Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 17, July 2003

 

 

Jonathan Gray

 

Critiquing the Critics: On _Teleparody_

 

 

_Teleparody: Predicting/Preventing the TV Discourse of Tomorrow_

Edited by Angela Hague and David Lavery

London: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1-903364-39-6

198 pp.

 

Parody's 'mission', writes Umberto Eco, is to 'never be afraid of going too far. If its aim is true, it simply heralds what others will later produce, unblushing, with impassive and assertive gravity' (quoted on page 1). With this as their rallying cry, the contributors to Angela Hague and David Lavery's _Teleparody_ have set out with the project of, as the sub-title proclaims, 'Predicting/Preventing the TV Discourse of Tomorrow'. A bold and highly amusing book, often as outright hilarious as it can be insightful, _Teleparody_ collects numerous parodic reviews of non-existent books on television. From _Don't You Be My Neighbor: Dystopian Visions in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood_ to _Beavis, Butt-head, and Bakhtin_, from _Equinicity: Contending Discourses in Mister Ed_ to the year's work in Teletubbies Studies, and referring to supposedly pre-existent works such as _Aerosmith and Otherness: An Answer to Said_ (63) and _Timmy's Down the Well Again: The Life of the Lassies_ (20), the book charts a humorous journey through a world of television discourse gone wrong (or, perhaps to some readers, gone wonderfully right). With twenty-six reviews, and with targets in the fields of sitcom, drama, cartoons, science fiction, soap opera, reality television, sports, gender, and theory, there is plenty to laugh at, and much comic ground covered. And yet it is not 'just' comedy, and the book represents considerably more than an excuse for academics to narcissistically chortle amongst ourselves or to scorn certain traditions of practice.

 

Parody, after all, is theory in illustration, and when done well, represents an intense level of critique, one which is prepared to climb right into the targeted discourse and show what is wrong, rather than postulate from a coldly removed distance. While philosophy and media studies, in Habermasian fashion, tend to fetishise reason, logic, and rational exposition, and simultaneously frown upon other techniques, a healthy counter-tradition, represented by the likes of Bakhtin, Hutcheon, and Sloterdijk has successfully argued the case for parody's often unique abilities in shedding light on the weaknesses, follies, and absurdities of genre and image, and of the thinking and base assumptions behind different genres. As Bakhtin has written, successful parody's laughter,

 

'has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it' (quoted on page 23).

 

Parodic laughter is the ultimate defamiliariser. It is important, then, that with a book such as _Teleparody_, we do not discount it as mere play. At the same time, though, it would be equally counter-productive to share the view of one of the publishing houses who rejected the book, writing, as Angela Hague recounts, that 'because we publish in the area of television and popular culture studies we do not believe that this collection would be appropriate for our list' (8). Parody does not bring down the house; rather, it recommends or *demands* sorely needed structural work as well as basic cleaning, and it is at this level that _Teleparody_ succeeds.

 

As might be imagined, with twenty-six reviews, a considerable amount of cleaning is recommended. Receiving a particularly scornful eye is a proclivity amongst some television studies academics to approach their subject from a ludicrously close and heavily engaged standpoint. 'Close reading' is under fire in literary and film studies itself, but its appropriateness as a stand-alone methodology for a text that is as frequently transient and fast-moving, and that is watched as inattentively, as the television text is brought under intense scrutiny. Thus, for instance, Kevin Kehrwald's review of the aforementioned _Don't You Be My Neighbor_ mildly mock-laments the author's decision to focus great attention on the PBS logo, rather than look at the show itself; while Ken Gillam and Shannon Wooden's review of _A Creature Feminine: The Politics of T and A in Primetime Television, 1970-2000_ makes much of _Laverne and Shirley_'s supposedly closeted lesbian attributes, such as Laverne's wearing of 'The Scarlet L' (for Lesbian) through having a name beginning with L, and of her 'telling' occupation as a bottle-capper at the Schotz brewery, where 'she prevents the gush of foam from phallic bottles -- constraining man's 'aqua vitae'' (131). Or, in one of the collection's most amusing entries, Rhonda Wilcox tracks the central role of the nose in television through her review of the Mulvey-esque _Visual Pleasure and Nasal Elevation: A Television Teleology_. Look close enough at any programme, these reviews ridicule, and one can find all the noses and scarlet letters that one wants.

 

Meanwhile, over-closeness of a different sort is played with by both Bill Freind and Matthew Hills in particular. Freind's review of _From Gidget to the End of History: Sally Field and the American Century_ (Volumes I and II) notes in passing that its author's 'research', involving writing over sixty-five letters to Field, and sleeping outside her house in a car for ten days, led to Field obtaining a restraining order against him (21); while Hills writes of a book written using only words from the scripts of the programme under analysis. Through taking us to such comic extremes, though, Freind and Hills both make valid points regarding the degree to which we as researchers can occasionally allow our own obsessions to take research and analysis to their own questionable, and wholly personal, extremes.

 

Freind's review also serves as an especially hilarious attack on the over-inflation of symbols and symbolism that can take place when writers attempt to situate texts within lines of history and teleology. In Freind's reviewed book, therefore, Sally Field's life is linked with and paralleled to twentieth-century American history, culminating with the announcement that the actress is the 'cinematic mother of the end of history' (23). Similarly, an argument is made elsewhere that the Teletubbies incessant 'Again! Again!' led to the American electorate voting in a second Bush (56), the muffled mumblings of _South Park_'s Kenny become 'the future phonetic fate awaiting the human race' (65), and an episode of _The Beverly Hillbillies_, in which Granny goes to a beatnik coffee house, 'encompasses almost the entire history of American civilization to that point, from the earliest settlement days, through westward expansion and women's rights, to the hippie movement' (30).

 

Indeed, academic-speak and the everyday obfuscation of clear thought, of which too many of our kin are guilty, is ruthlessly mocked at multiple turns. Take, for instance, Eugene Halton's surmisal of a review of _On Temptation Island: The View from the Hot Tub_:

 

'Isn't this kind of jeremiad theorizing, especially in relation to TV, not only passe but pre post-critical? Or is this [author] Dimsdale's ultimate trump card, a subtle, ironic commentary that appears on the surface to link him empathically to the common continent of humanity, while in reality he remains an island of post-Cartesian ego unto himself, gazing into that hall of mirrors out of which 'reality' is endlessly constructed while convincing us that we are seeing the real man objectively describing the real thing?' (108).

 

Or, weighing in with a wonderful deconstruction of deconstructive writing, Gillam and Wooden quote the following gibberish, 'as [author] Kilkenney puts it': 'A/not/her o(bj)ectified and op-posit-(ion)al he<lp>mate w/hose l(ass)-it-ed-e to/ward -- (off) nomi((a)nal)ism be/lies/ (not) phallic hetero-st/ru(p)ctures' (129). Like the series of _It Was a Dark and Stormy Night_, Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest books that award prizes to the most awfully-constructed first lines of a novel, _Teleparody_'s contributors provide a fashion show of jargon and over-theorisation at its worst.

 

A particularly refreshing aspect of this book is its complete lack of compunction in talking about quality. As Charlotte Brunsdon notes, too many of us within media and cultural studies have become scared of using the word 'quality', and even more scared of making evaluation judgments, resulting in a situation whereby conservative media pundits are yielded the stage (124). As a discipline, we must find new ways to re-integrate talk of quality, but until more traditional academic languages have worked out ways to do this, several of these reviews do so parodically. Indeed, David Lavery's review of _Californication and Cultural Imperialism: Baywatch and the Creation of World Culture_ is an outstanding piece that talks quality precisely by parodically treating a profoundly poor text (_Baywatch_) with great respect. Lavery writes of, for instance, 'the classic [episode] 'Panic at Malibu Pier'' (41), and even parallels another writer's act of studying _Baywatch_ to Erik Erikson's curiosity about the Reformation in _Young Man Luther_. As with many of his fellow contributors, Lavery is not afraid to say a text is bad, nor is he afraid to mock the act of studying such a text so closely. Lavery, of course, has fostered an industry of sorts of books on popular television texts, with offerings on _Twin Peaks_, _The X-Files_, _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_, _The Sopranos_, and a forthcoming title on _Seinfeld_, so the point is clearly not that studying television *per se* is perilous, but that, in terms of quality, not all texts are as equal as others.

 

However, here we also reach a slight limitation of the book, for while, as I have noted, numerous writers ridicule the (painfully) close reading of television, this seems to be because this is the model of television scholarship with which many of the contributors seem most familiar (or, at least, at which they take aim). The consequences are twofold, I believe. First, it means that there are few reviews that toy with a more cultural studies, or mass communication, approach. Matthew Hills and Will Brooker's reviews are notable exceptions here, as, for example, Hills opens with a playful swipe at John Hartley's penchant for neologisms, while Brooker offers a magnificent and extremely funny reversal of fan studies' love of queer readings, reviewing _Straight Readings: Resistance, Reappropriation, and Heterosexuality_. Otherwise, however, few of the reviews come at their targets from an overtly sociological angle, nor from a political economy angle, as evidenced, for instance, in the lack of reviews on news books. It is perhaps unfair to criticise the book for not dealing with these areas (particularly when several of the reviews cleverly mock reviewers' insistence on books covering every conceivable angle!), but it leads to a second consequence. Ultimately, the book risks validating political economy and sociology approaches as inherently *better* than textual approaches, through its silence in dealing with (or mocking) the former.

 

This, however, is a problem for the reader to overcome. It is also one that the editors have created the means by which to do so, for they have also set up a _Teleparody_ website (http://www.teleparody.com), at which visitors are invited to submit their own reviews. It is this reviewer's hope that some readers will answer this call, for if seeing Sally Field as mother of the end of history is in need of rebuke, parodies are also waiting to be written on, for instance, how Rupert Murdoch's political will power influences Bart's opening credit blackboard lines in _The Simpsons_, or on how having older brothers who watch cop shows drastically increases one's chances of becoming sociopathic and/or a drug addict.

 

As both Bakhtin and Sloterdijk's studies of parody and ridicule render clear, and as much humour theory echoes, parody is often most necessary when its target has grown too powerful. Jonathan Swift's famous parody/satire 'A Modest Proposal' was needed because the Irish voice had been so powerfully stifled and excluded from the English public sphere; today's online news parody _The Onion_ (http://www.onion.com) is needed because the news is too powerful a filter for our information; and _The Simpsons_'s parody of the all-happy American Dream was needed in the face of the resurgence of neoconservative American 'family values' in the 1980s. Thus, however, some may wonder at the 'necessity' of _Teleparody_, since media and cultural studies often fancy themselves as the ever-marginal disciplines. And yet, with ever-growing student numbers, ever-increasing numbers of courses worldwide, and with more and more academics from other disciplines 'dipping into' media studies, television studies is growing in power. More than just attesting to television studies' 'arrival' as a discipline, then, _Teleparody_ importantly reminds us that the field is already held back by certain traditions. To mock these traditions is not necessarily to reject them utterly: parody is often a form of flattery and homage. However, it is to say that we must at times stop to evaluate the very nature of our discipline, and the degree to which its traditions are holding back new and hopefully better work. Therefore, it is particularly interesting to see how some of the reviews, while ostensibly comic pieces, serve to position their writers' own attitudes towards issues within their non-parodic work (witness, for instance, Hills's toying with the role of the 'academic fan' in his review, compared to his discussion of the same in _Fan Cultures_).

 

At times, _Teleparody_'s reviews can overlap or even repeat each other. Bakhtin's 'heteroglossia', for example, receives at least three re-workings, as does dialogism in general, hence tiring the joke somewhat. Thus, the book is most enjoyable and most effective if read in bits, one review at a time, over time. Inevitably, too, some will be found more or less funny than others, or even more or less objectionable. Overall, though, it is an encouraging collection, carving out a space for itself that is totally unique within television studies. The book is amusing, at-times trenchant and acutely accurate in its criticism of television studies and of the review form itself, and, as parody should, neatly mixes critique with fun.

 

University of California, Berkeley, USA

 

 

Bibliography

 

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, _The Dialogic Imagination_, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981).

 

Charlotte Brunsdon, _Screen Tastes: Soap Operas and Satellite Dishes_ (London: Routledge, 1997).

 

Matt Hills, _Fan Cultures_ (London: Routledge, 2002).

 

Linda Hutcheon, _A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms_ (London: Routledge, 1985).

 

Peter Sloterdijk, _Critique of Cynical Reason_, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Jonathan Gray, 'Critiquing the Critics: On _Teleparody_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 17, July 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n17gray>.

 

 

 

Read a response to this review-article:

David Lavery, 'Response to Jonathan Gray', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 18, July 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n18lavery>.

 

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