Why I think Awkward Black Girl is the future of television

I don’t watch a whole lot of television these days. I get most of my entertainment online, and when I do watch television programming, it’s on Hulu or Netflix. My favorite TV show of 2011 isn’t a traditional television show at all, however. It’s a web series called the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. The best way I can describe this show is “Black Grownup Daria” ABG chronicles the daily life of J, a socially inept black woman in her 20’s as she navigates work and dating in Los Angeles.

For obvious reasons, this show resonates with me. For all that I enjoy shows like Community and Parks and Recreation, ABG is the first time I’ve seen anything even remotely reflecting my life presented in such a format. So naturally, I’m a bit protective of the show. (The last web series I loved this much was “McCourt’s in Session” and there was only three episodes of those, so ABG is a vast improvement on a number of levels.)

In the past few months, the show’s popularity has soared. Issa Rae, the show’s creator/star has been on dozens of magazines and blogs and even CNN recently.  It’s like Issa Rae has become the black Felicia Day, and I love it. When the show took to Kickstarter to raise funds to complete additional episodes, ABG fans stepped up to the plate and raised more than the projected goal of $30,000 to complete ABG’s season. Once again, Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans model proves itself replicable:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

I don’t know if Issa Rae is yet making a living from ABG, but she is able to continue her work, improve the show and gain new fans. She’s really stepped up her game when it came to marketing and fan engagement, the college tour is a great idea, the t-shirts/merch are awesome and I love their approach of giving all the ABG characters their own fan pages. Issa Rae knows what she’s doing and understands what the fans want.

As the show’s popularity and buzz increases, there’s been talk of ABG moving to television. When the show first started, I was rooting for Issa Rae to be discovered by a network and picked up for TV, so maybe, for the first the first time in my TV watching life, I can see TV show that reflects my life in some way (what a concept) but with the success of the Kickstarter campaign, and the continuing grassroots support of ABG, I’ve begun to wonder if ABG (or other web series) needs traditional TV at all. TV execs like to pat themselves on the back for having a show with two black leads, but then only keep that show on for three weeks (though, to be honest “Undercovers” did suck) If fans continue to support Issa and ABG (i.e. if supporters become subscribers) who needs traditional TV?

My thoughts have echoed this blogger, who breaks down some of the math:

“…set up a website where fans can pay $5/mo for unlimited viewing. That’s a reasonable $60/year for each of us, and since a show like ABG has at least 25000 fans, that’s a generous $125,000/mo for them. ABG and Ktown Cowboys have shown us that we don’t need to see special effects or massive explosions, or ridiculous, over-the-top wardrobes. We just need to see us. We just need to see people who look like us, sound like us, and behave the way we do in real life, without someone else’s agenda coloring the script. I watch a 10-minute episode of ABG and it sends me straight to Cloud Nine. I end each episode feening for the next one. I see a dark chocolate, natural-haired black woman being witty and holding it down on her own show and I am catapulted into heaven.”

I think “K” is onto something, I love the idea of fan supported online series becoming the rule rather than the exception. And regardless , I think TV execs could takes notes on how popular web series like ABG are marketed to fans. However, I still want to see Issa Rae get the opportunity to create for mainstream television. Mainstream television needs this, more than ever.

Why? I saw “The Help” last month. I was on the fence about seeing it for the entire summer, I had conflicting feelings about the film from the time I heard of its release (I’ve not read the book) Once again we have a Civil Rights era film about Black people but written and directed by white people, and I was bracing myself for some painful stereotypes.

As I watched and enjoyed the film, I was still settled with a growing sense of unease. It’s 2011, Viola Davis and/or Octavia Spencer will likely get Oscar nominations for playing the same type of role that Hattie McDaniel played when she won in 1940. To be fair, Abileen and Minny are certainly no Mammy stereotypes; they’re well-acted and three dimensional characters.

But still, in 2011, this is one of the few times in Hollywood where African-American women are central within a story. That or Tyler Perry movies, and please let’s not go there today. That’s a whole other post. I can count on one hand the times I can walk into a movie theater or turn on TV and see black women’s lives portrayed where they’re not someone’s afterthought. And even then, it’s too often rooted in the past, or the convenient Hollywood narrative of the Strong Black Woman: challenged but unbowed, tough but maternal, drawing from superhuman reserves of emotional tenacity to face hatred and violence. With her sass.

Awkward Black Girl is the present. It’s the future. It’s the story of a black women as she lives and loves now. Awkward, funny, smart, wacky, romantic, vulnerable. And it’s only one story that can possibly be told from the many diverse stories of black women. Stories that have more “universal” resonance that Hollywood seems to think.

So yeah, do I want to see that on TV? In the movies? Hell yeah I do. I wish Issa Rae the very best of luck with ABG and her future endeavors. I think she can make a splash on TV while still keeping ABG real for the web.

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Learned Fangirl at SXSW – Part 1: Black People on Twitter and other Non-Surprising Surprises

So, it’s been awhile, we know, but Learned Fangirl is back from hibernation. TLF was at SXSW Interactive this year and in between all of the panels, parties, networking, meeting old friends and new and trying to run away from drunken street harassers, we’ll be dropping some insights here in the next few days, probably weeks.

Before I get to into discussing the panels and the conference as a whole (and I’ve a lot to say about that), I wanted to use this first post to examine a theme I’ve noticed through the panels I’ve attended thus far.

When I attended last year, some of the attendees (including myself) were very critical of the demographic breakdown of the SXSW panels and panel topics, which like the tech industry as a whole, is pretty heavy on white males between the ages of 25-40.  There was a very public call to improve the diversity of these panels when the call for presenters went up for SXSW last year.

To the organizers’ credit, the SXSW Panel Picker went a long way in attempting to create more a more diverse experience in terms of panel speakers and topics, which was good to see; topics of race/gender difference seem to spring up even on panels that weren’t focused on those issues.

danah boyd‘s keynote talk on online privacy vs. publicity sparked a lot of discussion and thought for me. Some of you may remember boyd’s research on race/class and social networks. and her implication that MySpace is not a dead social network as much as it was perceived to be by the social media thought leaders who no longer spend time there.

This year, boyd brought attention to the black online subculture that exists on Twitter. Later, during his session “How to be Black Online,” comic Baratunde Thurston elaborated on the online user behavior of African-Americans, addressing the differences in technology use and social media conversation from general (i.e. white) online users. It’s great insight that unfortunately still doesn’t seem to stick with some social media experts who still cling to the old “digital native/digital immigrant” argument.

Talk of social media user and age is overstated at this point (yes, the median age of a Facebook user is 44, we know) while race and class stratification of the online world is still the elephant in the room at conferences like SXSW and elsewhere. I’ve noticed many of the “people of difference”  are engaging in digital grassroots activism and DIY/entrepreneurial efforts but not necessarily represented widely as industry leaders.

While the digital divide is arguably not as wide as it used to be (and I am not completely convinced of that) race and even more importantly, class, is mostly an afterthought in conversations about social media and the web. For all the data available on online user behavior, and all the talk about social media audience segmentation, online audiences are still primarily viewed as monolithic; the subject of race and class differences still seem to be a revelation for digital industry experts.  That’s a real shame when you consider the opportunities being missed by the industry as a whole.

The encouraging thing about SXSW 2010, however is that there was at least the beginning of some kind of dialogue started about these issues and that there was room for it. Still we’re outliers; there’s not enough race/gender/class diversity at the table, either at conferences like SXSW or the industry as a whole for the conversation to take place outside of just a off-shoot panel or two. The conversation needs to  become practice in order to lead to any structural change in the way digital experts view user behavior in the online space.

Ah well, maybe next year.

One Nation Under a Groove: Intellectual Property and Hip Hop

When is something a quotation or a reference and when is it a sample that needs to be licensed? According to a recent Sixth Circuit decision regarding Atomic Dog, Bridgeport Music v. BMG Recordings, No. 07-5596, November 4, 2009 (no official citation yet), a copyright violation can be found when no licensing fee is paid for

use of the phrase “Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea” (the “Bow Wow refrain”), as well as use repetition of the word “dog” in a low tone of voice at regular intervals and the sound of rhythmic panting

One of the many interesting aspects about this case is that George Clinton, the performer and co-author of the song, has no dog in this fight, despite the fact that he is so closely tied to the song. As described in the excellent documentary, Parliament Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove, P-funk and George Clinton lost the rights to their own music. (On a tangent: I highly recommend this documentary (shown usually during Black History Month on PBS) — and not just because Shock G appears to be interviewed while completely off his gourd).

But the issues about copyright explored by the Sixth Circuit don’t touch on the songs larger cultural significance, instead viewing the importance of the song through an economic lens:

“Atomic Dog” “is an anthem of the funk era, one of the most famous pieces from that whole era . . . one of the most famous songs of the whole repertoire of funk and R&B.” In addition to the song’s continuing popularity on its own, “Atomic Dog” and other works by Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic are said to have influenced many contemporary rap and hip hop artists, with the most notable being the style of rap popularized by West Coast rappers such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Coolio. [note: The court couldn’t have left it at three. Really!?!] …

Testimony at trial confirmed that “Atomic Dog” and other works by Clinton are among the most popular works sampled by rap and hip hop artists. According to an expert musicologist, the Bow Wow refrain “is one of the most memorable parts of the song” and is often licensed by itself.

UMG failed to introduce any evidence that would have explained why the songwriter chose to include elements of “Atomic Dog” to honor George Clinton, nor was the purported tribute acknowledged in the credits or liner notes to the album.

Two recent books explore the interaction between intellectual property (mostly copyright) and hip hop culture — Adam Haupt’s Stealing Empire: P2P, Intellectual Property and Hip-Hop Subversion and Richard Schur’s Parodies of ownership : hip-hop aesthetics and intellectual property law. Both books explore and apply Henry Louis Gates’ idea of the importance of signifyin’ — a metaphor for textual revision — located in African-American culture and globalized via hip-hop.

Stealing Empire is valuable for its analysis of the impact IP regimes on South African culture. And it is therefore useful for a reader with a literary / cultural / media studies perspective; the legal analysis is less useful because it does not distinguish between differing jurisdictions.

Parodies of ownership : hip-hop aesthetics and intellectual property law
is a excellent edition to both the fields of critical race theory and cultural studies, and adds greatly to the ongoing discussions of power and control regarding intellectual property. This book is yet another book published this year that is highly recommended.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is Schur’s suggestions for erasing the invisibility aspect of intellectual property law:

[Judge Richard] Posner [and others] conceive of originality, fair use, and transformative use as transcultural and color-blind strategies to regulate the circulation of texts, including raced texts. [They] do not connect texts to specific genres, to cultural traditions, or to how popular culture’s taste [] derive, in part, from interactions with America’s racial history. (144)

He suggests specific challenges/suggestions to intellectual property law (especially in the U.S.), including mentioning fan culture(s):

African American culture has engaged in a rigorous discussion about the right to copy (i.e., sampling versus biting) …. [but law has] adopted color-blind rhetoric [so] such cultural distinctions have not been judicially sanctioned even if they structure how audiences understand hip hip texts.

Attempting to remedy the inefficiencies or absurdities of intellectual property law without referencing its complicity in the de facto and probally de jure transfer of wealth from African Americans to white Americans is unlikely to prove successful. Resolving other cultural/economic conflicts, whether they involve fan fiction or unauthorized music trading, probably requires engaging with histories of discrimination and power inequalities, not simply a slight tweaking of abstract legal formulas. (179)

But both books are sans any pictures (let alone an audio or video accompaniment) leaving the analysis missing the “quotation” that is so needed here to provide a complete picture of the richness of the music at issue. I’m not sure that the Pokémon vid above is the best illustration, but if you didn’t know Atomic Dog, wouldn’t it better help you understand what is at issue?

And that brings us back to where we started with George Clinton and Atomic Dog — when is something a quotation or a reference and when is it a sample that needs to be licensed? Or as Richard Schur states in Parodies of Ownership,

the question of who owns the imaginary domain out of which African Americans form cultural identity remains unanswered (23)

The problem with decontextualization of intellectual property’s cultural role, or why an algorithm cannot determine fair use

Ignoring cultural context has led to some incredibly bizarre cease-and-desist notices recently. Yet intellectual property and culture are tied together. New works are not created Zeus-like bursting forth Athena-style ahistorically with no need for citation or attribution.

In a recent post on the University of Chicago Faculty Blog discussing the need for social and cultural theory in analyzing intellectual property, Madhavi Sunder quotes Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, that it is a

“paradoxical result” where “works that are hostile to the original creators” have “greater freedom from copyright enforcement than works that embrace the ideas behind the original work and simply seek to extend them in new directions.” (190)

While technically this is true in the American context, considering that fair use more carefully covers parody than homage, the new non-human computerized “catch-a-copyright-tiger (read pirate!)” lumps all uses together, whether it is one or a combo of:

fair use, parody, satire, homage, send-up, take-off, quoting, remix, mashup, sampling, fanmade, or any other arguably legal use here.

So what does this mean in real life?

Laurence Lessig’s video above has been blocked by YouTube — it is available here from another video service. And why?

“Your video, Part 2: Lawrence Lessig – Getting a Network the World Needs at OFC/NFOEC 2009, may have audio content from Mahna Mahna by The Muppets featuring Mahna Mahna & The Two Snowths that is owned or licensed by WMG.”

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The IP algorithm can also strike at the heart of cultural criticism. One recent example is a fan campaign calling for the recasting of the live action version of the animated series Avatar: the last airbender with Asian and other minority actors.

According to Glockgal:

All but one of the products on my racebending.com Zazzle store has been removed because “it contained content in violation of Viacom’s intellectual property rights”. This means not just images (all of which were drawn by me), but also WORDS.

Apparently a t-shirt saying ‘Aang can stay Asian and still save the world’ is a copyright violation

The Organization for Transformative Works blogged that the removed items included

“The Last Airbender: Putting the Cauc back in Asian” or “The Last Airbender: Brown/Asian/Colored Actors NEED NOT APPLY”. These design were entirely textual, and obviously political: Glockgal called her store Racebending.com and contextualized its products as a form of political activism: “Stop Hollywood White-Washing of the upcoming movie The Last Airbender!” … since when does [any company] own political speech about its products?

While this story has a successful end, why should preemptive removal be the way that corporate entities react? Because the law is written in a way that fair use is a postaction shield rather than as an anticipatory safeguard — even when the use is culturally significant.

Self-pwnage

But perhaps the best example of why the default should be changed to assumed fair use is self-pwnage — where a company can say “use away!” and “not OK” at the same time.

Recently, Fox had a YouTube user’s account suspended for participating

in a Burger King-sponsored mashup promotion on YouTube, where users were encouraged to use a web-based voiceover-creation tool to dub over videos from Seth MacFarlane’s Google-distributed Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy series.

This isn’t new. Back in 2006, pre the word self -pwnage, though Cartoon Network’s New Media Department decided to place information on YouTube to help fans create their own commercials, the legal department sent out cease and desist letters. In an important moment of honesty, Molly Chase, Executive Producer of the New Media Department said, “Putting the content out there consciously is something we want to do, but we have to communicate that very well internally.” If corporations can’t even figure out what their position is on fan use, why should fans or the public be the ones that pay? Or to determine the outside limits of fair use?

Sunder says that

Culture is the sphere in which individuals create meaning, share ideas and enjoy life with others. Furthermore, culture plays an increasingly important role in promoting freedom in the social, political, and economic spheres of life. Cultural approaches to intellectual property law ought to recognize these interconnections.

Race and online behavior: Do users “surf black?”

I was checking out Ars Technica about a week ago and they posted this article about Blackbird; it’s a customized version of Mozilla that’s geared toward the African American community.

The idea behind Blackbird, (CEO of 40A, Inc.) Ed Young told Ars, is “to broaden the Internet experience for African Americans. We want to offer a tool that makes it easier for this community to find resources that are geared more towards them.”

blackbird-1main

News of this this gave me, and apparently other people, pause, but not for the same reasons:

After soft launching (with no official marketing) as a beta Sunday night, Blackbird has already received a tremendous amount of interest—and mixed reactions. Young said that some early feedback has viewed Blackbird as almost a racist or exclusionary product. As an African American himself, though, Young explained that “it isn’t about exclusion, but rather inclusion.”

Well, as you may know, I am African-American as well, and I am skeptical for an entirely different reason. Namely, the fact that Blackbird, as described, presumes black online behavior to be homogeneous:

A search for “Barack Obama” in Safari’s search box, for example, will bring results like BarackObama.com, Wikipedia, and Chicago Tribune. But the same query in Blackbird’s box will return results from AOL Black Voices and blogs.bet.com.

Remember back in the day when Jet Magazine would do the list of top 10 shows in the back of the publication, and it would have stuff like “227” or “Frank’s Place” or “Amen” or other shows with primarily black casts?

These days, you’ll find shows like “Lost,” “American Idol,” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” When it comes to popular culture and leisure, the interests and consumption habits of black folks often dovetail with non-white folks. For example, check out this marketing report on tv viewing habits from marketingcharts.com:

* During the 2006-2007 television season, seven shows placed among the top 10 primetime programs among both African-American and white viewers.
* The top 3 shows last season (American Idol – Wednesday, American Idol – Tuesday and Dancing With the Stars) ranked in the same position for both groups of viewers.

And online, where we can obscure, change and even erase our ethnicity when connecting with others (via avatars, etc.) a person of color is just as likely to connect with online affinity groups based around age, interest and location as much they are around race. As we all know, there’s not just one Internet, there’s various Internets, based on extremely specialized affinity groups that drill down a lot further than most market research would reveal. I’m not saying that there aren’t race-based online affinity groups (hello, Black Planet), just that I suspect it’s much more difficult to quantify and segment what an “average” African-American online user experience is likely to be, especially among Millenials.

Gender, age, class, education and personal interests play a huge role in online user behavior. (Anecdotally, I read Crunk and Disorderly as often as I read i09, but I check out NPRmore than either. Is Blackbird for me?) Based on the example Ars Technica uses above, Blackbird’s approach to black online experience appears narrow.

But I could be wrong. I am going to do my own informal test. I have downloaded Blackbird onto my computer, and over the holidays, I plan to test out a few choice search terms myself and then with my mother and sister. We are all black, but our online behaviors are VERY different. So I’ll keep you posted on my findings

*On a related note, Flock has a customized browser for women called called Gloss that I suspect will not be an ideal place for me to keep up on the latest Dillinger Escape Plan news.

From Geisha to Go Go: Book Review of two recent books on Asian women

While no book can fully explore a culture, two recent books, Sheridan Prasso’s The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient and Veronica Chambers’ Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation, give a window into how different the lives of Asian women are from the pop culture stereotypes.

Interestingly, both books are written by Western female journalists that are not of Asian descent. Also, both are written primarily around interviews with individual women, using their experiences to explore larger social phenomena. Both books touch upon fandom issues, but this is not their primary focus.

The most valuable aspect of The Asian Mystique from a pop culture studies perspective is a multiple chapter analysis of stereotypes used in Western media of Asians and Asian-Americans. Prasso discusses how media stereotypes are based in a binary dichotomy in two ways — first, the stereotypes vary based on gender, and second, Asian women are seen as either submissive and desirable (“China Doll”/Vixen) or as dominant and therefore to be feared (“Dragon Lady”). This section would be perfect for a film/television or ethnic studies class.

Kickboxing Geishas does discuss Japanese female fashion, including Harajuku, Lolita, and Gothic Lolita. (Interestingly, though Chambers is an African-American woman, she never mentions the racialized aspects of yamamba in her discussion of this fashion/social trend).

Kickboxing Geishas also discusses the economic and social impact of teenage girls and their style:

Joshi kosei [teenage girls] are voracious shoppers with a quirky eye for fashion and an uncanny ability to start trends.’

Although there are broad groupings among …Japan’s contemporary costume culture …– kawaii, or the culture of cuteness; gothic; Lolita, etc. — the young women (and some men) who embody these street styles thrive on their individuality. …I believe the costuming of today’s Japanese young women reveals, in a powerful way, how for many young Japanese females, Japan is a hard place to become a grown woman.

[Yasuko Nakamura] recently published a book, The Uchira and Osoro Generation: Unadorned High School Girls of Tokyo. The Uchira in the title refers to the way Shibuya’s masses of teenage girls like to refer to themselves–a posse called “us.” Osoro is short for osoroi meaning that the girls like to dress the same. Currently eight thousand of these girls are on [her company’s] payroll [;] companies rely on her and her teen experts to help develop products such as soft drinks and cosmetics.

The Asian Mystique mentions “ladies comics”/manga and their role as peer sex education:

Unlike in the West where [teen] girls pass around steamy romance novels between friends [Peyton Place to V.C. Andrews to Twilight] or watch teen dating shows [90201 of yore and now], Japanese girls read [explicit] manga.

One of the most interesting side notes in Kickboxing Geishas involves Bizet’s Carmen, which has been reinterpreted once again, this time in a Japanese ballet where the action takes place within a Japanese business where Carmen is an “office lady” (secretary/tea server) and Jose is the corporation’s security guard. (Someone should write a book on the incredible resonance of Carmen cross-culturally!)

Both books have so much more than is truly in the scope of this blog, with analysis of the real world day-to-day sexism that women face. The Asian Mystique is especially recommended for its in-depth analysis of many issues, including the sex industry throughout Asia.

Book Review: American nerd : the story of my people

Summary: Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd is a worthwhile but deeply flawed book. The first section creating a social history of nerddom is unique and interesting, discussing the creation of the nerd in literature and popular culture — and the racial/ethnic elements in the creation of the “nerd”. The second section veers into vignettes about nerds that aren’t very edifying.

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Despite the rest of this review, I really enjoyed reading the first half of the book, where Nugent theorizes the beginning of nerd. He starts with Mary in Pride and Prejudice, moves on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then discusses how those that are now called nerds got place there. Nugent defines nerds in two groupings:

1) mostly male and intellectual and socially awkward “in ways that strike people as machinelike”

2) gender equal and nerd status “by sheer force of social exclusion”

American Nerd‘s true strength is the section explaining how Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans became the exemplar of nerddom, in contrast to racialized all-American athleticism.

One element about the book that I wasn’t sure I was going to touch on directly was the author’s blase attidude to blatant sexism. One chapter starts with a long section about the nerd slang meaning of this word (usually as a verb, similar to pwnage, exemplifying complete domination of a gaming opponent). Nary a mention of the implications for female gamers or for others appears.

This lack of understanding of sexism and male privilege in discussing nerddom is especially disappointing in light of the extensive historical discussions of the intersection between the need to define nerddom to encompass stereotypes about Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans. According to Nugent, WASPy athletic America needed “the nerd” as a Dorian Grey-like mirror to define what men should not to be.

So where does that leave the female nerd?

The book does mention girl nerddom in passing — including two bizarre mentions of Naomi Novik’s series sans names. Also, within the nerds-dig-Japanese culture section, Nugent creates a two-page amalgam of yaoi and slash into all things fangirl. And it is done with that “girls are so weird!” tone.

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An element missing from all of the books I’ve read about nerds, gifted kids, and the autism/Asperger spectrum is the issue of difference within difference. What is it like to be a black or latina/o nerd, accused of “acting white”? What is different about the experiences of immigrant versus born-here nerds? First-generation nerds versus family ‘o nerd? And I’m still waiting for a full discussion of gender and sexuality in nerddom.

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One last problem with the book — no index and no bibliography!

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This book is available in many libraries and its ISBNs are 9780743288019 0743288017