Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. By Alice Echols.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, March 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-393-06675-3, $26.95; paper: ISBN 978-0393338911, $16.95. 368 pages.
Review by Joseph E. Morgan, Brandeis University
After dominating American popular culture for the lion’s share of the 1970s, Disco suddenly lost its chic. This once liberating music and culture was abruptly derided in the American mainstream for its shallow consumption and crass embrace of lavish glitz. More recently, the pendulum has swung back as scholars of popular culture have erected a romanticized view of the glitterball culture. In her new book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, Alice Echols stops the pendulum. With a nuanced interpretation of disco that recognizes the movement’s ability to accommodate the diversity of the American experience, gay, straight, black, or female, Echols has written a sophisticated and thrilling investigation of this oft-simplified music and culture.
One of the best aspects of Echols’s approach is the way she integrates the musical and social aspects of disco culture. In her first chapter “I Hear a Symphony: Black Masculinity and the Disco Turn” which takes us from James Brown to Barry White, and tracks the emergence of Disco from the insistent and whomping beat of Detroit’s Motown through the sumptuous Philadelphia sound, Echols locates a new form of Black masculinity as well as the prototype for disco’s 4/4 thump in a single track—Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft.” This example is telling of Echols’s style; the strength of this text is not its comprehensive coverage of everything disco, but instead its interpretive focus and ability to unpack the multiple meanings built within individual cultural moments.
Chapters Two, “More, More, More: One and Oneness in Gay Disco” and Four “The Homo Superiors: Disco and the Rise of Gay Macho” focus on the role that the music, clubs, dance floors, and culture played in the outing and evolution of gay culture. From the club managers who left the air conditioning off to encourage men to remove their shirts on the dance floor, to the D.J.s who accommodated their playlists to the “week’s drug of choice,” Echols identifies the interactions that facilitated the liberation of the movement. Particularly interesting is Echols’s description of the fashion that characterized the new gay macho. A coded “uniform of the plaid shirt and bomber jacket,” the look emerged both as a pragmatic necessity, “to identify ourselves to other gay people in a populace that wasn’t gay” and in reaction to the traditional image of the homosexual (126).
However, her view of gay disco is neither simple nor uncritical. For example, unlike most modern writers that emphasize the inclusive aspects of Disco culture, Echols also points to the racial segregation in New York’s fashionable Tenth Floor club where “the vibe was if you’re white you’re right, if you’re black stay back.” Her nuanced approach to the culture is refreshing, neither romanticizing nor vilifying. She closes her discussion with an all-too brief account of the arrival of “Saint’s Disease” (later known as AIDS) in the popular Saint’s nightclub in New York City, ending with a strong introduction to the effects of the epidemic, and the common interpretation of the disease as (at least) a moral imperative against gay culture.
Echols’s chapter on women in disco “Ladies’ Night: Women and Disco,” sandwiched between her chapters on homosexuality in disco, argues that by foregrounding female desire, disco was essentially progressive for the women’s movement, this despite the irony that “for many women the biggest problem with discos was not sexual harassment but gay men’s sexual indifference” (78). For example, she points to at least two critics who describe the typical form of a disco song’s instrumental break as a musical imitation of the female orgasm. She locates this characteristic in the instrumental break from what is perhaps the first disco track, Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind.” Echols’s narrative then shifts to the emergence of the black diva in disco, and traces the roots of disco’s black feminism (as she had with disco’s black masculinity) from the R&B artists from the early seventies. Thus the public personalities and musical identities of artists like Donna Summer and Labelle are shown to be influenced by the work of Sylvia Robinson and Jean Knight.
The sixth chapter, “One Nation under a Thump?: Disco and its Discontents” describes the fall of disco. The blanching and suburban commodification are cited as the primary death blows, but the contribution of reactionary “discophobes” and the broader conservative movement are also given their due responsibility. However, her coverage of the “Disco Sucks” movement and its orchestration by rock d.j.s is also given nuance. Indeed, Echols breaks new ground in disco literature when she acknowledges that “the rhetoric of discophobia suggests that anti-disco rockers were also critical of what they saw as disco’s perceived innocuousness and conventionality” (213). This viewpoint resists the common trope in modern scholarship that writes off the entire anti-disco movement as stereotypically based on homophobia and racism. The chapter ends as Echols attempts to come to terms with the influence of disco, citing the disco-rock hybrid that comprised so much eighties dance music. One example of this influence is found in the androgyny of Madonna, Prince, Grace Jones, and Annie Lennox, who built upon the “implicit queerness of seventies’ disco” for their looks (229).
In all, the book is a wonderful read. Echols’s account is that of an informant, and although she is quite aware of her own bias, it is when she is describing the progressivism of the Disco movement that her narrative sparkles. The perfect combination of fan and scholar, Echols’s account of the era and the book is very well researched (with over 50 pages of notes) and will go a long way towards fairly documenting the history and impact of Disco on American popular culture.

The Battle for America, 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election. By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson.
New York: Viking, August 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0670021116, $29.95. 432 pages.
Reviewed by Amarnath Amarasingam, Wilfrid Laurier University, Toronto
“It was an election that took place against a background of two wars, the collapse of the world’s capital markets, a gathering global recession, soaring national debt, and pervasive doubts about the direction of the country from traditionally optimistic Americans” (xiii). This is how Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson begin their excellent book on the momentous 2008 election. Balz and Johnson, present at many of the events they discuss and having conducted extensive interviews, provide an informative history mixed with behind-the-scenes accounts of the long campaign season. The story is that much more interesting because we know how it ends. It was an election marked by a fairly impressive list of candidates, putting forth their message in the shadow of the Bush presidency. After 9/11, Bush’s approval rating hovered around 90 percent, the highest ever recorded. However, by January 2007, following the invasion of Iraq, the absence of WMDs, Abu Ghraib, and Hurricane Katrina, his approval rating was at 30 percent and falling.
Reacting to the Bush presidency, which had produced “some of the most daunting policy problems at home and abroad ever faced,” the new candidates embraced a message of change and attempted to rectify the political disaffection that was sweeping the country (13). The Battle for America is divided into five parts. Book One, containing three chapters, introduces personal life histories and the initial campaign plans of Obama, McCain, and Clinton. Book Two, entitled “The People,” contains only one chapter and explores the increasing pessimism and uncertainty expressed by voters during the election season. The people during this campaign season were looking for new solutions to the current economic crisis, to America’s diminished international standing, and to the lack of trust in government. The candidates, faced with a worried and suspicious public, were left to make their case.
The third and fourth parts of the book examine the election season from the perspective of Democrats and Republicans respectively. Hilary Clinton began her campaign with experience, money, and a vast network of connections obtained throughout her many years in politics. Obama, on the other hand, began with next to nothing. The televised debates between the two candidates drew huge audiences and increased interest in the election. There were more than two dozen debates between the Democratic candidates, and the Republicans had more than twenty over the course of the year.
Grassroots organizing in support of Obama was unprecedented in the Super Tuesday states. By the time Obama’s staff arrived in Idaho, for example, supporters in the state had already organized themselves. By late fall, Obama’s staff was present in sixteen of the twenty-two February 5th states, while Clinton’s team was largely absent. During Super Tuesday, Clinton had taken New York, New Jersey, and even Massachusetts. Obama took Idaho and Illinois. After Super Tuesday, Clinton lost eleven consecutive contests. Then, she won Ohio and Texas. Ten days after Ohio and Texas, a grainy video emerged of Obama’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, screaming “God damn America” from the pulpit. Obama had described Wright in The Audacity of Hope as a calm and loving father figure. In the video, however, Wright sounded angry and divisive. Obama knew that he could not avoid the issue. As he told Balz and Johnson, “If we had not handled the Reverend Wright episode properly, I think we could have lost” (201). Despite the controversies, on June 3, the final day of the primary process, it was clear that Obama had won.
The Republican candidates in the meantime were searching for Ronald Reagan. The debates that took place between the candidates “symbolized the plight of a Republican Party that had fallen on hard times and was now looking back to one of its greatest heroes for inspiration” (228). In their search for the new Gipper, John McCain did not ideally fit the bill. However, he seemed to be the only one that had a chance of beating the Democratic candidate. McCain’s complicated position on the Iraq War plus his support of the surge put him in a precarious position. His fundraising was also not up to par, and his finances, unlike someone like Mitt Romney, were often in the red. McCain had to depend on the shortcomings of his opponents in order to succeed, and “had any of them seized command of the race, he would not have had a chance” (260). McCain’s victory in the Florida primary was decisive. Giuliani, Romney, and Huckabee slowly dropped out of the race following Florida and Super Tuesday. McCain was now the leader of the Republican Party.
Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was a success by any measure. The public was enthusiastic about the potential victory of the Democrats, about Joe Biden, and about their vibrant candidate. As the Democrats left Denver, everybody awaited John McCain’s choice for a running mate. His choice had the potential to divide the Republican Party. His choice of Sarah Palin stunned many in the Republican Party. When Obama learned of the choice he said, “Wow, that’s surprising. Why do you think he did that?” (337). Biden had never heard of her before. Some in McCain’s campaign did not know how to pronounce her name, while speechwriters scoured the internet looking for information about her to include in speeches.
Everything pointed to an Obama victory. As one individual on Obama’s campaign told Balz and Johnson, “I think we had the perfect balance of new technology, old-school organization, faith in the people that they hired, and trust they were going to get the job done” (366). On election day, America started to look different: “The eastern seaboard, save for Georgia and South Carolina, was a blue wall” (371). There were many surprising wins for Obama: New Mexico, which went Republican in 2004, went for Obama this time around; Colorado, which Bush won by five points, went for Obama by nine. The networks called the race at 11 p.m.
Balz and Johnson’s book is an extraordinary insider’s account of the recent American election. They were present at numerous events, and conducted interviews with a number of the key players. It should be noted, however, that the book does not provide much political or sociological analysis of the election, contains very little history, and reflects only briefly about Obama’s cosmopolitan significance. Even Book Five, dealing with the actual election, contains mostly anecdotal evidence taken from focus groups and interviews. To be fair, the purpose of the book is rather to provide the definitive account of the election season itself. To this end, The Battle for America is unparalleled and will likely remain so for some time.

Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture. By Eileen Luhr.
Berkeley: University of California Press, February 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-25594-4, $50.00; paper: ISBN 978-0-520-25596-8, $19.95. 280 pages.
Reviewed by Donna J. Drucker, Colorado College
Eileen Luhr’s Witnessing Suburbia narrates the transitions from the old Christian Right’s rejection of youth culture in the early 1960s, through the Jesus movement in the late 1960s, through the creation of Christian metal music and young fan culture in the 1980s, and concludes with the politicizing of conservative Christian activism by claiming public suburban spaces for “family values” or as “family friendly” in the 2000s. Luhr understands the impact of the shift from fundamentalism to evangelism over a forty-five-year period as a shift from believers creating and maintaining a separate pure Christian culture for themselves, as the Old Christian Right had, to their engaging directly in popular culture and creating their own brand of consumerism in order to draw new converts and support their own beliefs.
White evangelical Christians, Luhr argues, were “engaged in a values-based suburban activism expressed in a consumer vernacular” (6). The value system they supported is familiar to even the most casual observer of American culture and politics: the nuclear family headed by a patriarch in a detached suburban home, middle-class social status and income, whiteness, heteronormativity, obedience to authority, personal responsibility, privacy, and belief in a form of Christianity based less on theology than on personal witness and prayer. Rather than investigating local and national conservative political activism, as other historians and scholars have done, Luhr focuses on how youth-oriented evangelical cultural activism developed, changed over time, and then affected politics. She aims to show that such cultural activism “aided the conservative political surge by facilitating their entrance into national discussions about public morality and values” (7). Activism targeting Christian youths reshaped the practices of secular culture for purposes of witnessing, conversion, and group identity formation and maintenance.
Each of the four chapters focuses on a different aspect of the creation of Christian consumer youth culture. The book begins with a discussion of conservative criticism of leftist youth movements and music of the 1960s. While critics of leftist popular culture first argued that rock ‘n’ roll was an agent of the devil and for Christian separation from popular music, Christian parents of the 1970s and 1980s produced and consumed literature that assisted them in using their understandings of popular music to reassert their authority over their children. Young evangelicals of the 1970s and 1980s created their own fan magazines for Christian punk, rock, and pop music in order to create a distinct Christian identity that advocated strict morality and personal responsibility (86). They often used the magazines to witness to their classmates in lieu of being able to pray in their public schools. Christian punk and metal musicians likewise used their music and lyrics to reach unchurched young listeners in an attempt to instill them with doctrinally uncomplicated, conservative moral beliefs and respect for traditional authority. The book’s last chapter shifts to an analysis of the political implications of the conservative focus on youth culture in Orange County, California. Orange County residents deliberately framed the culture of their communities against leftist movements such as gay rights and women’s rights in order to create and to police “family friendly” values in public space. The most prominent among these efforts were Harvest Crusades. These evangelical concerts that took place in sports stadiums were designed to establish public commitment to Christianity, to claim consumer-oriented space for “family friendly” purposes, and to spark interest in activism for conservative political causes.
Luhr demonstrates her understanding of and facility with the arguments of religious and American studies scholars and those of fellow historians, particularly Lizabeth Cohen on postwar American consumerism generally, Colleen McDannell on American Christian material culture, and Lisa McGirr on the rise of suburban political and cultural conservatism. Luhr could more clearly articulate her own conceptions of consumerism, commercialization, and consumer culture as a way to link the products and experiences that critics, parents, music fans, Orange County suburbanites, and Harvest Festival attendees consumed in the process of witnessing their faith.
Further, the voices of the consumers themselves are curiously missing from this narrative. Luhr largely depends on print culture in the forms of newspapers, independently produced ‘zines, and other fan publications for their views. However, as the book’s primary argument centers on the production of a suburban-based conservative Christian culture for and by young people, hearing only from those cultural participants who were motivated enough to create publications or to produce music or events like the Harvest Festival raises the question of what less-fervent consumers of that cultural fare actually thought of it. Luhr saves an accounting of Christian music sales for the epilogue ($920 million in 2001), so clearly Christian music and related products are being widely consumed (193). A deeper understanding (perhaps through oral, phone, or e-mail interviews) of who those consumers actually are, what influences the products they purchase and the events they attend; how much money they spend; and how the products affect their faith and beliefs would add depth to Luhr’s depiction of the centrality of consumerism to modern Christian popular culture.
Lack of consumer voices aside, this book is important reading for those interested in the intertwined histories of music, popular culture, fundamentalist and evangelical Christianities, suburbia, and conservatism in the late twentieth-century United States. It would be a worthwhile addition to graduate or upper-level undergraduate courses in American studies, religious studies, or modern American history.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture. Edited by Trystan T. Cotton and Kimberly Springer.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, December 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1-60473-407-2, $50. 240 pages.

Review by Katie Ellis, University of Western Australia

Trystan Cotton and Kimberly Springer’s edited collection Stories of Oprah starts with the very simple question “What would Oprah do?” (vii). This is a popular question amongst both journalists and bloggers who’ve noticed the pervasiveness of her favorite things and book club and their increasing influence on American and international culture. Even as Oprah’s influence over contemporary American culture increases, this volume shows us that there is no universal Oprah despite what we may think (xi).
The term “Oprahfication,” often invoked throughout this collection, was first used during the 1990s to denounce TV sensationalism (133). The online urban dictionary defines it in several ways: highlighting constructions of masculinity and femininity, the division between public and private spheres, and becoming a “better person” by following Oprah’s advice regarding her favorite things and people (doctors, celebrities, etc). The essays compiled in Stories of Oprah investigate these aspects of the so-called Oprah Winfrey Cultural Industry to present an important and timely contribution to “Oprah Studies” (xiii). Yes, Oprah Studies really exist—academics have investigated the impact of Oprah on culture for a number of years.
This collection distinguishes itself from others via a focus on “interdisciplinary methods and interpretative frameworks” (xiii) and is divided into three sections. Part I, Oprah the Woman, Oprah the Empire, looks at the ways Oprah selectively foregrounds certain aspects of her upbringing and beliefs to appeal to a certain type of audience. Part II, Contesting the Oprah Experts, examines a variety of topics favored by the Oprah show as they and she highlight personal agency as crucial to success. This section also considers sections of Oprah’s audience and how she influences them. Part III, The Oprahfication of the Media, outlines Oprah’s influence on news media, politics, and the movie industry again through her depoliticized focus on personal agency.
Oprah’s personality and life story are key aspects of her success. Viewers of her day time talk show are familiar with the sexual abuse she suffered in her early life, as well as her belief in the importance of teachers and hard work, as she refers to these events and values often during interviews with guests on her show. Part I opens with an essay by John Howard which argues that Oprah’s back story is a careful construction that fits into the American myth of success. For Howard, Oprah’s story is depoliticized and deracialized and ignores the structural inequalities experienced by black Americans.
Likewise, in her chapter “Oprah Winfrey and Feminist Identification,” Jennifer Rexroat argues that Oprah rejects any association with radicalism. Rexroat invokes Patricia Misciagno’s framework of de facto feminism to analyse where Oprah fits in relation to feminism. De facto feminists such as Oprah agree with the goal of feminism but do not identify as feminists themselves. By removing her goal of “empowering women” from the rhetoric of feminism, Oprah’s project is more comfortable to Americans who may reject the feminist label. Rextroat encourages the reader to decide for themselves whether Oprah promotes feminist ideology and practice. While I’m not sure that this chapter is as open-ended as it purports to be, it does raises an important point about the limits of feminism for everyday women and whether de facto feminism is the logical outcome of the women’s movement.
Throughout this section, all of the authors critique Oprah’s personal solutions to political problems as problematic, and the final chapter, “Gendered Translation of New Age Spirituality” by Karlyn Crowley, details the ways Oprah repackages new-age spirituality within a neoliberal rubric by invoking the rhetoric of both race and gender. Crowley argues that Oprah positions herself both as “one of the girls” and a leader in a church of her own making. As an everywoman she again seeks to heal her audience from trauma without addressing systemic oppression.
Part II moves more towards audience participation and begins with an essay by Sherra Schick which examines Oprah’s message board online community as an elastic, not essentialized metaphor of the ways women use the web. As Schick asserts, without the internet, that interactive global community of Oprah’s audience would not exist. Following from Crowley’s chapter, Schick concentrates on Soul Stories as an example of the internet increasing the complexity of culture by allowing women a voice. After the message board was hacked—subjected to a “male intrusion” and closed down—Schick argues that women were driven further into the margins.
While Oprah’s message board appeared to have a positive impact on the lives of the women participating in this forum and prompted them to create a community outside the designated Oprah space, Adriana Katzew and Lilia De Katzew surveyed a sample of Chicana women and, interestingly, most saw Oprah as having little impact. For Katzew and Katzew, Oprah is successful in both a white and man’s world with the potential to reach an international or global audience with the assumption that women’s issues are universal. All those surveyed knew who she was, some value her independence, and most see her as “whitewashed.”
In her examination of the ways Oprah constructs female teenaged heterosexuality, Katherine Gregory argues that The Oprah Winfrey Show has shifted from a carnivalesque to an individual orientation to a more recent focus on changing your life. Teen sex is constructed as detrimental to self-improvement on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The result is a moral panic which pathologizes teen sexuality and for Gregory doesn’t teach teen women how to negotiate their physical and emotional needs. This topic, popular throughout Oprah’s television history, continues to subject the female teenager to regulatory forces.
Heather Talley and Monica Casper then shift the focus to Oprah’s philanthropic work in Africa, considering it as part of a tradition of celebrity causes. Although Oprah’s work in Africa can be seen as being all about Oprah (p.107), the authors encourage us not to just write it off. After discussing how philanthropy in Africa can distract from the real issues, do more harm than good, and neglect to acknowledge what happens after the celebrity leaves, the authors then use Oprah’s work in Africa to invite a consideration of how philanthropic consumption facilitating agency can work.
The final section consists of four chapters which consider Oprah as a media brand which permeates news, literature, cinema, and global politics. Like the chapters in Part I, Kathleen Dixon and Kacie Jossart’s chapter Oprah and the News Media argues that Oprah maintains a political distance and relies on melodrama. The Oprah Show repackages news as entertainment with narrative structure and drama. Through her political distance, Oprah is mildly reformist and again foregrounds personal agency. For Jaap Kooijman, this is problematic particularly in relation to Oprah’s treatment of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. In his chapter, Kooijam argues that by emphasizing personal agency Oprah translates international political issues into personal experiences. This in turn leaves little room for a dissenting voice and likewise assumes American values are universal. This chapter demonstrates the ways Oprah’s persona has reshaped politics and news media to draw in a previously neglected (female) perspective.
The final two chapters of the book extend this discussion to consider the ways Oprah’s literary favorites are repackaged—interpreted through her—for a broader audience. Edith Frampton focuses on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to argue that while Oprah’s book club has been criticized for depoliticising a number of texts, these critiques may in fact be born from a limited conception of the political. As a number of other writers in this collection note, Oprah emphasises the importance of personal experiences in political ways (although never overtly). For Frampton the book club’s focus on the centrality of breast feeding in Song of Solomon subverts the hegemony, particularly as this central aspect of the book was critically ignored.
Throughout the collection, writers often refer to Oprah as whitewashing certain issues for her predominately white audience, and Trytan Cotton’s examination of the Harpo produced screen adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God expands on this idea. He argues that by emphasizing romance at the expense of race, Oprah’s production company, Harpo, neutralizes the novel’s social commentary. In addition, the filmic narrative promotes Oprah’s ideology that self initiative and hard work bring success (167).
Each chapter in this collection successfully contributes to the overall argument that Oprah has created an ideology that emphasizes personal solutions to political problems. This ideology is communicated through Oprah’s widely encompassing cultural industry and infiltrates understandings of race, sexuality, gender, spirituality, politics, and class, but without interrogating systemic oppression too closely.
This collection sets its self apart from previous writing on Oprah’s cultural impact, which tends to concentrate the ways Oprah panders to a white audience and/or contributes to a marginalization of fat people. While Stories of Oprah acknowledges these areas, its focus on Oprah as a cultural industry encompassing television, magazines, film, literary publishing, and international philanthropy offers a unique, in-depth and interdisciplinary perspective. Stories of Oprah covers a huge range of ideas and issues arising in the face of Oprah’s reach across media and cultural industries. In light of Oprah’s recent overt political backing of Barack Obama and her announcement that she will end her talk show, it will be interesting to see whether the Oprahfication of American (indeed global) culture will remain when her cultural output no longer includes the confessional mode of a daily talk show.

Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture. By Feona Attwood.
London, New York: I. B. Tauris, April 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-84511-827-3, $29. 224 pages.

Review by Maheswar Satpathy, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur

This book by Feona Attwood has emerged as a reflection of modern critical perspective dissecting the nuances of an intricate culture of incessant sexual consumerism. As is evident from the title “Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture,” the book promises to vividly portray the reaction formations and rationalizations people use regarding sex.

The author in the preface succinctly and precisely assesses recent trends. The breach between the concepts of public and private, the emergence of “public intimacy” reflected in more public displays of affection, and “striptease culture” involving self-revelation and exposure all receive a thorough treatment. The book integrates diverse themes of a sexed approach to the construction of western culture in its multifarious manifestations. Issues such as sex professionals as “architects of our sexual lifestyles,” and sex more as a form of recreation than a mechanism of reproduction or relationship have been elegantly canvassed.

The book raises important questions about the role of media, technology, leisure, commerce, education, and popular culture in the production, consumption and reproduction of sexual identities, relationships, ethics, and in a way our very ethos. It presents sex as a constantly changing concept, with its values and configurations being subjected to continuous reinterpretation, resulting in the creation of diverse meanings. Some of the prominent themes addressed are the gendering of sexualization, the epistemological undercurrents required for making sense of the ever-changing concept of sex, the question of sexual ethics, sexual citizenship, and the politics of intimacy.

Attwood systematically develops three themes: Pornographication, Sexualization, and mainstream Media and Striptease Culture. In the first chapter, she examines pornography and the mainstreaming of sex. She provides penetrating discussion of issues such as Gonzo Culture and its role in blurring boundaries between reel and real; amateur sex; the role of technology in structuring our expectations, experiences and desires; purchased intimacy; realcore and hardcore; and the incitement of desires for selfhood through sex. Reflections on preferred masochism and pornographic short fiction and several stories published in Forum Magazine with vivid descriptions prove stimulating for a reader. Pornography is examined in a “postfeminist” framework. The author argues that Hyper-Sexualization of culture has desensitized us. She presents compelling arguments on the objectification, and commodification of the female, and a new feminist advocating the sexual confidence and autonomy in the sexual politics reigning over the scene.

The second part of the book deals with the role of media in sexual representations. It contains three fascinating chapters dissecting diverse issues. The exploration of private lives and fantasies is something readers can identify with. The chapter on themes of media representations of the choices and desires of women presents how the media has become an instrument of Foucauldian (sexual) subjectification, and in turn an empowering device. Treatment of intricate issues like sex advice and the changing roles of “agony aunts,” the concerns and dilemmas of today’s youth regarding sex and sexual identity, and the politics of advice-giving in the twenty-first century are dealt with extremely well.

The third section, i.e. striptease culture, deals with four diverse themes, namely media and impact on sexual learning, erotica, liberating women, and a new revolution in sexual history. Chapter eight is very self-consciously balanced, and refreshing for its emphasis on analysis based on research, advocating honesty, happiness, and personal freedom, rather than following externally imposed eternal ethical constraints in sexual knowledge and identity search. Another theme glorifies erotica over pornography and examines differential preferences of males and females and the pivotal role of consumption of various sexual resources in the construction and organization of sexual selves and lives in contemporary society. Attwood discusses the intricate pleasures derived by women through pole dancing. Some women find that activity liberating, stimulating, and sublimating, and find that it equips women with agency, freedom, and liberty for a freer expression of self in an ultra-modern society. The addition of a Film and TV guide is definitely useful to arouse curiosity in the minds of readers to dig further.

The book is unique because of its rich blend of academic spirit with interesting issues which it touches, and promises to take them forward, by creating curiosity, making readers to stay with it, reflect, ponder, and ask questions every moment. The book definitely challenges many prevalent social representation of sex. Though the book is a candid reflection of the mainstreaming of sex in western culture, still, the scanty discussions of alternative sexualities (e.g., LGBT culture), it suggests that these have not made their way to mainstream culture, remaining a kind of add-on practice. A chapter on the themes of LGBT sexuality would have certainly enriched the value of the work. To an onlooker, the book may appear to be a new feminist manifesto, but it has an interesting discussion of the end of the war between the sexes and a reconciliation of the binaries in the society. I recommend this work to all.

The Tube Has Spoken: Reality TV and History. Edited by Julie Anne Taddeo and Ken Dvorak.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN: 978-8131-2553-4, $40. 275 pages.
Review by Katie Ellis, University of Western Australia

Popular debates around reality TV often center on the longevity of the genre, the potential for audience fatigue, and whether the participants are really being themselves. Academic analyses of this genre are growing but, as Julie Anne Taddeo and Ken Dvorak, the co-editors of The Tube has Spoken argue, most often come from a media or communications studies framework. Taddeo and Dvorak bring together an eclectic collection of essays in The Tube Has Spoken in an attempt to investigate the genre from an historical view point through an examination of the social, political, and cultural forces that influence the production and reception of this hybrid format.

The book is divided into three sections: Reality TV as Social Experiment, which looks at the origins of this format in social experiment; Class, Gender and Reimaging of Family Life, which examines reality TV along social lines and the ways the family is invoked as a boundary between the public and the private (a line reality TV often blurs); and a final section on Living History as a subset of reality TV that attempts to return the genre to its documentary roots through historical manipulations.
Part I explores the somewhat innocent motivations of early reality TV as a social experiment documenting how it has evolved in order to prevent audience fatigue of the format. Fred Nadis in his opening chapter argues that reality TV can be traced back to Cold War programming such as Candid Microphone (on radio) and the television equivalent Candid Camera. This format, which questioned public conformity, emerged out of a changing technological environment and advances in the area of psychology, yet Allan Funt (creator of Candid) quickly realised that real drama and entertainment surfaced not through observing but through directly influencing the course of action.
Similarly, Barron, and Leggott and Hochscherf, examine the producer’s manipulating influence in Big Brother and Jamie’s School Dinners respectively. While these programs open a space for the investigation of social problems, they often invoke and perpetuate stereotypes of race, class and gender while directing the course of the “celebritising” process. Cassandra Jones’s investigation of the ways The Biggest Loser draws on the American Frontier myth to advance the notion that a patriotic American is thin was my favorite chapter in this section, yet it did not examine why patriotism was particularly important to the American psyche in 2006.
The second section on class, gender, and the family begins with an interesting piece by Laurie Rupert and Sayanti Ganguly Puckett which argues that the 1973 PBS produced “thesis-documentary” An American Family had a significant impact on the reality TV format. For the authors, An American Family emerged during a time of social change and advanced the producer’s agenda that the American dream was turning into a nightmare and that the institution of marriage was dying. This is an important piece that reveals the ways both reality TV and documentaries manipulate everything, a concept that is picked up in later chapters. Following the success of An American Family, the BBC created The Family for British audiences in 1974.
Rather than focus on a wealthy family in the same vein as the American production, the British producers were influenced by the political and social context to follow an extended working-class family living together in one small council flat. This is the subject of Holmes’s chapter as she investigates the ways individuals are used to stand in for society at large and the cultural anxiety of being on display. Through admissions of infidelity, premarital teenaged sex and interracial marriage, The Family was perceived by some to be not truly representative of its time.
The next chapter, which investigates the Canadian example of makeover reality TV, like the first two chapters of this section, encourage the reader to interpret the programs of this genre as not simply reinforcing the hegemony. Via an examination of the carnivalesque aspects of humor invoked by the Canadian hosts of Plastic Makes Perfect, Matheson argues that Canadian productions disrupt dominant discourses of gender and nation by invoking the pleasure derived from American style makeover formats in a way that provokes a rethinking of the discourse.
Up to this point, the collection distinguishes itself from other discussions on the topic by considering the social and historical influences of reality TV formats and productions without dismissing the genre as the worst television has to offer. This focus shifts quite dramatically in Olson’s investigation of Kid Nation as a commodification of childhood. Olson notes that Kid Nation reconstructs childhood in a mediated space and then destroys it by forcing children to take on adult qualities. Although one of the strongest entries in this collection due to its rigorous content analysis, something surprisingly absent from a number of the other chapters, the social and cultural construction of childhood was not considered in this paper, with twenty-first-century ideals of childhood described as “natural.”
The final section consists of three papers which consider the living history subgenre of reality TV, whereby participants are taken back in time and encouraged to live with historical authenticity. Taddeo and Dvorak’s analysis of 1900 House explores the idea of historical inaccuracy to revisit the notion that reality is not as important as drama in this genre. The program reinforces idealized images of family togetherness, gender, and class, and uses fictional artefacts (such as Jane Austen novels) as points of reference rather than pursuing historical accuracy which contemporary participants would likely struggle with.
In the next two chapters, which deal with Australian programming including The Colony and Outback House, the authors explore the ways national myths and realities are forgotten and remembered in an attempt to rehabilitate a shameful colonial history. Each chapter in this section reveals the ways a social memory of the past is learned through books, movies, and other media. Thus, every participant in reality TV is influenced by what they already know about social identities, something that becomes particularly important when producers attempt to reconstruct history. In Schellings’s analysis of her frustrating attempt to produce a Making of documentary of The Colony, we are reminded that in the attempt to make history accessible, manipulation is inevitable.
Throughout the collection, writers often invoke the discourse of documentary theorization to situate the criteria for a social and historical investigation of reality TV beyond the notion of a “cultural wasteland.” The analysis of older forms and trends successfully address the political and social contexts, but the newer formats are not as illuminating. While I was encouraged by the readings that prompted critics to interpret this genre beyond the hegemonic, I did find myself yearning for more of a content analysis of the texts themselves. However perhaps that is not the aim of the book. The tools of historical analysis offered throughout the collection are important and provide a way to consider the intertextual influence of this genre and the texts themselves as historical documents.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution.
By Matthew Sweeney.

New York: Bloomsbury, March 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1596913042, $25. 304 pages.

Review by Amanda Harmon Cooley, North Carolina A & T State University

In The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution, Matthew Sweeney provides a comprehensive and interesting discussion of the often polarizing issue of lotteries in the United States. Peppered with anecdotes that range from the story of the first American lottery winner to woeful tales of the lost winning ticket, Sweeney primarily takes a chronological approach to the structure of his volume. The threads that tie each of the explored eras together are the reiterations of the proponents and opponents of the ideology and actuation of lotteries, as well as an examination of the transformative effect—both negative and positive—that winning the lottery can have on people. By undergirding his narrative in this way, Sweeney provides continuity to his extensive history of the lottery.

Chapters 1 and 2 feature a historical account of the lottery in America from colonial times until the turn of the twentieth century. A key portion of this discussion focuses on the speculative lottery fever of the early 1800s and the backlash against it, which started in the 1830s and which began the process of the outlawing of the lottery in many states until the mid-1960s. Here, the book highlights a primary foundation of lottery proponents’ view, which argues the importance of lotteries as a way to bring needed money into governmental coffers, as well as a conflicting view of lottery opponents, which focuses on the negative moral, ethical, and socioeconomic components of such systems. Chapters 3 and 4 of the book detail the post-Prohibition resurgence of the lottery—first, as an underground enterprise, and, later, starting with New Hampshire in 1964, as a legal, state-endorsed and -run operation. Sweeney illustrates in these chapters the swift resulting rate of state legalization of the lottery and the meteoric rise in potential jackpots among these states, the fueling influence of media coverage of mega-wins, and how all of these factors have resulted in the creation of a bevy of peripheral businesses (from lobbying firms to corporate lottery operators to lottery cash advance companies).

From this macro-analysis, the author then turns to one state’s struggle with the issue of the lottery—that of North Carolina, which provides a microcosmic view into this complicated issue: “The North Carolina Education Lottery nearly tore the state in two on its way to being passed. As it approached its one-year anniversary, the nation’s newest lottery left scandals and recriminations in its wake, along with several hundred million dollars for education” (112). This chapter provides the most compelling discussion of the book’s overriding issues as it hones in on the divisiveness that a lottery can engender within a state and among that state’s stakeholders. Significantly, this chapter details how after eighteen years of resistance, North Carolina, which was surrounded by all sides by states that had legalized lotteries and which had potential revenues flooding out of the state into those neighboring states’ lottery systems, legalized a lottery with the one tie-breaking vote of the lieutenant governor. The discussion of the extensive lobbying efforts throughout the legislative process, the significant political fallout that resulted from the passage of the lottery bill, and the socioeconomic realities of the operation of the lottery in North Carolina cover so many of Sweeney’s themes.

In the final chapters of the book, which slightly pale in comparison to Chapter 5, the author explores the workings of GTECH, the largest corporate operator of lotteries in the United States; the issues surrounding gambling addiction; some of the actual statistics, rather than the marketing claims, of the revenues generated by state lotteries; and the fact that several states have begun regarding the allowance of private lotteries. In this final area of coverage, Sweeney concludes that if states adopt this type of lottery system, then it will result in “history repeating itself” (Ch. 9).

This book provides a fascinating look at an issue that has generated, and will likely continue to generate, a tremendous amount of conflict. Like any complex issue, the lottery is a substantial one to take on in a single volume. Sweeney does an effective job of providing broad coverage to this thorny subject matter, but his prose is at its best when the author dedicates an entire chapter to the complex intricacies of one state’s debate over the lottery. The themes in this detailed discussion can be significant precedent for future state lottery issues. As such, given how prevalent lotteries currently are in the United States—with all but 8 states having legalized them in some form—and the gravity of the derivative issues that can arise as a result of the adoption and implementation of a lottery, this is an important volume for policymakers, consumers, business professionals, and academics.