Maleficent: A feminist fairy tale?

—Jessie Klein and Meredith Finnerty

Maleficent makes us want to stand up and cheer—and then sit down stunned. The film distinguishes itself as the third in a trend of major studio releases that seem determined to reverse the damage of the common fairy tale motif: “Wealthy princes save skinny damsels for love ever after.” Yet, as research reveals high U.S. social isolation, the reinvented princess plots portend ominous new troubles while embracing old snares; together these phenomena suggest that human love in the U.S. may be endangered.

In the wake of Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013), Maleficent suggests that true love at best won’t be found in some random prince you meet one day, and at worst, said prince may well be seeking to destroy you to realize his own ambitions.

“You got engaged to someone you met the same day?” howls Kristoff to Anna in Frozen. These messages are a partial triumph, advising young people to work to find a forever partner, among other priorities.

The other themes, though, are foreboding: In addition to pressure to look like ever more unattainable Photoshopped images (still contributing to eating disorders at ever younger ages), young people are told to look for intimacy from parents and siblings—and consider romantic love from a spouse (or anyone else) a distant, and perhaps unachievable, goal.

Maleficent’s former love, Prince Stefan, steals her power to fly when he absconds with her wings, to become King. In Frozen, Anna’s fiancé, Prince Hans, tries to kill Anna and destroy the ice-power endowed to her older sister, Queen Elsa, in order to mount their throne. And Princess Merida’s suitors, in Brave, chosen by her parents, are arrogant and incompetent.

In Frozen, it is Anna’s sister, Elsa, who accidentally ices Anna’s heart, and then frees her from this fate with her own true love sibling kiss. In Maleficent, the evil witch-turned-doting mother figure embodies such love; and in Brave, Merida herself liberates her mother from life as a bear, with the heart only a daughter can bestow.

What a departure from the historic themes where evil stepsisters, stepmothers, and girls generally are so competitive that they achieve each other’s demise. Such parables characterizing sisters as envious and hateful are present in, among others, Oz, the Great and Powerful (2013) and expected in Cinderella (2015); and a constant in contemporary film renditions of classics such as King Lear.

The depiction of sisters and “stepmothers” as devoted to one another in Frozen and Maleficent is new; and the portrayal of true love found in familial bonds reflects startling statistics. Family intimacy remains constant when relationships of other kinds are disintegrating as revealed by the General Social Survey 2004 when compared to GSS 1985. The U.S. marriage rate has reached its lowest point in the past century. In 1920, 92.3 percent of Americans married; now it is 31.1 percent according to a 2013 study by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Marriage and Family; and 40 to 50 percent of those unions end in divorce. Not least, people have fewer friends, and connect with neighbors and other community members less.

Today’s fairy tale heroines are also turning to non-human companions for support (note Maleficent’s bird and Anna’s snowman). Princess Merida and her mother see each other’s wisdom only when the mom becomes a bear. Could this be a reference to real world declining rates of social connections outside family? Almost 25 percent of women won’t marry unless their pets approve (as per JDate and Christian Mingles State of Dating in America, 2014), suggesting that animals are replacing humans for family support. Another trend is for women to adopt dogs instead of children.

Young people watch these films while social isolation has tripled; and empathy and trust decreased. Other than with Mom and Dad, a trusted sibling, and perhaps a dog, people in the U.S. have less love in their lives than past generations.

We celebrate the victories in these reimagined legends. When before have children’s movies warned against blindly following the call to marry, above any other goal—and encouraged girls to look for intimacy elsewhere, much less the family? We appreciate the themes encouraging girls to know and use their inner power. These are among the memos we wish we and our peers received in our formative years.

We hope, though, that future scripts will also describe, and prescribe, more hope for social relationships in America among intimate partners (gay, straight and other) and male and female human friends. We look forward to heroines who defy the still frozen frames whereby women must be blonde and stick-thin to be loved.

These standards are destructive and cruel, and have even expanded to torment men. New impossibly high-definition muscle man images have contributed to increasing rates of eating disorders among men who are afflicted with life-threatening diseases such as the still recently dubbed: “Bigorexia.”

Each of these tales shifts hope for the marriage in question from the classic “happily ever after” to “perhaps.” Will we see such a “maybe” embrace heroes and heroines with different body types, in future films? Could friends and neighbors be the source of an expanded depiction of the many shapes of true love? Let us know.

Jessie Klein is the author of The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools (NYU Press, 2012). She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Adelphi University. Meredith Finnerty is a Birth doula and certified HynoBirthing Childbirth Educator (HBCE).

[Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.]

‘The Fault’ in our memories

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

One fine morning in Amsterdam, Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars, sports a tee shirt emblazoned with Magritte’s most famous painting. It reads, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) under a painting of… a pipe. The point of the painting is that it is not a pipe, but rather, a representation of a pipe. A signifier. A treacherous fake.

Yet sometimes we insist that we see a pipe. In the same way, The Fault in Our Stars is not a group of teenagers with cancer; it is a representation of teenagers with cancer. We are enraptured by it because it signifies suffering but it is not the real thing, giving us a vicarious “fantasy of witnessing” tragedy. We insist that we are seeing heartbreak.

The film’s blockbuster success stems from many sources: the popularity of the novel; the rising power of teenage girls at the box office; our cultural fascination with death; and the fact that it is genuinely a strong film. However, except for a significant kerfuffle over a kiss in the Anne Frank house, the role of religion in the film has gone unremarked—particularly when it is religion on the fuzzy line between what we call “religious” and “secular.”

John Green, the author of the book on which the film is based, was a religion and English major at Kenyon College. Before becoming a writer, he served as a hospital chaplain and considered a career in ministry. Perhaps this is one reason why his luminescent book is filled with existential fear and a refusal to meet the terror of theodicy with empty platitudes. Here, teens with cancer meet in the “literal heart of Jesus” for a support group at a local church. Hazel is not comforted by this 12-step two-step, but she also recognizes the Sisyphean task of the group’s peppy leader, Patrick. Elsewhere, Hazel’s father asks who we are to deny an elegant universe its desire to be noticed.

This is what I find so profound about the book, its inspirations, and its afterlife. Religion no longer happens only in formal institutional spaces (and it probably never did). In the hallways of hospitals, in our visceral reaction as characters high on a movie screen ponder ultimate questions—in the act of sitting in that dark theater itself—religion is happening. So is memory.

Augustus Waters wants to be noticed before he dies. At first, by the universe: to live an exceptional life. He and Hazel know this cannot be. They know they are finite; they never declare “always,” as some other lovers do, but rather, “okay.”

We all want to be noticed by the universe. This is why we yelp into our virtual superaddressee: the echoing expanse of Facebook and Twitter. We are all writing our own eulogies and those of our friends, day by day, good words and bad words and sublime and despairing logics (and the Kardashians, alas) all spun together. And it is here that we address the dead in plaintive tones. In the book, a grieving Hazel reads the memorial posts on Augustus’ “wall page.” She is both horrified by and empathetic towards the endless tributes. Giving in to temptation, she replies to one post, but is never answered, “lost in the blizzard of new posts.”

Hazel finds the term “forever in our hearts” especially galling.  Skeptical of memory, she mimics the poster’s intentions: “‘You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU!’ Thinking you won’t die is yet another side effect of dying.” Hazel sees through memory’s ruse: we think our power to remember and to recover memories is how we resurrect those who are lost—and that has theological implications. To possess one’s own fellow creature through memory is godlike… but we are mortals.

What happens to our memories of love and of suffering, here in the twenty-first century?

Green answers us with both dark infinitude and a leap of faith. He became a parent while writing the book, and says this changed it. When Hazel is eight, her mother fears that she will not be a mother anymore without her daughter. Years later, she moves past that into a brazen, stark resilience. She tells Hazel that she will always be her mother. Green has said, “I just could think of no other way to lay bare the absolute hideousness of living in a world where parents have to bury their children … Humans have always lived in that world, and always will.”

And yet, he also writes: “I couldn’t write the book until I understood that the love between a parent and child (like many other kinds of love) is literally stronger than death: As long as either person survives, the relationship survives.”

John Green wants to have his existential cake, and eat it, too. Maybe that’s not the worst idea ever.

Okay.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She holds a joint appointment with the Women’s Studies Program. She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2013).

Depictions of masculinity on television

Amanda D. Lotz

It is revealing that so little has been written about men on television. Men have embodied such an undeniable presence and composed a significant percentage of the actors upon the small screen—be they real or fictional—since the dawn of this central cultural medium and yet rarely have been considered as a particularly gendered group. In some ways a parallel exists with the situation of men in history that Michael Kimmel notes in his cultural history, Manhood in America. Kimmel opens his book by noting that “American men have no history” because although the dominant and widely known version of American history is full of men, it never considers the key figures as men. Similarly to Kimmel’s assertion, then, we can claim that we have no history of men, masculinity, and manhood on television—or at best, a very limited one—despite the fact that male characters have been central in all aspects of the sixty-some years of US television history. It is the peculiar situation that nearly all assessments of gender and television have examined the place and nature of women, femininity, and feminism on television while we have no typologies of archetypes or thematic analyses of stories about men or masculinities.

For much of television studies’ brief history, this attention to women made considerable sense given prevailing frameworks for understanding the significance of gender representation in the media. Analyses of women on television largely emerged out of concern about women’s historical absence in central roles and the lack of diversity in their portrayals. Exhaustive surveys of characters revealed that women were underrepresented on television relative to their composition of the general populace and that those onscreen tended to be relegated to roles as wives, love interests, or sex objects. In many cases, this analysis was linked with the feminist project of illustrating how television contributed to the social construction of beliefs about gender roles and abilities, and given the considerable gender-based inequity onscreen and off, attention to the situation of men seemed less pressing. As a result, far less research has considered representations of men on television and the norms or changes in the stories the medium has told about being a man.

Transitioning the frameworks used for analyzing women on television is not as simple as changing the focus of which characters or series one examines. Analyzing men and masculinity also requires a different theoretical framework, as the task of the analysis is not a matter of identifying underrepresentation or problematic stereotypes in the manner that has dominated considerations of female characters. The historic diversity of stories about and depictions of straight white men has seemed to prevent the development of “stereotypes” that have plagued depictions of women and has lessened the perceived need to interrogate straight white men’s depictions and the stories predominantly told about their lives. Any single story about a straight white man has seemed insignificant relative to the many others circulating simultaneously, so no one worried that the populace would begin to assume all men were babbling incompetents when Darrin bumbled through episodes of Bewitched, that all men were bigoted louts because of Archie Bunker, or even that all men were conflicted yet homicidal thugs in the wake of Tony Soprano. Further, given men’s dominance in society, concern about their representation lacked the activist motivation compelling the study of women that tied women’s subordinated place in society to the way they appeared—or didn’t appear—in popular media.

So why explore men now? First, it was arguably shortsighted to ignore analysis of men and changing patterns in the dominant masculinities offered by television to the degree that has occurred. Images of and stories about straight white men have been just as important in fostering perceptions of gender roles, but they have done their work by prioritizing some attributes of masculinity—supported some ways of being a man—more than others. Although men’s roles might not have been limited to the narrow opportunities available to women for much of television history, characteristics consistent with a preferred masculinity have pervaded—always specific to the era of production—that might generally be described as the attributes consistent with what is meant when a male is told to “be a man.” In the past, traits such as the stoicism and controlled emotionality of not being moved to tears, of proving oneself capable of physical feats, and of aggressive leadership in the workplace and home have been common. Men’s roles have been more varied than women’s, but television storytelling has nevertheless performed significant ideological work by consistently supporting some behaviors, traits, and beliefs among the male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others. So although television series may have displayed a range of men and masculinities, they also circumscribed a “preferred” or “best” masculinity through attributes that were consistently idealized.

The lack of comprehensive attention to men in any era of television’s sixty-some-year history makes the task of beginning difficult because there are so few historical benchmarks or established histories or typologies against which newer developments can be gauged. Perhaps few have considered the history of male portrayal because so many characteristics seemed unexceptional due to their consistency with expectations and because no activist movement has pushed a societal reexamination of men’s gender identity in the manner that occurred for women as a component of second-wave feminism. Male characters performed their identity in expected ways that were perceived as “natural” and drew little attention, indicating the strength of these constructs. Indeed, television’s network-era operational norms of seeking broad, heterogeneous audiences of men and women, young and old, led to representations that were fairly mundane and unlikely to shock or challenge audience expectations of gender roles.

One notable aspect of men’s depictions has been the manner through which narratives have defined them primarily as workers in public spaces or through roles as fathers or husbands—even though most male characters have been afforded access to both spaces. A key distinction between the general characterizations of men versus women has been that shows in which men functioned primarily as fathers (Father Knows BestThe Cosby Show) also allowed for them to leave the domestic sphere and have professional duties that were part of their central identity—even if actually performing these duties was rarely given significant screen time. So in addition to being fathers and husbands, with few exceptions, television’s men also have been workers. Similarly, the performance of professional duties has primarily defined the roles of another set of male characters, as for much of television history, stories about doctors, lawyers, and detectives were necessarily stories about male doctors, lawyers, and detectives. Such shows may have noted the familial status of these men but rarely have incorporated family life or issues into storytelling in a regular or consistent manner.

This split probably occurs primarily for reasons of storytelling convention rather than any concerted effort to fragment men’s identity. I belabor this point here because a gradual breakdown in this separate-spheres approach occurs in many dramatic depictions of men beginning in the 1980s and becomes common enough to characterize a sub-genre by the twenty-first century. Whether allowing a male character an inner life that is revealed through first-person voice-over—as in series such as Magnum, P.I.Dexter, or Hung—or gradually connecting men’s private and professional lives even when the narrative primarily depicts only one of these spheres—as in Hill Street Blues or ER—such cases in which the whole lives of men contribute to characterization can be seen as antecedents to the narratives that emphasize the multifaceted approach to male characters that occurs in the male-centered serial in the early 2000s. Though these series offer intricately drawn and complex protagonists, their narrative framing does not propose them as “role models” or as men who have figured out the challenges of contemporary life. The series and their characters provide not so much a blueprint of how to be a man in contemporary society as a constellation of case studies exposing, but not resolving, the challenges faced.

The scholarly inattention to men on television is oddly somewhat particular to the study of television. The field of film studies features a fairly extensive range of scholarship attending to changing patterns of men’s portrayals and masculinities. While these accounts are fascinating, the specificity of film as a medium very different from television in its storytelling norms (a two-hour contained story as opposed to television’s prevailing use of continuing characters over years of narrative), industrial characteristics (the economic model of film was built on audiences paying for a one-time engagement with the story while television relies on advertisers that seek a mass audience on an ongoing basis), and reception environment (one chooses to go out and see films as opposed to television’s flow into the home) prevent these studies of men on film to tell us much about men on television. Further, gender studies and sociology have developed extensive theories of masculinity and have been more equitable in extending beyond the study of women. Although theories developed in these fields provide a crucial starting point—such as breaking open the simple binary of masculinity and femininity to provide a language of masculinities—it is the case that the world of television does not mirror the “real world” and that the tools useful for exploring how societies police gender performance aren’t always the most helpful for analyzing fictional narratives. Sociological concepts about men aid assessments of men and masculinity on television, but it is clearly the case that the particularities of television’s dominant cultural, industrial, and textual features require focused and specific examination.

Why Cable Guys?

One of the motivations that instigated my 2006 book Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era was frustration with how increasingly outdated frameworks for understanding the political significance of emerging gender representations were inspiring mis-, or at least incomplete, readings of shows and characters that indicated a rupture from previous norms. Tools established to make sense of a milieu lacking central female protagonists disregarded key contextual adjustments—such as the gradual incorporation of aspects of second-wave feminism into many aspects of public and private life—and were inadequate in a society profoundly different from that of the late 1960s. For example, it seemed that some aspects of gender scripts had changed enough to make the old models outdated, or that there was something more to Ally McBeal than the length of her skirts, her visions of dancing babies, and her longing for lost love that had led to scorn and dismissal from those applying conventional feminist analytics. Given generational and sociohistorical transitions apparent by the mid-1990s, it seemed that this series and its stories might be trying to voice and engage with adjustments in gender politics rather than be the same old effort to contain women through domesticity and conventional femininity, as was frequently asserted.

I’m struck with a similar impulse in reflecting on how stories about men, their lives, and their relationships have become increasingly complicated in the fictional narratives of the last decade. Indeed, this evolution in depictions of male identities has not received the kind of attention levied on the arrival of the sexy, career-driven singles of Sex and the City and Ally McBeal or the physically empowered tough women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena: Warrior Princess. Assessments of men in popular culture, and particularly television, haven’t been plentiful in the last decade. Most of the discussion of men on television merely acknowledges new trends in depiction—whether they be the sensitivity and everymanness of broadcast characters or the dastardly antiheroism of cable protagonists. Such trend pieces have offered little deeper engagement with the cultural and industrial features contributing to these shifts or analysis of what their consequences might be for the cultures consuming them.

While these curiosities might motivate any scholar, I suspect the motivations of a female feminist scholar embarking on an analysis of men and masculinity also deserve some explanation. In addition to curiosity about shifting depictions and stories on my television screen, for well over a decade I’ve also had the sense that “something is going on” with men of the post–Baby Boomer generation, who, like me, were born into a world already responding to the critiques and activism of second-wave feminism. Yet nothing I’ve read has adequately captured the perplexing negotiations I’ve observed. For example, on a sunny Tuesday morning just after the end of winter semester classes, I took a weekday to enjoy the arrival of spring with my toddler. We found ourselves in the sandpit at the neighborhood park, and shared it that day with two sisters—one a bit older, the other a bit younger than my nearly two-year-old son—who were being watched over by their father. He was about my age and was similarly clad in the parental uniform of exercise pants and a fleece jacket. With some curiosity I unobtrusively watched him interact with his daughters. Dads providing childcare aren’t uncommon in my neighborhood—overrun as it is with academics and medical professionals with odd hours that allow for unconventional childcare arrangements—but something in his demeanor, his willingness to go all in to the tea party of sandcakes his oldest was engaging him with, grabbed my attention for its play with gender roles. It reminded me of the many male friends with whom I share a history back to our teen years who have similarly transformed into engaged and involved dads; they’ve seemingly eradicated much of the juvenile, but also sexist, perspectives they once presented, and also have become men very different from their fathers. Then his phone rang. Immediately, his body language and intonation shifted as he became a much more conventional “guy.” Was it a brother? It was definitely another man. An entirely different performance overtook his speech and demeanor as he strolled away from the sandpit, yet, suggesting that all was not reversed, he proceeded to discuss attending a baby shower, whether he and his wife would get a sitter, and the etiquette of gift giving for second babies. When the call ended he shifted back to the self I had first observed.

Watching this made me reflect on how the gender-based complaints I might register regarding balancing work and family—such as the exhausting demands, the still-tricky negotiations of relationships that cross the working mom/stay-at-home mom divide, and the ever-ratcheting demands to be the Best Mom Ever while maintaining pre-mom employment productivity—have been well documented by others and are problems with a name. My male peers, in contrast, must feel out to sea with no land or comrades in sight. Esteemed gender historian Stephanie Coontz has gone so far as to propose the term and reality of a “masculine mystique” as an important component of contemporary gender issues.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been left thinking about the contradictory messages offered to men these days. The uncertain embodiment of contemporary manhood appears in many places. For years now I’ve wondered, even worried, about the men in my classes. In general, they seem to decrease in number each year, perhaps being eaten by the ball caps pulled ever lower on their foreheads. As a hopefully enlightened feminist scholar, I try to stay attuned to the gender dynamics of my classroom—but what I’ve commonly found was not at all what I was prepared for or expected. Consistent with the Atlantic cover story in the summer of 2010 that declared “The End of Men” and touted that women had become the majority of the workforce, that the majority of managers were women, and that three women earned college degrees for every two men, the young women in my classes consistently dominate their male peers in all measures of performance—tests, papers, class participation, attendance. I haven’t been able to explain why, but it has seemed that most—although certainly not all—of the young men have no idea why they find themselves seated in a college classroom or what they are meant to do there. Though I must acknowledge that despite evidence of female advancement in sectors of the academy like mine, men still dominate in many of the most prestigious and financially well-rewarded fields, including engineering, business, and computer science.

I brought my pondering about classroom gender dynamics home at night as I negotiated the beginning of a heterosexual cohabitation in the late 1990s and thought a lot about what it meant to become a “wife” and eventually a “mother.” There were also conversations about what it meant to be the husband of a feminist and how being a dad has changed since our parents started out, although the grounds for these talks were more uncertain and role models and gender scripts seemed more lacking. Both in charting our early years of marriage and still in facing parenthood, my husband and I have often felt adrift and without models. Although we had little to quibble with in regard to our own upbringing, neither of us was raised in households in which both parents had full-time careers, which seemed quite a game changer and has proved the source of our most contentious dilemmas. While a wide range of feminist scholarship and perspectives has offered insight into the challenges of being a mom and professor, my husband and his compatriots seem to be divining paths without a map or a trail guide. As the mother of both a son and a daughter, I feel somewhat more prepared to help my daughter find her way among culturally imposed gender norms than my son; at least for her the threats and perils are known and named.

Amanda D. Lotz is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century (NYU Press, 2014).

[Read a fuller version of this excerpt from Amanda D. Lotz's new book, Cable Guys on Salon.com.]

No April Fool: Q&A with author Kembrew McLeod

To celebrate April 1 and the release of our new book, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, today we have a Q&A with the author—and self-proclaimed prankster—Kembrew McLeod. McLeod discusses pranks, hoaxes and cons (and what makes them different), the origins of secret societies, and how pranks and humor have been used throughout history to spark debate and inspire change.

Interviewer: What are the differences between pranks, hoaxes and cons?

Kembrew McLeod: When media outlets report that a person has been “pranked,” they are often discussing what I consider a hoax. A hoax is a kissing cousin of a prank, but its primary purpose is to fool people and attract attention. A prank, for me, is a staged provocation that uses media to enlighten or stir up a debate. I use cons as an all­purpose term for scams that are meant to defraud or gain an advantage—like an email phishing scam. Although it seems like the Internet Age has created a hurricane of pranking, hoaxing and conning, this tricky tradition has thrived for centuries.

You mention that one of America’s “founding fathers” was a merry prankster.

Ben Franklin was an O.P.—Original Prankster. In fact, Franklin’s very first print publication was a pseudonymously penned hoax (he wrote more than 100 satires, pranks and hoaxes under fake names over the course of his lifetime). Just before he died, Franklin penned an op­ed under the name “Historicus,” which trolled the anti­abolitionists by arguing that Muslims should enslave Christians. You won’t find that story in any Fox News­produced documentary on Ben Franklin!

What does media have to do with pranks?

If reduced to a mathematical formula, the art and science of pranking can be expressed as Performance Art + Satire x Media = Pranks. Put simply, pranks are playful critiques performed within the public sphere, and amplified by media. They allow ordinary people to reach large audiences despite constraints (like a lack of wealth or connections) that would normally mute their voices.

What are the prank origins of the urban legend that smoking banana peels can get you high?

Members of the hippie band Country Joe & the Fish started this rumor, which first spread through word of mouth and was quickly picked up by the national news media. Soon, lots of people joined in on the fun. For instance, Rep. Frank Thompson drafted the Banana Labeling Act of 1967 after a “high official in the FDA,” the Congressman claimed, urged him to introduce the bill. “From bananas,” Thompson stated in the halls of Congress, “it is a short but shocking step to other fruits.”

The past year has seen many pranks and hoaxes. Does the wired age lend itself to these events, or are we just more aware of them?

The Internet has changed the ways that pranks, hoaxes and cons can circulate, but trickery has been a pronounced part of the modern age since Jonathan Swift’s time. Pranks went viral much more slowly back then, but the dynamic is still the same.

Your book pays homage to women involved in important pranks. Many readers are probably familiar with Yoko Ono, but fewer know WITCH. What was WITCH?

The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) was an unruly group of ‘60s feminists who pulled many a political prank. For instance, they crashed a large bridal fair and performed an Un­Wedding Ceremony: “We promise to smash the alienated family unit,” they said in unison. “We promise not to obey.”

Some people have heard of the Illuminati from hip­-hop, or they may have encountered the Rosicrucians in a book or movie. What are the prank origins of these so-­called “secret societies”?

The Rosicrucian Brotherhood was invented in the early seventeenth century by Protestant pranksters in 1614. Their anonymously published “Rosicrucian Manifestos” were intended to stir up a public debate about scientific and theological ideas that the Catholic Church opposed. The Rosicrucian myth created the template for virtually every occult conspiracy theory that followed: an elite body of initiates—a satanic secret society within a secret society, sometimes known as the Illuminati—that wants to overthrow the established religious­political authority and create a New World Order.

Why do people put so much credence in ideas that a simple Google search can debunk?

Belief systems are powerful. People fall for pranks, hoaxes, cons and conspiracy theories when they confirm their deep­seated worldviews. Conspiracy theories are inherently non­falsifiable, and any attempt to disprove them is considered suspect.

What sparked your interest in pranks?

When I was a twenty­ year-old college student, I created a fictitious movement to change my school mascot to a three-eyed pig with antlers. It snowballed from the campus newspaper to regional news media, eventually landing on CNN. Reflecting back on the mascot changing prank, it helped me understand how trickery can shape mass media and, to a certain extent, how we perceive the world. It was my first dive into the prankster pond, and I was never the same.

Finally: Is Andy Kaufman still alive?

You’ll have to ask him yourself.

Embracing spreadability in academic publishing

—Sam Ford

The world of academic publishing was built on a model of scarcity. The specialist knowledge of an academic discipline was considered too limited for general commercial publication, so a niche industry was built to support the development and publication of essay and book-length academic publications. Academic presses played a vital role in this model and built their infrastructure to protect and make available academic essays for university libraries and specialists in a particular field. And, in return, the system for evaluating success among academics has been built in tandem with this publishing model—so that publishing milestones have become the logic on which tenure processes are built.

I had the pleasure of being invited to speak to the American Association of University Presses last summer on a panel about “reaching the world.” At it, I advocated that university presses have to rethink their raison d’être in the 21st century.

In a world where information is now overabundant rather than scarce, might it make sense that publishers have to change their logic dramatically in order to stay relevant? Rather than protecting and bringing information to circulation inside academia, as had been the old model, might not the role of the press be to curate and further cultivate the most important content in that vast field—and, equally as important—to focus on bringing that content to new audiences outside university libraries and professionals within one discipline?

I cited—as example—my experiences with Spreadable Media, the book I published this year (co-authored with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green) with New York University Press. There were few arguments or examples in this book that weren’t, in some form, published or presented somewhere previously: various white papers, blog posts, online articles, academic essays, keynote speeches, and so on. And we have published excerpts and examples from the book in a variety of places since it came out. Further, the overall project included more than 30 essays, available freely online, in addition to the book we co-authored.

As far as I can tell, the availability of all that material hasn’t hindered interest in our book. For whatever few people who would have bought the book but were instead sated by finding the information available online, there were many more that discovered the book through these various materials and purchased it.

Writing more than a decade ago about piracy, Tim O’Reilly said, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors.” The same can be said for concerns of “self-cannibalization.” And the logic of at least some presses’ acquisition editors underscore this. Consider this statement from Harvard University Press: “prior availability doesn’t have a clear relationship to market viability.”

An early version of a piece Peter Froehlich (with Indiana University Press) published in Learned Publishing in October highlights the model now employed by Harvard Business Review Press as a potential way forward: the press embraces multiple-platform publishing, thinking about the connection among its blog, its magazine, and its books as varying tiers of publication and embracing authors who share their ideas elsewhere—in the process developing a reputation as a catalyst for thinking and then curating the best of that thinking in more increasingly formal ways.

In this model, the book acts as a thoroughly edited articulation of an idea at a moment in time: the culmination of work up to that point, the launching point of work to come. And the press helps take that idea and make it accessible, in reasonable fullness, to those who haven’t been following the development of the argument all along the way. In other words, the press’ role is about curating the information that most needs to be preserved and then making that information more visible to people outside the narrow field from which it came.

A similar model might be understood by publications like Fast Company. Authors like me write online pieces, with Fast Company receiving 24-hour exclusivity for our writing, followed by it being shared elsewhere. The magazine may pull together and curate its deepest, most considered pieces. Meanwhile, thoughts I initiated at Fast Company may end up eventually showing up elsewhere (properly attributed and sourced, of course). Such is a publishing model that still provides windows for a viable business model without being focused on locking content down.

This is a vital problem to be figured out, for not just the current and next generation of academics but, crucially, for the next generation of college students and all of us who benefit when ideas from within the academy spread throughout the culture and our professional worlds. It’s not just an issue niche university presses need to solve but rather a crucial question for us all.

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program, and co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (NYU Press, 2013). He is also a contributor to Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.

 

Breaking Bad breakdown: Deserving denouement

—Jason Mittell

[A longer version of this article originally appeared on the media and cultural studies blog, Antenna.]

What do we want from a finale? Should it be a spectacular episode that serves as the dramatic peak of the series? Should it be like any other episode of the series, only more so? Should it be surprising, shocking, or transformative? Or should it offer closure?

For me, the main thing that I’m looking for in any finale is for a series to be true to itself, ending in the way it needs to conclude to deliver consistency, offering the type of ending that its beginning and middle demand. That changes based on the series, obviously, but it’s what makes Six Feet Under’s emphasis on mortality and The Wire’s portrayal of the endless cycle of urban crime and decay so effective, and why Battlestar Galactica’s final act turn toward mysticism (and that goofy robot epilogue) felt like such a betrayal to many fans. And it’s why finales like The Sopranos and Lost divide viewers, as the finales cater to one aspect of each series at the expense of other facets that some fans were much more invested in.

“Felina” delivered the ending that Breaking Bad needed by emphasizing closure over surprise. In many ways, it was predictable, with fans guessing many of the plot developments—read through the suggestions on Linda Holmes’s site for claiming cockamamie theories and you’ll see pretty much everything that happened on “Felina” listed there (alongside many more predictions that did not come to pass). For a series that often thrived on delivering “holy shit” moments of narrative spectacle, the finale was quite straightforward and direct.

The big shocks and surprises were to be found in episodes leading up to this one, especially the brilliant “Ozymandias”; since then, we’ve gotten the denouement to Walt’s story, his last attempt to make his journey mean something. It’s strange to think that an episode that concludes with a robot machine gun taking down half a dozen Nazis feels like a mellow epilogue, but emotionally it was this season’s least tense and intense episode. Instead, Walt returned home a beaten-down man, lacking the emotional intensity that drove him up the criminal ladder, but driven by a plan that he had just enough energy to complete. Given that the series premise was built on the necessity of a character arc building toward finality, and that it began with that character receiving a death sentence, we always knew that closure was likely to come in the form of Walt’s death, and this episode simply showed us how his final moments played out in satisfying fashion.

While Walt’s mission to destroy the remnants of his business occupy the bulk of the episode’s plot, its emotional centerpiece is his meeting with Skyler. As always, [Bryan] Cranston and Anna Gunn make the scene crackle, conveying the both the bonds and fissures between the two characters that make their final goodbye neither reconciliation nor retribution. He visits her as one of his more selfless acts we have seen. He has no illusions that he’ll resolve things or get her back on his side; he simply wants to give her two things. First, the coordinates for Hank and Gomie’s grave, offered to provide closure to Marie and others, as well as assuaging Walt’s guilt over this one act of violence he caused but could not stop. Second, the closest he’ll ever come to an apology—after starting like a typical rationalization about “the things I’ve done” that Skyler rightly attacks him as another deceptive rationalization about family, Walt finally admits the truth. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was alive.” This is not easy for Walt to say; it is his most brutal penance, having to admit his own selfishness to both his wife and himself. But in the end, Skyler returns the favor with the gift of a final moment with Holly, the child that Walt used as a bargaining chip the last time they spoke, as she remembers the part of him that still loved his children despite his abusive treatment of them. And Walt takes his own moment to observe Flynn from afar, looking at a child who rightly despises him, but he still loves. When I look back on this finale, this will be the scene I replay in my mind.

Of course the episode and series climax is the final confrontation. I fully believe that Walt intends to kill Jesse alongside the Nazis, as he fully believes that his protege has both betrayed him and stolen his formula—and based on Badger’s testimony, the student has surpassed the teacher. Many fans were speculating that Walt sought to “save Jesse,” but up until he sees his former partner in chained servitude, Jesse is an equal target of his wrath. Yet again, Cranston conveys Walt’s emotional shifts wordlessly, as he devises a plan to spare Jesse from his robo-gun once he sees that Jesse is yet again a victim of men with larger egos and more malice than him. While this final confrontation was a satisfying moment of Walt putting the monsters that he had unleashed back in the box, it was almost entirely suspense free. I never doubted that Walt would successfully kill the Nazis and spare Jesse, that he had poisoned Lydia, and that Jesse would not pull the trigger on Walt. These were the moral necessities of a well-crafted tale; Breaking Bad was done playing games with twists and surprises, but ready to allow Walt to sacrifice himself to put down the monsters he had unleashed. Yet the scene was constructed to create suspense with the potential that Walt might not get the remote control in time, creating a rare moment of failed tension in the series—I awaited and anticipated the emotional confrontation between Walt and Jesse without ever doubting the outcome or tension about what might happen.

The “how it happened” was quite satisfying, however. I saw the robo-gun as an homage to one of my favorite Breaking Bad scenes: in “Four Days Out” when Jesse thinks Walt is building a robot to engineer their rescue. This time he does, and it works in an appropriately macabre and darkly funny payoff: the excessive gunfire mirrors Walt’s frequent insistence to maximize his inventions (as with the overpowered magnets, insistence to capture every last drop of methylamine, etc.), and it keeps firing blanks as Kenny’s body receives an endless massage. Although Jesse is no cold-blooded killer, killing Todd was a line he was happy to cross in payback for months of torture and Todd’s own heartless killings of Drew Sharp and Andrea. However when given a chance to kill Walt, Jesse takes a pass; instead he forces Walt to admit that Jesse killing him is what he wants, and then denies him that pleasure. When Jesse sees that Walt was shot, Jesse thinks leaving him to die alone is what Walt deserves, especially given what happened with Jane.

What Walt deserves matters in Breaking Bad. I’m reminded of an important scene in the penultimate episode of The Wire, when one character wonders why another has plotted to kill him, asking what he’s done to deserve it (keeping names vague if you haven’t seen it). The would-be killer’s reply quotes the film Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” But on Breaking Bad, deserve’s got everything to do with it, as it has always been a tale of morality and consequences. Jesse deserves his freedom, even though he is a broken-down shell of who he was—and while we want to know what’s next for him, I’m content with the openness that allows me to imagine him driving to Alaska and becoming a carpenter, perhaps after rescuing Brock and Lydia’s daughter from orphanhood.

Walt deserves to die, and we deserve to see it. The final musical cue in a series that excelled at their use was Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” another classic like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” that the producers have probably been hanging onto for years. The opening line of the song is as essential as the color-specific romance: “Guess I got what I deserve.” In this final glorious sequence, Walt gets to die in the lab, as the music sings a love song to chemistry—which in this context, serves as an ode to his own talents in perfecting the Baby Blue. His tour around the lab has prompted some debate as to what Walt is doing: is he strategically leaving his bloody fingerprints to claim ownership, a sort-of turf-claiming mark of Heisenberg Was Here? I think not, but rather that Walt is admiring the precision and craft of the lab, both as a testament to his own pedagogical prowess that yielded Jesse’s talents, and as his natural habitat where he “felt alive,” as he told Skyler earlier. To the soundtrack romanticizing Walt’s own greatness, it’s a final moment of pride and arrogance that he seizes to overshadow all the carnage he has caused, an acceptance that more than his family, he did it for the chemistry.

“Felina” is far from Breaking Bad’s best episode, but it is the conclusion that the series and its viewers deserve. I think it will play even better both for viewers bingeing the season in quick succession and upon rewatch without the trappings of anticipation, hype, and suspense. Jesse escapes, Skyler and her family survive, and Walt and his one-time minions die. It all happens with less emotion and drama than what we’ve come to expect from the series, but given the strain of the journey up to this point, we’re as emotionally drained as the characters. So a low-key bloodbath is an appropriate way to exit this wonderful trip.

Jason Mittell is Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College. He is the co-editor (with Ethan Thompson) of How to Watch Television (NYU Press, 2013).

Is the Miss America pageant good or bad for women?

Earlier this month, the NYT’s “Room for Debate” blog featured a thoughtful discussion on the Miss America pageant and its role in today’s society. Now that this year’s pageant is over, we asked Megan Seely, author of Fight Like a Girl: How to Be a Fearless Feminist, to weigh in on the controversy in light of recent racial backlash faced by its first Indian-American winner. Read her piece below.
 

Miss America Colleen Kay Hutchins (R) looking at her trophy, September 1952.

I often hear the Miss America pageant defended as a great source of scholarship funds. Indeed, it is said that this year’s winner will receive about $50,000 in scholarship money. But given the fact that women receive fewer academic and merit scholarships than their male counterparts, despite overall higher grades; and despite the fact that there are fewer role models for women and girls in education particularly within Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM); and despite the fact that women continue to confront pay inequity once they are in their jobs and careers, it is offensive that we defend and celebrate a ‘scholarship program’ whose main requirement is women meet a specific and narrow definition of physical beauty.

Some have recently argued that there have been gains for women of color, citing the very small handful of women of color who have been crowned. It should be noted that we have never had a Latina Miss America or a transgendered Miss America. And until the 1930s the official rulebook of the pageant required contestants to be “of the white race.” A rule that might officially be gone today, but is clearly still expected, judging by the blatantly racist response to the 2014 winner, Nina Davuluri.

There are women who love the pageant. There are participants who defend and celebrate what Miss America has meant to their lives. They argue choice in participating or watching or believing in the pageant. I don’t mean to dismiss these perspectives. But I do question, what is choice, in a culture that so deeply holds and reinforces a beauty standard that is then required for participation in the pageant?  Miss America deviates little from the thin, tall, heteronormative, and more than not, white ideal of beauty. Though there are a few who have successfully challenged the whiteness of the pageant, very little has changed. If we teach women and girls that their value is in their physical appearance, then it is no wonder that many turn to Miss America for validation.

I would hope that the winners would use their public platform to create change and impact the world.  But changing the pageant and the culture in which it exists is a far greater challenge. While women of color who become Miss America certainly defy the stereotypes of American beauty, they often do so while reinforcing the expectations of body size and appearance. There is still little, if any, diversity in regards to all races, ethnicities, cultural identities, body sizes, genders, sexualities, ages and abilities.  As long as this remains true, and as long as all women do not see themselves routinely represented and valued in every aspect of society, then we cannot justify the existence of this overtly misogynistic institution. Even if we celebrate the few women who have managed to stand out within it.  We cannot ignore the negative and harmful impacts this event has on thousands upon thousands of women of all ages who struggle to find their worth in a culture that emphasizes and rewards women’s physical appearance above all else. Girls are watching; we owe them more.

Megan Seely is a third wave feminist and activist, and author of Fight Like a Girl: How to Be a Fearless Feminist (NYU Press, 2007). She lives and teaches in northern California.

Should Superman kill?

—Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl

[This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal online. Read it here.]

Warning: this essay contains spoilers from the film “Man of Steel.”

Man of Steel

The reviews on the latest superhero blockbuster, “Man of Steel,” are in, and while generally positive, the movie has ignited a firestorm of debate among fans about the appropriateness of Superman’s actions—most notably, at the end of the climactic battle between Superman and the villainous Zod. Superman kills Zod with a quick snap of his neck. On his blog Thrillbent, prominent comic book writer Mark Waid (“Daredevil”) expresses his dismay at Superman’s actions describing them as a “total-fail moment.”

Waid refers to the widespread sentiment that what traditionally has made Superman heroic is that he “does not kill.” Waid’s post provoked a slew of comments including disagreement from some fans who justify Superman’s behavior as proportionate and necessary to restore social order in the wake of Zod’s attempt at mass genocide. From the reaction of some moviegoers, in our theater at least, the death scene was satisfying and elicited approving cheers.

Superheroes’ portrayed determinations about whether to kill villains and other characters along their paths to justice is a concept we call “deathworthiness” in our book Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way (NYU Press, 2013).  Deathworthiness, a term borrowed from legal discourse about the death penalty, refers to the comic heroes’ self-described death penalty policy.

Comic book deathworthiness operates on a continuum from heroes who kill only the explicitly guilty to more extreme positions in which heroes will kill anyone, even innocents, encountered along the way. Notably, most contemporary comic books, though chock-full of bloodthirsty rhetoric and flashy fight scenes, most often end in villain incapacitation that falls short of death. Like the snapping of villain Maxwell Lord’s neck at the hands of Wonder Women in her “Wonder Woman #219,” when superheroes kill unexpectedly, fan controversy often ensues.

Our focus group research found that fan acceptance of a heroes’ depicted notion of deathworthiness hinges primarily on two factors: the seriousness of the threat (which, incidentally, in mainstream comic books nearly always reaches apocalyptic proportions rendering every situation one that is dire and requires drastic action), and the hero’s own personal, moral code.

At the extreme end of the deathworthiness continuum is the “Man of Steel” incarnation of Superman. Throughout his celebrated history, Superman almost never kills, with few exceptions. One of our focus group participants put it this way, “Superman is super-boring” because he has all the superhero powers imaginable and almost never engages in lethal violence.

Indeed, much of the discussion around Superman’s actions in “Man of Steel” points to his negligence toward innocents in Metropolis who presumably die as a result of his clash with Zod. For example, couldn’t Superman have easily taken the fight out to a desolate cornfield to avoid all that collateral damage?

Importantly, the “Man of Steel” debates reflect larger notions of justice in contemporary American society. Whether the threat is communism and the Cold War or terrorism in a post-9/11 context, discussions about deathworthiness prompt a re-examination of the concept of absolute power, the rule of law, and the difficulties balancing public safety with individual rights. To what extent should a hero go to protect public safety? And what is the significance when one of the most recognized cultural signifiers of the “American way” lethally revises his way of maintaining public safety?

The killing of Zod complicates the messianic nature of the Superman origin story—a story that Warner Bros. markets to Christian congregations through their Man of Steel Ministry Resource Site. If fans are rankled by the idea of Superman killing, devout Christians may similarly find it odd to equate Jesus, who preached peace and non-violence, with this Man of Steel who deems Zod deathworthy. Taken further, the aesthetic motif of “Man of Steel” borrows more from the dark, metallurgical violence in the “God of War” videogame than typical “no-kill” Superman comic books with their primary colors and emotive expressions.

The decision to kill Zod was recognized as controversial by the creators themselves, who were reportedly initially uncomfortable with the killing but were convinced by the larger creative team at Warner Bros. If there was any question about whether Superman is still relevant in today’s world (and among fans, there most certainly was), the discussions around the film indicate a resounding yes — fans really do want to debate heroes and their depicted moral standards.

For us, the significance of “Man of Steel” is not whether it has earned its blockbuster status by being a “good” movie, but in how Superman’s actions spark debate about deathworthiness and in the process challenge our notions of when—if ever—vigilante violence is appropriate.

Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl are the authors of Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way (NYU Press, 2013).

Amanda Lotz quoted in NYTimes

Amanda D. Lotz, author of The Television Will Be Revolutionized (NYU Press, 2007), snags a mention and a quote in a New York Times article today on the cult hit “Arrested Development.” The Emmy-winning show makes a long-awaited return on Sunday, starting a new life as a Netflix original series.

Check out the excerpt below.

For Netflix, “Arrested Development” is a way to make its 36 million subscribers happy and a way to sign up even more. In April, when the company released its first quarter earnings (revenues and profits were up by double digits), its chief executive, Reed Hastings, predicted that “Arrested” would be an “absolutely spectacular phenomenon.”

Amanda Lotz, a University of Michigan professor of communications studies, predicted an outcome like this in a 2007 book, “The Television Will Be Revolutionized.” By then, “Arrested” was off Fox. Ms. Lotz wondered if video-on-demand viewers in the future would buy a subscription for the show, given its cult hit status. The key, she said in an e-mail message this month, was “the emergence of alternatives to advertiser support.”

→ Read the full article: “Bananas, Anyone? The Bluths Are Back”

Notes from Betsy…on Spring books

Greetings from NYU Press Publicity! My Instagram account is flooded with images of cherry blossoms, dogs rolling in grass, and ballpark festivities. SPRING HAS SPRUNG! To celebrate the spring season, I thought it would be fun to catch up on a few of the big media hits so far. Some of the tantalizing bits of knowledge you will take away include: can jury duty really be enjoyable?; how does media spread?; why this country needs two presidents; what if the United Nations was based in Detroit?; living in New York City through one reporter’s eyes; is the United States really post-racial?; and exciting titles to look out for.

WHY JURY DUTY MATTERS

Author Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is on a quest to convince us that jury duty is fun, and at the very least, our most important civic duty apart from voting. Listen to his convincing interviews on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nmadi Show”; KPCC’s “Airtalk” and WYPR’s “Mid-Day.” The Baltimore Sun makes mention—and Greta Van Susteren knows a good thing when she sees one. Also, May is Juror Appreciation Month! See Andrew’s piece on The Atlantic’s website.

SPREADABLE MEDIA

The name Henry Jenkins will stop any media junkie, cos-play boy or girl, and Comi-con regular in their tracks. Find out what all the hype is about: Jenkins and co-author, Sam Ford, on KBOO-FM; Sam Ford’s article on WSJ.com’s “Speakeasy;” an interview with the authors on New Books in Journalism; and a shout-out on Mediabistro’s journalism & tech blog, 10,000 Words. Jenkins and his co-authors also made an appearance at SXSW!


TWO PRESIDENTS ARE BETTER THAN ONE

Two heads are better than one; good things come in pairs; and according to our author, two presidents would be better than one. Need some convincing? No problem! See author David Orentlicher’s interview with the Chicago Tribune; his appearance on C-SPAN’s “Book TV”; and his radio interviews with KPCC’s “Airtalk” and Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Joy Cardin Show.”


CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

Probably the coolest coverage so far for Capital of the World was the essay Foreign Policy commissioned from author Charlene Mires—they asked her to imagine if Detroit had won the bid to become the home of the United Nations, and how that would have affected the future of the city. Other coverage included a review in the Wall Street Journal; an interview on C-SPAN’s “Book TV”; a feature in PRI’s “The World” ; a spot in the New York Times‘ Bookshelf; and an hour with KERA’s “Think.”

HABITATS

New Yorkers are obsessed with where other New Yorkers live. In Habitats, New York Times writer, Constance Rosenblum gives readers that fly-on-the-wall experience in some of the most fabulous, wild, and unbelievable homes across the 5 boroughs. The New Republic reviewed the book and our sadistic history of real estate voyeurism, while NY1 raved about the collection here. And if you’re in Manhattan next Tuesday, 5/14, stop by the 92Y Tribeca at noon to hear Connie read from some of her favorite sections!

GHOSTS OF JIM CROW

Electing an African American president had many declaring that the United States had finally moved beyond race. F. Michael Higginbotham argues we still have a long way to go in his new book, Ghosts of Jim Crow. You can hear more of what he has to say in interviews with Oregon Public Radio; Dallas Public Radio; and Balitmore Public Radio.

Look out for the next round-up coming soon!  We have some exciting titles pubbing in the next few months including We Will Shoot Back, A Death at Crooked Creek, and Rebels at the Bar, so more fantastic coverage is surely on the way.

Digital journalism and the end of church and state

—Michael Serazio

For generations of journalists, the separation of “church and state” referred not just to First Amendment protections for secular Americans. It was also the metaphorical way of phrasing an enduring ideal: that the business side of a news outlet would not encroach on the autonomy of the editorial side.

For advertisers, however, this was always an uneasy bargain. Audiences, they’ve long known, fundamentally mistrust advertising. For this reason, as I show in my new book, Your Ad Here, advertising often gets created to blend in, “guerrilla-style,” with contexts that don’t look like advertising.

In the case of newspapers, this explained those full-page “articles” written by a brand or marketer that affected the appearance of editorial content without the pretense of objectivity about the subject. Given the choice, the marketer surely wouldn’t have opted for “Advertisement” to run in small letters atop the piece, as it usually did – the newspaper’s equivalent of handling such content with Hazmat gloves.

Alas, newspapers have been in steady decline for the better part of a decade, as audiences consume more and more content through online sources. And, as the New York Times reported this week, a new set of norms for handling that sponsored material may well be taking shape.

It turns out that press venues both new and old – including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed – have increasingly been accommodating brand-backed articles or, as I call it, “advertainment.” Because advertisers are discovering online – as they long knew of their print-based output – that banner ads are often annoying, irrelevant, and ineffective, alternatives must be considered.

“It is, in fact, content,” defended one representative at Forbes Media, which has experimented with these partnerships. “It’s not advertising.” One of the hallmarks of guerrilla marketing is precisely that self-effacement of the sales component in favor of something more desirable: here, journalistic reportage.

But for either the advertiser or the press representative to pretend that being “indistinguishable” is not their goal here – well, I’ve got a nice bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan that they might be interested in buying.  Perhaps their reporters could do a “sponsored story” helping me make the sale.

Michael Serazio is Assistant Professor of Communication at Fairfield University and the author of Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter @michaelserazio.

Defining the “cool sell”

Newsflash, Internet friends and media lovers!
Your Ad Here, a new addition to our stellar Postmillenial Pop series, publishes this Friday, April 5.

The book explores the rise of guerrilla marketing (think: covert, even creepy, commercial persuasion)—and what author Michael Serazio calls the “cool sell” approach, defined for us below.

cool sell
[kool-sel]
noun, verb, pranks, stunts

  1. A way to cut through the clutter of competing information.  
  2. By definition, an allusion to McLuhan. 
  3. A financial model that could save/destroy the media industries. 
  4. The reason Heineken paid $45 million to get in the hands of James Bond. 
  5. As Kalle Lasn suggested, the opiate of our time. 
  6. How Pabst Blue Ribbon hooked the hipsterati. 
  7. Corporate street art and branded flash mobs. 
  8. Why your buzz agent friends might sell you out for a free sample. 
  9. Manufacturing authenticity; AstroTurfing the grassroots. 
  10. Scheming memes for your tweets and status updates. 
  11. The pretense of populism that comes with “going viral.” 
  12. How Blair Witch became the most profitable movie ever. 
  13. Rethinking the medium itself used for advertising. 
  14. A new book from NYU Press available April 5.