The Ananova website (http://www.ananova.com/), is still operational but the animated Ananova character has been unavailable since 2004. Interestingly, the service is well known for its unusual news stories and celebrity gossip. See how Ananova’s debut was announced by the BBC in April 2000 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/718327.stm (accessed 2/3/2006).

[9] Already in 1810, Heinrich von Kleist in his “On the Marionette Theater” had argued that “where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a Puppet.” Full text available at http://southerncrossreview.org/9/kleist.htm (accessed 2/2/2008). Craig’s quote is included in John Bell’s electronic piece “Death and Performing Objects” http://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/death.txt (accessed 2/2/2007). See also by Craig’s On the Art of the Theatre (1911).

[10] Ron Miller in his “ALFRED HITCHCOCK: Did He Really Treat Actors Like Cattle?” recalls how in 1960 he asked Hitchcock if he really once said actors were like cattle. The reply was: “No… what I said was that actors should be treated like cattle.” http://www.thecolumnists.com/miller18.html (accessed 2/2/2007).

[11] For an introduction to Mejerhold’s main stage productions and to view some amazing video clips see: http://max.mmlc.northwestern.edu/~mdenner/Drama/plays/constructivist/constructivist.html (accessed 2/6/2007).

[12] For some fascinating pictures and video fragments of Schlemmer’s mechanical dancers see: http://www.digischool.nl/ckv2/moderne/moderne/schlemmer/Mechanische%20balletten.htm (accessed 2/6/2007).

[13] Almost prophetically, Bellmer used the term ‘virtual’ with reference to his painting and graphic work. Morphing is now an established artistic practice and a standard special effect in many Hollywood productions. Such a technique has implications that are both surreal (the dream of the body assembled from different parts) and fetishistic (the transfer of desire on inanimate beings). For a brief insight into Bellmer’s work see: http://www.sauer-thompson.com/junkforcode/archives/001154.html (accessed 2/6/2007). For an exploration of what digital morphing means, both as a cultural practice of our times and within the broader history of images of human transformation see Sobchack (2000).

[14] See The Max Headroom Chronicles, “a web site intended to be the most complete word on the history, milieu and supporting crew of the ’80s icon, cyberpunk legend and advertising avatar.” http://www.maxheadroom.com/mh_home.html (accessed 5/7/2007) and the Max Headroom’s profile at the Museum of Broadcast Communications http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/M/htmlM/maxheadroom/maxheadroom.htm (accessed 5/7/07).

[15] In 1970 Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term ‘uncanny valley’. He noticed that if his robots came too close to resemble human beings people found them creepy, whereas when robots only slightly resembled humans people found them cute. As Lisa Bode observes, the uncanny valley has “come to be seen as a problem for the development of photo-real digital actors: either one that must be worked through and overcome, or one that points to the very impossibility or futility of the task” (2006, 176)

[16] The site is archived at: http://web.archive.org/web/20071015081153/http://kwcc.com/works/sp/lead.html
The challenge that Kleiser refers to has been taken up more recently, and successfully, by Image Metrix, a provider of facial animation solutions for the entertainment industry and the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). The partnership has produced an animated woman using a ground-breaking modelling technique. ICT’s facial scanning system created a computer-generated replica of actress Emily O’Brien’s face at high-definition resolution, while Image Metrics brought the CG character to life by capturing, tracking and animating the actress’ performance. ‘Emily’ has just been presented at SIGGRAPH (Aug. 12-14 2008) in Los Angeles. More information at http://www.image-metrics.com/

[17] Aki Ross became the first computer-generated character entry in Maxim’s Hot 100. Not surprisingly she appeared wearing a sexy bikini. See: http://www.killermovies.com/f/finalfantasythespiritswithin/articles/1370.html (accessed 2/7/2007).

[18] One of the most important implications of digitalization for the acting profession came to light when Andy Serkis – whose talent shaped the computer-generated performance of Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002), failed to receive the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. As Ivan Askwith aptly puts it, as digital effects become increasingly prevalent: “Does the performance belong to the actor who brings a character to life, or to the production team that gives the character its form? ” (18/2/2003).

[19] In the case of these movies it looks as if naturalism was not the exclusive end product of digital animation, rather its function might be exactly the opposite: to underscore the unreality of spaces and movements.

[20] Today everyone can create a ‘V-human’ from scratch, at least according to Peter Plantec, author of Virtual Humans (New York: AMACOM, 2003) a manual that provides start-to-finish instructions for designing a synthetic person and a CD-ROM containing the software to make it ‘real’. For more info see Peter Plantec, “How to Build a Virtual Human, ” KurzweilAI.net October 20, (2003) http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0599.html (accessed 3/7/2007). Also worth noting is the recent proliferation of chat-bot characters, one of the latest being ‘Ultra Hal’, digital secretary and assistant, created by Robert Medeksza and winner of the Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence for 2007 http://www.loebner.net/Prizef/loebner-prize.html (accessed 2/2/2008). Ultra Hal can be accessed at http://www.zabaware.com/ (accessed 2/2/2008).

[21] The importance of acting skills for animators has been most strongly recognized by Ed Hooks. He is the author of Acting for Animators (2003). I am grateful to my colleague Tracey McConnell Wood for drawing my attention to Hooks’ work.

[22] For a detailed description of this project see Pinhanez & Bobick (2002, 536-548).

[23]The Virtual Theater project http://www-ksl.stanford.edu/projects/cait/ (accessed 2/3/2007).

[24] The Colliders http://www.avatarbodycollision.org/index2.html (accessed 2/3/2007).

[25] Already in the 1970s, Metz wonders whether in the future non-narrative films may become more numerous; if this happens, he suggests, cinema will no longer need to manufacture its reality effect (1980). For an overview of cinematic forms incorporating new electronic media see Shaw & Weibel (2003).

[26] Janet Murray was among the first to pose such questions in her seminal work Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (1997). For a discussion of the impact of digital technology with particular reference to questions of authorship see my “Technology in search of an artist: questions of auteurism/authorship and the contemporary cinematic experience” (2006, 86-97).

Author Bio

Dr Anna Notaro is Programme Leader and Lecturer in Contemporary Media Theory at Dundee University (UK). Her publications
include numerous articles in the field of urban/visual culture, the blogosphere, issues of authorship and contemporary cinematic practices and the Electronic Book City Sites: Chicago and New York, 1870s to1930s, (A. Notaro et al eds. available at
Contact Email: A.Z.Notaro@dundee.ac.uk
Website: http://www.notarofam.com/annawork