“Law and Order” as cultural history

I have recently begun the slightly odd project of watching Law and Order start to finish. Although I have watched the most recent several seasons of L&O, as well as the various spin-offs, the earlier 10-15 seasons really passed me by. I’m well aware that L&O is almost ubiquitous on US cable TV (I had a sick day in a US hotel where I watched nothing but), but in New Zealand, re-runs of earlier seasons have been fewer and further between. However, one of our PayTV networks recently started from season 1, episode 1, and seems to be intent on just running right through them. That, combined with a DVR, encouraged me to go back and experience the whole lot. A fool’s mission, maybe, but one I’m finding quite interesting.

What has struck me, 3-ish seasons in, is the way that L&O operates as an artefact, as a cultural historical record. Early seasons are filled with references to AIDS, to DNA, to mobile phones. Incident reports are being completed on type-writers, a foot cop runs to a pay-phone to call in a crime. Sexual harrassment seems to become a common trope as the series progresses. Females serving in the police force and the military becomes a theme. Homosexuality becomes more and more in the public eye, as does racism. I’m struck by the number of derogatory terms used in the show’s early seasons, especially n***er, which seems to be used in every second episode.

This is not the world’s greatest show. And as it is still a work of fiction, it answers more to the storyline than to culture. But I feel that the 20 years (running from roughly 1990-2010) saw massive shifts in technology and culture in the US, and L&O seems to be marking the importance of various issues as they come up. I expect to see more concerns around new technology, around the rise of the internet, around concerns of identity, around sexuality, race and gender, around politics and the rise of the religious right, around corruption, around terrorism. And I really feel that I am in some ways getting a glimpse back into the US’s cultural history, seeing the issues that were preoccupying people at a given moment, and seeing attitudes change and shift.

Sexuality and Idol paper

Following the excellent Gender Cultures and Reality TV symposium held in Auckland this past weekend (a follow-on from one held in Dublin earlier this year), I thought I would post the full text of the paper I presented. Obviously, I actually talked around it a little, and it is written for oral presentation, but I’m always interested in getting further feedback. The full text is after the jump. The suggestion was made that there might be enough of an idea here to work up for publication too, so that is also floating around in my mind.

Gender Cultures and Reality Television conference paper

Better late than never, I’ve got most of my conference paper together for the Gender Cultures and Reality Television conference I’m attending tomorrow and Saturday. Since almost noone who sees this blog will be there, I figured I’d put it up online. Feel free to make any constructive comments you might have, either before or after I deliver it 🙂


I’ve removed the link here, as it was to an old version. The final version of the paper delivered can now be seen at:


What Is Television? conference abstract

So, after much to-ing and fro-ing, I’ve decided to put an abstract together for the What Is Television? Conference in Oregon next year.

The current incarnation of the abstract can be seen at:


And the details about the conference can be found at:



As always, any comments, criticisms, advice, gratefully received.

Stepping outside my comfort zone

The abstract I posted last has been accepted. Which is excellent. But that now means that I need to write the paper. Which is scary.

Ever since I came back into the loving embrace of the tertiary institution, I have pushed myself, sure, but I have worked pretty much within my comfort zone. I have worked with texts that I know, well. I’ve stuck to areas that I have felt relatively comfortable in – the TV industry, fandom, new and social media. This is the work I’ve pretty much focused on over the past 5 years, meaning that I’ve grown with it.

But none of the work I traditionally do would have fit the CFP for this conference, that I really wanted to attend. So I took a deep breath, and I wrote the abstract. And imperfect as it might be, it was accepted. And now, I need to start from scratch with writing it.

Most things I write are based on a literature I know well. If I want to write about cult television, or quality, or televisual eras, I know the 5 or 6 key texts I need to turn to. But all of a sudden, I’m writing about sexuality and sexualisation. And I’m doing a whole new set of literature searches.

It’s incredibly disconcerting to not know the most basic level of academic research about this. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of academic work about my specific niche take on this (Idol and sexualisation), which is good – nice niche area for a paper, possibly means it’s even worth expanding it to a publication if I come up with something useful to say. But it also means I’m doing very broad Google Scholar searches, and trying to distil out some fairly broad concepts. And I don’t even really know what sorts of theoretical bases I could be using.

So it’s something that is very exciting, but simultaneously utterly terrifying. I have several months to work on this, and I get the feeling I’m going to have to devote a reasonable amount of time to this.

So, how do other academics feel about this? Do you ever have the feeling of stepping out of your comfort zone?

Symposium + Abstract

There is an excellent symposium being run at the University of Auckland near the end of the year. The theme is Gender Cultures and Reality TV, and there have already been some exciting speakers announced. If this is at all in your area, and you think you might be able to justify a trip to Auckland, then I strongly recommend taking a look. I’m a little late pimping this, so abstracts are due Friday! Details can be found at: http://www.genderculturesandrealitytv.com/

And so to me. As much as I do work with Reality TV, and enjoy listening to discussions and chiming in where I can on issues of gender and sexuality, this is a little outside my comfort zone. But this is too good an opportunity to pass up, so I have put together an abstract. I’m still pretty new to abstract writing, so any advice on it would be gratefully appreciated.

“You keep singing like that and you will be able to afford the rest of that dress”: Nascent sexuality in the Idol Franchise

In the first nine years of its run, American Idol was relatively careful to avoid overt sexualisation of the contestants, playing very carefully to a conservative family audience. Judging panel comments regarding appearance or wardrobe of participants frequently came from Paula Abdul, taking on a sisterly or motherly role towards most contestants. However, in the tenth season, the changes made to the judging panel saw the introduction of Steven Tyler, a rocker known for, amongst other things, his lasciviousness and history of promiscuity. Tyler’s presence on the panel saw a shift in the dynamic, with him frequently making comments of a sexual nature towards both male and female contestants. Tyler joining the panel only a year after the success of the most overtly sexual contestant on Idol, Adam Lambert, may not be a pure coincidence, and may indicate a shift to attract new demographics to the show in order to arrest falling ratings. Where this may be problematic is in its coincidence with the lowering of the age limit for competing in Idol, meaning that contestants Lauren Alaina and Thia Megia were both fifteen years old at the time of their auditions. This paper will analyse the increased sexualisation of contestants over the 2011 season, identify moments at which this sexualisation became uncomfortable or problematic, and will attempt to draw comparisons to Australasian versions of the format.

Teaching vs Writing

For a number of reasons, I have no funding while I am completing my PhD. I am not in a position to apply for any of the standard doctoral scholarships, and being white, middle-class, and male, most of the other scholarships do not apply for me. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a reverse discrimination complaint, and I am receiving some support from my family in order to get through this. But what it does mean is that I have needed to take on work in the department. For this, I will be eternally grateful.

I have no idea whether or not I would have taken on as much, or for that matter any work, had I not needed it. But instead, I am in my 4th year of work as a GTA (graduate teaching assistant), on three difference courses, and have just completed my first co-convenorship of a course. The money earned on any of these is not great (not the department’s fault, just the reality of the tertiary education system in NZ), but my CV is now starting to look a lot healthier than it might have done. As well as an undergrad course on television, I have worked on an upper-undergrad media studies course, dealing with some fascinating and very current issues, as well as a course on video games. Both of the latter two were slightly outside my wheelhouse to begin, but have given me some strong skills, as well a the confidence that I could get myself up to speed to teach on pretty much any course that I might need to.

The opportunity to convene/lecture on the media studies course this semester was an incredible one, and so lucky – the regular lecturer got a research grant, and used it to buy out of his teaching for the semester. Another PhD student and I were given the opportunity, and seized it with both hands. We both had to very quickly get used to the week-in, week-out production of lectures (very different to the first lecture I gave a couple of years ago, where I believe I spent 50-60 hours preparing and rehearsing the lecture). We also had to get used to being the place where the buck stopped, the person to whom all the most difficult questions come. I feel incredibly grateful as well that I had a co-convenor who was also very interested in the material of the course and interested in trying some pedagogically-interesting techniques, as well has having a tutor who was dedicated, interested in the material, and who really worked to inspire her students. And we got there, and from the accounts I’ve received, did pretty well.

The semester is now over, the exams have been graded, and all that remains is a little paperwork (and by a little, I mean a lot more than I ever realised was possible). And now I look at the sorry state that my PhD has been left in. The amount of work I was doing, and how much I was enjoying that work, meant that my PhD has been a little neglected. A couple of bits and pieces were done, but now I sit and survey the amount of writing I should be doing between now and 3 weeks time, when the second semester will start. There might be some other reasons why my PhD hit the back-burner, including some structural and conceptual issues that are still haunting me, but I think they should be the realm of a separate post.

But it does raise some interesting issues of balance in the modern PhD (at least within the NZ system) – even those who are on scholarship still need to take some teaching (or other paid work) to be able to live, and there certainly aren’t enough scholarships to go around. So how do you balance these two elements competing for your time? Teaching is in theory only 10 hours per week roughly, but I think anyone would agree that, especially when marking/grading is on, it’s closer to 40+ hours per week.

And so it comes down to balance. This semester, that balance failed. And I’m ok with that, because it was an opportunity that just couldn’t be turned down. But it does raise larger questions about how people balance teaching and writing, whether they are still grad students, or even post-employment, when they have to balance lecturing, departmental requirements and administration with the production of their own writing, research and publication.

Any suggestions or comments gratefully received.