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Television drama and the politics and aesthetics of identity

This book poses the question as to whether, over the last thirty years, there have been signs of ‘progress’ or ‘progressiveness’ in the representation of ‘marginalised’ or subaltern identity categories within television drama in Britain and the US. In doing so, it interrogates some of the key assumptions concerning the relationship between aesthetics and the politics of identity that have influenced and informed television drama criticism during this period. The book functions as a textbook because it provides students with a pathway through complex, wide-reaching and highly influential interdisciplinary terrain. Yet its re-evaluation of some of the key concepts that dominated academic thought in the twentieth century also make it of interest to scholars and specialists. Chapters examine ideas around politics and aesthetics emerging from Marxist-socialism and postmodernism, feminism and postmodern feminism, anti-racism and postcolonialism, queer theory and theories of globalisation, so as to evaluate their impact on television criticism and on television as an institution. These discussions are consolidated through case studies that offer analyses of a range of television drama texts including Big Women, Ally McBeal, Supply and Demand, The Bill, Second Generation, Star Trek (Enterprise), Queer as Folk, Metrosexuality and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence.

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Beyond the politics of identity?
Geraldine Harris

This chapter provides an introduction to the movements of the twentieth-century such as feminism, anti-racism, and gay and lesbian or queer liberation, which have had significant, albeit varying, degrees of impact across a wide range of different institutions in both Britain and North America, including those of television and of the academy. It explores the thinking around subjectivity and identity and the relationship of these things to aesthetics that have emerged from poststructuralism, postmodernism, and most especially from ‘postmodern’ feminism, anti-racism, postcolonialism and queer theory. This thinking is sometimes represented as a fundamental change in perception. Furthermore, this chapter examines how far, and in what ways, these ideas can and have been appropriated and deployed as part of a process of inversions, reversals and substitutions that leaves the systems they critique intact.

in Beyond representation
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Modes of reading in Marxist-socialist and post-Marxist-socialist Television drama criticism
Geraldine Harris

This chapter summarizes some well-rehearsed debates from the early to mid-twentieth century, concerning realism and naturalism in television drama and the impact on those debates of poststructuralist and postmodern theory. This lays the ground for a more complex discussion of the assumptions about form, subjectivity and identity, production and reception that were produced on the way. Such issues help identify limitations and problems within the postmodern, ‘post-Marxist’ approaches that often dominated television criticism in the 1990s. The relationship between politics and aesthetics was most often defined through reference to the Marxist-socialist tradition and more specifically to the work of theatre practitioner and theorist Bertolt Brecht. Brecht famously developed a critique of what he termed ‘Aristotelian’ or ‘dramatic theatre’, which he defined as offering an illusion of reality that conformed to the ideology of the parasitic bourgeoisie. Usually understood as an attack on naturalism and/or realism, Brecht's analysis of this aesthetic embraced all aspects of production including illusionist staging, linear narratives, psychologically motivated characterisation and naturalistic acting.

in Beyond representation
From Madonna to Ally McBeal
Geraldine Harris

This chapter considers the progress/progressiveness of the representation and construction of feminism within television, and examines the discourses that have informed and shaped feminist television criticism. It uses the debates produced around the first three seasons of Ally McBeal as a starting point to explore the complexities of the relationship between the ‘feminine’, feminism, post feminism and postmodern feminism, in both the academic and the public spheres. In the process it maps out the differences and similarities between a ‘resistant feminine aesthetic’, the formal strategies associated with postmodern feminism in the 1990s and a more general ‘postmodern aesthetic’. It argues that because all of these are defined in opposition to a monolithic notion of ‘realism’ and in relation to one another, a collapse can occur in which ‘the feminine’, as both a subject position and an aesthetic, becomes characterised as ‘inherently’ resistant and subversive. Finally, it emphasizes how and why a confusion of these terms might have emerged and allowed for an appropriation, depoliticisation and trivialisation of the feminist debate.

in Beyond representation
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Diasporic subjectivities and ‘race relations’ dramas (Supply and Demand, The Bill, Second Generation)
Geraldine Harris

This chapter explores whether or not British television crime drama could be said to be ‘inherently racist’ on the level of form as well as representation. It begins with a discussion of the problematic concept of ‘race’ and explores the developments in thinking around issues of representation within anti-racist and postcolonial theory. It covers the rejection of realism as part of an attempt to get beyond simple positive or negative representations of subaltern groups, and the subsequent development of theories of cultural hybridity and diaspora aesthetics. While examining these latter concepts this chapter also explores their potential recuperation and depoliticisation as part of a more generalised and abstracted postmodern aesthetic. It concludes with a brief evaluation of some twenty-first-century British television dramas that might be said to show evidence of a diaspora aesthetic.

in Beyond representation
Myths of the global and global myths (Star Trek)
Geraldine Harris

This chapter explores various accounts of what the role television is thought to play in the processes of globalisation with particular reference to the issue of ‘cultural imperialism’. It questions the manner in which the postcolonial theories of cultural hybridity and diaspora can function within postmodern narratives of globalisation to produce a generalised concept of ‘new global subjectivity’. The chapter then pursues these ideas in relation to an examination of the status of Star Trek as a ‘franchise’ owned by a giant transnational corporation, as a myth of the global and as a global myth and a metanarrative no more or less ‘imaginary’ than as given in many academic accounts. This moves through a discussion of the impact of a ‘postmodern aesthetic’ on the series Voyager and Deep Space Nine and then to an analysis of the first season of Enterprise as a nostalgic and conservative postmodern return to the style and period of Star Trek: The Original Series.

in Beyond representation
Romantic attractions and queer dilemmas (Queer as Folk)
Geraldine Harris

This chapter presents a discussion of conflicting and competing definitions of the term ‘queer’ as signal for controversy within the lesbian and gay community, with the representation of gays and lesbians in television dramas. It suggests that there is a proliferation of opposing and contradictory meanings for this term, while it may be considered a ‘subversive repetition’ of a derogatory term that opens up an identity category; it does not always signify a progressive fashion for everyone. This includes consideration of the concept of a queer or ‘camp’ aesthetic and of the practice of ‘queer reading’. Furthermore, it offers an analysis of the television series, Queer as Folk, which argues that if this drama can be considered ‘progressive’, this is not simply a matter of its use of a postmodern or camp aesthetic but of an interplay between formal devices associated with these ‘sensibilities’ and a certain level of referential realism.

in Beyond representation
Metrosexuality and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence
Geraldine Harris

This chapter takes into account, a comment by Russell T. Davis, the writer of Queer as Folk to touch on the problematic relationship between notions of ‘good television drama’ and those of ‘political correctness’. This is pursued through a discussion of two dramas, Metrosexuality and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, as a means of reflecting back on the questions around aesthetics and the politics of subjectivity and identity. The analyses of Metrosexuality and the drama documentary The Murder of Stephen Lawrence provide a different perspective on the question of ‘simple’ representation. Furthermore, this chapter critiques tendencies towards relativism that often occur in both celebratory and pessimistic accounts of the postmodern. Finally, it emphasizes that various factors, ranging from the general, the abstract and the contextual to the particular and the textual, must be taken into account in assessing the political implications of any given television production.

in Beyond representation