Tag Archives: media culture

TV as it should be – Bron|Broen

Welcome back to Screen Ethics after another unexpected hiatus. I could attribute the absence to the sluggish months of pop-culture news, to new challenges that needed more immediate attention or to the sheer laziness of the editor. Mea Culpa, readers and friends, because we all know that it is the third reason. To ensure a more organized workflow, Screen Ethics will publish once a week on Saturdays and this would hopefully allow me to line-up content more efficiently. Hopefully, the days of a post every day for a week followed by two weeks of silence is behind us!

So let us resume our discussions of TV and pop-culture with Broen|Bron, one of the best TV shows of the 2010s. Over the past eight years, this show has built a name for itself as a character-driven psychological drama that goes beyond its quirky murder plot. The fourth and final season of acclaimed Swedish-Danish TV series ended in its distinct fashion – with a finality necessary and fitting to the character, and somewhat unexpected in a TV series. Saga Noren from Malmo Police department is perhaps a cop unlike any other, despite appearing to be a TV cop like every other TV cop. She has inexplicable police instincts that drive her methods, she is utterly socially incompetent, her methods often lead people close to her to uncomfortable situations. However, she is different from her counterparts in her ability to revisit her site of obsessive crime-solving and raising an important question – is it healthy for her to do the work she does?

The gruesome and sordid world of “the Bridge” is a study in near-cultural differences between two Scandinavian cities as well as the psycho-social differences between the society and someone who has cast herself outside of its conventions. Amidst a sea of expressionless geniuses who also solve crime on TV, Saga Noren is unique in her rather rigorously methodical approach to routine and mundane police work. She does not solve crimes through magical abilities. In fact, there are times where her methodical approach is detrimental to the case as she demonstrates ignorance to social conventions and etiquette, preventing her from achieving her goals. Saga’s is not a story of exceptional behavior as a gateway to exceptional results – it is a study of something that TV rarely engages with – consequences of such behavior.

Like many of the other tales of exceptional genius, Saga’s story also lies in the connections she builds around her despite the barriers she raises and maintains. Her closest friend is a mentor Hans, with whom she struggles to connect in a way that he would appreciate the effort she has put in. Two successive partners from across the eponymous bridge, are often at odds with her eccentric antisocial behavior, and their friendship survives because of their persistence rather than the effort. The first of them is Martin Rohde, played by the instantly likeable Kim Bodnia, who seems to regard Saga as a project as much as a friend. He tries to impart social interaction cues to Saga by introducing her to his wife and colleagues. The second partner, Henrik Sabroe, played by a more ambivalent Thure Lindhardt, extends this recuperative mission by becoming romantically involved with Saga.

However, the show does not allow Saga to simply succeed in a typical manner of an overcoming the odds narrative. Saga’s success does not hinge on a “despite” which is the bread and butter of eccentric characters on TV. While she manages to forge important connections with people close to her, the narrative does not simply show an outsider magically transform into a well-adjusted person. This show goes one step further to examine the effects of her personality on the connections she manages to forge. The story also engages with the adverse effects she has on the people she is connected to, because of her relentlessly single-minded policing. In the final moment of the show, Saga stands on the titular bridge and weighs the defining role she accorded to her job as a police officer. In the dynamic world of the Bridge, Saga is not exempt from the changes and decision-making that other characters face. And therein lies the greatness of this show – in its unwavering commitment to providing consequences to its characters.

Similar only to River, she reaches something very remarkable in a TV series – narrative resolution for a character as a result of introspection and growth. TV shows are built to last and spawn more iterations of the same format. TV shows have suffered from this very limitation, as necessary elements of character development often strike at odds with the inevitable reset that occurs at the beginning of a new season. Characters will face reversals bringing them back to their earlier position, or they will face new problems that perpetuate a familiar structure. This is a glaring aspect of the TV series which we endure for the necessity of continuity. Unless we are willing to tolerate the endless run of stand-alone episodic structure from the 80s era sitcoms, there seems to be no option but to come to terms with the process of TV returning to stasis in order to continue. This is where Broen takes a bold step in a different direction. Every move in the narrative is structured towards a conclusive resolution for the narrative.

Although the viewer is surprised at this seemingly impossible conclusion, TV history has also warned us to be wary of such endings. Shows which have progressed to a fitting conclusion have often been resurrected from beyond the grave for yet another series for simple monetary reasons. Here is hoping that one of TV’s greatest shows does not face such ignominy.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Looking Back at News

Since there were no posts for a while, here are a few thoughts looking back at the way some news items were portrayed in the media. Of course, considering how many big news items are rapidly cycled out, these items are bound to feel outdated and vastly disconnected to each other. These thoughts are aimed to evaluate the patterns of response in the media…


US Gun Violence

After another mass shooting in the United States, many in the media commented on the repetitive nature of the response that they had to deliver. There was a lot of respectful thoughts and messages, and some gestures aimed at avoiding further pain for the victims. There is another routine aspect which irks me. Many media outlets often rewrite or push back the release dates of shows that feature gun violence or similar themes. Unsurprisingly, the ultraviolent Marvel property The Punisher was pushed back in its release date, and a particularly violent episode of American Horror Story: Cult was edited to avoid some sensitive moments due to the recent attack.

I understand that an impulse to be respectful and mournful towards the victims of the recent attack plays a big part in these gestures. And yet, I cannot help but find these moves meaningless because they continue portraying guns as cool and violence as a perfectly normal response to difficult situations. The programs, nor the attitudes towards their production, demand or consumption, will not change despite the dramatic need for such changes. Simply preventing the viewers from looking at such images for a short period of time seems less respectful and more insidious – as if the true intention is to try and avoid responsibility and distancing their violent images from the violent images that the people have recently encountered. Historically, Hollywood has presented many gun-toting heroes who kill without mercy. The superhero trend seems like a positive turn as it shows heroes with non-gun powers. However, it is countermanded by the PG13 rating which has conveniently increased the bodycount without ever showing blood on screen.

The gesture is rendered meaningless with the stubbornness to confront any real solutions for gun violence. Instead of offering clever comebacks to calls for gun control with retorts of truck control and air control, the gun lobby should recognize that it is in its best interest to have stricter laws for gun ownership. As someone on the outside, the debate around the issue seems absurd, because not many countries think it is a good idea to have unlimited access to guns is a good idea. Nostalgia towards a time when things were easier prevents us from recognizing that the changing technologies cannot be handled with the same methods.

However, we must come to terms with a dreadful truth. Ultimately, when the US lawmakers provide stricter gun control, there will still be a mass shooting. However, such an act would be an exception that requires extraordinary effort and planning – not simply walking into a high rise building and picking off targets from the street. Perhaps, the solution lies outside the common discourse – and I can’t think of anything right now. Instead, let me offer Chris Rock’s solution.

Media Coverage in the world of “fake news”

I am always in favor of close scrutiny of how media portrays news events. One of my favorite newspaper reads is the Reader’s Editor column from The Hindu. A. S. Panneerselvan remains one of the most authentic (if underrated) voices in Indian media. His routine analysis of the presentation and misrepresentation of news reminds the readers why newspapers are still relevant today. Similarly, I was impressed that the best piece of news coverage was in fact was a metacommentary about the way news should be covered. Cracked’s episode on Antifa and the problem with the two sides argument was a brilliant analytical piece that reached into philosophical and historical significance that the 24 hour cycle driven channels overlook. Rather than grand empty rhetoric about balance, this video offers a critical examination of the structure of propaganda and the bait that mainstream media easily accepts instead of news.

The Dove ad

I am not going to defend a multi-billion dollar company that has profited from a cultural drive for perfect appearance. But I am a lot more skeptical of the image thanks to my love for visual media. When we look a little closer, the full ad does not show transformation from dark to fair, but rather from one person to another. One of the models has responded to the backlash against the ad with her experience, and she gives a nuanced view about the ad’s intention and the way the company responded to criticism. Ultimately, regardless of the intention, or even the effect of the full ad, the power of the image remains unshakable. A few seconds on a facebook scroll could incite people’s anger and bring out impassioned views.

This event reminded me of growing up in a country where skin-lightening was a national-obsession. I have seen a lot of advertisements which frame lighter skin as better and aspirational. Here are some of those ads for your consideration.

This ad features Shah Rukh Khan, the king of Bollywood, in an ad with black(brown)face:


This cream promises to change ambient lighting to cast a brightness on you, regardless of the situation

However, the existence of worse ads does not excuse a terrible message of transforming one color to another. There are a couple of ads from the same brand that came to my mind from a couple of years ago.

This ad still has a narrow vision of what beauty is, in order to break it down. But it clearly exposes the world that it has helped manufacture over time.

This ad is also a part of the same campaign, unironically titled the self-esteem project. While we may not agree on the effectiveness of the ad, it demonstrates that the company is aware of the critical issues race and body politics that it is a part of.

Ultimately, the sensitivity with which the internet exploded over the ad is a sign of our collective consciousness trying to be more active and critical. Such a move tends to overstate cases from time to time. Besides, we should also remain cautious against the normalizing narrative which keeps ignoring, and implicitly accepting a basis of racial ordering. In my view, Dove’s ad reveals a poor attempt at creating an ad that appeals to people of all races and ethnicities, which in its decontextualized state conveys a racist message – even if that was not the meaning of the ad in a structural or textual sense. Or, it could be that Dove expected this backlash and wanted to whip up some controversy, because free advertising. I would like to think that the truth is somewhere in the middle, where the actual ad was a product of some young ad creative team who wanted to do something ‘edgy’ and ‘post racial’ only to completely misread the field.

What news stories did you feel strongly about from the past month? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.


10 Thoughts on the American Presidential Election

It is already November 8th, Tuesday in Singapore. So here are some random thoughts on the so-called ‘Greatest Reality TV Show’ ever.

  1. Considering the amount of money that has been spent and generated for TV channels, it behooves that they want to extend the run up to the presidential election from the current two years to a full four years. How about a game show – So You Think You Can Be President? – featuring aspirants from all walks of life. We could have politicians and other public figures compete for a chance to represent a major political party. A lot of drama could be generated with D list celebrities. Just imagine the crazy TV ratings when Snooki beats Chris Christie in a fistfight.
  2. The American System has nailed democracy by reducing matters of policy and relationships into a popularity contest – a reality TV show that has heroes and villains, with problematic and quirky side characters and twists so unexpected, that you expect them. Voting on principle is for suckers; while this is true in many countries in the world – it is not as transparent as it is in the USA.
  3. If this is the most televised and commented upon election, then all credit goes to social media.
  4. How long into the hypothetical Trump presidency is it going to take before people on either side of the aisle realize that things are not going to change that much?
  5. Very interesting to note that people like me, who do not live in America or do not have anything to do directly with the election even by one vote, are so excited for this election. Of course, it is great entertainment. It is also a way of engaging with politics without really taking responsibility for the consequences. It hurts too much to think about things that are much closer to home – because once you see the details, you can’t see the devil.140-american-election
  6. Was I the only one shocked when I found out that voting day is not a holiday?
  7. To sustain the reality TV theme of this election, I hope that the election is called in favor of Trump triggering either Obama, Clinton or Biden to go ballistic on the nation on live TV (most likely Biden), only to be interrupted mid-sentence to be told that there was an error in the count. So bizarre that it could actually happen.
  8. Can you imagine the number of PPV buys Trump could bring to WWE for the next WrestleMania where he challenges Vince McMahon in a Hillary wig and a pantsuit?
  9. My one line summary of this election coverage: “You have no choice, so choose.”
  10. I wonder if Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers and Trevor Noah are secretly praying that Donald Trump wins this election. As big a fan as I am of these three, I am the first to admit that they have gained most from Trump’s campaign among the talk show hosts, and I wonder if they will perform blood magic to keep the gift that keeps giving.

Here’s a bonus, from the funny people at Epic Rap Battles:

What are your thoughts on the US Presidential election? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rodney King Retrospective – Legacy in Film

In this concluding section of the Rodney King Retrospective, we will discuss the legacy of the Rodney King video as transmitted through film and Television.

“…we don’t see the American Dream. We have experienced only the American nightmare.”

– Malcolm X, (dir. Spike Lee, 1992)

Straight Outta Compton

139-straight_outta_compton_ver8The 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gary), captured the ways in which the rise of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. was inextricably linked with the suffering of the African-American community. Los Angeles in the late 80s serves as a crucible where the defiant and powerful rhetoric of an otherwise voiceless community emerges against a society that regards them with prejudice as unlawful elements. The film also incorporates the Rodney King beating video and the subsequent trial and riots, not just as a part of the historical milieu but as a necessary thematic counterpoint to the fragile position that the rappers occupy in the music industry. The film depicts scenes where the rappers witness the trial and verdict on TV, expressing their pain about a result that they see as unfair.

Screenshot depicting Bloods & Crips truce
Screenshot depicting Bloods & Crips truce

In one of the most powerful moments of blending historical context with the narrative focus on, the film follows its main characters as the rappers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre ride through the rioting neighborhoods during the 1992 LA riots. They helplessly watch as the simmering anger against police brutality boils over into violence. The riots are captured here as a response to the verdict from the trial of the four police officers indicted in the Rodney King incident. At the climactic point of that scene, two men walk towards the police with their arms raised high and holding two bandanas tied together, one in red and the other blue representing rival gangs Blood and Crips. The unified stand of two long-standing opposing gangs underscores the overwhelming weight of the issue that has brought them together. The audience’s familiarity with cinematic codes alerts them to the significance of this crucial moment. However, this image remains obscure to those who do not know the historical context of gang-rivalries in LA. The moment is left unexplained—ambiguous and opaque to a wider-audience—who have nevertheless participated in the recording, recognizing and reclaiming of an important moment in black-history. The violence presented on the screen is not explained or justified – but simply juxtaposed with the police encounters that preceded them. Throughout the film, the Rodney King video exists as an inter-textual specter that informs our viewing of the narrative.

Video begets Video

Spike Lee’s films often deal with representations of black identity and the many conflicts that are exclusive to the black community. The use of the Rodney King video in 1992’s Malcolm X is a direct commentary about the extreme message of the titular protagonist who wanted to hold the white people accountable for historical atrocities committed against black people. However, it is his 1989 debut, Do the Right Thing that shows an eerie, prescient view of police brutality as a character is choked to death when the police come to break up a neighborhood scuffle. Radio Raheem, the character who is killed, is surreptitiously put in the patrol car by the police and driven away, clearly hinting at a possible cover up. In this sense, the history of the Rodney King video can be traced back to the past even before its existence, and the archival limits distinguishing one event from the other slowly fade away as the viewer is left with a residual horror about an event that has existed continually, even if it was not recorded on tape.

Do The Right Thing
Do The Right Thing

The 1994 OJ Simpson trial was another highly polarizing television event that was often evoked comparisons with the Rodney King video. For many people, OJ represented the backlash of the Rodney King video – someone who escaped lawful punishment due to the social climate and racial tension. Such a claim veers dangerously close to suggesting that the viewing audience cannot separate between the two different black men and their experiences with law enforcement. The transmission of the Rodney King video continues in both fictional and documentary forms of the OJ Simpson case. The critically acclaimed TV drama, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (FX, 2016) showed characters, especially the police, behaving in a way that revealed a very careful awareness of the fresh wounds of the recent past. Added to this was the layer of class and celebrity that led to OJ Simpson being treated in a way very different from Rodney King.

139-oj-made-in-americaThe ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled OJ: Made in America (2016) addressed this issue more directly by interviews with jurors expressing their sentiments that the “not-guilty verdict was ‘Payback’ for Rodney King” (Molloy 2016). The second episode of the documentary particularly focused on the Rodney King video and the LA Riots as a way of understanding the race-relationship between the LAPD and the black community. The documentary unearths other incidents from LAPD history, such as the 1979 shooting of Eula Love, to consider the general attitudes that were prevalent even before the Rodney King beating.

Other video encounters

There are many other TV programs and films that allude or reference to the events surrounding the Rodney King video tapes, ranging from comedies like Black-ish, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters and Boondocks to dramas like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Scandal (See, The Guardian article for a more complete list). However, the degree to which they successfully portray the complex threads of race relations vary drastically. The analysis of these particular videos in light of the Rodney King incident is still very limited, as many archival websites focus on a more overtly political message (such as this police brutality watch). Perhaps it is difficult try and access a painful cultural memory for a fictional, and often naïve, treatment of the same. However, the latitude that art presents to explore various dimensions of the problem should not be quickly overlooked.

This piece was originally written for an assignment in a graduate course, TV Studies, offered by Prof. Liew Kai Khiun,  WKWSCI, NTU.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rodney King Retrospective – A Reluctant Hero

In the last two parts of the Rodney King Retrospective, we will discuss the legacy of the Rodney King video in other cultural forms that have been transmitted and used in powerful acts of resistance.

The Rodney King incident has left an indelible impression through its transmission and circulation in other cultural texts, and bears significance about issues of police excess and race relationships even today. This essay expands the previous discussion on the Rodney King video by expanding the scope to texts across different genres from hip hop music to film and television, and examine its legacy of transmission through cultural and technological memories. The following video was edited to highlight the artistic responses to the beating, especially focusing on hip hop musician Ice Cube and filmmaker Spike Lee. While the Rodney King video holds significance to many artists  in many works, the historical proximity and immediacy of these two works invite a more detailed analysis.

Ice Cube’s 1992 album Predator was a direct response to the Rodney King incident, and Spike Lee uses the Rodney King beating footage in the opening credits of the biopic Malcolm X (1992). Both of them have discussed the issue of police brutality in their earlier works, Cube’s song “Fuck the Police” from the album Straight Outta Compton (by the rap group N.W.A. in 1988) and Lee’s film Do The Right Thing in 1989 both examine the problems that the black community faces in their encounters with law enforcement. This mashup juxtaposes these elements by using video and audio clips from the original Rodney King incident and other sources.

Trial by video

The impact of the Rodney King Beatings Video was unprecedented. While a trial by media is common today, the video and the media coverage was a novelty in 1991—albeit one that had not yet reached the kind of 24-hour media coverage that the OJ Simpson case would get in a couple of years, but certainly capturing the popular imagination of the people and reinforcing some of the darkest fears about police prejudices against minorities. The LAPD chief, Daryl Gates called the beating an aberration and rejected the notion that it was routine practice to manhandle minorities, was criticized for his handling of the videotaped beating and the aftermath. The acquittal of all the four police officers reveals a gap in the way the video text is received by different groups of people.  Another important outcome of the video evidence was the surprising effect it had on the jury that was almost exactly the opposite effect it had on the Television audience. Judith Butler expresses her incredulity at the outcome by asking, “How could this video be used as evidence that the body being beaten was itself the source of danger, threat of violence, and further, that the beaten body of Rodney King bore an intention to injure, to injure precisely those police who either wielded the baton against him or stood encircling him?” (1993: 15). During the trial, the video was deconstructed to a frame by frame analysis to support the case of the defendants—the police officers. Later critics suggest that the extremely technological analysis of the video encouraged the jury to focus on the visual cues as if it were a puzzle that they were trying to comprehend. The emphasis on comprehension and analysis disconnected the affective response that the viewers originally had with the video. Butler attributes this reversal to a “crisis in the certainty of what is visible” (16). And this tension between the visual and the visible reorders the events to be interpreted in a way that perpetuates existing biases about race and allows for exceptional circumstances of violence.

This divided perceptions of the Endangered/Endangering becomes a central point in many later discussions of police-civilian interactions. The claim that police felt their lives were under threat is an oft-invoked defense in cases of accusations of police excess. A writer for The New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells argues that although the dangerous environment in which the police operate justifies the claim, it could also feel like a euphemism at best, or a cover-up at worst (“Police Shootings, Race, and The Fear Defense” 2016). Particularly drawing attention to a study by Harvard Economist Roland Fryer, Wallace-Wells contends that the fear defense demonizes the victim of the shooting and deflects from the underlying problem of police bias against minorities. These observations resonate with the defense argument in the first Rodney King trial. The verdict was shocking only to those who did not anticipate police bias against Rodney King. The verdict and the ensuing conflict brings to mind Susan Sontag’s thoughts on the photographic image in her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of the Others: “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it” (39). As such, the Rodney King video had a career of its own, accomplishing at times, the opposite of what its author—amateur videographer George Holliday—had intended.

Hip Hop and Rodney King

Gangsta rap has often served as a medium that expressed the anger about lopsided race relationships arising from blanket mistreatment of minorities by the police. Arguably the most influential gangsta rap group, the N.W.A. repeatedly came into conflict with law enforcement due to the incendiary lyrics that seemingly condoned violence against the police.

The Predator, 1992.
The Predator, 1992.

Ice Cube’s The Predator was released in 1992 serving as a commentary to the riots that ensued the verdict of the Rodney King trial. The following lines from the song “Who got the camera?” directly allude to the Rodney King incident and presenting video technology as a site of resistance against police violence:

If the crowd wasn’t around, they would’ve shot me
Tried to play me out like my name was Rodney
Fuckin police gettin badder
Cause if I had a camera, the shit wouldn’t matter…

The media too used the vocabulary generated by gansta rap in discussing the backlash against police excess. An article by Haya El Nasser published in USA Today on the day of the Rodney King beating verdict is titled “In fear of AmeriKKKan justice”, referencing a protest signage that equates the American government with the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. The reference also signifies rapper Ice Cube’s debut album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted released in 1990, which in-turn is a wordplay on the TV program America’s Most Wanted—a crime reenactment show which sought information from the audience to contribute in the crime-solving process. The ironic usage of the title by Nasser criticizes the jury, who had just witnessed a video of a real crime (rather than a reenactment) and yet had refrained from punishing the excessive use of force due to their blind faith in the police authority.

Newspaper clipping: "In Fear of AmeriKKKan Justice" USA Today.
Newspaper clipping: “In Fear of AmeriKKKan Justice” USA Today, 30 April 1992.

Besides music, film also played a significant role in transmitting the legacy of the Rodney King video. We will discuss more about that in the concluding part of this retrospective series.

This piece was originally written for an assignment in a graduate course, TV Studies, offered by Prof. Liew Kai Khiun,  WKWSCI, NTU.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rodney King Retrospective – Perception and History in Media

In the previous post, we discussed the significance of the Rodney King video tape as a historical and media event. In this part of the Rodney King Retrospective, we will look at the perception of the  video in the media with respect to questions of authenticity and power.

Perception and History

In the 20-year anniversary documentary, CNN Presents: Race & Rage, The Beating of Rodney King (March 2011), Rodney King’s lawyer, Milton C. Grimes says that “This (video) is history. We finally caught the Lochness monster with a camcorder.” The invocation of the legendary monster points to the elusive nature of the systemic police violence that targets minorities in general, and the black community in particular. However, the phrase “Lochness monster” is also an inadvertent admission of the essentially mysterious, if not illusory nature of the issue— something that evokes dread, and begs confirmation through its very suggestion. And to extend Grimes’ analogy of the Lochness monster being taped; unfortunately, you could not hear its cry. The absence of audio also played a big part in the transmission of the text. The authenticity of the event is challeneged despite the prominence of what ought to be indisputable proof—video evidence. It is not to say that the police do not use excessive force on minorities (See BBC’s article “Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?” (26 May 2015) for a statistical analysis and critique of police methods). However, the allusion helps us frame this issue as a matter of perception.


A gruesome footage, caught by chance.
A gruesome footage, caught by chance.

It is only apt that a video footage, captured through the camera-eye, is discussed in the light of its suggestive power rather than its absolute contents. Rudolf Arnheim in his essay, ‘The Two Authenticities of the Photographic Media’ (1997), remarks that an image does not only perform a photo-realistic representative authenticity, but also an expressive authenticity, whose intention is to communicate a certain message, and hence, is not obliged to represent the image as it is. In this sense, the George Holliday video captures the angst and grief of an entire community about police brutality. The video triggered many socially and politically engaged debates about race and police violence on one side, and also had the scarring impact of the 1992 LA Riots.

Time Magazine Cover May 1992.
Time Magazine Cover juxtaposes King’s reconciliatory plea with the violence

Citizen Journalism

The video became a precursor to the elevation of guerilla or ‘citizen’ journalism as a viral phenomenon that would become more established in the internet era. Rodney King’s life is subjected to critical scrutiny because of the existence of George Holliday’s video. In turn, the symbolic power of witnessing enabled by this video significantly altered police practices to incorporate video recording as a part of their job. Holliday’s legacy as a pioneering citizen journalist is presented in his website that claims that the Rodney King video was the “First ever viral video.” The page is also peppered with the phrase “All Images are Copyrighted”—a lesson that Holliday learnt from the meagre payday he received when the video first went viral. Interestingly, many of Holliday’s interviews present him defensively justifying his sharing of the video with a news outlet. Despite the serious repercussions that the telecast of the video has had on his life, Holliday champions the role of citizen journalists by saying, “Don’t be afraid to share the video… if it is something important.” But he also cautiously adds, “Don’t abuse the tape.

Framing police excess in American Television

Representations of police excesses in American TV have incited polarized reactions of admiration and legitimacy as well as condemnation and critique from the American audience, as if to demonstrate the inherently irreconcilable response to police sovereignty. We see this divide sharply especially in the case of fictional programs, where the narrative of the police force is defined through its use of force. Popular cop shows have always used extrajudicial methods as an inevitable tool in fighting crime by invoking exceptional circumstances. Giorgio Agamben describes this lopsided power relationship in ‘Sovereign Police’ in Means without End (2000) as follows:

If the sovereign, in fact, is the one who marks the point of indistinction between violence and right by proclaiming the state of exception and suspending the validity of the law, the police are always operating within a similar state of exception. (103)

Interestingly, audience seem to respond with outrage when the same equation is applied to non-fictional programs, as was the case in 2015’s Netflix docuseries, Making a Murderer (See Amelia McDonell-Parry’s “Making A Murderer, “Biased” Journalism & Necessary OutrageThe Frisky, 25 January 2016, for a discussion of journalistic ethics and questioning police excess). This seemingly contradictory response in the audience reveals a certain ambiguity while encountering police excess across different forms. Rodney King’s video evoked an emotional response based on identifying the rights of the victim as inviolable, regardless of the circumstance of the arrest. This sentiment echoes through minority rights movement even today, as groups like Black Lives Matter have “hands up, don’t shoot!” as one of their slogans. The image transcends its specific meaning to become a meme that remains controversial when used by public personalities such as NFL players and CNN hosts.

St. Louis Rams protesting Ferguson incident
St. Louis Rams protesting Ferguson incident

However, not every question about the video can be easily answered due to the challenges of authenticity of the transmission. Unquestionably, the framing of the story by various news outlets and the influence of editorial policy on the event’s reception are very important in discussing the importance of the Rodney King video (See the report “Trial By Media” by the media watchdog Accuracy in Media (AIM), for a thorough analysis of reportage on the Rodney King case Vol. XXI – No. 9, May 1992).

Incorporating Video in Police Practices

It must be noted that police departments have come a long way in adopting video technologies to their day to day policing. An evaluative report on the value and impact of the in-car camera featured in The Police Chief magazine insists that “the benefits of the in-car video camera far exceeded the original goals” (Westphal 2016). It has become common practice for many police departments to release the videos of conflict and confrontation between police and civilians due to their own best practices of promoting transparency as well as the influence of the freedom of information act. In fact, the videos from the Terence Crutcher shooting were from police cameras, and were released a few days after the event. While the presence of the camera does not automatically render a safer environment for civilians, Westphal observes that it does play a significant role in sensitizing the police to their own actions through evaluative and reflective practices in the aftermath. But this state of access to information may not remain consistent due to differing policing attitudes – as North Carolina passed a law in the wake of a police shooting, by which police footage will no longer be considered part of the public record. So while policies about video technology remains precarious right now, they have clearly become an important element to be negotiated in the course of police enforcement; and that could very well be the legacy of the Rodney King videotape.

This piece was originally written for an assignment in a graduate course, TV Studies, offered by Prof. Liew Kai Khiun,  WKWSCI, NTU.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

The Annoying Thing About Donald Trump

There is not much about the 2016 American Presidential elections that has not been already said. Featuring two of the least popular candidates ever, this race has become further maligned due to the presence of a racist, misogynist ignoramus – Donald Trump. However, the democratic process means that the voice of the people must be honored regardless of the quality of the outcome. In that sense, Donald Trump’s bid for the highest office in America, for better or for worse, is a testament to the American system. While his carefully orchestrated campaign of pandering and fear mongering is something that invites an examination of screen ethics – it is perhaps the most boring and unoriginal thing to discuss Trump as a news item. And yet, here I am – sharing my thoughts on Donald Trump. In the way of apologizing for jumping on the bandwagon – here is a very good analysis of Trump’s screen presence during his presidential campaign.

Thanks to Film Theory for that interesting analysis. Now, let us talk about the that annoys me the most about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—the presumption of his fame and celebrity status. Many have chipped away at his business success and poked holes in his proposed policies – or the lack of. However, very few have actually examined the credibility of his celebrity. While it is obvious that he will never be important in the same way that a Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk is, he does not have the same universal celebrity appeal as Oprah or Madonna. Despite his numerous talk show appearances over the years, he was not a big deal until he decided to run for presidency. At best, he was a C-list celebrity whose TV show and business empire fed off each other like a perverse Ouroboros – a snake that eats its own tail – only stupider. At worst, he is Donald Trump. Let us take a closer look at the construction of his celebrity.

The Apprentice

The show he hosted, The Apprentice, was an average reality TV show that did not cracked the top ten ratings since its first season. The show has no credibility with its outcomes, as the winners of the show get very little real business experience. Over the years, it has consistently lost its audience from an average of 20 million in its first season to a paltry 4.7 million in its most recent. To put that in perspective, Survivor draws twice the viewers as The Apprentice during its weakest season. Even those numbers ought to be credited to producer and show creator Mark Burnett, who has a hand in some of the top reality programs including Survivor and The Voice. The winners of the show have criticized the hollow rewards that the show brings, compared to say, the million dollars that Survivor or Amazing Race brings in.

The Apprentice
The Apprentice

The WWE Hall of Famer

Trump has also achieved success in the field of professional wrestling. As a hall of fame member in the celebrity wing of WWE, Trump has participated in storylines This was a guy who was fighting Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania in a hair vs. hair match. Of course, he had the sense of humor to put his hair on the line, albeit with the assurance that he would not lose it. During the build-up to the feud, he embarrassed himself by demonstrating that he cannot throw convincing a fake slap even with Vince McMahon selling like a champ.

On the other side, it is not as if his presence had little impact on the show. Wrestlemania 23 is the second most successful PPV WWE’s history. With each buy costing over $50, the show was an unmitigated success for the company. And yet, it is a fringe phenomenon that brings in less than 3 million viewers on a weekly basis (even at its peak with the Attitude Era, WWE’s highest rated segment drew just over 8 million viewers). This is not to undermine the effect that the mainstream attention he brought to WWE, but to position it as what it is – a narrow field. The resultant match, between representatives Umaga and Bobby Lashley, itself was rather entertaining, but its significance remains to date at Trump’s capacity as a carnival act.

Having said that, Trump has become important by becoming the Republican nominee and defeating someone named Bush. While it is easy to ridicule his rise to importance, the underlying implications of the world turning to a new wave of hyper-nationalist rhetoric is worrying. But the presence of a polarizing figure has successfully hijacked the narrative from policies and potential for important landmark decisions by becoming the biggest celebrity showdown.

How do you feel about Trump’s campaign? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.


Previously on American TV… 4. TV Studies 3.0

In the previous post, we discussed the problems of a standardized TV that has become the norm in mainstream popular culture. TV is more of a fixture in the household rather than an event, like going to the theatre or even the cinema. The critical response to TV has similarly responded to it within the social context, focusing on the general viewership patters and their significance to the family rather than deal with its specific content. The rise of digital and Over-the-Top internet distribution has seen a rise in niche market programs that defy the usual assumptions about standard TV. Theorists are sensitive to the changes in content and call for a new kind of TV studies that evaluates the form as well as the content in a more situated and direct manner. New TV studies would focus on the hybridity of the technological innovation as well as the social relationships that they constitute. If TV studies 1.0 positioned the viewer as a passive observer who had very little agency in responding to the technology, TV studies 2.0 exalts the virtues of TV as the height of modernity, repositioning the viewers with absolute (active and critical) agency, claiming that by presenting the social classes and disparity, TV is breaking down these boundaries. However, as it is with most cases, a more meaningful approach would be somewhere in the middle between these two extremes of social and technological conceptions of the uses of TV.

304 TV studies the basics

Toby Miller discusses this fundamental shift in TV studies in his book, Television Studies: the Basics as follows:

TV studies 1.0 & 2.0 privileged TV because “it spoke about us” (145). 146: Studying TV today requires interrogating the commodification of textuality, the global exchange of cultural and communications infrastructure and content, the suburbanization of First-World politics, and the interplay between physical and visual power (Hartley 1999: 13). A new formation, a hybrid, critical Television studies 3.0, cannot accept the old shibboleths that separate political economy and cultural studies. Television texts and institutions are not signs to be read, they are not just coefficients of political and economic power; they are not just innovations – they are all these things.

Miller’s comments reflect a very important trajectory in the development of TV studies, as the field’s attention now seems to self-reflexively look at itself – at the privileges and blindspots that have become part of the framework applied in the field. Miller sees the problems of looking at TV studies as just ethnography, content analysis, experimentation and psychological testing or deploy political economy and historiographic methods, because TV studies has to be situated with an awareness to all these fields. For instance, the project of reading philosophy in TV has been done in a completely different tradition that ignores TV as an apparatus and the context of its technological evolution. While that is TV studies in the descriptive idea of studying the TV, it ignores many of the fundamental questions about what makes TV viewing different from reading/viewing any other kind of text.

We can see that TV studies has always been interested in the ethics of production and distribution. However, its ethics is limited to questions of ownership, right conduct, and on the side of content, questions of morality and representation. But an ethics of radical passivity that owes its existence to the other is an interesting aspect in the context of TV, which has always been criticized of making people passive. The relationship that springs from passivity does not have to be passive itself. Its effects and significance could carry a deeper significance about our relationship with the world, justice and social conditions.

Miller calls for a radical contextualization “that acknowledges the shifts and shocks that characterize the existence of institutions and programs” (147). He calls for an adaptation of Roger Chartier’s tripartite historicizatoin of books: to focus on ‘the text itself, the object that conveys it, and the act that grasps it.’ In short, it can be said that while TV studies 1.0 looked at TV as a social malady that need to be studied to make moral claims, and TV studies 2.0 considered TV to be an artistic achievement simply by its virtue of being TV, TV studies 3.0 is an interstitial study that allows for a situated reading of TV content as well as its structures of production and distribution.

Miller focuses on some core resources that facilitate the undertaking of TV studies 3.0 as follows: POLICY (public bureaucracies, private bureaucracies), DEBATES (press, congressional/parliamentary, lobby-group, activist, academic), BUDGETS, LAWS (labor, copyright, environmental impact, censorship), HISTORY, PLACES, PEOPLE (148). We will see the exact ways in which these instruments could be used to study TV in the next post. You can read further about Miller’s thoughts on Media studies 3.0 here.

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profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Performing Disability: Self-representation as Ability

Disabled characters are not rare in mainstream cinema and television, but very rarely are they portrayed by actors with a corresponding disability. Performing disability, in this context, has become a very special ability that actors covet as a pinnacle of their acting versatility. Recently, I read that Shah Rukh Khan will be playing a ‘dwarf’ in an upcoming film directed by Anand L Rai. Khan’s turn towards altering his appearance and body adds him to a long list of actors who have received critical acclaim, such as Kamal Hassan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Sam Worthington, to name a few. While many of them advocate a political message by calling for awareness about the condition they are representing, few question the ethics of their representation.

Let us, consider the language used in this news item announcing Shah Rukh Khan’s film:

The director says, “Shah Rukh plays a dwarf and it is going to be a lot of hard work and patience.” The director furthers adds that the film is a love story, “The film is a full-fledged love story or a family entertainer with lots of romance.”

The director beams about the effort that Shah Rukh needs to invest to play that role, before unhesitatingly moving on to talk about other aspects of the film as ‘a family entertainer’ and ‘romance’. The interval between the first and the second sentences quoted in this paragraph are shockingly uncritical for an information outlet that purports itself to be a news agency. News is evaluation and verification, and here neither task is carried out. I do not expect them to editorialize in what is essentially a fluff piece that doubles up as an announcement for an upcoming film. But throughout the entire post, there is not a single question about the awkwardness of an able-bodied actor portraying a disabled character. This is the deepest cut of them all, that the question does not present itself in the horizon of critical evaluation.

For a disabled person reading this news report, it is no news at all. The elision of the disabled narrative from the common space of media and the arts is an everyday occurrence for them. While their disability makes for a great subject for art, their participation is conveniently kept to a minimum. The disabled actor is a soft taboo because ‘real’ disability is perceived to be grotesque. When Peter Dinklage became the starring cast member in Game of Thrones, it was a moment of great excitement as well as trepidation for many disabled people; it felt like a personal achievement, which came with the threat of being snatched away at any moment. Even though an unattractive character was replaced by the handsomest dwarf in Hollywood, a prince among men, it was still a victory. In other words, Dinklage is our Obama.

Tyrion Lannister
Tyrion Lannister

Scott Jordan Harris does not mince any words when he calls this practice “disability as drag”. He looks at the portrayal of disability in the context of boys in drag in the age of Elizabethan theatre and the now-reviled acts of ‘black face’ and ‘yellow face’ casting from the recent past. Nor will this trend stop anytime soon. He says,

“Women were once prohibited from performing onstage…[Actors like Brando, Olivier, Guinness] used make-up and prosthetics to imitate their physical characteristics, and took roles that would have been better played by black or Asian actors, two groups for which opportunities were already disproportionately limited. Today, just the idea of this is distasteful to us.

But able-bodied actors do all these things in efforts to imitate disabled people, and we do not protest. We are conditioned to be outraged when we see race being exploited onscreen. When we see disability being exploited onscreen, we are conditioned to applaud.”

Disabled Casting

To add to Harris’ argument, not only are we conditioned to applaud, but we are programmed to celebrate them as the highest achievements in acting and performance. Here is a list of able-bodied actors from Dustin Hoffman to Eddie Redmayne who have played disabled characters, and here is a cynical and disillusioned article from The Washington Post about this phenomenon. This is not restricted to the biggest avenues that depend on mass consumption and the mainstream. A decade ago, a respected theatre director in Madras told me that she would not cast me because my crutches and the shuffle would be a distraction. And yet, a perfectly able gentleman played a part in that production with an even gait, an improbable leg-brace and a cool looking walking stick. And this, was in a progressive theatre company.

The question of representation within the field of disability is even more complicated when we take into account that there is no single form to it. Some disabilities that are invisible (such as effects of critical illness, or mental disabilities) and there are others that are debilitating where the actor’s disability prevents them from performing it. In some cases, like Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal, the transformation plays a big part in the character’s narrative. Clearly this is not just a question of representation, but of a false authenticity that the cinema seeks. The reality hinted by the image is a delicately constructed fantasy that would be dispelled when confronted with a fragment of reality itself, such as the presence of a wheelchair using character, who really is a wheelchair user. To further complicate this, is the added layer of commercialism, where the issue of a disabled actor’s ability to draw money at the box office is presented as a challenge to casting them.

Let us go back to Harris’ article to reflect on how ridiculous these justifications truly are:

“Not only are there too few roles for disabled people but also, when those rare roles become available, they are generally taken by people who are not disabled at all. It’s like casting the parts played by Meryl Streep not with Streep, or an actress like her, but with Harrison Ford in drag.

I know that last image seems ridiculous. It is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because women have a right to be represented onscreen by women. Just as people of color have a right to represented onscreen by people of color. And just as people with disabilities have a right to be represented onscreen by people with disabilities.”

However, by clumping together all these varied problems as one complex, unsolvable issue, we are diverting from the main issue, that disabled actors are not cast even when they are adequately capable actors (and I am aware of the irony of my language use). Besides, nobody expects Henry Cavill or Chris Hemsworth to be able to fly and perform incredible feats of strength to play Superman or Thor. And yet, questions of access, strain on production and distraction of the audience is always brought up in the discussion of a disabled actor. The greatest challenge against casting of disabled actors however, remains the normalizing of these practices. I can only hope that this goes in the same direction of gender and racial inequality in cinema-even if it is not resolved, it at least gains relevance as a problem that needs to be addressed.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

The Problem with a Jungle Book Review

The Jungle Book (Disney, Jon Favreau, 2016). Source: Slashfilm
The Jungle Book (Disney, Jon Favreau, 2016). Source: Slashfilm

To clarify, this is not a review of the new Disney feature, The Jungle Book (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2016). It is about a recent review of the film titled “Bear necessities — The Jungle Book” by Sankhayan Ghosh featured in The Hindu. I was deeply annoyed by this exercise in making the right noises to appear like any other review of any other film. This review somehow manages being written in the broadest strokes possible, as well as revealing some of the crucial moments of the film without as much as a spoiler warning. Even its title is an uninspired, literal spelling of the famous song from the film.

It is not that the Jungle Book was a great movie that surpassed all expectations and possibilities. My concern is with this assumption that a generic movie does not warrant more than a generic review. The most exasperating aspect of this review however, is that it does not adhere to the basic tenet of not revealing important plot points of the film. There are so many ways that the writer could have phrased his opinion about the casting without exposing character motivations. A review’s responsibility is not merely to evaluate a film, but invite the audience to engage with it on their own terms. The sheer audacity of its uninspired writing irks me to no end. Most of all, the review cuts pretty deeply with me, as it was featured in The Hindu, a daily that I had expected to be better than this.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, The Hindu is an Indian newspaper from the Chennai based Kasturi & Sons Ltd. Through hereditary dogma as well as my own comparatively poorer experience with different newspapers across different cities (Deccan Chronicle, Chennai and Times of India, Kolkata) The Hindu bears the mark of high journalistic standards in my opinion. I have highly valued articles and opinion pieces featured in this newspaper. Perhaps the irony stems from the fact that my two favorite writers in The Hindu, A. S. Panneerselvam, the Readers’ editor and Baradwaj Rangan, the National award-winning film-critic, are both meticulous and evaluative about journalistic ethics and standards. The readers’ editor has often discussed the reportage of news from perspectives of responsibility and standards. While Rangan often goes beyond just responding to the film in his reviews, to even present nuanced analyses of its reception. In a recent article, Rangan chastises online critics who lack an incisive depth in their reviews (See his take-down of the art-entertainment false dichotomy in Tamil cinema here). The reason I am alluding to these names is to point to the irony of such intelligent, and scrupulous writers capable of deep, substantial and sophisticated analytical pieces, are featured side-by-side with this review of The Jungle Book. It is very naïve of me to hope for a newspaper to be run by an organic team that shares a unified vision about its performance and ethics, but that is exactly what I had believed about The Hindu.

My aim is not to decry Sankhayan Ghosh as a poor reviewer or writer, but to call for a new kind of review that does not merely pander and appease the audience as well as the producers and distributors. It would be wrong of me to call out only Ghosh’s review because this is exactly the kind of reportage that is accepted about cinema across many platforms. Reviews tend to be largely positive or negative based on the general response in the social media cloud, rather than an analysis of the salient features of the movie. Early reviews have come to be completely disconnected with the eventual reception of a movie. This problem is not just limited to the critics, but other aggregating websites, magazines and their editors who run them as news stories. Websites uncritically post completely contradictory responses to upcoming features. For instance, the recent superhero slugfest Batman v. Superman (WB, Dir. Zack Snyder, 2016) was reported to have overwhelmingly positive responses on 20th March 2016 from a twitter compilation on screenrant.com, only to have another post two days later that claimed that the critical responses are entirely negative. While it is perfectly understandable to have differing viewpoints about a movie, these contradictions are not even addressed in the environment of click-bait titling and ‘aggregation as articles’ approach. This is the strangest part, as reviews are never meant to be absolute and irrefutable pieces anyway, because they are, in fact, opinions of each critic. What we have instead are standardized and sterile pieces that try to read the general critical attitude of other critics, rather than giving an honest opinion.

Which brings us back to this review of the Jungle Book. Its laziness is epitomized in the last paragraph where the writer belts out a series of review clichés of the film “not being ‘Disney cute’” and “not without its flaws”. It does not however, raise questions about the growing number of spectacle films which are scripted weakly to a point where the story is purely incidental to the series of events on screen. Nor does it examine the towering monolith of Disney that keeps cannibalizing its own oeuvre instead of developing new properties. At best, this review tries (and fails) to briefly position the film among the general field of CGI cinema, and to express a vague and unsubstantiated opinion about other iterations of the Jungle Book. At worst, it self-assuredly, (albeit wrongly), points out obvious and unrelated strings of information like “Favreau, who had made all the Ironman movies, brings a certain believability”. Perhaps my outburst is excessive. Perhaps the best response to this review is already written by the sole commenter on the article, Sidharth Satpathy, who simply states that “Shane Black has directed Iron Man 3”. Let alone a film critic, I would expect a student of literature to write a more thoroughly researched and well-constructed essay than this review. It probably took a google search if not a moment of thinking, to name the director correctly, and to write the name of the film properly. One can only assume that those steps were not given in the paint-by-numbers review toolkit.