Intermediality and Interventions: Applying Intermediality Frameworks to Reality Television and Microblogs — Rosemary Overell

Abstract: This article explores the usefulness of ‘intermediality’ approaches for understanding contemporary reality television. Through a case study of Intervention, it is proposed that intermedial frameworks illuminate reality television’s function as a “dream of presence”. The article focuses particularly on intermedial manifestations of the television program on the microblogging platform, tumblr. Building on studies of intermediality within cinema and visual cultural studies, this article highlights the liminal, affective and processual elements that arise from the intermedial movement of content. It does this through an application of ideas from non-representational theory as a means for expanding intermediality beyond the cinematic. This article suggests that liminality, affect and process are, in turn, presented in Intervention, and emphasised in the intermedial presentation of Intervention ‘screencaps’ on fan-made tumblr microblogs.

Figure 1. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to elaborate on the addict’s back story (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Figure 1. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to elaborate on the addict’s back story (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Introduction

This article is an intervention into contemporary accounts of intermediality. Building on recent work in cinema and visual culture studies (Barker 2009; Bennett 2007; Pethő 2010; Pethő 2011; Rajewsky 2005),I propose that intermediality functions as a useful framework for understanding how contemporary popular cultural production works as what Derrida calls the “dream of presence” (1978) –a representational manifestation of a striving for significance and meaning in response to more than representational experiences. Here, I integrate work in non-representational theory (NRT) to elaborate on the more than representational potential of intermedial products.

Intermediality’s concern with the between-ness of media signifiers highlights the liminal, affective and processual aspects that arise via the movement of content between media forms. These, in turn, destabilise the apparent coherence and ‘purity’ of mediated representation and the presumption of media specific modes of spectatorship. This complements NRT approaches, which argue for a privileging of the more than representational dimensions of the cultural landscape. In particular, Mitch Rose’s (2006) elaboration on Derrida’s “dreams of presence” as an inclination and striving – but necessarily also failing – towards an ossified, accountable understanding of culture enlivens intermedial approaches. In this article, I apply the framework of intermediality to the reality television programme Intervention (A&E Network 1999 – 2013) and its surrounding fan blogs.

Intermediality

Intermediality rejects media specificity. It moves away from understanding media as discrete technologies of representation and, in particular, rejects assumptions that particular types of representation are bound to particular types of media (for example moving images with cinema). Furthermore, it differs from transmedia frameworks, which focus on how textual content and significance change when moved from one media form to another. While transmedia approaches acknowledge the mobility of media content, they still present media forms as discrete signifying systems, which produce coherent meaning – either across or within formats. Intermediality troubles this assumption by focusing on how media products come into being via the dynamic inter-relation between media. That is, intermediality is characterised by medial transposition. The process of the transposition of media content, and of one medium into another, also points to the instability of signification. Ágnes Pethő (2011) posits intermediality as constitutive of new mediated experiences in between media forms where media – and their associated significations – are radically dislocated and displaced. This is partly because, via this movement, traces of the originary medial form and content are incorporated into the new medial form and content. Pethő notes the possibilities constituted via intermedial relations and the potential of an intermedial perspective to highlight the multiple mediated relations that produce our comprehension of media content.

Pethő emphasises the affective elements integral to intermediality through her rejection of Kristevan intertextuality.[1] According to Pethő, intermediality is more than textual. It is also more than representational. It is about the myriad of experiences, which are beyond articulation and cognition via standard signifying frameworks such as language: “Intermediality … is not something one ‘deciphers’, it is something one perceives or senses” (2011, 68). Pethő thereby emphasizes the sensuous aspects of embodied spectatorship of cinematic products. She argues for a phenomenological approach to intermediality as a means of accounting for the pre-cognitive experience of cinema. Her understanding, then, is that the experience of intermediality is affective. Here, affect is defined in Massumian (1992; 2002; [1987] 2007) terms as a “prepersonal intensity” ([1987] 2007, xvi) beyond representational frameworks and descriptors such as emotions. The instability of a coherent cinematic mediality is highlighted precisely through intermediality’s concern with the liminal spaces constituted in the moments when media content and representations move between media. This, again, echoes Massumi who argues that affect can only occur in terms of process, passage and interaction between subjects, things and spaces.[2] Massumi posits process as primary to “every formation” (1992, 194) and notes that processuality works as “sites of passage that gather up movement and send it back translated” (ibid.). As Rossiter (2003) points out in his work on processual media theory, this movement between media formations is important, partly because such a dynamic changes the media’s form, content and reception, but also because, by understanding contemporary media as processual, space is made for understanding media as socially, and culturally contingent.

Figure 2. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to present ‘facts’ about addiction and health problems (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Figure 2. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to present ‘facts’ about addiction and health problems (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Intermediality as a “dream of presence”

I propose that we can understand intermediality in terms of non-representational theory (NRT) – a conceptual framework associated with cultural geography. NRT’s remit is to “enliven” the humanities through a privileging of affective experiences over representational—particularly textual—analyses (Thrift 2008; Anderson and Harrison 2010).

A key site for NRT analyses is “cultural landscapes”(Rose 2002; 2006). Rose broadens the geographical implications of “landscape” to include theoretical engagements with cultural practices and objects that attempt to “capture” such manifestations “into sense … into something that can be … imagined in a mental tableau” (2006, 537). Rose argues that the representational concerns of much cultural analysis ossify the vitality of cultural processes. Instead, he presents an NRT approach to culture as one that collapses subject and object into co-emergent becomings (538). In this way his approach is resonant with Pethő’s emphasis on intermediality as constituted through phenomenological correlations of the types of embodiment implied by different media forms.

Rose’s (2006) approach to cultural landscape further complements intermedial approaches through his understanding of cultural analysis as a ‘dream of presence’ instead of a ‘thingified’ culture. Rose claims that we are drawn to stable understandings of culture that mitigate the messy experience of engaging with the world. Rose dubs these inclinations – both in their manifestations as coherent, signifying systems and the process of striving towards these coherencies – dreams of presence. Here, he draws on Derrida (1978), who describes the “dream” of the “philosophical man” [sic] for “full presence, the reassuring foundation” (292). In Derridean terms, this is an impossible possibility because of the instability of language systems.

Nonetheless, as Rose posits, we are inclined to the certitude of teleologies, grand narratives and coherent signification. Rose provocatively suggests that cultural theory is itself a manifestation of this dream. Like other NRT theorists, Rose calls for the humanities to account for the “more than representational” (2006, 345). One means for doing this is a foregrounding of the process of these inclinations towards the “performance of closure and encirclement” (2006, 345) that goes with cultural analysis, but also permeates our everyday encounters with cultural products and processes. Despite the impossibility of stabilizing culture into a coherent landscape, we repeat this performance as a way of being in the world which Rose dubs “affective cabling that connects self and word” (ibid.). The privileging of the strivings towards meaning undercut claims to representational meaning.[3]

In terms of intermediality, Rajewsky gestures towards a similarly impossible—though desired state, arguing that the apparent material specificity of originary media is illusory. That is, intermedial products foreground the surface claims of media as inscribing a discrete materiality within their modes of representation. She notes that this foregrounding produces a particular ‘as if’ experience for the intermedial consumer: “the book reads as if it is a film”.[4] Here, we see the inclination towards coherent significations. Medial approaches are a “dream of presence” and intermedial approaches operate similarly to Rose’s work – in destabilizing the assumption of medial solidity. Pethő echoes a similar idea in her discussion of the viewer’s embodied response to cinema – the desire and striving to stabilise and decipher the intermedial experience. The work of the spectator in fostering what Rose dubs a “dream of presence” in fact draws attention to the intermediality of cinematic experience and the impossibility of a coherently signifying, cinematic product.

To summarise, intermediality is characterised by liminality, affect and processuality. These three characteristics highlight the significatory instability of media content, as well as the power of media themselves and of intermedial experiences to push beyond the representational systems that characterize discrete, medial, approaches. In turn, I propose that intermedial approaches are enriched through recourse to NRT frameworks that privilege the in-betweenness within all “dreams of presence”.

Figure 3. An example of how the production mechanisms of the program are shown on Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Figure 3. An example of how the production mechanisms of the program are shown on Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Case study: Intervention

Intervention was a reality television program that aired on the American cable channel A&E Network (A&E) between 2005 and 2013. The show was demonstrative of A&E’s shift from “Arts and Entertainment” programming – made up of imported British dramas and documentaries on opera, theatre and cinema – to a focus on reality television.[5] The premise of Intervention is the representation of an addicted subject, who undergoes a “Johnson Institute” – so called “ambush” – intervention for their addiction and is encouraged to go into rehabilitation.[6] The addict is contextualised through to-camera commentary from the addict and their family and friends. The intervention is overseen by a professional interventionist, and the program usually closes with a “catch up” clip, generally of the recovering addict in a rehabilitation clinic.

Intervention is formulaic. Certain formal elements are consistent across ten of the thirteen seasons. The stylistic changes in the final seasons were minimal, indicating that the show had found its formula. Common elements included the theme song, advertising break bookends which incorporated sirens over a blurred, fast moving image of flashing lights, the closing theme of The Davenports’ song about recovery “5 steps” (2000), the use of black-background-white-text inter-titles to inform viewers of personal information on the addict subject and ‘facts’ about addiction (Figures 1 and 2), the narrative of introducing the addict and showing their substance use and relaying the addict’s (often traumatic) personal history, the intervention, and then finally rehabilitation. Two of the interventionists appeared in all thirteen seasons, Jeff Van Vonderen and Candy Finnigan. Both Van Vonderen and Finnigan are themselves former addicts. Like other A&E reality programs, and reality television broadly, Intervention used a documentary aesthetic. Camera work, particularly in the initial section of each episode, where the addict is tracked in their everyday life, was handheld. The production staff was regularly revealed – particularly when interventions did not go to plan – talking to the addict and their family from either behind or in front of the camera. Camera operators and production equipment were often shown in mirrors or by second cameras (Figure 3). In the final few seasons, the intervention “scene” began with an overhead establishing shot that revealed the family and interventionist as well as the production staff, lights and cameras. This cinema vérité style was crucial to building the program’s generic classification as reality television,[7] and claim to an authentic ‘documentary’ portrayal of substance use. This aesthetic also positioned it apart from slicker programs with similar themes, such as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew (VH1 2008 – 2012) and Addicted (TLC 2010). The hand-held aesthetic of Intervention only lifts in the final scenes at rehab – where steady shots of doctors, counselors and the recovering addict are used.

Figure 4. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a hallway (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Figure 4. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a hallway (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Intervention is transmediated in numerous ways. Its content has crossed primarily from television to Internet platforms. Two popular memes have been created by viewers from the television episodes. The first shows a clip of inhalant addict Allison (A&E Network 2008) “huffing” computer duster and mumbling “I’m walking on sunshine” mashed up with the K. C. and the Sunshine Band song “Walking on Sunshine”.[8] The disconnect between Allison’s obvious desperation and the song’s upbeat lyric serves as the “punch line” for the meme. The second Intervention meme shows Rocky (A&E Network 2010e), a cocaine addict, emitting a high-pitched cry during his intervention. The meme became a viral video dubbed “The Best Cry Ever” and was remixed into clips of people expressing disappointment at ostensibly trivial matters.[9] These memes appropriate content from Intervention and re-signify it through incorporating it with apparently unrelated content from popular culture. There are also numerous other viewer-made YouTube mash ups of Intervention, including facebook fan pages and discussion boards focused on the program. Like many other reality television programs, Intervention has prompted various tumblr pages where users can share, like and upload primarily visual and video material. tumblr has a handful of blogs focused on Intervention where users screencap (still frame) and gif (moving frame) particular moments from the show and sometimes provide commentary on the program.

A number of academic articles have discussed Intervention. None, however, have looked at the intermediality of the program, nor its transmedia engagement by audiences. Instead, work on Intervention has critiqued the ethics and efficacy of the program from a health-science perspective (Kosovski and Smith 2011); the commodification of drug addiction and Intervention’s position within the wider genre of transformation reality television (Oriekose 2013); and the over-representation of white addicts as ‘wasted’ white citizens on the program (Daniels 2012).[10]

Intervention and intermediality

I propose that intermediality is a useful method for understanding Intervention, particularly “tumbld” interventions which emphasise liminality, processuality and affect. I argue that the intermedial characteristics of tumbld Intervention demonstrate the “dreams of presence” that Rose discusses via Derrida.

Figure 5. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a streetscape (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Figure 5. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a streetscape (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Intervention, the television program, focuses on liminal spaces, experiences and subjects. These representations of in-betweeness gesture towards televisual media’s desire to overcome liminality in favor of neat teleology. However, the repetition and foregrounding of such spaces simultaneously highlight the inability of media to cordon off experience into coherent, self-contained narrative forms. The settings for all but the final section of Intervention (in rehab) are usually interim sites. We encounter squats, cheap hotel rooms, brothels, conurban housing estates, fast food outlets and, most of all, streetscapes (Figures 4 – 6). The chief ‘interim’ space common to every episode is the hotel conference room where the intervention occurs. The “beige blandness” (Daniels, 110) of the conference room signals liminality in a most banal way. It is striking how similar these rooms are despite being scattered across North America (Figures 8 – 10). This sameness indicates the purpose of such rooms – as inoffensive sites through which hundreds of professionals move every year. Further, the conference room works as a waiting room for each episode’s ‘cast’. Prior to the intervention, we see the family and friends waiting for the addict and anticipating the confrontation. During the intervention, the interventionist, family and friends wait to see if the addict will move on from the liminal site of the conference room to rehab. The repeated trope in the later seasons of zooming out to show the mechanics of the show’s production prior to the intervention further highlight the temporary function of the conference room. The wide shot gives an impression of urgent assembly of production equipment which will then be hastily dismantled so that the room can be used again by conference delegates.

Figure 6.One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, an image of a fast-food restaurant sign, presumably taken from a car (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Salina and Troy” (A&E Network 2006a).

Figure 6. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, an image of a fast-food restaurant sign, presumably taken from a car (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Salina and Troy” (A&E Network 2006a).

Furthermore, the overarching discourse of Intervention is that of “moving on” from one’s addiction. As Daniels discusses, Intervention’s narrative hinges on the transformation of the addict from the negatively framed substance (ab)user to a healthy citizen-subject.[11] This discourse requires a focus on the addict’s life as a series of transitional experiences. The instability of addiction is emphasised in each episode’s opening scenes where we see addicts scrounging for money, usually via illicit activities, and the apparently infinite risks of scoring and then consuming their substance. As with the waiting space of the hotel conference room, these scenes position the addict’s experience as liminal. The addict is almost always on the move – their experiences are framed as transient. This is most evident in the repeated trope of the addict resisting the format of the show itself. Usually this manifests in the addict storming out of a to-camera scene, removing their microphone and running away into the street. The addicts – by warrant of their addiction – occupy a marginal subjectivity. This is compounded by the regularity of the inclusion of addicts who signify marginality within dominant discourse. Intervention, though white-dominated, as Daniels observes, offers a parade of working-class people, abuse victims, prostitutes, non-heterosexual subjects and the mentally ill. The addicts also embody an interim subjectivity – relentlessly striving for, and dreaming of, a stable, present self via the use of drugs or alcohol, while simultaneously demonstrating the impossibility of this position through a heightened instability in the form of chasing their substance and waiting for a connect.

Figure 7. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Figure 7. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

The liminality of Intervention – and by implication the televisual medium – is highlighted when screencaps and gif images of the program are presented on tumblr. “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 -) tumbls screencaps from Intervention without narrative linearity. Tumblr is a microblogging platform, launched in 2007, which is mostly used to post images. Users can ‘follow’ others’ blog posts and access them through a generic ‘dashboard’ which displays blog posts chronologically. That is, all the posts from bloggers one follows are collated onto the dashboard. Tumblr also follows an “infinite scroll” format. The screen refreshes with more posts each time the user appears to reach the end of a feed. Provided the user follows a number of bloggers, the dashboard is constantly offering new images, which may have little to do with the other images displayed.

If one follows a cute puppy blog and a feminist comic blog, for example, seemingly unrelated images from both will appear sequentially – as the blogger posts – producing a discordant series of images. Users can also personalize their individual blog interface through the application of ‘themes’ which determine font, layout etc. With “Ordinary Interventions”, images are displayed two across and rarely are images from the same episode placed alongside each other. The screencaps are of varying sizes, determined by the format of the video file from which the image was taken. They are hashtagged with the name of the addict, addiction as well as #intervention and #aetv. However, and unlike most tumblr interfaces, the hashtags are not readily viewable to browsers, though they can be searched on the blog’s search function or by clicking the ‘+’ button, though this is not readily apparent. Importantly, “Ordinary Interventions” does not include images of drugs, alcohol or substance use. That is, the blogger focuses on the ordinary, liminal moments of the addict’s everyday life – the interim moments between the spectacularised (through the television program in extreme close ups and repetition) instances of substance use. “Ordinary Interventions” provides no information about the blog’s author, no text or re-blogged images.

Figure 8. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006a).

Figure 8. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006a).

The apparently random collation of screencaps on “Ordinary Interventions” produces liminality through its un-anchoring of ‘moments’ from Intervention in a non-linear format. The ‘capping’ of people: crying and laughing, ordinary household scenes, urban landscapes, old photographs, direct-to-cameras against a blue background and the banality of the hotel conference rooms, lack narrative coherence. This is not a “remix” like the Allison and Rocky memes where elements from Intervention are incorporated into a new narrative for comic effect. Instead, “Ordinary Interventions’” presentation of Intervention appears meaningless. In fact, tumblr users without familiarity with the program would most likely find ‘Ordinary Interventions’ impenetrable. The very act of tumbling indiscriminate screencaps from Intervention radically dislocates the transformational, solidifying narrative of the program as televisual media. There is no rehabilitation or resolution, simply an endless scroll through interim moments. Instead, Intervention mobilises affect as crucial to the flow of each episode. The representation of affective responses to addiction, both from the addict and their loved ones, generates sympathy in viewers and a desire for the protagonist to “move beyond” the liminality of addiction to the apparent solidity of rehabilitation. Recall Massumi’s and NRT theorists’ understanding of affect as more than articulated, representable and cognized emotion. Instead it refers to the intensities one experiences through the movement from “one … state … to another” (Massumi 2007, xvi), hence the program’s liminality. Thus, while the affect gestured towards in the program may provoke an emotional response in viewers, affect is not synonymous with emotion. However, the subject’s containment of affect within language – through the 12-step process of ‘admitting’ a problem and containing affective responses within a pathologised discourse of “emotional trauma” – gestures yet again towards the inclination to pin down the instability of everyday life experiences.

 Figure 9. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Nichole” (A&E Network 2012).

Figure 9. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Nichole” (A&E Network 2012).

Affect is most evident in the liminal moments of the program. In fact, Rocky’s “Best Cry Ever” clearly demonstrates the more-than-ness of the experience of addiction and, accordingly, how affect is mobilized in Intervention. His cry is wordless, high-pitched and completely embodied. He shudders as he emits it from deep in his body. This moment, of what Dolar (2007) might call “voice” demonstrates the inadequacy of language for representing embodied experience.[12] Further, Rocky’s cry demonstrates affect’s own liminality. The moment occurs in the interim space of the intervention in a hotel conference room. Moreover, as Dolar writes, screams demonstrate the pre-cognitive “penultimate stage” (69) prior to the subject’s interpellation within representational structures.[13] Alongside affective moments, such as Rocky’s scream during the intervention, the program dwells on addicts’ repeated insistence that they are “without words” and that their subjectivity – bound to their addiction – is beyond representation. For example, addicts say: “wow I can’t even talk right now” (A&E Network 2010d), “it’s like having an orgasm; you can’t just describe it” (A&E Network 2010e), and “it’s kind of hard … that feeling you get” (A&E Network 2011).

Figure 10. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Greg” (A&E Network 2009b).

Figure 10. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Greg” (A&E Network 2009b).

The intermedial presentation of Intervention’s representations of affective intensity on tumblr generates an affective response from tumblr users. Such responses can be understood as yet another variation of the “dream of presence”. The affective engagement with the program – generated through tumbling and commenting – foregrounds the impossibility of understanding either the program content, or the medium, as singular, discrete and, most importantly, representational.

“Fuck Yes Intervention” (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011 – ) is a tumblr, which presents screencaps alongside gifs from Intervention. Unlike “Ordinary Interventions”, the interface offers clear hashtags and information about the blogger, who is a drug addict.[14] “Fuck Yes Intervention” also encourages interaction from tumblr users. Followers of the blog can comment, ask the blogger questions and request that particular episodes be screencapped or giffed. “Fuck Yes Intervention” presents affective moments from the program that then generates discussion of viewers’ affective responses to Intervention. For example, responding to a screencap of crystal-meth addict, Cristy (A&E Network 2006c), radhabits writes: “i cried the first time i watched this episode, and every time I watch intervention” [sic] (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011a). Another Cristy post (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011b) – this time showing Cristy’s experience of being high as she dances around her bedroom – prompted unintelligible responses from other users, unable to represent linguistically “what they just watched”:

dynomitemedley: uhhhhhh

luxuryintherough: what. the. fuck. did. I. just. watch???? luxuryintherough

zombiecupcake: I DON’T KNOW (ibid.).

Rather than the apparently straightforward governmental meaning of Intervention as a lesson in how not to be a good, healthy, citizen, the users of “Fuck Yes Intervention” present multiple, affective responses to the screencaps and gifs on the blog.

“Ordinary Interventions” also focuses on affective moments from Intervention. There are numerous images of addicts, family-members and friends in the liminal space of embodied intensity. Furthermore, the tumblr’s screencaps of the inter-titles and subtitles common to every episode undercut the apparent authority and hegemony of textuality not only in the program, but more broadly, in representational understandings of reality television. Intervention uses inter-titles to elaborate on the addict’s back-story as well as to present facts about addiction. Subtitles are used when the speech onscreen is inaudible. The haphazard insertion of text-based screencaps beside images of Intervention’s overwrought subjects produces a dislocation of language and image, which draws attention to the inadequacy of representational structures for expressing embodied experience. More importantly, the blog’s bricolage of images and text foregrounds the illusory claim of reality television forms to signifying authority. The affect – isolated in the screencaps of “Ordinary Intervention” – overwhelms pretentions to representational solidity. Writing on captioned visual art, Bennett indicates that rather than the printed words operating as a Barthesian anchor for the image they “run relentlessly unable to flow through the normal communication channels … register[ing] as pure intensity: affect characterised by … lack of attachment, disarticulated from motives” (442). “Ordinary Interventions” enacts this affective disarticulation in sequences, which themselves are sense-less. For example, an image of a woman laughing to camera is followed by an inter-title stating: “Coley has been collecting burl for the past three months. He has never sold any” (Figure 10). Next is a screencap of a woman petting a puppy on a mattress, then a middle-aged woman sitting in front of giant rosary beads, and so on. As Pethő points out in relation to cinema, the potential of intermediality to break up and dislocate signifying systems through a foregrounding of the disjunction between speech and image not only rejects a fixity of meaning for the content represented, but also the media form ‘doing’ the representing (61).

Figure 11.“Ordinary Interventions” offers a bricolage of disarticulated screencaps from Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ).

Figure 11.“Ordinary Interventions” offers a bricolage of disarticulated screencaps from Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ).

The presentation of the processual nature of addiction in Intervention resonates with intermedial understandings of media forms as mutable, changing and striving towards coherence, though never reaching it. The premise of the program, as discussed above, is a transformative ‘journey’ from addiction to rehabilitation. Using pop-psychological platitudes common to therapy culture, interventionists Finnigan and Van Vonderen encourage the addicts’ families to “process” the intervention and “work through” their own neuroses (often via a the “Betty Ford Family Program”) as a means of overcoming the co-dependency of their relationship with the addict. For example, in season 8, Van Vonderen tells the family before the intervention: “recovery is not a sudden landing. It’s a long journey” (A&E Network 2010a). In a later episode, Finnigan tells crack addict Vinnie’s family that addiction is “a progressive, terminal disease … nothing changes, if nothing changes” (A&E Network 2010b).

Despite its emphasis on process, Intervention rarely offers a straightforward transformation of either the addict or their loved ones. By frustrating deterministic narratives of self-improvement the show highlights both the desire for wholeness and progress, as well as its futility. This is clearly demonstrated in the closing inter-titles which regularly inform viewers that the addict “left treatment” before the proscribed ninety days, has “relapsed”, or simply refused to continue treatment and be “rehabilitated”. Over thirteen seasons, viewers, addicts and their families and friends repeat a desire for wholeness and wellbeing, which can never be achieved. The viewer who tunes in weekly finds pleasure in both the desire for narrative neatness, coupled with knowledge of the trajectory’s likely failure.

It is in its intermedial form on tumblr, presentations of Intervention demonstrate the processuality of intermedial transposition. We can understand the screencaps of “Ordinary Interventions” as foregrounding process, but like the content of the program itself, repeatedly failing. “Ordinary Interventions” presents a radical asynchronicity in its infinitely scrolling, random presentation of Intervention screencaps. It repeatedly interpellates users to “make sense” of the images while always undermining this through the random order in which the images appear. “Ordinary Intervention” does use tags, which could ostensibly sort the images. However, these tags are haphazard. Addicts have multiple addictions or their name or addiction is incorrectly tagged, and images of non-addict family members will often also be tagged with the substance name. Users remain stymied in their search for narrative clarity. This failure of comprehension highlights the processual nature of cognition and foregrounds our initial affective responses as unable to “fit” the signifying structures assumed by media forms.

The processual reconfiguation of Intervention via “Ordinary Interventions” is also reflexive. The blog draws attention to how affect is produced within the medium of television via its re-presentation on tumblr. It is therefore intermedial in the sense that it is concerned with the emergence of both Intervention the program and reality television more broadly. Rather than being presented with a one-way – or even dialogic – communication from media to consumer, “Ordinary Interventions” in the asynchronicity of its mediality is a porous “dream of presence”.[15] As “Ordinary Interventions” lacks clear narrative conventions, it fails to communicate a coherent explication of addiction. Instead, its interface generates a repeated experience of striving for and inclining towards present-ness. Even more than the repeated failures depicted in its televisual form, the transposition of Intervention through “Ordinary Interventions” will never offer resolution. When the medium migrates it is “reconfigured” (Bennett, 448) by its presentation in a new medium’s interface. The screencaps of addicts, their loved ones and the interventionists – for lack of a dialogic reverse-shot – seep into one another to potentially produce multiple, contradictory, affective responses which make any clear articulation in language difficult. The apparently random sequences of images resist the sequential reading to which televisual content lays claim.

Conclusion

In closing, I wish to briefly describe one of the most recent screencaps posted on “Ordinary Interventions” (Figure 11). It shows a black screen with a white blur. The blogger has clearly screencapped the interim moment between the affective enaction of the addict’s ‘process’ to intervention and the insertion of an explanatory title card. The hashtags are general (#substanceabuse; #addiction #intervention etc.) – they do not indicate the episode. The one unique, though perhaps predictably inadequate, hashtag is #blackscreen. The screencaps around it show a tattooed woman in profile, a hand reaching for an hors d’ouevre, and a close up of a woman crying. This image: #blackscreen, perhaps best embodies the intermediality of Intervention as transposed through tumblr. It is a representation of liminality, a captured microsecond in-between narration. Its position in relation to the affect-steeped screencaps around it foregrounds affect and refuses clear signification. Its lack of communication, despite gesturing towards textuality (it is obviously a fade from text to black), demonstrates processuality.

Figure 12.Recent posts on “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ).

Figure 12.Recent posts on “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ).

This discussion of intermediality in relation to reality television and microblogging demonstrates the usefulness of intermedial frameworks for analysing and destabilizing popular cultural texts and media. Further, I want to suggest that the application of intermedial theory to Intervention’s televisual and tumbld manifestations could fruitfully be expanded through reference to NRT understandings of Derridean “dreams of presence”.

 

 

 

 

References

A&E Network. 2013a. “All Shows” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://www.aetv.com/allshows.jsp.

A&E Network. 2013b. “Intervention: About the Show” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://www.aetv.com/intervention/about/.

A&E Network. 2013c. “Intervention: Meet the Interventionists” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://www.aetv.com/intervention/meet-interventionists.

Anderson, Ben and Paul Harrison. eds, 2010. Taking Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography. Farnham: Ashgate.

Barker, Jennifer M. 2009. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bennett, Jill. 2007. “Aesthetics of Intermediality.” Art History 30 (3): 432-450.

Tony Bennett and others, eds, 1981. Popular Televisions and Film. London: BFI Publishing in association with the Open University Press,

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Daniels, Jessie. 2012. “Intervention: Reality TV, Whiteness, and Narratives of Addiction.” Advances in Medical Sociology 14: 103-125.

The Davenports. 2000. “5 Steps.” Speaking of the Davenports. New York, NY: Mother West.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Don. 2013. “Walking on Sunshine” Know Your Meme. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/walking-on-sunshine.

Dolar, Mladen. 2007. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 2011 – . “Fuck Yes Intervention,” tumblr. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 25 August 2011a. “Cristy Intervention Vodka Bed,” tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com/post/9384802554/cristy-intervention-vodka-bed.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 31 August 2011b. “Cristy,” tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com/post/9640210736/cristy.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 27 May 2013. “Submissions?”, tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com/post/51492204728/submissions.

Idah, Oriekose. 2013. “Viewer-Patient Confidentiality: Commodification of Illness in Contemporary U.S. Medical Reality TV.” Intersect 60 (2). http://ojs.stanford.edu/ojs/index.php/intersect/article/view/569. Accessed November 7, 2013.

Kosovski, Jason R. and Douglas C. Smith. 2011. “Everybody Hurts: Addiction, Drama, and the Family in the Reality Television Show Intervention.” Substance Use and Misuse 46: 852-858.

Kristeva, Julia. 1986. “Word dialogue, and the novel.” In The Kristeva reader, edited by Toril Moi, 79-106. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Massumi, Brian. 1992. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Massumi, Brian. (1987) 2007. “Pleasures of Philosophy.” In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri. Translated by Brian Massumi, ix-xix. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ordinary intervention. 2012 – . “Ordinary Interventions.” tumblr. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://ordinaryintervention.tumblr.com.

Paech, Joachim. 2000. “ESF ‘Changing Media in Changing Europe’.” Paper presented at Artwork – Text – Medium: Steps en Route to Intermediality, Paris, May 26 – 28.

Pethő.“Ágnes. 2010. Intermediality in Film: A Historiography of Methodologies.” Film and Media Studies 2: 39-72.

Pethő, Ágnes. 2011. “Reading the Intermedial: Abysmal Mediality and Trans-Figuration in the Cinema.” In Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between, 55-94. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Rajewsky, Irina O. 2005. “Intermediality, Intertextuality and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality.” History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6: 43-64.

Rose, Mitch. 2002. “Landscapes and Labyrinths.” Geoforum 33: 455-467.

Rose, Mitch. 2006. “Gathering ‘dreams of presence’: a project for the cultural landscape.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24: 537-554.

Rossiter, Ned. 2003. “Processual Media Theory.” symploke 11.1-2: 104-131.

Steez. 2010. “Best Cry Ever.” Know Your Meme. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/best-cry-ever.

Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space|Politics|Affect. Milton Park: Routledge.

 

Moving Image Works Cited

A&E Network. January 8, 2006a. “Salina and Troy”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 5.

A&E Network. July 23rd 2006b. “Tammi and Daniel”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 14.

A&E Network. August 20, 2006c. “Cristy”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 18.

A&E Network. April 20 2007. “Trent”. Season 3, episode 5.

A&E Network. August 18, 2008. “Allison”. Intervention. Season 5, episode 9.

A&E Network. November 23rd 2009a. “Linda”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 1.

A&E Network. December 7, 2009b. “Greg”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 2.

A&E Network. January 4, 2010a. “Sarah”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 6.

A&E Network. January 18, 2010b. “Vinnie”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 8.

A&E Network. April 5, 2010c. “Rocky”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 14.

A&E Network. April 12, 2010d. “Ashley”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 15.

A&E Network. August 23, 2010e. “Ryan / Jason”. Intervention. Season 9, episode 9.

A&E Network. January 3, 2011. “Erin”. Intervention. Season 10, episode 4.

A&E Network. August 13, 2012. “Nichole”. Intervention. Season 13, episode 1.

Comedy Central. April 28, 2010. “Crippled Summer”. South Park. Season 14, episode 7.

Phillips, Todd. The Hangover Part III. 2013.

TLC. Addicted. 2010.

VH1. Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. 2008-2012.

Notes

[1] Rajewsky also discusses the difference between Kristeva’s framework of intertextuality and intermediality (Rajewsky 2005, 48). See also, Julia Kristeva (1986).

[2] Other scholars have looked at the potential for an affective becoming through the application of an intermedial methodology to understanding cinematic texts. Barker, for example, suggests that the interaction between viewer and film is one of emergence, rather than consumption. Bennett deviates from studies of cinematic intermediality in her work on visual arts that incorporate or gesture towards the moving image. However, she is also emphatic that intermediality is processual, liminal and more-than representational.

[3] See also, Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2011). Berlant argues that it is the desire and striving for an end, which we know will always already fail, which is seductive.

[4] Pethő also discusses this: “we can always tell for example when a piece of prose writing or poetry in literature is unfolding like ‘moving images’, we recognize the characteristics of cinematic ‘framing’ or ‘montage’ whenever it is reflected in any other medium” (2010, 66).

[5] Examples of recent and current reality programs on A&E include Hoarders, Duck Dynasty, Rodeo Girls and Storage Wars (A&E Network 2013a).

[6] Says the website’s copy: “Each episode follows addicts through their daily life and the devastation their dependency has brought to their family and friends. Upon reaching the brink, their loved ones stage a surprise intervention conducted by one of four specialists” (A&E Network 2013b).

[7] The ‘recovered’ status of Van Vonderen and Finnigan also built the program’s claim to authenticity. Both interventionists regularly mentioned their own “struggles with addiction” in episodes and the profiles of Van Vonderen and Finnigan on Intervention’s website foreground this aspect of their history (A&E Network 2013c).

[8] A summary of the variations on the Allison meme are available on Know Your Meme (Don 2013). The “Walking on Sunshine” motif gained further status when it was included in an episode of South Park (Comedy Central 2010).

[9] A summary of the variations on the Rocky meme are available on Know Your Meme (Steez 2010).

[10] Daniels argues that white addicts in Intervention are moralized. Firstly – as addicted – they are framed as ‘failures’ in terms of their performance of normative whiteness. If the addict accepts the offer of rehabilitation, however, they are positioned as redeemed and “deserving” (2012, 114).

[11] This is also reflected in the lyrics to the program’s closing theme song. The lyrics include: “No reprimand / Deliberate, demand / With your two feet at hand / Get back / This train’s a comin’ down the track / Five steps you’re over” (The Davenports 2000). These lyrics presumably gesture towards the “Five Major Steps to Intervention”.

[12] Rocky’s cry is also reproduced in The Hangover 3 where the emphasis lies on the affective aurality of his cry (Phillips 2013).

[13] Here, and throughout the book, Dolar draws on Lacanian psychonanalysis.

[14] The blogger writes: “i don’t know if i have ever mentioned this on here but i am also an addict” [sic] (Fuck Yes Intervention 2013).

[15] See Bennett: intermedial gesture is a “tension … that it expresses … the experience of ‘being in’ an interaction – rather than … articulated communication” (2007, 441).

 

Bio

Rosemary Overell completed a PhD on extreme metal music at the University of Melbourne, Australia. After teaching in Melbourne, she moved to the University of Otago, New Zealand, to take up a lecturer position in the Department of Media, Film and Communication. Currently, she is researching how nikkeijin (Japanese-Brazilians working in Japan) relate to Japanese national space through their experiences in extreme metal music. Her book, Affective Intensities in Extreme Music Scenes: Cases from Australia and Japan was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Jodi Arias in the Public Sphere: Rhetorics of Horror and the Monstrous Feminine – Elizabeth Lowry

Introduction

The Jodi Arias Trial has been described as one of the most peculiar and salacious murder trials in American history.[1] In May 2013, Arias, a 32 year-old woman, was found guilty of murdering her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander in Mesa, Arizona on June 4th 2008. Alexander, a Mormon motivational speaker, was discovered to have been stabbed between twenty-seven and thirty times and had also been shot in the head. In the five years that elapsed between the murder and the trial, the word “monster” surfaced in a variety of contexts. To begin with, Arias claimed that “monsters” had broken into Alexander’s apartment and killed him in front of her. Later, Arias claimed that Alexander himself had been the monster–more specifically, a “sex monster,” whom Arias had been forced to kill in self-defense. Next, as more sordid details of the trial came to light, the popular press seized on classic horror conventions to frame the Arias narrative. Finally, the jury deemed Arias herself to be the monster–and therefore eligible for the death penalty.

This paper situates the Jodi Arias Trial within an American cultural tradition of monster-making and the role of social media and public participation in twenty-first century news reporting. I argue that the public construction of Arias as a monster was accomplished primarily by drawing on horror conventions and rhetorical tropes in order to exploit what Barbara Creed refers to as “monstrous feminine” archetypes. According to Creed, the “monstrous feminine” is identifiable via her association with the abject, her identity as a castrator and “her mothering and reproductive functions.”[2] We are cued to relate far differently to the “monstrous feminine” than we are to a “monster.” The monstrous feminine is not merely the female counterpart of a male monster. She is horrifying in a more gendered way: “she is defined in terms of her sexuality. The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity.”[3] While the monstrous feminine is associated with the same sick and violent acts that we attribute to a monster, the monstrous female is the soul of duplicitousness and a skilled seductress—qualities that evoke all the more fear and loathing on the part of her victims. With this in mind, I offer an analysis of how the collective imagination is stimulated by a melding of highly affective genres. Why was it necessary for Arias to be constructed as a monster? What social need does the monster—particularly the female monster—address? What was the rhetorical impact of circulating this specific trial narrative—and what distinguishes this narrative from others of its ilk? What can the Jodi Arias trial tell us about the gendering of a monster and where the “monstrous feminine” belongs in the millennial cultural imaginary? Finally, what does a reliance on horror archetypes combined with Oedipal constructions of truth reveal about American cultural attitudes toward the subjectivity of violent criminals?

The Jodi Arias trial began on January 2nd, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona—but audiences were already familiar with Arias. By then, she had been the subject of a press conference shortly after her arrest in 2008, and, more significantly a documentary entitled “Jodi Arias: In Her Own Words” aired in 2009 by CBS’s 48 hours. While CBS and NBC produced periodic documentary episodes on the Jodi Arias saga to keep the public apprised of new developments in the case, the most comprehensive coverage of the day-to-day aspects of Arias’s five-month trial was covered primarily by HLN. Ever since her arrest in July 2008, Arias’s lawyers had dissuaded her from providing television interviews, however, she evidently paid them no heed. On September 24th, 2008, four months after Travis Alexander’s murder, Arias appeared on camera for a jailhouse interview with Inside Edition. She then began a relationship with the producers of CBS’s 48 Hours that would eventually become the 2009 “In Her Own Words.” [4] This initial 48 Hours episode, hosted by Maureen Maher, attempts to suspend disbelief—and to consider the possibility that Arias might be innocent. In this interview, Arias “admitted that she was present when he was murdered, but she said that his death occurred during a home invasion…the intruders, whom she described as a man and a women dressed in black were armed with a knife and a gun. At one point, she said, the man pointed the gun at her but she was miraculously spared.”[5]

Figure 1: Jodi Arias in the CBS program “48 Hours”, 2008.

Figure 1. Jodi Arias in the CBS program “48 Hours”, 2008.

In August 2011, Arias admitted that she had murdered Alexander, but claimed that she had acted in self-defense. This was confirmed by Angela Arias, Arias’s younger sister, who, in a response to a Huffington Post query, said that while Arias had lied about the home invasion, she did so because of her love for Alexander: “She was so in love with that man she did not want people to know what a monster he really was…My sister is innocent of the crime they are accusing her of…She did kill Travis, but it was not in cold blood, it was not for revenge, it was because she was afraid for her life.”[6]

The jury selection for the Arias trial began on December 10th, 2012. Ten days later, twelve jurors and six alternates were sworn in.[7] On January 2nd, 2013 the trial began. On January 19th, 48 Hours aired “Picture Perfect” and on March 1st, 2013 NBC’s Dateline aired “Along Came Jodi.” In May 2013, when the necessary evidence for a conviction had emerged, and Arias’s guilt was confirmed, 48 Hours produced a final episode entitled “Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias,” which offered a retrospective of the trial and various earlier interviews with Arias. That same month, NBC’s Dateline also aired an episode providing a retrospective and commentary on the trial entitled “Obsession: The Jodi Arias Story.”

Body Genres

Through media coverage of this trial, we see the ways in which mythic and psychoanalytic underpinnings of fear, lust, and self-identification shape how news is produced and consumed. As information about the Arias trial circulates from one media outlet to another, we see a melding of genres—horror, whodunit, erotica and reality tv—but arguably, the most prevalent of these genres is a blend of erotica and horror. This particular combination bears a significant influence over the representation of a female criminal, especially if she is young and attractive. Both erotica and horror are deeply affective genres provoking a physiological response in audiences. Throughout the Arias trial, use of these “body genres”[8] worked in concert to foment a sense of intrigue, while personal investment in the trial was galvanized by opportunities to participate in online chats and opinion polls sponsored by major news networks. Over the course of the trial, opinion polls revealed what appeared to be a widespread consensus that Arias deserved the death penalty. However, this consensus was coupled with the peculiar irony of Arias’s growing celebrity: she had a friend open a Twitter account on her behalf and began to sell her pencil drawings and other items over eBay to enthusiastic buyers. From there, the trial proceedings saw unprecedented media hype and merchandising, including a made for tv movie,[9] mass-market publications on the trial[10] and the production of Jodi Arias T-shirts and stickers. Meanwhile droves of people lined up outside the Maricopa County courthouse in Phoenix hoping to get a ringside seat.

Public discourse on various elements of the Arias narrative brought to light during the trial were shaped by allusions to classic horror films of the mid to late twentieth century. The fact that Alexander was stabbed to death in the shower draws numerous comparisons to the film Psycho; the iconic “shower scene” itself reenacted by HLN’s “After Dark” hosts who built a replica of the crime scene in their television studio.[11] In addition to Psycho, the story of Arias and Alexander’s relationship is frequently compared to the plot of the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, in which a sociopathic woman attempts to destroy the family-life of a man with whom she has had an affair. A forensic psychiatrist[12] and a Phoenix defense attorney compare Arias to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction—ostensibly in an effort to help the public better understand “who” Arias is.[13] These comparisons are made repeatedly by Alexander’s friends and reporters, shaping the representation and interpretation of Arias and Alexander’s ill-fated affair. Interestingly, Arias herself also draws on the narrative conventions of a thriller or horror film. In an attempt to argue for her own innocence, she casts herself in the role of Carol Clover’s iconic “Final Girl.” An archetype that Clover popularized in her analysis of femininity in horror films, the Final Girl is sexually pure—sometimes a tomboy—who, after everyone else has been killed, is left to fight the monster alone. She, the Final Girl, is the character that the audience ends up rooting for.[14]

As stipulated earlier, Arias offers three different versions detailing how Alexander came to be found dead in his shower. In the first version of the story, Arias claims that she had no idea that Alexander was dead and that she had been nowhere near his home. In the second version of the story, once photographic evidence had established that she had indeed been at the crime scene, Arias describes a home invasion, detailing how a man and woman had come into Alexander’s home, stabbed Alexander and then tried to shoot Arias, who, fearing for her life, took off running. In the third “official” version of the story, that which was recounted in court, Arias speaks of how Alexander—enraged that Arias had dropped his new camera while she was taking nude photographs of him in the shower—had “body-slammed” her to the bathroom floor and that, fearing for her life, she shot him in the head.[15] By the time this narrative was delivered from the stand in 2013, Arias had adopted a plainer look—one that favored drab colors, large glasses, and no make-up. Adopting the beleaguered, de-sexualized ethos of the “Final Girl,” Arias describes how Alexander—even with a bullet in his head—kept coming at her, which was why she allegedly had no choice but to stab him in self-defense. This, of course, is reminiscent of the classic horror film trope where the monster—believed to be dead—rises up, is again a threat, and must be “killed” once and for all.

Figure 2: Arias in court. Image from metrous.com, 2013.

Figure 2. Arias in court, metrous.com, 2013.

A Cautionary Tale

Monsters inspire fear in order to deter us from inappropriate behavior. In this sense, the construction of Jodi Arias as a monster, particularly as the “monstrous feminine,” serves to warn the public about the dangers of giving in to lust; the perils of engaging in promiscuous sexual behavior. Alexander is unable to resist Arias. He allows lust to get the better of him, and so, as a result, his sexual indiscretions kill him when he becomes the victim of a she-demon.

As mentioned earlier, Arias is compared to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction—a woman who would destroy her sexual partner rather than see him with someone else. Numerous cultural stereotypes support the narrative of the evil seductress luring a more or less “innocent” man to his death. Evoking the vagina dentata, Arias acts as a warning to men who may consider engaging in illicit sexual activity, just as Fatal Attraction famously became a “parable about the dangers of indulging in unsafe sex”[16] Tales such as these, evoking archetypes of the succubus and the siren, serve to maintain social purity by promising punishment to those who succumb to sexual urges. Fatal Attraction is particularly potent in this regard because of its depiction of a perceived “attack” on the sanctity of the family unit; the desecration of family values. It is precisely this issue that comes into play in the Arias trial, which at first seems surprising because neither Alexander nor Arias is married, and neither has children. What matters, however, was that—before his death—Alexander had professed himself to be a devout Mormon and an aspiring family man. Apparently an advocate for conservative family values, Alexander had taken a vow of chastity and was actively looking for a wife with whom to start a family.[17] Needless to say, Alexander did not consider Arias to be appropriate for marriage—and was conscious of the fact that his relationship with her could be construed as a betrayal both of the conservative ideology he represented and of his potential “family.” In short, Arias was cast as representing a similar threat to American family values as Glenn Close’s character had. The burden of responsibility for Alexander’s sexual transgressions is placed on Arias, although there is plenty of evidence that Alexander’s behavior was not beyond reproach.

Although the Fatal Attraction analogy played a significant role in the Alexander/Arias narrative, audiences of the trial (as evidenced by bloggers and media pundits) seemed to be equally inspired by connections made between the murder case and the movie Psycho. For instance, NBC’s Dateline documentary “Along Came Jodi” summarizes Part 3 of the documentary thus: “Travis Alexander, in a scene reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho is found dead in his shower. Everyone suspects Jodi Arias.”[18] Further, a blogger from Crime and Court News contended that Arias had actually intended for parallels to be made between the shower scene in Psycho and Alexander’s killing.[19] The blog included a visual component that juxtaposed images of Janet Leigh in the shower in the film Psycho with photos—taken by Jodi Arias—of Travis Alexander in the shower.[20]  Had Arias staged this murder as an homage to Hitchcock?

Figure 3: Visual comparison between Arias’ photographs of Alexander and the shower scene from Psycho, Crime and Courts News, 2013

Figure 3. Visual comparison between Arias’ photographs of Alexander and the shower scene from Psycho, Crime and Courts News, 2013.

Associating Arias with the deranged Norman Bates who dresses like a woman (more specifically his mother) in order to stab his prey seems to add a new dimension to the Arias story—that of gender indeterminacy, or what Clover refers to as the “phallic female”–that is, when a woman takes up a knife or a phallic object, she becomes masculinized in the eyes of the viewer.[21] Hitchcock adds a twist to the Freudian “phallic female” with the suggestion that by dressing as a woman and using a butcher knife as a phallus, Bates is attempting to reclaim the masculinity so denigrated by his monstrous-feminine mother. With these references to Psycho and Fatal Attraction, Arias is portrayed at once as an overbearing mother-figure and as the stalker ex-mistress who frequently shows up unannounced at Alexander’s home, even crawling into the house through a dog-door when she has no access to keys. As the suffocating emasculating “mother,” Arias allegedly cleaned Alexander’s home, read his cellphone messages, hacked into his Facebook account and “snooped” through his possessions. Alexander’s friends describe how, like a child attempting to claim its independence, Alexander repeatedly tries to break away from Arias, but she will not let him go; a mother failing to give her child the freedom he needs—or, as Travis’s friends put it—a stalker.[22]

In Freudian terms, the idea of a female picking up a knife and stabbing a man with it often plays out in a rape revenge fantasy—metaphorically, she is raping him in return by appropriating the phallic power of the male. But Creed challenges Freud’s theory that men are afraid of women because women are “castrated.” Instead, she proposes that men are afraid of women whom they see as castrators.[23] As such, Creed discusses two types of woman in horror films: the phallic woman and the castrator. The phallic woman penetrates a man’s flesh by wielding a weapon, whereas the castrator—who eliminates his manhood altogether–is represented by the vagina dentata. But although the vagina dentata emblematizes the notion of the monstrous feminine, Creed points out that the female as castrator can often come across as being somewhat sympathetic because she is taking revenge against a man who has wronged her or sexually humiliated her—just as Arias claimed to have felt wronged at the hands of Alexander.[24] But while Creed’s 2002 work on the concept of “monstrous feminine” would likely cast Arias—the female slasher—as being a castrator, Clover’s older work of the 1970s prefers to conceive of the female slasher as being phallicized—that is, temporarily relegated to a state of sexual ambiguity. Ultimately, both archetypes are at work in portrayals of Arias. Audiences who interpret Arias as a castrator might see her in a somewhat sympathetic light, believing her to be abused. However, audiences who do not believe that Arias was abused see her as unattractively masculine—the knife being a means by which to assault the vulnerable male. These unconscious hints at gender indeterminacy and the feminizing and subjugation of Alexander, further lend to the notion of duality—the demonic Other that is Jodi Arias.

Our Monsters, Ourselves

The sensational documentary films aired by 48 Hours and Dateline combined with the increasing role of social media platforms inviting viewers to chat and share opinions set the reality show tenor for the Arias Trial. The trial reporting introduced Alexander’s friends and family—all of whom seemed so ordinary that viewers could not help but identify with them. However, in treating Arias’s legal proceedings like a reality show, the public seemed to have stopped thinking of Arias or her family as “real” people. Thus arises a paradox inherent to the reality tv genre: the phenomenon of both identifying with the protagonists of reality tv because they are “real” but somehow feeling that their circumstances or life experiences are distinctly “unreal.”

For decades, parents have complained about children being influenced by depictions of violence in genres that are recognized as exclusively fictional. The suasive power of those fictions has long been considered to be dangerously potent. Creed acknowledges this, asserting that “movies” influence the viewer in a more insidious fashion than reality tv.  According to Creed, “intimate events” in “movies” as such, “unfold in a context which hides its modes of production and pretends that the spectator is viewing unmediated reality.”[25] On the other hand, reality tv makes no such pretense since “the contestants have agreed to put themselves on display in a live context.”[26] In other words, since reality tv does not hide its modes of production it does not trick the viewer into thinking he/she is watching unmediated reality. The viewer can still tell fact from fiction—he/she knows that in a movie, reality is mediated by actors and producers. In other words, reality tv can be considered more authentic simply because it admits to its own artifice. But Shohini Chaudhuri’s interpretation of feminist film theorist Claire Johnston’s work suggests that Johnston would challenge Creed’s perspective by asserting that the very fact that reality tv does admit to its own artifice actually makes it less authentic, because not all of its artifice is made transparent.[27]  Therefore, to Johnston, reality tv has more insidious suasive power than a movie because it tricks us into thinking we are experiencing immediacy when we are not. Yet, the Arias trial is complex enough in terms of its blended genre conventions that neither Johnston nor Creed’s theories seem to hold up in its context. Indeed, reality tv is insidious because it tricks us into thinking we are experiencing something “real,” but that is far from being the problem—the problem is how we actually process and internalize what we see. Evidently even our enjoyment of the “real” does not actually play out as being “real” in the cultural imaginary. Instead, it becomes a spectacle that causes people to forget that others can be deeply affected by their actions. However, it could be argued that the lack of a sense of reality during the trial had to do less with reality tv than with the initial presentation of a stylized murder narrative. Because the Arias story had already been so deeply marked by horror conventions, its rebranding as reality television caused profound cultural confusion.

The confusion seemed to extend to public responses to the trial proceedings which  revealed that due process is unimportant to a culture in which the line between reality and unreality is so easily blurred.  During this time, it seemed that the viewing public had entirely forgotten that this trial was a matter of life and death. In online chatrooms and commentaries on social media platforms such as Facebook, Arias’s defense lawyer, Kirk Nurmi, was excoriated for doing his job: honoring Arias’s right to a trial. Participants in online chats and viewer commentaries on the websites of major news outlets complained bitterly about Nurmi. For instance, HLN viewers complained that the soft-spoken, overweight Nurmi was “boring” and that he looked like a “slob.”[28] Instead of critiquing the very real arguments about justice—not only for Alexander, but also for Arias—presented in the trial, viewers critiqued what they felt to be failures of the entertainment industry: Nurmi was supposed to be good-looking and entertaining. He was not supposed to speak in Arias’s defense because as far as public opinion was concerned, Arias had already qualified for execution.

In this regard, “Obsession” the Dateline episode of May 10th, 2013, is significant because it provides more reflective coverage on the public’s reaction to the “Jodi Show” than other major news outlets. The trial is described as a “uniquely twenty-first century event” in terms of its attraction to audiences “hooked on the action” and emphasizes the trial’s reality-show style appeal.[29] This Dateline episode refers to “trial tourists”—that is, people from other states flying into Phoenix to try to get a seat in court. Dateline also points out that this type of public interest is problematic. Treating the trial it as if it were as “unreal” as a reality show, meant a heavily biased jury—who had not been sequestered—and defense lawyers who apparently feared for their lives. Equally problematic was the fact that the prosecuting attorney, Juan Martinez, was signing autographs and posing for pictures outside of the courthouse. Michael Kiefer, an Arizona Republic reporter interviewed on site expressed dismay that people were reacting to an event this serious in such a frivolous manner: “This is not Jersey Shore. This is life and death. This is a death penalty case.”[30] But nobody seemed particularly concerned with the provision of a fair trial. The Arias case had given the public an opportunity to express its bloodlust: The condemnation of Arias’s violence had evidently given rise to a socially acceptable and legally sanctioned violence of its own.

A Quest for Truth

The persistence and pervasiveness of social media helped the American public to participate minute by minute in a heavily dramatized trial ultimately cast as a quest for “Truth.” Unified toward this ostensibly noble end, the public followed Juan Martinez’s cross-examination intently, trying to understand who Jodi Arias really was. In this manner, trial-addicted viewers found online affinity groups either for or against (although the majority was clearly for) the death penalty. A consensus of sorts was constructed by media outlets such as HLN and CNN conveying a sense that the American people had unified in order to uncover the “truth” and participate in the ritual slaying of a monster.

When media outlets begin to represent Arias as being a complex character, that complexity is quickly undermined by resorting to a strictly Manichean worldview. For example, Dateline’s “Along Came Jodi” shows an image of Arias wearing red while posing against an acid green background. The picture is replicated multiple times to signal multiple personality disorder. And later, pictures of Arias in her various avatars (blonde bombshell, domestic violence victim, mousy librarian) are presented along with a voiceover alerting viewers to “the many faces of Jodi Arias.”[31]However, the “many faces” are not meant to show complexity, they are meant to inspire fear; to demonstrate that Arias’s negative traits are legion and that her capacity for trickery is unlimited. The possibility that there might be a “good” Arias among these avatars becomes irrelevant when her representation will ultimately be reduced to a good/evil binary. This sense of duality is seen in sharp relief when viewers are repeatedly shown old pictures of Arias.  The difference is stark. The pre-murder Arias had platinum blonde hair, wore makeup and contact lenses and sexy brightly colored clothing. The accused pre-trial Arias transitioned into a more modest brunette; still soft-spoken, pretty, and concerned with grooming and makeup. This change in Arias’s image was used to suggest that she was “hiding” something[32] –an allegation that grew when the Arias on trial later seemed to have changed dramatically even from her transition phase; wearing large unfashionable glasses, no makeup, and drab colors. Newscasters drew frequent attention to this, calling Arias’s new look that of the “mousy librarian.”[33] Now, seemingly all too aware of her folly in having sought the spotlight, Arias appears to shrink from the public eye lamenting that details of her sex life with Alexander have gone public. But when the narrator of Dateline’s “Obsession” asks: “Who was she?” it doesn’t seem as if the documentarians themselves had much doubt as to who Arias was. Although both CBS and NBC aired documentary episodes attempting to attest to Arias’s multiplicity, their efforts were disingenuous. This disingenuousness comes to light in a Facebook chat that invites viewers to weigh in on whether or not they believe the defense’s version of Arias’s story. Dateline muses over Arias’s transformation from “sexy wannabe photographer to Plain Jane killer.”[34] This concept is rhetorically problematic. Why could Arias not have been both—or why was she necessarily either? How would one category have precluded her from the other?  How, could a “sexy wannabe photographer” be pitted as a logical antithesis to being a killer? This rhetoric is evidence of the degree to which duality plays a role in the construction of the monstrous feminine, beginning with the archetype of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve, characterized both as being easily tempted and as a temptress herself, leads Adam into sin. During the trial, this feminine duplicity is remarked upon repeatedly—as are Arias’s good looks. How could an attractive person actually be a killer?[35] Indeed, Dateline’s labels—“sexy wannabe photographer” and “plain Jane killer”—foments the idea that we cannot quite conceive of killers as being attractive people. Therefore, it is possible that Arias actually lost credibility by eschewing the blonde bombshell look in favor of the librarian. On the other hand, however, perhaps it was a savvy rhetorical tactic. Unattractive female murderers such as Aileen Wournos are merely female monsters—and people feel sorry for them—whereas attractive women who commit murder are branded as siren-like; somehow supernatural. This element of the uncanny incites us to recognize these women as being as excessively evil as they are excessively feminine.

Figure 4: Pre-murder photograph of Arias. Image from liberallylean.com, 2013

Figure 4. Pre-murder photograph of Arias, liberallylean.com, 2013.

In his article “The Cultural Biography of Things,” Igor Kopytoff speaks of the analogous relationship between how people and things are constructed within a culture. In particular, he compares the difference between these constructions within a “small-scale” society versus a “complex” society.[36] In a small-scale society “a person’s social identities are relatively stable and changes in them are normally conditioned more by cultural rules than by biographical idiosyncrasies,” while a complex society is radically different by virtue of the fact that “a person’s social identities are not only numerous but often conflicting and there is no clear hierarchy of loyalties that makes one identity dominant over the others. Here, the drama of personal biographies has become…the drama of identities—of their clashes, of the impossibility of choosing between them…”[37] Taking Kopytoff’s theory of identity into account, I argue that during this trial, major television networks “mediated” by providing signals to help the viewing public choose between possible identities for Arias (monster or sex kitten?). Indeed, the uncertainty of identity is one of the most disturbing elements of the monstrous feminine; the biggest problem to be reckoned with: “classifications and reclassifications in an uncertain world of categories whose importance shifts with every minor change in context…the drama here lies in the uncertainties of valuation and identities.” [38] It is this categorical instability, this uncertainty of valuation, the contrived either/or dilemmas facing viewers that lead to the shaping of the Jodi Arias trial as a “whodunit.”

The “whodunit” aspect of the Arias trial stems from its narrative attention to the element of horror, particularly with regard to the characteristics of multiplicity and duplicity integral to the construction of the monstrous feminine. The fact that the trial is framed as a mystery can be aptly explained in terms of Teresa de Lauretis’s theory of the Oedipal quest—the idea that the woman is enigmatic and Sphinx-like; a riddle to be solved; a code to be cracked.[39] Ultimately, the way the Arias narrative is framed invites viewers to participate in a sense of discovery; the illusion of uncovering a secret. But is there really a secret? After all, we already know that Arias committed the crime. Apparently, now the question is which (of two or more) versions of Arias committed the crime, and who is she really? The idea that there is some “Truth” to be uncovered is the driving factor in de Lauretis’s discussion of the Oedipal quest. “So many films follow an Oedipal trajectory, usually figuring a male hero-individual, who embarks upon a journey that will involve him crossing a boundary and penetrating the ‘other space’.”[40] The “other space” that is being penetrated is the feminine. The hero must conquer her. Creed too, comments on this dynamic. When the male hero enters the ‘other space’ the “Sphinx, who…knows the answers to the secret of life…[is] no longer the subject of the narrative, [she] has become the object of the narrative of the male hero. After he has solved her riddle, she will destroy herself.” [41] Thus, the trial narrative is set up as a conundrum—the prosecutor will extract the Truth from the accused, and the Truth is dependent, of course, on how the debate itself is framed: abused woman or cold-blooded killer? Although the Arias case is not particularly mysterious, and Arias herself is not exactly an enigma, she must be presented as such because in order to answer the question of who she is, more information—the kind that can be provided only by those closest to the action—is always necessary. However, “Information can’t solve the problem because the problem is one of belief, not knowledge.”[42] In other words, according to media theorist Jodi Dean, once a belief about a particular situation has been fomented, no amount of empirical knowledge is going to change that belief if its supporting narrative continues to be structured in the same way. Dean goes on to say: “The technologies believe for us, accessing information even if we cannot. Permanent media bring us closer to the secret but continue to hold it just out of reach. The secret thus no longer sutures together the split public. Installed in new technologies it now functions as the stimulus and currency of the information economy.”[43] In other words, the idea of building consensus, the notion of constructing a common monster for the sake of unifying the public has now become secondary to the process of building beliefs. The very idea of withholding information, the rhetorical process of suggesting that any day now we might be granted access to the “right” piece of information—the privileged knowledge which will illuminate everything—is what really drives viewers to tune into the “Jodi Show” day and after day. No matter how many “facts” emerge about the case, no matter whose Twitter feed we follow, no matter who is reporting on the drama occurring in the courthouse, as Dean points out, the information is unlikely to challenge what we have already been primed to believe about who the monster is and the position she occupies in the public consciousness. The tactic of genre-melding in the Arias narrative is therefore used as a blind—it appears to be supplying the viewer with new information, but in fact, it is being used primarily to foment belief in the viewer—a belief that there is a Truth to be uncovered.

Conclusion

Certainly, constructing criminals as a monsters serves to dehumanize them, but what does such a construction say about us—those who are engaged in crafting the monster narrative? Monsters do significant cultural work. They act as deterrents or correctives to bad behavior, they instruct or show us about ourselves, and they unify us by providing us with a perceived common enemy. Constructing Arias as a monster serves to promote the idea of social purity, engages viewers by making them feel personal investment in the trial proceedings, and ultimately bonds them in a public quest for “Truth.” In particular, the construction of the monstrous feminine in characterizing the Arias/Alexander story is crucial to generating public interest. Although the case presents what appears to be a drama of identity, the fallacious binaries conveyed to viewers reinscribe the trope of the monstrous feminine. In Hollywood, the monster is always killed, but in real life we attempt to sublimate–or “rehabilitate”–our monsters by sending them to correctional facilities. However, the presence of the death penalty as well as popular constructions of the monster suggest that we do not believe that monsters can be “corrected.” Ironically then, perhaps what we end up attempting to sublimate is not the monster per se, but our own desire to kill it–a desire that inevitably finds expression at an increasingly indeterminate border between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy.

References

“Along Came Jodi.” Dateline. NBC. 1 Mar. 2013. Television.

Boedecker, Hal. “Jodi Arias: Will She Talk Herself to Death?” Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Newspaper, 22 May 2013. Web.

Breuer, Howard, and Jill Smolowe. “The Many Faces of Jodi Arias.” People.com. Time Inc., 08 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006.

Clover, Carol.  Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton NJ: Princeton, UP. 1992.

Creed, Barbara. Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003.

The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.

Curry, Colleen. “Jodi Arias Trial Puts Mormon Sex Rules in Spotlight.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 1 Feb. 2013. Web.

Dean, Jodi. Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1984.

Dr. Drew Staff. “Grade Kirk Nurmi’s Closing Argument” Dr. Drew on Call HLN. Cable News Network, 3 May. 2014. Web.

— “How Would You Grade Kirk Nurmi?” Dr. Drew on Call. HLN. Cable News Network, 23 Apr. 2013. Web.

Errigo, Angie. “Fatal Attraction: Glenn Close Turns into a Monstrous One-Woman Adultery-Deterrent” Empireonline.com. Bauer Consumer Media, n.d. Web.

Hogan, Shanna. Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story; A Beautiful Photographer, Her Mormon Lover, and a Brutal Murder. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

“In Her Own Words.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive. September 2008. Web.

“Jodi Arias Dirty Little Secret.” MyLifetime.com. n.p., 22 June 2013. Web.

“Jodi Arias Secrets Revealed.” CNN.com. Cable News Network, 18 Apr. 2013.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things” The Social Life of Things:

Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Lohr, David. “Jodi Arias Case: Twists And Delays In Alleged Femme Fatale’s Murder Trial.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 29 Dec. 2011. Web.

— “Jodi Arias Timeline (UPDATED).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

“Obsession: The Jodi Arias Trial.” Dateline. NBC. 10 May. 2013. Television.

Pelisek, Christine. “Will Jodi Arias Go Free?” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 03 May 2013. Web.

“Picture Perfect: The Trial of Jodi Arias.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive, 19 Jan. 2013. Web.

Schwartz, David. “Arizona Jury Foreman Says Believed Jodi Arias Was Abused.” Reuters US Edition. Reuters.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

Skoloff, Brian and Josh Hoffner. Killer Girlfriend: The Jodi Arias Story. Waterfront Digital Press, May, 2013.

“The Closely Guarded Secret of Jodi Arias’ Trial.” Inside Edition. n.p., 03 May 2013. Web.

Thomas, Alexandra. “After Dark Reenacts Arias Killing.” HLNtv.com. Cable News Network, 29 May 2013.

“Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive, 17 May 2013. Web.

Van Horn, Charisse.  “Did Jodi Arias Recreate Psycho Scene with Travis Alexander?” Crime and Courts News. Blogger, 8 May 2013. Web.

Velez-Mitchell, Jane. Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias. William Morrow, August 20, 2013

—  “Verdict Watch Life or Death?” CNN.com Transcripts. Cable News Network, 21 May 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991):

2-13.

Notes:


[1] “Obsession: The Jodi Arias Trial.” Dateline. NBC. 10 May. 2013. Also, Colleen Curry, “Jodi Arias Trial Puts Mormon Sex Rules in Spotlight.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 1 Feb. 2013. Web.

[2] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. (London: Routledge, 1993), 7.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] “Jodi Arias: In Her Own Words” is no longer available online. It was used as evidence of Arias’s cover-up during the trial, and was then removed from the 48 Hours site. Content from this original interview was incorporated into two later episodes of 48 Hours: “Picture Perfect” and  “Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias.”

[5] David Lohr “Jodi Arias Case: Twists And Delays In Alleged Femme Fatale’s Murder Trial.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 29 Dec. 2011. Web.

[6] David Lohr “Jodi Arias Timeline (UPDATED).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Linda Williams  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991): 2-13.

[9] “Jodi Arias Dirty Little Secret.” MyLifetime.com. n.p., 22 June 2013. Web.

[10] Most of these were written hastily by journalists, sold as ebooks and updated periodically. Noteworthy examples are HLN reporter Jane Velez-Mitchell’s Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias, William Morrow, August 20, 2013 and Associated Press Reporter Brian  Skoloff’s Killer Girlfriend: The Jodi Arias Story. Waterfront Digital Press, May, 2013.

[11] Alexandra Thomas “After Dark Reenacts Arias Killing.” HLNtv.com. Cable News Network, 29 May 2013. Web.

[12] Dr. Stephen Pitt quoted in Obsession, 10 May, 2013.

[13] Pelisek, Christine. “Will Jodi Arias Go Free?” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 03 May 2013. Web.

[14] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (Princeton NJ: Princeton, UP. 1992), 35.

[15] Shanna Hogan. Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story; A Beautiful Photographer, Her Mormon Lover, and a Brutal Murder. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 270.

[16] Angie Errigo, “Fatal Attraction: Glenn Close Turns into a Monstrous One-Woman Adultery-Deterrent” Empireonline.com. Bauer Consumer Media, n.d. Web.

[17] Hogan, Picture Perfect, 18.

[18] “Along Came Jodi.” Dateline. NBC. 1 Mar. 2013. Television and Web.

[19] Charisse Van Horn, “Did Jodi Arias Recreate Psycho Scene with Travis Alexander?”

Crime and Courts News. Blogger, 8 May 2013. Web.

[20] These images had originally appeared on the Justice4Travis Twitter feed.

[21] Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, 101-102.

[22] Hogan, Picture Perfect, 108 and 117.

[23] Creed, Monstrous, 8

[24] David Schwartz. “Arizona Jury Foreman Says Believed Jodi Arias Was Abused.” Reuters US Edition. Reuters.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

[25] Barbara Creed Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality. (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003) 37.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. (New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006) 21-23.

[28] Dr. Drew Staff. “Grade Kirk Nurmi’s Closing Argument” Dr. Drew on Call HLN. Cable News Network, 3 May. 2014. Web. Also, “How Would You Grade Kirk Nurmi?” 23 Apr. 2013. Web.

[29] “Obsession” Dateline. NBC. 10 May, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The idea of Jodi Arias having “many faces” was also taken up by several other news outlets. An example is Howard Breuer and Jill Smolowe. “The Many Faces of Jodi Arias.” People.com. Time Inc., 08 Apr. 2013. Web.

[32] “The Closely Guarded Secret of Jodi Arias’ Trial.” Inside Edition. n.p., 03 May 2013.

[33] Boedecker, Hal. “Jodi Arias: Will She Talk Herself to Death?” Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Newspaper, 22 May 2013. Web.

[34] “Obsession” Dateline.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Igor Kopytoff “The Cultural Biography of Things” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 89-90.

[37] Ibid., 89.

[38] Ibid., 90.

[39] Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. (Bloomington, IN:

Indiana UP, 1984), 119.

[40] Ibid.,119.

[41] Creed, Monstrous, 26.

[42] Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002),40.

[43] Ibid.

Bio: Elizabeth Lowry received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Arizona State University where she now holds a Lecturer position in Rhetoric and Composition. Her research interests include, nineteenth century feminism, historiography, sustainability, public spheres theory, material culture, and women’s autobiography. Her published work appears in the Rhetoric Review, Aries, Word and Text, and in edited collections.

 

Blockbusters for the YouTube Generation: A new product of convergence culture – Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller

Abstract: While scholars have paid much attention to YouTube in a Web 2.0 environment, the YouTube blockbuster is yet to be discussed as part of this convergence culture. It differs from transmedia storytelling in that no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts. Once users have elevated videos with rich narrative qualities to the heights of fame within YouTube and other virtual social networks, they are taken from the YouTube archive by global commercial media and given new exchange values in traditional media forms such as books, films, television shows and ancillary products, using fragmented classical narrative techniques to do so. This paper traces the history of the blockbuster as a way of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change after World War II, to its refinements in the 1970s to cater for younger audiences and changes in the media landscape, to its most recent incarnation in YouTube. We argue that the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being transformed and refigured by the new form it has begun to take within convergence culture.

Introduction

Susan Boyle is a dowdy, middle-aged Scottish singer with bushy eyebrows and frizzy dark hair. She was the “fairytale for the YouTube generation” (Wooley, 2010) in 2009 and now has one of the world’s fastest selling debut albums of all time. The story began when Boyle surprised audiences with her faultless rendition of Les Miserables’ “I dreamed a dream” on the hit reality television show Britain’s Got Talent. The Washington Post later reported that the judges and audience were “waiting for her to squawk like a duck” (McManus, 2009). Within hours of her performance, a snippet of footage was uploaded to YouTube by a computer user and shared among millions of people throughout the world. Another piece of footage, uploaded by the producers of the television show, has received almost 100 million hits. Boyle is now one of the world’s most recognizable faces, with guest television appearances, stories in newspapers and magazines, books and record deals. Ironically, the 48-year-old songstress had never heard of YouTube before her performance. She told one interviewer: “I hadn’t even seen a computer…Google what’s that? Is that some kind of gargle?” (Wooley, 2010).

This paper argues the Susan Boyle phenomenon is an example of an emerging media form – the YouTube blockbuster. Just like its cinematic forerunner, this is an example of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change. The two forms retain much in common and we will highlight the work of Marco Cucco (2009) to outline these similarities. Importantly, however, we aim to show how the two models differ within a convergence culture.  The traditional blockbuster model developed by Hollywood in the 1960s and `70s depends upon corporate media investing significant economic capital to produce and market a product with an expectation it will appeal to mass audiences and generate huge profits. Its production has always been controlled by single media conglomerates which make the final decisions on plot and character development as well as licensing agreements for ancillary products. Elana Shafrin (2004) argues that in recent times cinematic blockbusters have been “infused with new modes of authorship, production, marketing and consumption” (Shafrin, 2004, p.261). She uses case studies of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars franchises to discuss how a growing number of “active” or “participatory” fans (Jenkins, 1992) exhibit a sense of ownership that includes an investment in the creative development of these productions. Shafrin shows how internet clubs and websites have provided venues for fans to establish connections to Jackson and Spielberg and their evolving franchises through social gossip, artistic production and political activism.

The YouTube blockbuster is different because its character and plot development is not determined by a single media conglomerate, nor are the licensing agreements for its associated merchandise. It begins with huge interest within participatory media culture before the corporate media make any significant investment and it is dependent on both “bottom up” participatory culture as well as “top down” corporate media (Jenkins, 2006, p.242) to drive its production. Media scholars including Tiziana Terranova (2000), Andrew Ross (2009), Robert Gehl (2009) Banks & Humphreys (2008) and Banks & Deuze (2009) offer different perspectives in the debates surrounding co-creative labor and free labor, who controls content and information flows, who benefits and who profits. There is not space to work through these arguments here. YouTube does, however, provide an example of these complex, yet interdependent co-creative relationships as it thrives on its ability to function as both a business and cultural resource. YouTube has its own brand channel, provides transparent advertising platforms and offers advertising placements in frames on the site, but with its catchcry “Broadcast Yourself”™, it also provides a global stage for creative expression and is celebrated for its participatory culture. It allows everyone with an internet browser to produce, share, find and watch videos stored in its vast digital archive. It is the free, participatory culture of YouTube that is so attractive to “top down” corporate media. It offers a symbiosis with new media, as well as opportunities to build on YouTube success with a range of narratives and products. The YouTube blockbuster is unique within convergence culture as it has progressed from transmedia storytelling, the term used by Henry Jenkins (2006) to describe the ways in which the movie blockbuster production process changes when multimedia platforms are used to tell and sell a story. This paper also argues that a common feature of both old and new blockbusters is the use of narrative, even though it may be constructed in different ways. While classical Hollywood theorists claim narrative has been lost in the industrialisation of film culture, we will argue it is what helps bind new and old media in the production of the YouTube blockbuster.

Blockbuster production: A brief history

The term “blockbuster” is a synonym for something big and is commonly used to describe any cultural product that is a hugely popular commercial success, from art exhibitions to novels. However, it is most closely associated with film where the term was originally coined to describe a big budget production with mass popular appeal.

Cucco (2009) traces the blockbuster’s evolution in Hollywood to the 1940s and ‘50s when the industry was in a state of a crisis brought about by the large-scale, post-war demographic shift towards the new suburbs where there were very few cinemas. The baby boom reduced cinematographic consumption, and the birth of new media competition, especially television (Cucco, 2009, p 217), left movie houses struggling to attract audiences.

In the Studio Era of the 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood enjoyed some successes with films including Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, but it was in the 1970s that it appeared to have found a concrete solution to its crisis with the release of films such as The GodFather (1972), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1976). These were big budget films that recorded phenomenal takings at the box office – Jaws alone grossed $470.6 million in its initial release worldwide and cost $7 million to produce (Box Office Mojo, 2010). No three films had ever made so much money more quickly (Bordwell, 2006). They heralded the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster and provided a successful business model for media conglomerates to create big and expensive productions that could appeal to mass audiences and generate massive profits. According to film historian Thomas Schatz (2002), the emergence of the blockbuster signified what the New Hollywood was all about, that is “the studio’s eventual coming-to-terms with an increasingly fragmented entertainment industry – with its demographics and target audiences, its diversified multimedia conglomerates, its global markets and new delivery systems” (2002, p. 185). The rise of the blockbuster was met with strong criticism that such films signified the death of classical narrative and that Hollywood was relying on spectacle and special effects alone to tell and sell a story. Filmmaker Jean Douchet claimed post-classical cinema had given up on narrative and the image was “designed to violently impress by constantly inflating their spectacular qualities” (Buckland, 1999, p 178).  Schatz says film became:  “…so fast-paced and resolutely plot driven that character depth and development are scarcely on the narrative agenda and this emphasis on plot over character marks a significant departure from classical Hollywood” (Schatz, 2002, p. 194). Justin Wyatt (1994, p. 18) argues the cinematic blockbuster can be summarised on one sentence or image, usually called a logline, to make it easier to market. He gives examples from the 1980s including Flashdance (1983) and American Gigolo (1980), which were designed around the public’s taste and market research, and required a simplification of narrative in favor of the image as major appeal.

Most recently, Cucco (2009) has outlined three distinctive features of the cinematic blockbuster which we argue apply to the YouTube blockbuster as well. They include a high economic investment using both technology and human resources; a promise of a “spectacular” or something that is “must see”; and an ability to supplement the earnings from its audiovisual receipts with receipts from merchandising (Cucco, 2009, pp. 219-222). We will consider how each of these features applies to the YouTube blockbuster in this paper, beginning with the third feature – merchandising potential. This is best understood by considering how the blockbuster and ancillary products first came to co-exist.  Instead of competing with television, the blockbuster of the 1970s embraced it as a tool for massive advertising. The release of Jaws, for example, was preceded by a large-scale television promotional campaign to entice audiences. Gomery (1998) says the huge success of Jaws proved saturation advertising was the strategy that would redefine Hollywood (Gomery, 1998, p. 51). The print campaign featured a poster depicting a huge shark rising from the water towards an unsuspecting swimmer, while the radio and television ads exploited the well-known Jaws theme music (Schatz, 2002, p. 191). Bordwell (2006) argues that by the early 1980s, merchandising was added to extend the lifespan of the story beyond the cinema, so tie-ins with fast-food chains, automobile companies and lines of toys and apparel could keep selling the movie.

Scripts that lent themselves to mass marketing had a better chance of being acquired and screenwriters were encouraged to incorporate special effects. Unlike studio era productions, the megapicture could lead a robust afterlife on a soundtrack album, on cable channels and on video cassette. (Bordwell 2006, p.3)

The blockbuster strategy flourished within a new media environment where conglomerates controlled how and when a story could be produced and promoted across a range of mediums from television to the internet. Jenkins (2006) calls this “transmedia storytelling”. He uses the example of the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, which gives audiences pieces of the story and narrative through films, books and video games. Jenkins argues that within this idea:

Each medium does what it does best so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics and its world might be explored and experienced through game play…such a multilayered approach to storytelling will enable a more complex, more sophisticated, more rewarding mode of narrative to emerge within the constraints of commercial entertainment (Jenkins, 2006, p. 105).

Although the story is told across mediums, Jenkins argues that transmedia storytelling still depends on a central media company selling the rights to unaffiliated third parties to manufacture products while licensing limits what can be done with the characters or concepts to protect the original property. The production of most ancillary media is achieved by a combination of labor but ultimately the licensor has “the power”, for example the production of “tie-in novels” (Clarke 2009) depends on freelance and supervisory labor but the licensor has ultimate control over timeframes, characters and narratives. This marks the most fundamental difference in the evolution of the YouTube blockbuster because no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts.

 Beyond transmedia storytelling

Cucco (2009) outlines the use of high economic investment using both technology and human resources as a feature of the blockbuster. To understand how this relates to the YouTube blockbuster, we must acknowledge the identities and forms of agency that underpin the success of products of convergence culture such as YouTube. While there is not space here to look closely at this debate, scholars have tended to focus their discussions on the political economy of media production or classical development versus dependency theories (Jenkins, 2006; Banks & Deuze, 2009; Gehl, 2009). There was always a clear division between the role of the producer and consumer in the traditional market-driven cinema model, but that division has blurred since the “people formerly known as the audience” began creating content, uploading photos and videos and sharing information online. Croteau (2006) suggests “mega media products, along with other forms of traditional media, will increasingly be competing for attention with a constantly changing population of literally millions of media producers” (Croteau, 2006, p. 343). The YouTube blockbuster highlights this interdependency. As van Dijck (2009) observes; “YouTube’s role as an internet trader in the options market for fame is unthinkable without a merger between old and new media” (van Dijck, 2009, p. 53).

The production of the YouTube blockbuster depends on a variety of human resources, motives and objectives. They include those responsible for hosting YouTube, the people who upload content online and those who view and pass on links to popular footage via email, blogs, websites, telephone and word of mouth. Global commercial media are also involved, and their role includes extending the life of YouTube footage beyond the online archive by creating new plot developments and ancillary products of their own.

In her research to assess the future of Web 2.0  social networking sites, Kylie Jarrett (2008, p. 132) highlights that it is the appeal of, and control provided by community structures rather than corporate intervention which is fundamental to the success of sites such as YouTube.  Burgess and Green (2009) describe a continnum of cultural participation in YouTube where:

…content is circulated and used without much regard to its source, it is valued and engaged with in specific ways according to its genre and its uses within the website as well as its relevance to the everyday lives of other users, rather than according to whether or not it was uploaded by a Hollywood studio, a web TV company or an amateur video blogger (Burgess & Green, 2009, p. 57).

YouTube is owned by Google, yet Google does not charge licensing fees to those who wish to upload content or enforce subscription fees on anyone who wishes to view material on the site. This allows for large-scale site traffic, providing people have internet access and can invest in the necessary equipment for video editing and uploading. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the YouTube blockbuster. The relatively free, participatory nature of YouTube is what attracts the interest of global media companies seeking to create their own exchange values from popular content. Often the original creator of material is not acknowledged in the archive and if copyright restrictions are unclear, anyone can take advantage of this ambiguity and control the way the content is developed outside of the archive.

This shows that the YouTube blockbuster has moved beyond Jenkins’ (2006) transmedia storytelling, which depends on a central media company driving production. It does, however, reinforce Cucco’s idea that the success of the blockbuster depends on its ability to generate merchandizing and ancillary products. Without this ability, there would be no large-scale investment in popular YouTube footage from global media.  This investment can range from deploying resources such as journalists to report on the phenomena for commercial media, to book deals, movie rights or merchandizing.

The ‘Singing Spinster’ spectacle

Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent was first recorded and uploaded by computer users. There was no initial large-scale investment apart from the costs associated with the production of the reality talent show, but this hardly compares with the massive budgets afforded to create Hollywood blockbusters. The YouTube users who uploaded footage had made some minor investment with basic computer equipment and internet access to upload content onto what is considered a cultural resource. But there were no special effects or spectacle deployed on YouTube, in fact the footage of Boyle is grainy and poor quality and lasts for less than four minutes. Once footage was uploaded, news within the YouTube community spread like a virus. Boyle became a spectacle through viral videos, word of mouth and email. The first international news reports came after the YouTube footage had received millions of hits. Newspapers across the world were reporting less than 24 hours after her television appearance of her global success on YouTube with international headlines such as “Scottish spinster a world media sensation” (no author (a), 2009, p. 16) and “Unlikely singer is YouTube sensation” (Lyall, 2009, p. 1).

Large-scale economic investment in the Boyle phenomena was made after the footage was a massive hit in YouTube and corporate media saw value in its production outside of the archive. In the case of traditional media, it provided a chance to “gobble up its most promising prospects” for its own financial gain (Croteau, 2006). Until now corporate media has always had to take a gamble that their large-scale investment in blockbusters will pay off with audiences. They have had to rely on previously successful formulas and market research (Wyatt, 1994). In the case of YouTube phenomena, television stations and talk shows such as Oprah, newspapers across the globe from the Washington Post to The Australian, magazines and book publishers all sought a slice of Boyle only after the footage had been endorsed in YouTube on a grand scale. There were media reports in May 2009 that Catherine Zeta-Jones had asked about the film rights to the singer’s life story and that Oscar-winning film director James Cameron wanted to direct the film (no author (b), 2009, p. 54) Fremantle Media, the producer of Britain’s Got Talent which discovered Boyle, found even it was scrambling to maximise potential from the phenomena and it was only after millions of hits had been received that it negotiated to set up a YouTube channel and sell advertising around official Boyle clips.  The Sunday Times of London reported in April 2009 that more than £1 million in potential advertising income had been lost because no deal was in place before Boyle’s ‘I dreamed a dream’ was viewed more than 75 million times.

No single media conglomerate could control the way the Boyle footage was used outside of YouTube. Whereas J.K. Rowling can control the licensing agreements that govern how her creation Harry Potter is portrayed in merchandizing products, sequels and plot development, both internet users and global media can take the story surrounding a piece of YouTube footage in almost any direction they choose.

YouTube says in its corporate website that every minute a mind boggling 13 hours of video is uploaded and attracts millions of users and viewers. To understand why Boyle has become a YouTube blockbuster we must identify the qualities that make her ‘I dreamed a dream’ stand out from the millions of other video clips in the YouTube archive. The Boyle footage has attracted 300 million hits worldwide and its rich inter-textual narrative appears to differentiate it from other highly popular videos such as “Where the Hell is Matt”, which is not well known to traditional media audiences but has attracted more than 25 million hits and appeared on YouTube’s list of most popular clips. We argue that strong narrative qualities can elevate certain YouTube footage to blockbuster status. International audiences can identify with the story and the corporate media can use the narrative to extend the footage’s appeal beyond the YouTube archive.

Cucco emphasises that a common feature of the blockbuster is the need for a spectacle or something that is “must see”. The spectacle of the YouTube blockbuster is not the footage itself, but the hype created around the footage. We argue this is achieved through narrative techniques, which critics say has crumbled under the industrial weight of the blockbuster.

There are several noteworthy scholars who argue that contemporary Hollywood blockbusters still have narrative structure intact, regardless of quality. Kristin Thompson (1993) examined dozens of post 1960s films such as Jaws, Alien (1979) and GroundHog Day and found dense plot developments, rather than incoherent and fragmented ones. Schauer (2007) further argues that transmedia storytelling has the potential to improve upon the standard film narrative rather than fragment it to the point where it becomes obsolete. He argues that his study of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was an important example of transmedia storytelling as ancillary products were part of director George Lucas’s marketing strategy from the beginning, but that the film still displayed strong connections to narrative.

The use of classical narratives within the global media has also been noted by scholars, particularly within the field of media and journalism. Traditional narrative themes are often used in news stories where journalists portray the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress. Bell (1991) calls journalists the professional storytellers of our age: “The fairy story starts: ‘Once upon a time’. The news story begins: ‘Fifteen people were injured today when a bus plunged’.” Stories define actors moving through sequences of events filled with victims, villains and heroes (Woodward, 1997). Propp (1975) is well known in media studies for identifying recurrent patterns, set characters and plot actions in all fairytales. The main characters include villain, donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero and the false hero.  More recently, Booker (2004) has outlined seven basic plots that are structural transformations of ancient tales: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy and tragedy. Carroll (2001) identifies and explores key stories or archetypes at the source of Western culture from the virtuous whore; the troubled hero; salvation by a god; soul-mate love; the mother; the value of work; fate; the origin of evil; and self-sacrifice.

In their research on news reporters’ use of YouTube, Hess and Waller (2009) argue that journalists create disjointed and hybrid narratives to extend the appeal of YouTube footage for their audiences. The way the news media use classical narrative and archetypes to create new exchange values from YouTube deserves attention, especially if we consider narratives in the media as simply a way of selling something (Fulton, 2005).

This paper aims to highlight that a strong connection to classical narrative is emerging as a key feature of the YouTube blockbuster. The story of Susan Boyle bears strong resemblance to those themes identified by Booker such as rags to riches and the classic folk tales Cinderella and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. The global media identified these themes and many stories retain some of the narrative structure of these tales with headlines such as “A life lesson on looks turns into the fairy-tale ending” from the Chicago Tribune and The Sunday Times in Singapore headline “Beauty in ‘Ugly Ducking’ Susan Boyle”. This extract from the British Daily Mirror also highlights the way the news media developed a storybook theme:

…The only man (Brian) to have kissed singing sensation Susan Boyle claimed yesterday it would be a privilege for any lucky guy. The Britain’s Got Talent wonder –nicknamed the Hairy Angel – now has millions of fans worldwide but revealed she has never found a man to love or kiss. “I never knew her to have a birthday party because she was busy caring for her mother,” Brian said. Brian also told how Susan, born with learning difficulties, was targeted by louts. He said: “They would call her names, throw snowballs at her door and dare each other to knock and run away”. (Daily Mirror, 2009).

British journalist Nicci Gerrard wrote a comment piece shortly after Susan Boyle was reportedly admitted to a celebrity rehab clinic after suffering an emotional breakdown in June 2009 (Cooper, 2009). In her article, “The Susan Boyle fairytale was just a fairytale” she writes:

Even this small human tragedy can be easily turned by those so adept in the manipulation of individual stories to fit the required narrative. In fact, it makes it even more gripping. You can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back — just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas) … it’s actually nowhere near enough to have talent; you have to have a story. You have to be on a journey. You have to have suffered (makes you heroic) and you have to be redeemed (gives you that essential happy ending). You have to be able to cry and make others cry.

Conclusion

Only rare YouTube moments are imbued with qualities that not only attract millions of viewers, but have the potential as bankable products for media conglomerates that can ultimately propel them to blockbuster status.  This paper has focused on Susan Boyle, but there are other examples of this new form of blockbuster, such as “Christian the Lion”, which possesses the same kind of rich, universal narrative qualities as the Boyle story. This YouTube blockbuster captures a tale of remarkable love between beast and man in just a couple of minutes of low-quality, grainy 1970s footage in which the lion embraces its former owner. It has spawned best-selling books for children and adults, documentaries and massive international news media coverage and commentary.

The global reach of popular YouTube footage is unprecedented and YouTube phenomena such as the Susan Boyle footage can attract as much, if not more attention from fans and audiences than some of Hollywood’s most famous actors. Martin Conboy (2002) says the popular press survives on its ability to maintain a dialogue with contemporary cultural trends. So it comes as no surprise that YouTube, a new form of popular culture, attracts interest from global commercial media.

The YouTube blockbuster shares some of the features of its cinematic forerunner – most importantly, it has the “must see” quality that Cucco describes. It also attracts massive global audiences, offering opportunities to reap big profits from merchandizing and spin-off media products. But the nature of the hype that traditionally surrounded the blockbuster has been transformed and democratised by new media communities and technology. It is no longer a case of marketeers rolling out slick promotional campaigns designed around public taste and market research to build expectations for months before a blockbuster is released. The circulation of viral emails and links from social network sites alert increasingly large networks of people to the existence of “must see” YouTube footage and they are able to access it instantly. In the process, both the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being redefined. It was once under complete corporate control, big budgets and big profits were its hallmarks and slick production, spectacle and special effects were the drawcard. The YouTube blockbuster is first and foremost under YouTube user control, it’s relatively cheap to produce, the nature of the “spectacle” has changed and production values are relatively unimportant. Narrative is in the ascendancy.

The global commercial media is still coming to terms with the latest transformations of the media landscape in which corporate control is slipping. As in the post-war period and again in the 1970s, creative industries must find new ways to profit. The Susan Boyle blockbuster is an important example of the media redefining itself by finding ways to meet the challenges posed by the new cultural forms, delivery systems and diversification Web 2.0 presents. YouTube users make large investments of human capital and small investments in technology at the front end of the YouTube blockbuster, but media spectacle and big profits are still possible for the global commercial media when it takes the guaranteed popularity of a YouTube clip and can spin it into traditional media products such as news, documentaries, books, films and audio recordings.

But the YouTube blockbuster is a fragile entity and models of storytelling in convergence culture are evolving as rapidly as the technology itself. YouTube is both a business and a cultural resource co-created by its users and the larger in scale and demographic reach, “the more that is at stake and the more significant the tensions between labour, play, democracy and profiteering become” (Burgess & Green, 2009, pp. 35-36) Already there have been disputes over claims of copyright infringement with Viacom, and most recently Warner Bros’ battle over music video clips. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the blockbuster. If corporate interests intervene, for example, through the introduction of subscription fees, then the community framework which supports the blockbuster will surely weaken.

The blockbuster phenomenon highlights the synergies between new and old media in a convergence culture. No one can predict what the next blockbuster will be, nor can they orchestrate it, but what is certain is that unlikely stars will continue to be rocketed into this new media stratosphere such as the “Hairy Angel” Susan Boyle.

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Bios:

Kristy Hess is a Lecturer in Journalism in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her current research projects focus on social justice and the regional media; social capital and the media (PhD); parent/student learning partnerships to improve literacy; and developing national curriculum resources as part of the Reporting Diversity project. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. Email: kristy.hess@deakin.edu.au

Lisa Waller is a part-time journalism lecturer and a full-time Phd student in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. As a recent graduate of Deakin’s Graduate Certificate of Higher Education and now a member of the GCHE advisory board, she is interested in the education of tertiary educators. She is also interested in curriculum and pedagogy in higher education, especially curriculum renewal and the scholarship of teaching in higher education. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal.