In September of 2021, CBS announced plans for a new program, The Activist, whose title has so much in common with police procedurals like The Mentalist, The Alienist, The Equalizer, or The Closer, it may be a bit of surprise to learn the show is an unscripted contest program. The premise of The Activist is to place contestants on teams ordered to “bring meaningful change to one of three vitally important world causes: health, education, and environment”.1 The program will be hosted by television personalities and the contestants judged by the amount of online engagement they generate on social media.
CBS, the broadcast network with the oldest viewing audience, might be trying to attract a younger generation of viewers with this “social justice warrior” themed programming. The Activist follows the formulae of other contest shows, like The Voice, Pop Idol, or Big Brother, that demand participation from the television audience in the form of forced choices, hoping that this displacement of aesthetic and critical judgment can successfully masquerade as democratic and also cause millions to tune in each episode. But rather than using telephony for casting votes, the program ostensibly demonstrates its freshness and edginess by asking viewers to like or repost messages on Instagram and/or Twitter. This, in turn, proves that the audience is in fact real and not a fictive number invented by Nielsen. Thus “engagement” is not so much political engagement or anything resembling activism so much as it is engagement with the commodity form and the willingness of persons watching the program to temporarily transform themselves into that which can be sold to advertisers. Importantly for ViacomCBS, this program produces a new commodity audience out of a younger generation that ViacomCBS presumes has an affinity for both social change and virtual interaction.
It is almost too easy to point out the problems with The Activist. Instead, I want to argue that, for all the deserved controversy and backlash, its production is actually a sign that recent civil rights protests have had effects on media industries. The show signals that activism is such an important part of identity and practice in the United States that corporations feel they can profit from it. As John Corner has written, we can think of television providers as a kind of “brokerage” between production companies and viewing audiences.2 Therefore, we can see that the recent upswing in highly publicized civil rights marches and demonstrations was interpreted by ViacomCBS as an important new trend. Their failure to understand the ethic that motivates these protests is expected given that civil rights protests are very often based on feelings of solidarity, community, and which equality are values directly opposed to capitalist profit-taking. As a corporate endeavor, The Activist indicates that media companies recognize that television viewing and program choice have become a way for viewers to signal their political affiliations, aspirations, and allegiances. Media companies want to encourage that signalling. At the same time, The Activist invites what Maia Hoskin has called, “performative activism,” a kind of identificatory posturing that usually does not entail commitment.3
By programming The Activist, ViacomCBS is fulfilling the function of the media cartel as analyzed by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge in Public Sphere and Experience. In their 1970’s engagement and critique of Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere, Negt and Kluge argue that the public sphere is the space in which experience is organized. What they call the media cartel reorganizes experience and sells it back in commodity form. Sometimes this reorganization of experience is not direct and obvious, as in the way that Survivor reorganizes white collar workplace culture into a program depicting physical contests on a desert(ed) island.4 Other types of programming, such as news and domestic sitcoms, have a more direct relationship to everyday viewer experience, even as they distort that experience to maintain and advocate the current form of capitalism. In order for that enterprise to be successful, the media cartel must correctly identify which aspects of lived experience are held to be significant by a large enough portion of the consumer market and repackage that experience in an amenable and compelling form (it is here that The Activist likely successfully accomplishes the first but not the second).
The timing of The Activist, on the heels of massive civil rights protests, seems like a particularly cynical attempt by a multinational media conglomerate to reorganize our lived experience and sell it back to us.5 A quick glance at the ViacomCBS website illustrates this cynicism. Under the section header “Telling Stories That Inspire” is a photo of Black television writer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, speaking with a white actor in a SWAT costume overlain with the quotation “What Makes You Strong is the System Around You,” which seems like a particularly fraught message given the relationship of the militarized (and white) police force and Black Americans. Clearly, ViacomCBS wants viewers to take comfort in the fact that watching S.W.A.T. can also mean supporting black creative voices (and academics, since Thomas teaches screenwriting at USC). Another image of predominately young and conventionally attractive BIPOC talent links to a story about a campaign for PepsiMango, which I suppose demonstrates that even sugared water can bring about social change.6 But these sunny messages about diversity, talent, and strategic marketing abruptly end with the image directly below the “Stories That Inspire” section: “Investors.” Featuring Damian Lewis and Cory Still from the Showtime drama Billions, the graphic also includes Viacom’s stock price, demonstrating that within the entertainment industry financial information and power still congeal to whiteness (and premium cable rather than free-to-air, apparently). [see Images 1–3]
Of course, shows like The Activist and public relations initiatives like “Stories That Inspire” are also part of a larger ecosystem of the commodification of politics that has turned political consciousness into a kind of teen-age rebellion. The cooptation of social movements into consumerism, whether it is rainbow capitalism or #BLM swag or the oft-cited Che Guevara t-shirt, follows the logic of capitalism, which survives threats to the social order by disallowing anything outside of itself.7 What makes the viewing lists on streaming media platforms different from the kind of consumerism outlined above is that these films and television programs are previously produced products: commodities that have been manufactured prior to their inclusion within a political platform. While some of them may have had social justice and/or anti-racism aspirations, most were not made specifically for inclusion in, for example, Netflix’s celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, “Our Voices, Our Stories” [see Images 4 and 5]. This is significant because, in addition to the cynical attempt to transfer wealth from workers (repositioned as “sovereign consumers”) to corporate coffers, the cooptation of previously produced cultural products for inclusion in viewing lists intended espouse moral superiority and social consciousness, reorganizes and redirects the meaning previously imbued in those commodity-texts.
Politically conscious viewing lists appeared everywhere during 2020 and 2021: fashion magazines like Glamour and Esquire, mainstream news outlets like Time and USA Today, cinephilic websites, even Good Housekeeping. Additionally, many universities and colleges across the United States responded to civil rights protests by publishing “Resource Guides”, which invariably included fiction and non-fiction films and television shows. These lists were often positioned in terms of “education” or “how to be a better ally” appealing to themes of social change and progress as well as white guilt and ignorance.8 The ascendency of what I am calling “virtuous viewing” can be linked to this moment: when public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic kept people at home and away from face-to-face social interactions, but the anger and outrage at police killings of Black men and women grew so large as to ignore those quarantine measures and also fight back against the police violence and brutality against civil rights activists in the streets [see Image 6].
Another example of corporate institutionalization of virtuous viewing was announced and advertised during the 2021 Major League Baseball playoffs. Featuring a voice-over proclaiming that “Black stories are poetic, historic, comedic. They’re emotional, musical, and beautiful. Black stories are here” while images featuring Black actors play on the screen. “Here” turns out to be a new Xfinity channel, called “Black Experience,” legitimized through an endorsement by the African American Film Critics Association.9 This new channel seems almost like a textbook example of the critique Negt and Kluge aimed at media conglomerates in the 1970s. The promotional copy from Xfinity’s website reads: “The new Black Experience gives you access to the ultimate in Black entertainment with a first-of-its-kind, curated destination of Black entertainment, movies, TV shows, news, and much more. Now included with your service.”10 Scroll down the page and it becomes clear that Xfinity is mainly interested in selling subscriptions and sees “Black Experience” as one more lure to entice consumers. Just below the content descriptions is a plug for Comcast’s “$100 million commitment” to racial equity, a corporate pledge that disguises the racism inherent in the economy writ large and may end up being empty, like many other corporate pledges.11 Scrolling down even further reveals that Xfinity wants visitors to take quizzes to find out which internet and cable package they should buy or, even better, bundle their mobile service with home security.
In order to access “Black Experience,” subscribers tune in to a special channel which acts as kind of curatorial warehouse for such programming. Apparently, for Xfinity/Comcast, “Black Experience” can be reduced to three aspects: historic civil rights struggles, contemporary activism, and HBCUs [see Image 7]. These are accompanied by fictive content in standardized genres to allow Xfinity a veneer of a non-reductive approach to blackness and yet it is also clear that by choosing these three particular categories Xfinity is seizing on a very particular historical moment from black experience, which is framed by dominant media portrayals and structured to keep whiteness intact. No matter how we may feel about Xfinity, Comcast, or the content that comprises “Black Experience” (somehow both Bridgerton and The Last O.G. are promoted on Xfinity’s “Black Experience” page), it is inescapable that media companies repackage experience as contained narratives with familiar beats, plots, and emotional entanglements along with familiar faces, sets, and locations. Experience itself is sanitized, re-ordered, and smoothed out to conform to capitalist ideology (individual liberty and bourgeois property relations) so that “Black Experience” is both exceptional and not exceptional: familiar, comforting, and yet somehow always separate and different from the default setting of whiteness (which, according to the logic of Xfinity, is every other channel).
This component of virtuous viewing is part of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Austin Ashe have called “the new racism,” in that virtuousness of watching particular entertainments over others rests on the idea that racism is attitudinal, rather than structural.12 The emphasis on individual attitudes enables the virtuous viewer to ignore structural issues, is another way of erasing history: not just a history of racist structures and laws but of ways of thinking about Blackness and Black bodies. Armond Towns has argued that because historically Black bodies, “have been situated as things, absent of self-determination,” which is exactly how Black bodies are used in these corporate public relations - not as human beings, but as things which help to ensure corporate benevolence and re-legitimize corporate power.13 Towns has also written that Black bodies act as a medium through which White people assert their universal humanness: “Blackness is a necessary component of how White people can imagine themselves as the epitome of humanity.”14 Therefore, the racial violence undertaken under Western capitalism to transform Black bodies into media helps prove the humanity of those who enact such violence: “racial violence only acts as a stepping stone, a signatory relation for proving some people’s (Western) humanity.”15 The virtuous viewer who partakes in the kinds of curated viewing lists propagated by media conglomerates, universities, high schools, and other non-profit organizations, attempts to ensure their place in the social order by showing that they have different attitudes than those who do not view such entertainments. But viewers end up using Black bodies as the very medium to demonstrate their place in the social order and, in so doing, assert their humanity by transforming Black bodies into things.
Virtuous viewing is a media practice that depends on streaming video on demand (SVOD) paired with internet-based social media. Private engagement with SVOD that permits viewer self-affirmation and encourages viewers to brag or boast about their political knowledge and engagement via internet-based social media platforms. The algorithms behind SVOD distinguish between categories of viewers politically, even if “taste” is the mask in front of politics. The digitalization of culture allows for algorithmic curation of culture and the representation of culture through appeals to identification, often under the guise of personal taste or “suggested for you.” Political positions are therefore expressed through the viewers’ own meta-curation of commodities, so that choosing entertainments that are advertised as supporting or belonging to an underrepresented or marginalized group becomes a way for viewers to market themselves as political conscious through social media postings and face-to-face conversations about SVOD. Virtuous viewing is a consumerist media practice that offers up the possibility of name-checking a film, television series, or even television channel as a crucial component of identity formation. The importance of virtuous viewing is that in takes place within the milieu of everyday life, it is common, banal, mundane and yet possesses within it potentials for the extraordinary, the emergent, the irruptive. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant have argued, “the politicization of the social […] allow us to see everyday life as a field of struggle against racism. We live in a racial history. Structural racism is not a fixed feature of United States society.”16 In other words, it works both ways. Even as political consciousness is commodified, commodities are politicized. Therefore commodities can be politicized in such a way as to struggle against racism.
The commodity form has overtaken many spheres of life, even political thought and action. Ideology has not ended, it has become subsumed into the commodity form. The once quaint presidential campaign button has transformed and multiplied into a range of merchandise that serves multiple purposes: fundraising, allegiance signaling, and propaganda. In the contemporary United States, politics barely exists outside of the commodity form, something that the Citizens United decision made explicit. Virtue signalling transforms feelings of solidarity and the potentials for collective action into individualistic moralizing and echo-chambers of the “Selfsame”.17 Media conglomerates take advantage of this by equating “consumer belonging” with “political identity”.18 SVOD takes center stage here since consumers feel as if they have choices and are in control of what they watch. This form of spectatorship, in which the viewer feels sovereign power over their entertainments (to the point of pausing, rewinding, choosing subtitles and voice-overs, commercial skipping, and so on), combined with the private position of the viewer (in that SVOD is rarely consumed together by a group of strangers in a public place), dissolves whatever social bonds might otherwise have been present and turns politics from a practice of alliances and allegiances into a neoliberal free-for-all. Virtuous viewing is therefore both isolated and performative: it is private and often intimate and produces meaning through that intimacy and privatization of politics while it attempts to engage in forms of public-ness. Virtuous viewing is a mode of commodity consumption that has a close resemblance to the kinds commodity production associated with “YouTubers,” bloggers, Twitch stars, Insta-famous celebrities, social media influencers, and others whose personal lives, identities, and relationships to commodities are reorganized as performances to be consumed by strangers.
Virtuous viewing is fundamentally a neoliberal form of spectatorship, in which responsibility for change and education is put solely on the consumer. Under neoliberalism, the dissolution of the Welfare State in favor of the market means people are no longer permitted to live human lives, but must strive to exist either as a entrepreneurial project, a brand, or commodity-form; in other words, to carry out an existence of privatized competition rather than one that involves cooperation, solidarity, or an idea of the public good. In this way, virtuous viewing is different from earlier calls for social or moral uplift common to the age of mass culture. Those moments arose from paternalistic instincts in which media consumers were positioned as childlike and in need of cultivation. Now we have a different situation. There are no longer masses in need of betterment, there are only have data points and algorithms, inclinations and affinities. “You may also like” is the friendly nudge that replaces the disciplinary act of the moralist. The amorality of capitalism is so complete that even ethics and virtue are resources to be exploited for profit when they were once, at least for Adam Smith, the key to a functioning market and thus perhaps the only thing which should not be commoditized. Those days are over. Now, consumption is paramount, all-encompassing, and the key to self-actualization. Neoliberal capitalism feeds off of emotions and manages them, so that anger and outrage at injustice are resolved and mitigated through purchasing or immaterial production known as “social media engagement” in which “flame wars” and pious piling-on fulfill platform’s capitalization imperatives while leaving the social structures that produced the injustice in the first place unaddressed. Virtue signalling is the paramount exemplar of this phenomenon.
Gia Tolentino, keen observer of digital culture, has suggested that virtue signalling is predicated on a social order marked by the absence of conditions for actual morality. Regarding a “shitstorm” of righteous moralizing on Twitter following the death of a toddler at DisneyWorld in 2016, she wrote: “These deranged takes, and their unnerving proximity to online monetization, are case studies in the way that our world — digitally mediated, utterly consumed by capitalism — makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard. You don’t end up using a news story about a dead toddler as a peg for white entitlement without a society in which the discourse of righteousness occupies far more public attention than the conditions that necessitate righteousness in the first place [emphasis mine].”19 SVOD viewers navigate this social order that “makes actual moral living very hard” by communicating that their viewing habits make the world a better place and thus assume the mantle of moral living. Virtuous viewing then, allows viewers to feel good, alleviate themselves of guilt, forestall commitment, and defer change. The introduction of digital internet-based social media platforms which enable real-time conversations between strangers about television content further encourage communities of interest known as fandom, which involves a large amount of information sharing, critical engagement, and taste formation. Personal, often domestic, virtuous viewing is therefore comprised of choosing material based on politics and social consciousness and may also involve sharing that viewing choice with others including friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. These practices can also constitute an important way to produce and maintain social bonds during a period of isolation and felt helplessness, conditions exacerbated and made explicit by COVID-19.
The linkage of spectatorship to these types of affective performance common on social media is key to understanding virtuous viewing as neoliberal. In his short book on neoliberalism, Psychopolitics, Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han pointed to an ascendent “emotional capitalism,” as key to neoliberalism.20 Han distinguishes between feelings, which are constantive, and emotions, which are performative and goal-oriented. Virtuous viewing then, transforms the constantive feeling of guilt into the fleeting emotion of outrage, anger, or righteousness. For Han, this is precisely what powers neoliberal capitalism: “emotion comes to possess value for capitalism only when a switch to immaterial production occurs.”21 By signaling to others that virtue is obtainable by watching, virtuous viewing produces more audience for SVOD. Word-of-mouth and social media postings are integral to this system in which guilt is transformed into outrage and is then acted upon by consuming media entertainments to produce righteousness (an amalgam of presumed expertise and outrage) that is acted upon by signaling through “communication about morality”.22 Performative activism is possible only in a neoliberal capitalism characterized by the valorization of emotion that feeds the system of immaterial production.23 In capitalism, the immaterial production of emotion to address constantive feeling resolves through consumption of non-object commodities, like media entertainments. As Han argued, “consumer capitalism enlists emotions in order to generate more desires and needs […] we do not consume things so much as emotions.”24 Because emotional capitalism displaces the cyclic relation between production and consumption to a digitalized cycle of emotion management, the job of media conglomerates and other corporations is to position their products as the “goal” of emotions. Postwar demand management has evolved into neoliberal emotional management.
Emotional capitalism helps explain the cycle of moral outrage as well as the ways in which playlists and watchlists reposition commodities as therapeutic, as ways to assuage discomfort and guilt, as ways to bring about joy and even ecstasy. But the most successful commodity would be that which provokes emotional reactions whose goals can be resolved with other commodities. At this, SVOD excels.
The colloquial sense of virtue signalling -- “I am better and more moral/ethical/just/ politically-conscious than you” is a minor form of performative activism. However, the way I am employing the term virtuous in this article does not rely on a sense of virtue as simply pure, chaste, and morally good. Virtue is not limited simply to traits like honesty, fidelity, and kindness. Virtue is also connected to arete, the Greek notion of excellent. In this sense, virtuous viewing means excellence in viewing, a superior viewing practice. The polysemic nature of virtue suggests that virtuous viewing implies, “watching the right way,” in the many meanings that phrase might imply.
Viewing excellence, as the right way to watch, involves properly understanding and evaluating the material; to viewing virtuously exists within the realm of film appreciation and cinephilia. Indeed, much of what is taught in introductory film courses are lessons in viewing excellence at the level of interpretation, analysis, and history. This type of virtuous viewing has migrated from art house film culture and university classrooms to the home, via the video store and other forms of at home viewing.25 Properly understanding a film, in the sense of watching the right way, can also overlap with the pejorative sense of virtue signaling. For example, The Help (Dreamworks, 2011) shot to the top of Netflix’s rankings in June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd. This prompted headlines like “No, watching The Help on Netflix does not count as activism”.26 The logic of these arguments depends on narrow definitions of activism, assumed to be comprised of being in the streets or donating money, but not consciousness-raising. More importantly, it suggests that there is only one way to understand The Help and that one way is that the film is racist. If you do not want to support racism, do not watch The Help. This narrow argument can also confuse the dominant textual interpretation of the film with the moral constitution of its viewers. For example, watching The Help makes the viewer racist, or The Help is a film only a racist might like. My argument about the dangers inherent in extolling the virtues of “watching the right way,” might be made clearer by reversing the terms of the argument: that watching a different film, say, 13th (Netflix, 2016), makes viewers anti-racist or, more plausibly, that this is the kind of films chosen by an anti-racist. Put this way, these reductive arguments about the moral worth of a particular film or television show is a kind of viewing equivalent of “my best friend is black.” The virtuous viewer might say, “I am not a racist because I freely chose to watch 13th and am now educated about the struggle for civil rights.” This argument suggests that these films have but one possible interpretation, that viewers will be persuaded by their message, and that viewers will be inspired and transformed despite an entrenched social system of white supremacy.
I am reminded of Ralph Ellison’s observations from his 1949 essay, “The Shadow and the Act,” about the same types of “social problem” films from the late 1940s that featured the struggles of Black characters. Prefiguring Han’s observations about affect, Ellison wrote that when “viewing [social problem films] in predominantly white audiences” he observed “profuse flow of tears and sighs of profound emotional catharsis heard on all sides. It is as though there were some deep relief to be gained merely from seeing these subjects projected upon the screen.”27 Ellison goes on to argue that this “emotional release” is “self-congratulatory” and dangerous. His solution is not about changes in representation (for instance, a move towards less sensationalism and more gritty realism). Rather, Ellison suggests a change in spectatorship: “As an an antidote to the sentimentality of these films, I suggest that they be seen in predominately [Black] audiences, for here, when the action goes phony, one will hear derisive laughter, not sobs.”28 In Ellison’s argument, “watching the right way” actually produces contradictions and tensions within films, so that they becomes polysemous and their meanings contingent rather than singular and certain. Ellison warned us against the kind of reductive criticism and reactions that constitutes one facet of virtuous viewing. More importantly, his insight that those whose experience was repackaged and represented as commodity form by the culture industry would meet the misrepresentation with ridicule points to the importance of representation and diversity in the auditorium, not just on the screen. The issue before us now is that SVOD spectatorship is both privatized and very often homosocial. The kind of heterogenous public audience that Ellison offers as a prescription is rarely available, particularly during 2020 and 2021.
But the presumed faith in cinema’s representations to have transformative effects in social relations has a long history. Karl Schoonover has shown that this imagined spectator who learns through looking so as to bring about greater harmony in the world has long been in place as a postwar form of liberal humanism and underwrites a whole series of unexamined assumptions about cinema, spectatorship, and political change.29 These arguments are based on technological solutionism and Enlightenment concept of a sovereign liberal individual, ideologies that structure ideas about the correct form of activism and the right way to watch. Thus these arguments about the right way to watch (and the right way to be an activist) are susceptible to cooptation because they adhere to the logics of corporate capitalism and can be exploited by companies such as Netflix.
Netflix algorithms target viewers through a kind of racial proxy. If you watch Netflix offerings with black actors, soon enough Netflix will start filling your “recommended” list with thumbnails that feature Black actors, even if the actors and their characters are marginal within the content itself. Netflix has found that the thumbnail is a powerful invitation for viewers and so tailor the images that represent the content in order to best appeal to what they assume the subscriber wants. Call it racial click bait.30 As Thao Phan and Scott Wark suggested, regarding algorithms and personalization: “[t]he best way of serving you is, paradoxically, to compare you with others: to fabricate new categories premised not on individuals, but on individuals’ likenesses to others […] it is through this process of determining likeness that categories, like race—which personalisation claims to efface— are reinscribed with a vengeance. The contradiction we mean to unpack is one between a post-racial promise and a reality in which racialisation continues to be profoundly felt by those who labour under the sign, ‘raced’.”31 The personalization of Netflix, through which “I” can see “me,” is not about me at all, but about what groups Netflix presumes I belong to based on my behavioral choices within Netflix’s ecosystem and whatever other services it shares data with (presumably my credit card company and credit raters like Experian).32 Although subscribers may not be categorized racially in Netflix’s algorithms, the choices made while using Netflix (plus zip code and other spending habits) allow the data infrastructure of Netflix to treat subscribers as raced while disavowing race as a categorization. The personalization of SVOD is not a personalization at all, it is in fact a re-categorization so that a presumed “static” category like race is turned into a more “dynamic” category like “ethnic affinity”.
Or, following Kristen Warner, the post-racial utopia in which race becomes uncoupled from history and instead articulated to taste gives rise to a form of “plastic representation [that] operates as a system that reifies blackness into an empirical system of ‘box checking’” and blackness is thereby stripped of meaning and representations turned into “hollowed, malleable signs with artificial origins.”33 In the realm of media representation, black bodies must first assert the fact of their blackness in order to prove diverse casting and therefore the virtues of the program (and its viewers), and then those bodies must also signify progressiveness, edginess, danger, and coolness.34 Netflix operationalized plastic representation into a publicity campaign, calling upon Black cultural figures to participate in this box-checking system by confirming its virtues. Starting in 2017, Netflix ran a promotional campaign entitled, “the first time I saw me” with content from Spike Lee and Ava DuVarney as well as a social media campaign using the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe that included posts from Viola Davis.35 This campaign celebrated gains made in representation on television while positioning Netflix as a leader in those gains and therefore proposing that one way to both “see yourself” and participate in the continued expansion of civil rights gains is to subscribe to Netflix and that your responsibility as a virtuous forward-thinking individual is to support these gains in representation by continuing to allow Netflix to draw money on your credit card. Talk about plastic.
There is reason to believe that virtuous viewing and content production meant to generate such spectatorship practices will be lasting. As I began writing this article, Starbucks announced a new joint venture with Netflix for a “social content” series called But Have You Read the Book? (Netflix, 2021), hosted by Uzo Aduba, perhaps best known for her role in Orange is the New Black, and currently the star of the re-boot of In Treatment (HBO, 2021). It promises virtuous viewing in several ways: first, through “social content” (presumably a marketing team’s update of the social problem film of the studio era critiqued by Ellison); second, through encouraging viewers to read a book before or while watching the latest Netflix offering, thus marking these viewers as more engaged, educated, and erudite; and third, creating a structure for film appreciation through guidance by experts and industry insiders.36 Thus Netflix, Starbucks, and multinational publishing conglomerates construct the taste formation of “social content” [See Images 8 and 9].
Aduba also starred in Showing Roots (Lifetime, 2016), a fictional look at the influence of the renowned ABC mini-series Roots on two women in a small Southern town. If virtuous viewing has a broadcast-era precedent, it might be Roots. Initially broadcast in 1977, the program still holds ratings records for broadcast television and may very well be the touchstone when it comes to imaging racism for many born in the postwar era (1946–1964).37 In the wake of changing Nielsen ratings system, the broadcast networks began producing and broadcasting programming aimed at younger, more urban, and more socially liberal audiences that addressed social issues and featured diverse casts. The overnight ratings system put in place in the 1970s brought about changes in television executives decision making, much like SVOD’s system of algorithmic curation. Roots was a business decision, and part of the transformations in programming Fred Silverman brought to ABC after making similar changes at CBS to make the network more relevant.38 The parallels in content are there as well. The way that white characters in the miniseries were portrayed as “good slave owners” or “bad slave owners” managed to draw attention away from the institution of chattel slavery and safely keep depictions within bourgeois individualism, much like portrayals of law enforcement tend to divide police into good cops and bad cops, successfully circumventing a sustained treatment of the system of racist policing. Broadcast television’s viewing audience in 1977 was presumed to be overwhelmingly white (although Nielsen had no separate measurement for black audiences until the 1990s), and decisions about how to portray and tell the story were often made on this basis. For example, in addition to minimizing the middle passage and other visceral horrors of slavery, Roots transformed the history of chattel slavery into a family-centered narrative of immigration and assimilation, which, among other things, managed to provide white audiences with the sense that racism is over because blacks have successfully integrated into white society.39 In a sense, these representations helped usher in the notion of a colorblind society that has been so prevalent since the 1980s. The presumed sensibilities of white viewers and the priorities of advertisers (obtaining the widest possible audience), therefore, shaped storytelling and depiction over and above historical accuracy or educative modes. Watching Roots was therefore like contemporary virtuous viewing in that it allowed white audiences to address emotions without committing to social change.
And yet the impact of Roots on US culture and political consciousness should not be underestimated. Several sequels were produced, the miniseries lived on in several “Collector’s Edition” DVD sets, and was recently remade by the History channel in 2016. Roots was used as educational material in schools and universities during the 1970s and 1980s (and maybe even now). To put it plainly, to dismiss this touchstone television series, which for many white audiences may have been their only exposure to the history of chattel slavery, as inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, and unchallenging would be a disservice. Given that films like The Help or Showing Roots also occupy this category of filmed content that perform similar service for white audiences (and corporate revenue), these middle-brow dramas are in some ways repeating the project of Roots whether or not filmmakers and audiences see that miniseries as an antecedent.40 It is worth remembering, though, that the chief difference here is not one of representation, style, mood, performance, or content, but rather the modes of spectatorship that accompany these materials. Indeed it is in the aftermath, not the actually viewing, that spectatorship can become consciousness, or, put another way, only by analyzing experience can it become knowledge. Watching Roots as part of high school curricula is significantly different than streaming Watching Roots in one’s bedroom. Watching in isolation or while sequestered in quarantine leads to increased virtue signaling over social media and the confusion of social media posts with “true reactions” to the film. Recall Ellison’s argument about audiences in the 1940s. Some may quibble over the accuracy of his observations, but what is at stake are segregated audiences, and the way in which that segregation can deepen social divisions and harden already held beliefs because it prevents dialogue, which requires at least two subject positions (something lacking on social media, which tends more towards the “Selfsame”).41
Terry Eagleton once wrote that, “ideologically, the important thing about television is that it keeps viewers in private positions”.42 This seemingly dismissive comment about the place of television in society at first glance appears to do television a disservice since virtually all its content is bourgeois ideology about private property and individualism and would therefore seem like a powerful communications tool in producing and maintaining bourgeois class consciousness and ideology; but this can be also said of newspapers, radio, cinema, and popular novels. For Eagleton, the distinguishing characteristic of television is not that it is somehow more persuasive or powerful than these other outlets for the ruling ideas or the ruling class but rather that it keeps people at home, off the streets, and not engaged in conversation with others. Eagleton’s thoughts on broadcast television seem particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which quarantine and stay-at-home rules have intensified the retreat into domestic spaces and private positions.
The private and isolated spectatorship of virtuous viewing frustrates or even prevents effective organization. Take, for example, Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer (Netflix, 2021). About 24 million watched Chappelle’s previous special.43 Let us pretend that, due in part to increased number of subscribers and publicity generated through controversy, 30 million watch The Closer. That number is essentially a consumer boycott, since the special would get the equivalent of only a 17% share of Netflix’s subscriber base of 170 million. In effect, 83% of Netflix subscribers would refuse to watch The Closer. But no one pays attention to the negative habits of consumers, only positive habits. Labor on the other hand, has the ability to turn refusal into power. The walkout of Netflix employees in response to The Closer sparked news coverage and numerous stories despite the fact that barely 100 people were on the street, versus the 100+ million viewers at home who have so far refused to watch the special.44
This demonstrates the fundamental problem with conflating political action with consumer behavior. “Standing up for what you believe in” is merely one choice among many for consumers, and consumer behavior is never framed in negative terms. This is because the Netflix subscribers who do not watch a program still do exactly what is expected: pay subscription fees. Even if abandoning Netflix for Hulu or Disney+ is framed in terms of marketing and branding, not in terms of political protest. Because subscribers still stay at home and interact with each other and with corporations from private positions of consumption - which is exactly where capital wants consumers to be. Conversely, workers abandoning their jobs, going on strike, whistleblowing, or even circulating materials critical of their employers are behaving outside the proscribed behaviors for workers. Even in our post-union neoliberal society, laborers continue to have more power than consumers; it is just more rarely publicized and encouraged because it does not fit the neoliberal system of divisive individualism.
And yet some of the largest national civil rights protests in U.S. history occurred during viral pandemic, under conditions of quarantine. From May to July of 2020, there were over 4000 separate BLM protests, over 100 each day, involving over ten million people, perhaps as many as twenty six million people.45 Somehow the private positions of virtuous viewing have coincided with public demonstrations and cultural change; they may not cause them or even be directly related, but the correlation is worth contemplating.46 Perhaps the politicization of the commodity form can result in a type of consumer refusal. Not just a boycott, which after all, as Armond Towns suggested, would still rely on situating black bodies as mediated things, since to say “I am not buying this” is to position “this” as a thing to be bought and sold. I mean a refusal to continuously occupy the subject position of consumer. Protesting on the streets, after all, constitutes a walkout of the private domestic space to join the polis: the only space where dialogue can occur.
Stephen Groening is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at The University of Washington. He is the author of numerous articles published in Film History, Visual Studies, New Media and Society, Cultural Critique, and History and Technology. His first book is Cinema Beyond Territory: Inflight Entertainment and Atmospheres of Globalization.
- Rosy Cordero, “Usher, Priyanka Chopra, & Julianne Hough Set for ‘The Activist’” Deadline September 10, 2021. https://deadline.com/2021/09/usher-priyanka-chopra-julianne-hough-the-activist-cbs-1234829647/amp/ [^]
- John Corner, Critical Ideas in Television Studies, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999, p. 13. [^]
- Maia Niguel Hoskin, “Performative Activism is the New ‘Color-Blind’ Band-Aid for White Fragility” Zora 2020 https://zora.medium.com/performative-activism-is-the-new-color-blind-band-aid-for-white-fragility-358e2820a4e1. See also Jas L. Moultrie and Ralina Joseph, “Activism or Performative Activism?: Investigating Jimmy Butler’s “No Name” NBA Jersey” Flow: A Critical Forum on Media and Culture, https://www.flowjournal.org/2020/10/activism-or-performative-activism/ [^]
- Matthew J. Smith and Andrew F. Wood, Survivor lessons: Essays on communication and reality television. London: McFarland, 2003. [^]
- Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. p. 3 [^]
- Pepsi seems particularly blind here, given the controversy over its infamous protest ad featuring Kendall Jenner in 2017. See Daniel Victor “Pepsi Pulls Ad Accused of Trivializing Black Lives Matter” The New York Times April 5 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html [^]
- On the much-reproduced image of Che Guevara, see Arian Hernández-Reguant, “Copyrighting Che: Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism.” Public Culture 16.1 (2004): 1–30. [^]
- Charlie Griffin, “10 Best Films to Better Understand Black Lives Matter” Screenrant https://screenrant.com/best-films-to-better-understand-black-lives-matter/ June 29 2020 Pamela Conelan, “10 Movies and Shows to Watch to Support BLM” Women Love Tech https://womenlovetech.com/10-movies-and-shows-you-can-watch-to-support-the-black-lives-matter-movement/ May 31 2021 Ali Pantony, “The Best AntiRacist Films and Podcasts to Educate Yourself About Race” Glamour UK https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/gallery/black-lives-matter-anti-racism-resources May 25 2021 Esquire “12 Best Movies About Race: Essential Films About Racism in America” Jan 21 2021 https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/g32742390/movies-about-race/ Lizz Schumer, “15 Movies About Race That Everyone Needs to Watch” Good Housekeeping https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/entertainment/g32823787/movies-about-race/ Jun 11 2020 Cady Lang “Movies To Watch to Educate Yourself About Racism, Protests” Time https://time.com/5847912/movies-to-watch-about-racism-protests/ June 4 2020 Rasha Ali, “Racism in America: Watch These 20 Compelling Movies and Shows” USA Today https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/06/05/stream-these-20-compelling-movies-tv-shows-racism-america/3135829001/ June 5 2020 [^]
- You can view the promotional ad here: https://youtu.be/z_IAmqgQCpA [^]
- https://www.xfinity.com/learn/digital-cable-tv/black-experience [^]
- These financial commitments by media companies in the wake of highly publicized police violence against Black Americans are often paltry and sometimes unfulfilled. See Tracy Jan, Jena McGregor, and Meghan Hoyer, “Corporate America’s $50 billion Promise” The Washington Post August 23, 2021). But even if these funds were effectively and promptly distributed, should not all of Comcast’s dollars be committed to racial equity? Their global revenue in 2020 was over $100 billion dollars which effectively means that Comcast is 99.9% not committed to racial equity. This may sound extreme, but it also underscores how we can not possibly take these pledges at face value or understand them as anything less (or more) than public relations. [^]
- Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Austin Ashe, “The End of Racism? Colorblind Racism and Popular Mieda” in The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America Sarah Turner and Sarah Nilsen, eds. (New York NYU Press, 2014), p.58. [^]
- Armond Towns, “Black ‘Matter’ Lives” Women’s Studies in Communication 41:3 (2018), 351. [^]
- Armond Towns, “The (Black) Elephant int he Room: McLuhan and the Racial” Canadian Journal of Communication 44(2019), p. 552 [^]
- Armond Towns, “The (Black) Elephant int he Room: McLuhan and the Racial” Canadian Journal of Communication 44(2019), p. 553 [^]
- Michael Omi and Howard Winant, “Once More, with Feeling: Reflections on Racial Formation,” PMLA 123:5 (2008), 1570. [^]
- Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Other New York: Polity, 2018. [^]
- Sarah Banet-Weisner and Laurie Oulette, “Media and the Extreme Right: Editor’s Introduction” Communication, Culture, and Critique, 11:1 (March 2018), 1–6. [^]
- Gia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion New York: Random House, 2019. p. 9. “Shitstorm” is a German term for what Americans might call “flame wars.” See Roberto Simanowski, Waste: A New Media Reader (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018) 77–90. [^]
- Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: neoliberalism and new technologies of power New York: Verso, 2017. [^]
- Ibid, 44. [^]
- Tolentino, 9. [^]
- Moultrie and Joseph [^]
- Han (2017), 46. Han’s insight is not far from Raymond Williams’s argument in “Advertising: the Magic System,” that, “the material object being sold is never enough.... If we were sensibly materialist... a washing machine would be a useful machine for washing clothes, rather than an indication that we are forward-looking, or as an object of envy to our neighbors.” (185) in Williams, Culture and Materialism (New York: Verso, 1980). [^]
- Barbara Klinger has chronicled the way that cinephilia has overlapped with home movie viewing and connoisseurship so that DVDs and other film formats are sold to consumers claiming that they represent the correct form of the film in terms of aspect ratio, soundtrack, color correction, and so on. See Barbara Klinger, Beyond the multiplex: Cinema, new technologies, and the home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). [^]
- Clare Spellberg, “No, Watching ‘The Help’ on Netflix Does Not Count as Activism” Decider June 4 2020 https://decider.com/2020/06/04/the-help-netflix-top-10-wont-end-racism/ [^]
- Ralph Ellison, “The Shadow and the act” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 308 [^]
- Ralph Ellison, “The Shadow and the act” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 308 [^]
- Karl Schoonover, “When Cinema Was Humanism,” in Elana Gorfinkel and Tami Williams, eds., Global Cinema Networks (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018). [^]
- Nitasha Tiku, “Why Netflix Features Back Actors in Promos to Black Users” Wired October 24, 2018. https://www.wired.com/story/why-netflix-features-black-actors-promos-to-black-users/ [^]
- Thao Phan and Scott Wark, “What personalization can do for you! Or, How to do racial discrimination without ‘race’” Culture Machine 20 (2021). https://culturemachine.net/vol-20-machine-intelligences/what-personalisation-can-do-for-you-or-how-to-do-racial-discrimination-without-race-thao-phan-scott-wark/ [^]
- See also Neta Alexander, “Catered to Your Future Self: Netflix’s ‘Predictive Personalization’ and the Mathematization of Taste” in Kevin McDonald and Daniel Smith-Rousey eds. The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016). [^]
- Kristen Warner, “In the time of plastic representation” Film Quarterly 71:2 (2017), p. 36. [^]
- Jennifer Fuller “Branding Blackness on US Cable Television” Media Culture and Society 32:2 (2010) [^]
- Taylor Nygaard and Joris Lagerway Horrible white people: Gender, genre, and television’s precarious whiteness (New York: NYU Press, 2020), p. 55. See also Kelley D. Evans, “Thanks to Netflix, people are talking about the first time they saw themselves son television,” The Undefeated, August 8, 2017. https://theundefeated.com/features/thanks-to-netflix-people-are-talking-about-the-first-time-they-saw-themselves-on-television/ [^]
- For an engagement of the “social problem film” during the studio era, see Chris Cagle. Sociology on Film : Postwar Hollywood’s Prestige Commodity (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2017) [^]
- Eric Pierson, “The Importance of Roots” in Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences edited by Beretta E. Smith-Shomade New York: Rutgers University Press, 2012 [^]
- See Gary Edgerton The Columbia History of American Television (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 274–8. [^]
- Additionally, black actors turned down roles or were hesitant to participate in the project, partly because of the way it called upon black actors to reenact or participate in the black trauma, not unlike the controversies surrounding Amazon Studios’s Them (2021). [^]
- The list of films that position racism as an assimilation problem and/or the attribute of particular individuals is endless but could include films like Green Book (2018), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Akeelah and the Bee (2006), Dangerous Minds (1995), and Hidden Figuresx (2016), all of which depict racism and a racist society while simultaneously limiting black excellence to acts that adhere to the norms of whiteness, present one or more white characters as heroic warriors against the system, and central black characters as individually transcending barriers and limitations. [^]
- Han, Byung-Chul The Expulsion of the Other New York: Polity, 2018. [^]
- Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction London: Verso, 1991. pp. 34–5. [^]
- See Lucas Shaw, “Dave Chappelle’s Special Cost More Than Squid Game” Bloomberg October 17, 2021 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2021–10-17/dave-chappelle-s-special-cost-more-than-squid-game [^]
- See B. Pagels-Minor “I was fired from Netflix, bu the fight against transphobia on screen and off will continue” The Washington Post October 21, 2021 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/21/netflix-walkout-b-pagels-minor-fired-chappelle/ and Zoe Christen Jons, “Netflix employees stage walkout over Dave Chappelle special” CBS News https://www.cbsnews.com/news/dave-chappelle-netflix-employees-walkout/ [^]
- Buchanan, L., Bui, Q., & Patel, J. K. (2020, Jul 03). “Black lives matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history” New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html. In contrast, the highest rated television shows in 2020, Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football got 13 and 16 million viewers, respectively (https://variety.com/2021/tv/news/most-popular-tv-shows-highest-rated-2020–2021-season-1234980743/). [^]
- The trade journal Variety found that “Representation for Black and nonbinary actors has increased significantly in TV and film since the start of the pandemic” based on their research into casting in scripted live-action television and film comparing the 18-month period from October 1, 2018 to March 31, 2020 to the 18 month period of April 1, 2020 to Oct. 1, 2021. See William Earl, “Black and Nonbinary Actors See Representation Gains During Pandemic: Study” Variety December 7, 2021. https://variety.com/2021/tv/news/black-nonbinary-actors-representation-study-variety-1235127819/ [^]