Rapid response

Add-a-gay Tim Bagley (cc photo by NoHoDamon)
Add-a-gay Tim Bagley (cc photo by NoHoDamon)

Last week, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) released its 2009-2010 Network Responsibility Index, “an evaluation of the quantity, quality and diversity of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people on television.” In the report, GLAAD gave CBS a failing grade, citing a lack of “LGBT series regular characters on any of its scripted programs.” Only seven percent of CBS’s primetime program-hours were deemed “LGBT-Inclusive.”

Yesterday, presenting CBS’s fall schedule, network president Nina Tassler declared, “We know we will do better.” Specifically, Tassler promised, “We’re going to meet Alicia’s brother on The Good Wife as a gay character. We’re also going to be adding a new character to Rules of Engagement. Jeff and Audrey’s surrogate will be a member of Jeff’s softball team and she’s a lesbian. We’re also going to be recurring a gay character in Bleep My Dad Says. The character Tim Bagley played will be returning this season.”

I don’t watch any of these shows. But I still find this sequence of events interesting and remarkable, for a number of reasons. It seems especially noteworthy to me right now as I plow through primary sources documenting several decades of pressure by African American activists and performers to increase the number of black faces on primetime TV, often to quite limited effect. Indeed, just a year and a half ago, the NAACP identified a “critical lack of programming by, for or about people of color.” CBS’s swift reaction to GLAAD’s report, I think, highlights a fundamental difference between efforts to make television programming more racially and more sexually diverse—the far greater ease, for better or for worse, with which producers seem to be able to tack gay and lesbian characters (usually, white, male ones) onto already-existing pilots and shows.

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“The civil rights push deserves much of the credit”

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington in 1963. Sidney Poitier is in the background, and Harry Belafonte is standing behind Brando (USIA photo, via Wikimedia Commons)
Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington in 1963. Sidney Poitier is in the background, and Harry Belafonte is standing behind Brando (USIA photo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, I came across a 1967 interview in which Charlton Heston, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, declares “we’ve got a long way to go before the Negro image on screen catches up with reality.” Being familiar with Heston’s right-wing, pro-gun politics of his later, NRA years, the interview came as a bit of a surprise. So did, after taking to Google for background, the above photograph from the 1963 March on Washington. Nor had I realized that Heston, still associating himself in King’s legacy, was not only a Second Amendment activist but a committed culture warrior on a number of fronts by the 1990s.

Now, judging by the 1967 interview, Heston was no radical on the issue of black images in film or on racial questions generally. He speaks of progress made, citing Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby approvingly. Pressed on his personal contribution, he mentions a prospective “picture about a professional football team and the girl who plays opposite me will be a Negro,” acknowledging that it won’t “make a shattering impression on the movie industry,” but calling it “a step in the right direction.” (Heston may have been talking about 1969’s Number One; his costar in that film was the fabulous, but white, Jessica Walter.) And he leads off by celebrating the civil rights movement in expressly universalist terms, noting that black efforts to integrate technical unions had undermined their insularity and nepotism in ways that aided whites too: “There’s a huge wave of employment reform surging through the movie industry these days, especially behind the camera, and the civil rights push deserves much of the credit for making the situation better for both races” (Walter Burrell, “NAACP Has Ripped Apart Hollywood’s ‘In Crowd’,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 14, 1967).

Still, I find Heston’s evolution—he might have denied that he’d evolved—from civil rights marching Democrat to “white pride”-defending Republican fascinating. All the more so because it seems to have been part of a broader phenomenon. Ronald Reagan is, of course, the archetypal case. Matt Jacobson and Gaspar González offer an interesting account of Frank Sinatra’s changing politics in their book on The Manchurian Candidate. Are there more examples? Can we think about these liberal-to-conservative Hollywood stars as a group, even if their evolutions proceeded along somewhat different timelines? Is it significant that all three of the actors mentioned here engaged in at least some early-career activism against racial prejudice, or in support of civil rights? Is it possible that changing racial dynamics within the film industry helped—alongside many other factors—to reshape their politics by the 1970s and 1980s?

These aren’t, precisely, questions I’m aiming to answer with my dissertation, which tackles only a slice of a much larger history of the civil rights movement and racial politics in Hollywood. On the other hand, I’m increasingly realizing that the campaigns against film stereotypes that I’m examining are hard to detach from this context. By the 1960s, they had become deeply intertwined with demands for altered hiring practices and, broadly, for greater African American power within the industry. As my research proceeds, Heston’s case prompts me to think more about the reception afforded such demands, and to consider how the growing black presence in Hollywood, the fraying of old interracial alliances, and rightward migrations like those undertaken by these actors might fit together.

A minor facelift

You’ll notice that I’ve tinkered a bit with the site’s color scheme and typography, and more substantially with the header: I’ve replaced the aerial view of the New Haven Green with a detail from an image of Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies, where I’ve spent many hours in the last four years. (Both the old and new images come from the Boston Public Library’s fantastic Tichnor Brothers Postcard Inc. Postcard Collection, which you can browse on Flickr.)

Substantively, I’ve consolidated information about me, the website, and my approach to this blog on a single, new “About” page. Still to come sometime in the next few months is an expanded, more web-friendly approach to my online CV.

New England roundup #10

"Pittsfield, in the Near Future," a 1906 postcard depicting North Street with a monorail and assorted flying vehicles (cc scan by thecameo; click on the image for more background)
"Pittsfield, in the Near Future," a 1906 postcard depicting North Street with a monorail and assorted flying vehicles (cc scan by thecameo; click on the image for more background)
  • WAMC, the public radio station in Albany, NY, spins—or starts to—a regional interpretation of the recently-signed financial reform legislation.  Steve Felano’s report, titled “Wall Street Reform — Made in New England,” notes the central roles of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), as well as the crucial support of Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Scott Brown (R-MA). NECN adds “one other New England angle”: the possibility of Harvard Law School’s Elizabeth Warren running the consumer protection agency created by the bill. It is tempting to chalk this up to inborn Yankee values or similar cultural factors.  But such interpretations falter when among the key players are an Oklahoman (Warren) and a New Jerseyan (Frank). More-mundane factors, albeit each with important regional dimensions, explain the coincidences just as well: the geography of higher education in the U.S., House and Senate seniority rules, and a balance of power in the Senate that makes the Snowe/Collins/Brown troika key to passage of any legislation.
  • More politics: “the Republican Party’s inability to consistently build a farm team of office holders at the city and state level” in New England may limit its chances to win Congressional seats in the region this November.
  • The Globe covers efforts in Pittsfield, MA, to turn the city into a center of arts and culture.
  • Southern New England will not face a five-year ban on lobster fishing, after all—a prospect mentioned here last month. Corby Kummer at The Atlantic has more details.
  • Jonathan Yardley reviews Eric Jaffe’s The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route that Made America for the Washington Post. (Yardley includes a welcome shot at publishers for relying on the crutch of “changed the world” and “made America” to hype their titles.)

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

On air

Screenshots from Oxygen.com in December 2000 (left, courtesy Archive.org) and today (right).
Screenshots from Oxygen.com in December 2000 (left, courtesy Archive.org) and today (right).

Note: Addendum added below.

For a side project (but ultimately also as background for the dissertation), I’ve just read the media scholar Lisa Parks’s very interesting 2004 essay “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” In one part of the essay, Parks analyzes the early years of the Oxygen cable television network, which debuted in 2000 as part of an ambitious TV-internet hybrid. I’m not a regular Oxygen viewer, but it was striking to note the differences between networks’ initial programming and the fare it offers today. At its debut, Oxygen promised to “superserve the needs and interests of women,” and its schedule included a Candice Bergen talk show, a yoga program, a web-integrated talk show for girls, a showcase for gender-themed digital art, and a show where Oprah Winfrey and friend Gayle King learned to use the internet. Whatever the merits of such programming—Parks sees some feminist possibilities in them, while others were more critical—it’s a far cry from Oxygen’s top hits today: Hair Battle Spectacular, Dance Your A** Off, Jersey Couture, Bad Girls Club, and so forth. This lineup of reality and reality-competition series, while clearly aimed at a primarily female audience, would seem to lack any explicit service mission. And it would hardly be out of place on other cable outlets not identified as “women’s” networks: Bravo, VH1, and E!, for instance.

Of course, this is not a trend confined to Oxygen alone. History—long, and still, the bane of academic historians—has branched out from war documentaries and features Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. On A&E, middle- and high-brow arts programming has been pushed aside by  Dog the Bounty Hunter, Growing Up Twisted and, as Pandora has been reminding me all day, Gene Simmons Family Jewels. At VH1, music coexists, sort of, with “Celebreality.”

Yet, while Oxygen and Lifetime have become less distinguishable from their cable counterparts, it’s interesting that other identity-based niche cable channels, like BET and Logo, seem to have retained a brand identity far more rooted in their original missions of programming distinctively about and for African American and gay and lesbian audiences, respectively. This divergence may be another manifestation of a question I’ve confronted repeatedly in conceptualizing my dissertation project. How do demands for better images of women in the movies and on television fit alongside similar calls for better images of groups, from African Americans to gays and lesbians, that have not only been historically marginalized within and outside the entertainment industry, but have also been distinct demographic minorities? I’ve tended to fudge this issue so far by talking about feminist, rather than women’s, campaigns for improved media representations. But while I do think this distinction is important, it’s certainly not by itself an adequate answer to the question.

I realize that this is all, being generous, semi-coherent. Please think of this as a brainstorming post.

Addendum, 7/21: After letting this marinate for a day, I think I have a somewhat better idea of the idea I’m trying to develop here. Because “women” is a far larger slice of the demographic pie than, for instance, “African American” or “gay and lesbian,” it’s inevitable that many channels on an increasingly fractured cable landscape will try to deliver that demographic to advertisers by scheduling at least some programming that features and appeals to female viewers. As a result, an explicit mission of service to women or an express assertion of some brand of feminism would offer ways to differentiate a “women’s” channel from a channel for general audiences that appeals to women. But both Lifetime and Oxygen seem to have rejected such differentiation. In contrast, although BET and Logo have sought to broaden their appeal (e.g. Logo’s Ru Paul’s Drag Race), and although other channels have sought to appeal to both black and gay audiences (e.g. Bravo, in the latter case), the focus of their programming remains more distinctive.

New England roundup #9

Still from Massachusetts DOT rendering of the Brickbottom station on the extended Green Line.
Still from Massachusetts DOT rendering of the Brickbottom station on the extended Green Line.

Transit and transportation are this week’s common thread:

  • Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution are considering building a soccer-only stadium in the Inner Belt/Brickbottom area of Somerville outside Boston, near the under-construction Green Line extension. “It would put the team within easy reach of neighborhoods packed with immigrants from soccer-obsessed countries, young urbanites looking for accessible entertainment, and suburban soccer families with train connections to North Station,” the Globe reports. Somerville’s mayor hopes a transit-serviced soccer stadium would also drive development in this “no-man’s land of storage and heavy-equipment lots.” For a more skeptical view of the power of sports arenas to drive growth—although one I’m not sure applies in this context—have a look at Michael H. Carriere’s recent essay at HNN (h/t Tim Stewart-Winter, via Facebook).
  • Quebec’s Delegate General in New York, John Parisella, blogged his 11-hour train ride from New York to Montreal on Amtrak’s Adirondack service, and writes, “More than ever I am convinced that a high speed train connection from Montréal to New York is the way to go.” (As someone who’s made the Brattleboro-New York trip, about six hours, Parisella’s account rang some bells.) But as this year-old essay by Yonah Freemark on the blog The Transport Politic discusses, it’s a Boston-Montreal route through New Hampshire and Vermont that has, since 2000, been designated by the Federal Railroad Administration as a preferred high-speed rail corridor. The New England route, Freemark notes, has the political advantage of six senators (theoretically) advocating for its construction.
  • New England business updates, via the Globe‘s business section: regional venture capital activity is down, and a mission statement is mooted.

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

Some Image Awards ephemera

Program cover, 1972 NAACP Image Awards. (Papers of the NAACP [microfilm], Part 29, Series A, Reel 12)
Program cover, 1972 NAACP Image Awards. (Papers of the NAACP, microfilm, Part 29, Series A, Reel 12)
If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that I’ve plunged back into the voluminous microfilmed papers of the NAACP. Lately, I’ve been exploring the organization’s records of its interactions with the entertainment industry in the 1950s and the first part of the 1960s. Yesterday, though, I ran across a small cache of 1970s-era material that documents the early years of the Image Awards put on, at that time, by the NAACP’s Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch. Here are some samples.  (And if any readers have leads on other sources on the Image Awards’ history, please get in touch.)

Above is the cover of what looks like a souvenir program distributed at the sixth-annual awards, in 1972. It depicts Cicely Tyson, the “Honorary Chairman,” star of and Oscar nominee for that year’s Sounder. The inside of the program is chock-full of advertisements from film studios and record labels, suggesting that it didn’t take long for the industry to embrace this particular form of politicking for improved media representations.

Below is an excerpt from the script for the fifth-annual awards, in 1971, featuring an exchange between host Bobby Darrin and his “assistant,” the television actress Denise Nicholas. Judging by this, it also didn’t take long for the Image Awards to adopt an important feature of the awards show genre: awkward dialogue and strained topical humor.

Detail of script, 1971 NAACP Image Awards. (Papers of the NAACP [microfilm], Part 29, Series A, Reel 12)
Detail of script, 1971 NAACP Image Awards. (Papers of the NAACP, microfilm, Part 29, Series A, Reel 12)

New England roundup #8

A sign of New England pizza culture? (cc photo by svadilfari)
A sign of New England pizza culture? (cc photo by svadilfari)

Just a couple of items this week:

  • Today’s Globe features an interview with the CEO of the parent company of Papa Gino’s and D’Angelos—both of which have outlets in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island (sorry Vermont!)—about appealing to the New England market. The interview is not actually all that interesting, but I think it highlights how “New England” can sometimes be an ill-fitting unit of analysis of regional culture. CEO Rick Wolf claims that New England has a unique pizza culture of “mom and pop pizzerias,” due to Italian and Greek historical immigrant populations around Boston. But are the (southern) New England states really all that different, in this respect, from the southeastern third of New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania?
  • The new issue of Common-Place includes a fascinating essay by Connecticut Historical Society archivist Barbara Austen. Austen describes the society’s efforts over the last six years to survey and process its many uncatalogued holdings, mostly using a somewhat controversial approach known as “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP), and discusses some of the gems uncovered even through this less painstaking process.

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

    Fearing victory

    George W. Bush endorses the FMA in 2006 (screencap via Rod 2.0)
    The FMA failed in 2006, despite George W. Bush's endorsement (screencap via Rod 2.0)

    Not to pick on the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart, but his online piece earlier this week arguing that “the prospect of victory [in Perry v. Schwarzenegger] has me and more than a few others concerned about what may follow” makes a number of points that are, I think, a bit silly. I want to tackle just a couple of them.

    Capehart makes the case that public sentiment—as evident in a legal landscape where most states prohibit same-sex marriage—does not support marriage equality to the extent necessary for the Supreme Court to feel comfortable ruling that barring gay people from marrying is unconstitutional. In doing so, he cites the example of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, when the justices overturned remaining state criminal prohibitions on sodomy, reversing their 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. Specifically, he points to Justice Kennedy’s observation that “In our own constitutional system the deficiencies in Bowers became even more apparent in the years following its announcement. The 25 States with laws prohibiting the relevant conduct referenced in the Bowers decision are reduced now to 13, of which 4 enforce their laws only against homosexual conduct.” Kennedy does make this point, in passing. But he does so after a much longer discussion that draws heavily on the work of historians of sexuality in order to make the case that the Bowers court was basically approaching the question the wrong way, because they proceeded from “historical premises [that] are not without doubt and, at the very least, are overstated.” In fact, historians demonstrated, although laws prohibiting sodomy had long existed, they targeted a range of acts between both same-sex and different-sex partners, and they were unevenly enforced; “laws targeting same-sex couples did not develop until the last third of the 20th century.” Indeed, Kennedy writes later in his opinion, “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today” (my emphasis). Rather than an argument for waiting for public opinion to evolve, Lawrence seems more to suggest the value to gay activists of showing judges and justices strong historical and social scientific evidence that supports our arguments—which few doubt the Perry plaintiffs did.  (For a taste, check out reenactments of the testimony by historians Nancy Cott and George Chauncey here, on days 1-3 of the trial.)

    Later, Capehart writes:

    Here’s something else to consider. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that ushered in marriage equality there in 2004 also kicked off a push to enshrine discrimination in the Constitution through an amendment banning same-sex marriage. It went nowhere then. I’m not so sure today. Two-thirds of the states — 38 — are needed to amend the U.S. Constitution. As I just mentioned 30 states have already done it on their own. Or look at it this way, 45 of the 50 states currently do not permit same-sex marriage.

    Three points here. First, the hurdle is actually three-fourths of the states, although this does indeed amount to 38. Second, even granting that all 30 states with some sort of constitutional marriage prohibition would definitely ratify a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage, I don’t think one can assume that state legislatures that have successfully kept state-level amendments off the ballot in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina would rush to put a federal amendment before voters. Third, and most importantly, Capehart’s worrying here entirely ignores the role of the Congress. Between 2004 and 2006, with a supportive White House, the Republican-controlled Senate twice failed to invoke cloture on the Federal Marriage Amendment, with 50 nay votes on one occasion and 48 on the other. The amendment also failed twice in the Republican-controlled House, with just over half the members voting in favor each time—about 50 votes short of the two-thirds required, in other words. Even assuming that Republicans won control of both houses of Congress this fall with modest majorities, would a district court ruling in Perry really be enough to push more than a dozen and a half Democratic senators toward suddenly supporting a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage? I’m skeptical.

    Most broadly, I just don’t really understand the point of pieces like Capehart’s. Debate the merits of bringing a suit like Perry, sure. But once a civil rights lawsuit is under way, what’s the value of extensive hand-wringing about success? Unfavorable decisions from Judge Vaughn Walker and especially from the Supreme Court on appeal would definitely be setbacks to the cause of marriage equality. Favorable ones might produce backlash. The expansion of civil rights in the face of strong opposition almost always does. But we have to confront that opposition at one point or another. Rather than casting the possibility of victory in vaguely apocalyptic terms—“All that’s needed is a spark. Right now, Judge Walker is the man holding the matches,” Capehart concludes—why not gird oneself and others for the fight?

    “There is consolation in the thought that America is young”

    Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. National Archives and Records Administration, ARC identifier 558770

    For the past couple of years, I’ve taught excerpts of probably the most famous Fifth of July speech, Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 address, popularly known as the “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. I was familiar, therefore, with the searing rhetoric of the speech’s climax:

    What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

    I took the opportunity today to read the full address, and wanted to share a couple other passages I found resonant. One comes from the opening section, where Douglass discusses what the holiday means to his (white) audience:

    This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young.

    The second comes from the end of the address, when Douglass, having delivered such lines as, “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie,” pivots suddenly to make common cause with the abolitionist audience—to talk of global interconnectedness, hope, and change, and to prove that there is very little new in American political rhetoric:

    I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind.