Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Cougar Town Semiotics

This semester has been a bit rough. Late night paper writing, last minute article reading and in class struggles to stay awake have been commonplace. Eating out of necessity, getting my news from Twitter, and taking my dog to daycare – silly, you may think, but he’s a puppy…the energizer bunny can’t compete – are all sacrifices I have made to get through the semester.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, I just need to do less of it. Rather, I need to do less other stuff perhaps. It’s hard enough being a graduate student, but couple that with a full-time job and freelance work and you have the makings for a very busy lady. Luckily – or unfortunately? – my body has recently decided that enough is enough and I have spent the past few days incapacitated. No work. No school. Just me, sleep, and the TV screen. Cue sitcom catch-up and elusive daytime television watching…

I have watched a lot of pointless television in the last few days – day time programming is an interesting thing – but I have also had the opportunity to catch up on a lot of good television that I had been missing. Case in point – Cougar Town.

I will be the first to admit that the first few episodes were really rough. A show about cougars…really? No, thanks.

Fortunately, as their recent title jokes suggest, the show hasn’t been about cougars since the first few episodes of Season 1. Instead, it is a wonderfully quirky and admittedly silly show about a group of friends – or, if you’re from around these parts – the Cul de Sac Crew.

Perhaps my love for the show is nostalgic. Courtney Cox was always my favorite Friend. But apart from this, I am starting to get the sneaking suspicion that someone on that writing staff has either a background in or a love for communication theories. This undoubtedly contributes to my love and burgeoning addiction to this show.

A few months back, they aired an episode about Bobby Cobb’s superficial state of the world today. Long story short, they exposed Bobby to the real problems of the world which ended up messing with his golf game (he’s a professional golfer for those not in the know). In an effort to free his mind from the worries of the world, they immediately decided that he needed to be desensitized – by of course, watching more world news.

As a communication scholar, I was eating up this storyline. I even started writing a blog post thereafter titled “Media Desensitization Meets Cougar Town.” Unfortunately, that post was a casualty of war…or, rather, the semester.

Lucky for me, the folks over at Cougar Town love them some comm theory. One of this week’s episodes included a storyline where the crew reinvented the meaning for the phrase “kicks ass.”

Bobby: (Disappointed) Aw, that really kicks ass.

Grayson: You know, when something kicks ass it’s usually a good thing.

Bobby: Hell, every time I’ve had my ass kicked it’s been horrible.

Andy: We’ve been misusing that phrase for years, so let’s all agree to change it?

Laurie: Absolutely.

Grayson: No, you can’t just change common phrases okay? Words have meaning!

Perhaps it is because I’m a communication nerd, better yet, it’s definitely because I’m a communication nerd, but I immediately thought of semiotics. Simply put, semiotics is the study of signs. It suggests that the relationship of any sign to a particular individual is arbitrary because the meaning of certain words, sounds, or images is not the same universally. The crew’s reassigning of “kicks ass” to something that is bad rather than good is a perfect example of this perspective. Additionally, Grayson’s extreme dislike for the reassigning of the words’ meaning plays perfectly into the dialectical conundrum of whether meaning is found in people or in words?

Personally, I would like to argue that meaning is found in people. For me, words do not have any meaning until they are received and interpreted. Printed text, for example, could be seen as a sign or symbol by someone who does not understand the particular language in which it was printed. These words would then have no meaning because they were never received nor interpreted by that individual.

Further, words and signs alike are highly subjective in that they create different meanings for different individuals. For example, to the average person the word “rich,” as it relates in the monetary sense, would simply imply that someone is wealthy or has a great number of possessions; however, to someone who is poor, this word holds so much more meaning. It could be a representation of what they hope to be someday or in contrast a representation of what they hate. Either way, it is a representation of what they’re not. Furthermore, every word possesses certain connotations for different people. The word “home” for example could be associated with warmth, comfort, and affection for one person and possibly cold, violent and numbing for another person. For these reasons, I maintain that meaning is found in people rather than words. But, as mentioned previously, this is a dialectical debate. What do you think?

By now, I may have lost some of you, but I hope I got the point across. Either way, Cougar Town continues to surprise with these little gems of communication theory in practice and for that I am hooked. Now let’s just hope that the end of the semester is kind enough to let me stay caught up with my TV watching.

Ha, not likely.

P.s. Here’s a fairly complete listing of all the title jokes from this year, episodes 201 – 214, if you’re in need of a chuckle. Thanks to godonlyknowssarah for the upload!

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Gender, Sex, & Perfect Couples

Thursday at approximately 7:10 pm is my favorite time of the week. It’s when my last class ends and Friday is finally on the horizon. My usual routine is to leave all of my scholarly thoughts behind as I travel away from campus and towards a night full of Must See Thursday on NBC. It’s a whole lot of television to watch in one sitting, but after an intense week of work and school I usually deserve it. And, even though my television go to’s are Community, Parks and Rec, and this season’s The Office (we have to admit, they’re bringing the big guns for Carrell’s eventual farewell), I usually watch all of the shows in between (I’m a dedicated 30 Rock fan, but still waiting to be wowed this season!).

So, by now you’re probably wondering why I’m going on about Thursday night comedy and what this has to do with the title of this post, “Gender, Sex, & Perfect Couples”. As mentioned earlier, the almost 3 hours I spend watching television on Thursday nights acts as an escape for me from the grip that is grad school. Or, so is usually the case.

This semester I am enrolled in an Intercultural Communication course on Thursday afternoons. The topic of this week’s discussion happened to coincide with the story line of this week’s Perfect Couples, which made my attempt at leaving scholarly thoughts in the classroom a failure (I’m sure my professor is glad to hear this – might you be reading?). Just to recap – the title of this week’s Perfect Couples episode was “Perfect Crime” and the stimulus for the episode was a middle of the night intruder scare that brought to fruition three different responses:

  1. Rex taking a super masculine role and jumping out of bed with a lacrosse stick,
  2. Dave being emasculated by Julia as she yells out the window to the rowdy guys outside, and
  3. Vance and Amy hiding scared behind a shoe rack.

In essence, these three responses were capitalizing on the gender stereotypes we have in American society and using them for humor. Coincidentally, the topic of discussion for my intercultural class was gender identity, so my mind was already primed for this episode. It’s possible that I’m reading too much into the episode due to my 3 hour exposure to gender identity during class, but the lesson that I hope everyone took away from this Perfect Couples episode was that gender doesn’t have to be associated with sex.

On the surface, this statement might seem logical to some and completely illogical to others. What’s the difference between gender and sex you might ask?

To borrow from the wonderful Brenda J. Allen, “Sex is a biological classification…[whereas] gender refers to cultural norms of femininity and masculinity” (p. 42). So, what does this mean? Well, it means that gender is something that we do as opposed to something that we inherently have. In American society, as well as most others, men are expected to be strong, both physically and emotionally, and women are expected to be more delicate and wear their emotions on their sleeve. Therefore, we gender stereotype men as masculine and women as feminine. Still with me? If so, let’s move on.

What I want to argue, however, is that men and women can “do” both gender roles, which Perfect Couples illustrated perfectly. In the context of this post the argument may seem fairly cut and dry, but let me outline a question that one of my fellow grad students presented last night in class.

“Many same sex colleges now face a situation where students are admitted as one sex, but change identities during enrollment (i.e. nongender-conforming or androgynous, transgendered students). What is the most appropriate way for same-sex colleges to handle this situation, when the original purpose of same-sex schools is to cater to the needs of a specific gender?”

Now, I want you to take specific notice of the last part of this question, “…the needs of a specific gender”. Considering what we have just discussed in terms of gender not being something that is inherently male or female, how can a same-sex school cater to a specific gender? Since the criteria for attending a same-sex school has everything to do with biology and nothing to do with gender, can they really evict someone for changing or shifting their gender identity? Furthermore, what does gender shift even mean if both men and women can display both feminine and masculine gender traits? How do we shift gender identity?

We all struggled with this a bit as a class and I’m not even sure that there is a right answer, thus, the reason why I pose it to you. What are your thoughts?


Allen, B. J. (2011). Difference matters: Communicating social identity. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

In Honor of Thanksgiving: Let’s Talk Food!

During last year’s Thanksgiving holiday I had the pleasure of stumbling across this delightful article and video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz titled “Feast – A Thanksgiving tribute to images of food on film.” The article itself is both enlightening and insightful while the video essay is certain to bring a smile to your face (Who doesn’t love the Bumpus hound, turkey stealing scene from A Christmas Story?).

I particularly enjoyed Seitz’s stance that images of food on film can be just as alluring as sex and violence. As communication researchers, we spend a vast amount of time studying the media effects of sex and violence and more often than not the effects are dismal. So, how about we study positive effects for a change? What if images of food on film could serve as more than just transitory pleasures? Food has the amazing ability to transcend all cultural boundaries both onscreen and in the real world and I think we would be accurate to say that the effects of food imagery are significant.

Further, as Seitz puts it, “Food is a uniter, not a divider.” No matter the culture or social identity, food has an uncanny way of bringing together the most idiosyncratic individuals and that’s what I love about it. Perhaps my brain has been overcome by the spirt of the holidays, so I pose the question to you, “Is it too far-fetched to think that food on film could elicit powerful media effects in the same way that sex and violence do?” Either way, I for one will continue to enjoy the increasing number of films centered around food, culture, and the culinary world and I hope you will too.

Finally, in honor of Thanksgiving and the topic of food on film in general, here are some of my favorite food moments:

  • Julie & Julia (2009) – The scene where Julie drops her stuffed chicken on the floor and she ends up on the kitchen floor crying. In some way, I think we’ve all been there!
  • Hook (1991) – The scene where Peter finally starts to play pretend and is able to envision a table full of wonderful, albeit strange looking, food. “You’re doing it, Peter. You’re doing it!” Definitely a favorite childhood memory.
  • Ratatouille (2007) – Never has animated food looked so good!
  • Home Alone (1990) – Food and emotion are very closely associated in a lot of scenes in this movie. Kevin shows anger when Buzz eats all of his cheese pizza, happiness while eating a huge ice cream sundae, and we see our first signs of guilt/fear in the macaroni and cheese dinner scene.
  • Spanglish (2004) – Gourmet egg sandwich scene. Mmmmm. Enough said.
  • A Christmas Story (1983) – Whole roasted duck with head attached anyone?

These are just a few food scenes that come to mind and I’m sure there are countless others that deserve attention, but it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I better get going…I have some cooking to do! I welcome you to share your favorite food moments, thoughts, or memories. Happy Turkey Day everyone!

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Hulu, Netflix, & Displacement Effects

My new favorite theory: Displacement effects.  For those of you not familiar with displacement effects theory, it’s really rather simple. The general assumption is that new media, e.g. the Internet, cannibalize time spent on traditional media, e.g. television.

So, what’s so interesting about this? Seems logical enough to assume that new technologies can cause displacement effects on old technologies, right?  It does seem logical, you say? Okay, prove it.

The existing literature on displacement effects of new media on traditional  media, namely the computer on television, currently contains mixed conclusions. Some scholars argue that computers do not take time away from traditional media, whereas other scholars argue just the opposite. This is an important topic especially in the marketing and advertising industries where budgets are relatively fixed from year to year. In an effort to spend advertising dollars most effectively, these industries need to be aware of which media are garnering the most attention and, more importantly if certain media are losing market share.

Though many recent studies would suggest that the Internet does not cause displacement effects on television, it could be argued that recent technological advances in streaming video online, e.g. HULU and Netflix, would make a huge impact on displacement effects research moving forward.

With this in mind, I bring you to my research proposal topic (and possible study) for this semester. For me personally, both HULU and Netflix have played huge roles in causing displacement effects on my television viewing behavior, and who’s to say that I’m alone? Currently, I can view Netflix via my computer, Roku, Playstation 3, Wii, and now my iPhone, whereas just a couple of years ago my best option was to wait for the mailman. Does this mean that I now watch more television as an effect of this increased technology? As someone with a full-time job, freelance gig, and graduate studies, I can honestly say, “No.” I’m watching the same amount of television, but on different devices, which fits perfectly within the displacement theory framework and the idea of time cannibalization.

So, getting back to the question: Am I alone? I doubt it.

There are many ways in which I am unique, however, my use of online technologies to conveniently watch television isn’t one of them. There are thousands and probably millions of people who can attest to this very television viewing habit. This being said, I have yet to come across any displacement effects studies that have taken advanced streaming video into consideration. It’s possible that these studies exist, but have yet to be published, however, I still think it’s worth taking a look at.

In any case, expect a follow-up post on this by the end of the semester. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for further areas of analysis or if you just want to provide some insight on the concept discussed above, leave me a comment or get in touch!

Friday, September 24th, 2010

The New “Product Placement”

I’m watching the season premiere of 30 Rock and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, product placement, my how far you’ve come.”

Undercover product placement and sponsorship have been the norm in television and film for as long as I can remember, but shows like 30 Rock and Arrested Development (*sigh*) are throwing this norm out the window. Product placements, i.e. back-to-back MacBook Pros in last night’s 30 Rock, are being used less as a hindrance to writers and more of a comedy additive. Did they even get paid for the Apple nod? Probably not. But is it still funny? Absolutely.

For anyone who can claim to be an Arrested Development fan, we all remember the ridiculous use of Burger King during their last, groveling season on the air and it was great. At this point, I think we can all agree that product placements aren’t fooling anyone (thank you marketing degree for ruining the way I watch anything!).  So, we might as well have a little fun with them. I’m willing to bet that the domain “funkyvintagewallpaper” has received a ridiculous amount of hits in the last 24-hours just because Liz Lemon called it a “cool site.” Well, the joke’s on you folks, because it isn’t even real!

Traditional product placement strategies will no doubt continue to infiltrate our favorite tv shows and films, and I wouldn’t have it any other way (they pay for things, duh!), but it’s also refreshing to see “product placements” taking a new spin within recent years.

One final note – let’s try to make a point to watch good television this year, so that brilliant shows don’t get canceled. Whether we like it or not, ratings are what make or break TV shows and, unfortunately, most of the good ones have been broken. So, let’s turn off Dancing with the Stars and watch some real TV. Writers can still be artists in this day and age, but not if we don’t give them a chance. Okay, public service announcement over. Thanks for tuning in.

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Sometimes you just can’t fake it

The end of summer is almost here and the fall semester is right around the corner. This is normally about the time where students sigh and mourn another summer gone by, but I’m feeling pretty good. I have registered for classes, ordered books, organized files, and have even started discussions with a fellow student on a possible conference paper collaboration (our topic is pretty cool, by the way).

I have spent my remaining days of freedom catching up on shows I’ve missed, e.g. Top Chef, and making time to enjoy a flick or two, most recently The Other Guys. With so few days to go, I have been trying to make my time count; however, I must admit to a bit of channel surfing recently. Channel surfing can sometimes yield hidden or forgotten treasures (I always love stumbling upon a showing of The Goonies), but sadly this was not the case on this occasion. I happened to come across a new reality show called DC Cupcakes, which documents the tales of a Georgetown bakery. There are tons of food shows, and specifically bakery shows, on the air which does not make this show unique; however, I was pleased to see that DC was being represented in the genre…or rather, pleased until I watched the show.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the sisters who own the bakery are rather sweet and I don’t doubt that the cupcakes are scrumptious. The producers, on the other hand, are leaving much to be desired.

The episode I saw, for example, included a scene where the head baker asked one of the bakery employees to watch a pot of chocolate ganache. Her only job was to stir the pot so the chocolate wouldn’t burn and to not leave it unattended.

Nothing too exciting yet, right?

Well, with the camera in front of her (of course) she walks away from the pot of heating chocolate to answer a text from a cute customer she met earlier (another planted conflict no doubt), and the ganache bursts into flames. Blah, blah, yada, yada, she gets reprimanded, the fire is put out, and life goes on.

So, there really was nothing at stake here – An important part of (even scripted) shows is that conflict is created when two parties have something at stake. A pot of ganache was burned. Big deal. After the initial “slap on the hand,” everyone goes about their day, leaving the audience to wonder, “What was even the point of that scene?”

So, was this fabricated? Probably so. Would this show be better if it weren’t plagued by the deceptions of scripted reality television? I’m starting to wonder. And if this show is scripted…they need better writers.

At this point, we are all aware that most of “reality” television is not really reality at all (well, only some of us are aware, but that’s a different conversation). Many shows are scripted and the conflicts are pre-planned and planted, but we all still love them anyway.

So, the question is, why? Why do we still watch reality television if we know we’re being played?

Well, there are a couple different answers. The most common being that most people are completely unaware that reality television is anything but reality. But, for those of us who are in the know, we continue to watch because the shows are well produced. Storylines are, for the most part, entertaining and the acting is believable. Unfortunately, DC Cupcakes is lacking on both accounts.

They are obviously a bakery that is dedicated to their business and they behave as most business environments do, which does not make for exciting television. This forces producers to produce conflict through fabricated storylines and when not done well it is disastrous. Some people’s lives just aren’t that interesting to watch, but it doesn’t help to create fake (almost dramatic) moments to compensate. Maybe if the producers just let the sisters and employees be who they really are, the viewers could at least connect on a human level…even if nothing is going on.

P.s. After writing this entry, I was curious so I googled. Check out these other blog posts about DC Cupcakes. Looks like I’m not alone!

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