English 1102: Television and Feminism

Dr. Casey Alane Wilson • Georgia Institute of Technology

Author: Adam Lederer

From SNL to Portlandia: Fred Armisen’s Comedic Evolution

Fred Armisen of SNL and Portlandia fame, smiling with vampire fangs at an awards show

Fred Armisen gained notoriety in the comedic sphere through his rise on NBC hit Saturday Night Live, being one of the longest running actors in the show’s lengthy history. In 2011, he ventured to independently create a comedy show with Carrie Brownstein called Portlandia – a show making fun of the culture in Portland, Oregon and offering unique comedic insights on American culture at large. With my final blog post, I will be analyzing Fred in his these two shows of his that are also what he is best known for.

Fred Armisen’s role as an actor on both shows was relatively similar. In both shows, Armisen played a variety of characters rather than just one, which expressed his comedic diversity and acting ability. On Portlandia specifically, Armisen even played both male and female characters. One of his most famous characters on this show was a female feminist bookstore owner who was supposedly one of the most “woke” in all of Portland. This is a character that is very much similar to one that Armisen would play on SNL, with multiple appearances on different types of sketches like “Weekend Update” or “The Californians.”

However, Armisen also evolved his comedy after leaving Saturday Night Live to act on his own show. One of the most notable differences between the two shows was Armisen’s insightful cultural comedy that was a product of him and Carrie Brownstein’s own writing. Armisen provided through his characters many satirical observations of the slow paced life in Portland, Oregon. Through a variety of characters, he would point out the absurdities of youth and Portlandish culture associated with it. In a way, the show is a whimsical look at adolescence as a whole. Armisen and Brownstein’s characters represent all of us in our youth, with an idealistic view of the world and how it works. Armisen is truly a great comedic mind, and I know that there is a lot of great cultural commentary left in him. It will be interesting to see what direction he takes next.

Writing the wrongs in Portlandia

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the minds behind cult hit Portlandia

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen are two faces that were easily recognizable in the comedy scene prior to their creation of Portlandia, so when they joined forces to write a new show in 2011, many were buzzing with anticipation. Not after long, the show was already winning multiple awards, largely due to the writing efforts of Brownstein and Armisen. This blog post will be focused specifically on the writing of season 3 episode 3 called “Missionaries.”

The writing in this episode is credited to both Brownstein and Armisen. They are also the lead actors in the show, which makes their command of their characters masterful, as they know exactly how the dialogue was intended to be portrayed. The core plot of this episode is that the mayor of Portland is asking Fred and Carrie to pull some more residents into Portland from rival city Seattle. They go about this by doing missionary type work, spreading the good word of Portland. The writing is very meticulous at parts, getting across the key point that there must be a parallel drawn between what they are doing and actual missionary work. For example, they say stuff like, “have you heard the good word of Portland,” or “have you considered accepting Portland into your life.” These comedic parallels are great writing, striking at the point that people often go about working very hard on certain tasks where if they were to step out of the box and think critically for a brief moment, they would understand the absurdity of what they are doing.

Furthermore, they get to the personality of Portland through this comedic writing through statements like, “Men, bring your bass guitars.” The dialogue is structured in such a way that there is much snarky back and forth that adds to the comedic nature of the show. Overall, it is a very funny episode with lots of great writing that I would highly recommend.

Are socially conscious shows more gender-inclusive? In Portlandia’s case, yes.

Playing with gender is a common theme in IFC’s hit show, Portlandia

The very nature of Portlandia leads it to be more experimental with gender relations and representation on the show. Being set in a progressive town like Portland, Oregon, the show is bound to reference gender frequently, and it does just that. One prominent example of gender being referened repeatedly is through the show’s recurring feminist bookstore bit, where Armisen and Brownstein play two women selling third-wave feminist literature. Through dialogue in these scenes, gender issues are referenced a lot. Furthermore, the fact that Armisen, a biological male, is dressed as a female sheds light on the trans community. Brownstein also dresses as a man multiple times over the course of the show.

As such, not only male and female are represented, but so are many other gender identities in certain bits. The transgender community also has decent representation in the show, as mentioned above. However, the majority of the scenes take place with exclusively cisgender men and women. From the episodes I watched, it does not appear that men or women received notably more screen time; most of the screen time is consumed by the two main actors (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) and the characters they happen to portray in a given scene.

The show does a good job of giving each gender agency and power. Sure, there are some scenes in which a given character seems irrelevant or powerless, but on the net it evens out. Male characters are oftentimes portrayed in a manner uncommon in mass media today: as sensitive beings with a desire to from non-superficial relationships. Armisen even gets his nails painted in certain scenes, highlighting gender performativity in such scenes. Women are also portrayed as less indecisive and more powerful on the show, but more work could still be done on this. The show does have a decent minority population, but these characters are often supplemental and temporary (as are about all characters on the show to be fair). Since Armisen an Brownstein are the main characters in each sketch, they take up most of the time as white people.

Overall, the show does a good job of representing a wide range of genders and highlighting the problems with a simple male-female dichotomy. Men and women are considered to be essentially equal, and the show does a good job of putting forth a model for shows going forward on how to approach these issues.

Since 2008, what has been the gender spread of primary news anchors across the the 25 most-watched news programs in America?

Through our research we saw that women are generally underrepresented in the news at all forms and at all levels. We wanted to narrow our scope, so we chose to take a closer look at the most viewed news programs to see the impacts and presence or lack of diversity at this level. We chose this research question because it was a direct quantitative analysis of female representation in news programs. Rather than looking at programs across different networks, we chose to look at the top 25 most watched programs nationwide since those programs received the highest viewership and ratings and thus are most representative of the news Americans are consuming. Additionally, this question can be expanded to look at intersectionality in news networks and how both gender representation and diversity in other forms such as race and sexual orientation translate into audience demographics.

Will is one of the people in our group

We chose to look at “gender spread” since we cannot assume that every news anchor identifies as just male or female. This question is important as it reflects larger societal preferences that news corporations are acting on for profit, and this can lead to furthering gender roles into the news industry which in turn transpires back to the viewers. We can measure gender spread through the gender ratio of primary news anchors per program. Through this question, we expect to demonstrate that there is a discrepancy within the genders of primary news anchors on the 25 most watched news programs and determine if there are any fluctuations or patterns that may line up with a given year’s political or social climate. As such, we are interested in how these factors may have changed since 2008. It could be the case that the election of Barack Obama spurred an increase in diversity in TV news, but it could also be the case that there was some sort of diversity backlash against the idea of the first black president.

The many views from Portland: diversity in cinematography and what it conveys about Portlandia

Good ol’ fashioned patriotism at Portlandia’s “Allergy Pride” parade

Being a show made up of numerous bits that say something different about life in Portland, Portlandia must be analyzed for its individual stories rather than as an episode in its entirety. This remains true for cinematography, as different stories throughout the episode require a different means of expression since they are trying to convey different things. As such, I will analyze the cinematography in Season 2, Episode 2, but I’m going to focus specifically on two bits within the episode: one at Portland’s fictional “Allergy Pride” parade, and one where Brownstein and Armisen’s characters become addicted to Battlestar Galactica.

The opening scene of the episode occurs at an “Allergy Pride” parade in Portland, where Brownstein and Armisen are announcers for the event. As is shown in the image above, the scene is shot to look like a patriotic setting with red, white and blue in the background. The camera also slightly points up at the two announcers, indicating their authority in the scene. There are relatively short takes, going between the commentary by the announcers and visuals of what is going on. The quick shots point to the chaos and absurdity of the event, as many people walk by with posters like “tolerate the lactose intolerant.” This scene is very well lit, as the goal is to make it look like an official event rather than something in an informal setting.

Conversely, a scene later in this episode shows Brownstein and Armisen’s characters procrastinating many duties as they waste away a week of their lives by watching every episode of Battlestar Galactica. The cinematography of this scene is noticeably different, namely because it is trying to convey a different theme to the viewer at home. Whereas the first scene needed to be seen as more formal, with more complex and well-lit shots, this scene’s humor is derived from the messiness of the characters’ situations. The lighting is darker, showing a lack of hope for their situation, and everything around the room is a mess. There is a rapid pace cutting between scenes, with occasional time stamps showing just how long they had been watching the show for comedic effect. The colors in this scene gradually get darker and less diverse as the scene goes on and they spend more time watching the show. Using different strategies, Brownstein and Armisen are able to convey different moods to the viewer in these two scenes.

However, I wouldn’t say that this episode’s strategy when it comes to cinematography is drastically different than any other episode simply because each episode has such a diverse array of strategies. This is truly a very visually interesting show to watch, and I enjoyed how the cinematography (and diversity of it within a given episode) reflected the diverse nature of the show.

Gender Representation in News: Annotated Bibliography

Armstrong, Cory L., et al. “Female News Professionals in Local and National Broadcast News during the Buildup to the Iraq War.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 50, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 78-94. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1207/s15506878jobem5001_5.

This source, a peer-reviewed academic article, covers gender representation on TV news during the buildup to the Iraq War. Specifically, it talks about how women are (or are not) represented across different networks in terms of both simply being on the news and airtime. Additionally, it compares local and national news regarding the stories women typically tell compared to men.

The results of this study suggested that there is less of a gender disparity on the local front than the national front. Routinely, national news would run stories with female newscasters that ran shorter than those of their male counterparts and covered more “soft” topics like social stories or feel-good news instead of “hard” topics like war or the economy that men tended to cover. Local news was more equitable in their distribution of stories and story length, according to the study. However, it was still determined that younger female reporters did not get as much airtime or as long a story length as the more seasoned female reporters (or those who were perceived to be older). My research could use this study as it encompasses airtime and story nature of men compared to women.

Kern, Rebecca, and Suman Mishra. “(Re) Framing Women and Network News: A Comparative Analysis.” Women’s Studies, vol. 43, no. 6, Aug. 2014, pp. 712–732. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497878.2014.921513.

This source, an peer-reviewed article regarding the way women are depicted in network news, is a very interesting one that brings up important points about how gendered society’s views of female newscasters can be. The source specifically talks about how popular female TV personalities like Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer are covered and perceived by the public.

Specifically, the article covered the extent to which gender and female characteristics were mentioned in stories about the respective personalities. The findings of the research were relatively surprising. It was found that coverage of Katie Couric had much more to do with things like her gender, her appearance, and her age (all qualities that are not as often talked about regarding men). Conversely, it found that coverage of Diane Sawyer was actually much more focused on her professional role with ABC, suggesting her gender was not as prevalent in the way people perceived her. This leads to the conclusion that women can have differing experiences at different networks. This is useful to my research as it shows gendered dynamics on TV news.

Finneman, Teri, and Joy Jenkins. “Sexism on the Set: Gendered Expectations of TV Broadcasters in a Social Media World.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 62, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 479–494. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/08838151.2018.1484292.

This peer-reviewed academic journal article examines how our expectations of how certain genders should portray themselves in the TV news media shapes our perceptions of them. The study is specific to the era of social media, so we can assume some degree of social progress since the onset of TV news, but still recognize a lot of bias.

The article concluded that little progress has been made in the past few decades. The research found little evidence of a reduced amount of criticism of broadcasters’ appearances in the age of social media. Specifically, females faced more criticism for their appearance than males, suggesting that females face an added difficulty of constantly trying to look “good enough” for the audience to take them seriously. As such, we can conclude that social media has simply given people another method to perpetuate gender norms rather than question them. This is useful to my research as I am concerned with how female broadcasters face different challenges than their male coworkers.

Papper, Bob. “Little Change for Women, Minorities in TV/Radio.” RTDNA, 2013, www.rtdna.org/article/little_change_for_women_minorities_in_tv_radio.

This source references a 2013 study conducted jointly by Hofstra University and RTDNA regarding minority and gender representation in TV and radio programs. This highlights the intersectionality of feminism, as there are many dimensions across which discrimination can occur. As such, it is useful to my research because we are also concerned with other marginalized groups.

The findings were that nothing has changed too drastically within the timeframe of the past few years. The percentage of minorities represented in TV went virtually unchanged from 2012-2013, but the percentage of minority news directors at non-Hispanic TV stations was at its second highest level ever in 2013. Women overall in TV news rose slightly, reaching over 40% in 2013, and radio women directors rose slightly. They also found that men outnumber women for all ethnic groups except Asian-Americans. This study shows that we still have much to do to get to equitable representation in TV news (and radio, even though this isn’t part of my research).

Guskin, Emily. “5 Facts about Ethnic and Gender Diversity in U.S. Newsrooms.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 18 July 2013, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/07/18/5-facts-about-ethnic-and-gender-diversity-in-u-s-newsrooms/.

This source is an online article from pew research, citing various statistics regarding minority and gender representation in news media. This further underscores the importance of intersectionality in truly understanding any social justice movement. While my research is primarily concerned with gender, I am also interested in how ethnicity and race play a role in the television news landscape.

The core argument of this piece is that we still have a long way to go before we reach equity in either gender or ethnicity in news. One of the interesting figures this piece brings up is that overall, minorities still only account for about 12% of the overall workforce in newsrooms across the United States. While women are more represented in these environments, still only about one third of newsroom managers are female, suggesting that there are some hurdles for females who wish to rise in the ranks of these organizations. These figures will certainly assist me in determining the scope of gender representation in news through my research.

LaFrance, Adrienne. “I Analyzed a Year of My Reporting for Gender Bias (Again).” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 Feb. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/gender-diversity-journalism/463023/.

This article from The Atlantic is perhaps less scientific in approach than the others, but still provides an interesting perspective on the way news media represents gender. The reporter in this piece cites complaints about how even unintentionally, she still quotes and mentions much less women than men.

In 2012, the writer of this piece analyzed many of his articles and found that about a quarter of the people he quoted or mentioned were women, suggesting men were much more commonly the focus of his articles. In 2016, the writer conducted the same sort of self- analysis and found that only 22% of the names she included or mentioned in her articles were women. Even after she became aware of her lack of adequate gender representation, she unintentionally continued disproportionately covering men in relation to women. This can carry over to TV media as well, which would be a logical assumption since the nature of the stories that are covered in both mediums are relatively similar. As such, this is a valuable perspective for my research into gender representation not only on the news, but in the news.

Portlandia’s compelling case for why excessive sanctimony is hurting the liberal cause

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen set fire to the TV world with Portlandia, a satire of life in urban blue-state Ameria

As a liberal myself, I have often been concerned with how some in my ideological circle approach political discourse – particularly with those they disagree with. Among other things, popular conceptions of liberals include a tendency to immediately attribute ill intentions to the other side and to be too easily offended. Whether this is truly a widespread phenomenon or not, it is undoubtedly a prevailing stereotype and one that is explored and critiqued in Portlandia.

Portlandia episodes are comprised of a series of short bits, so many themes can exist in a given episode. This entry will focus on season 2 episode 1: “Mixologist.” Specifically, I will discuss a bit in the episode that occurs at a feminist bookstore, where the two main characters play employees.

In this scene, the two millennial female employees of the bookstore encounter an older man whom they’ve hired to fix their AC unit. The scene begins with the repairman entering the bookstore and asking where the unit is. The employees ask him what he means, and the repairman begins to wave his hands to describe the shape of the AC system and proceeds to make a “whirring” noise with his lips. Immediately, Carrie Brownstein’s character stops him and explains that he needs to stop moving and making that noise for an ambiguous reason and Fred Armisen’s character asks if that means his character (who is a woman) also cannot make the noise. When the man asks again where the AC unit is, Brownstein’s character tells him he should not use the words “unit,” “box,” or “equipment” because she feels penises all around her and is practically “halfway to pregnant.”

Armisen questions her by suggesting he calls it a “chill unit” instead, but evidently that phrase cannot be used either. Seeing the cues from her partner, Armisen’s character eventually agrees and becomes equally offended that the repairman would have the audacity to use such a word. The repairman eventually fixes the air conditioner, and after encountering another difficulty as he refers to Armisen’s character as “sweetie,” he is given two books to read – one of which details how inside all of us is both a “phallus and the opposite of a phallus.”

Although a major exaggeration, this scene gets to the heart of why many feel that liberals are excessively sanctimonious. This scene illustrates examples of how some seem to take offense to minuscule things, like the use of “unit” or calling someone “sweetie.” Furthermore, we see how peer pressure leads Armisen’s character to take offense to things she would otherwise be fine with. In a show that markets to liberals and depicts the “hippie” lifestyle of Portland, this critique of modern liberalism is one that fits well within the show. The hope is that viewers look down upon this absurd style of engagement and set their default assumption of others’ intentions as good rather than bad.

Insert Creative Introductory Blog Title Here

Hello world! My name is Adam Lederer and this is my first time blogging so please bear with me. I am currently a class of 2022 Public Policy major here at Georgia Tech and am planning to minor in Law, Science and Technology. My goal is to go to law school and pursue a career in either law or politics. Whatever I end up doing, I want to make a positive impact on the lives of others, which is one of the reasons I was so excited to take this course.

Aside from me being a pretty avid consumer of television, the feminist aspect of this course really appealed to me when I was deciding which ENGL 1102 section I wanted to take. I feel that gender issues are some of the most pressing of our time, and examining the modern TV landscape through a feminist lens seemed like an invaluable way to delve into these issues.

Yay for equality!

For years I have watched TV shows that infuriated me with their portrayal of women as mere objects to be chased after by men, lack of intelligent female characters, and insertion of “toxic masculinity” into common dialogue between characters. I am looking forward to this class because I will now have a space to voice my concerns with a group of open-minded people who are also interested in studying television.

In past English classes, I have had mixed experiences. I took both AP Lit and Lang in high school, and thus was exempted from ENGL 1101 at tech. I always enjoyed some aspects of English classes like the class discussions and thought-provoking pieces we read, but constantly wished the subject matter was more consistently interesting. As someone who enjoys discussions, I feel that oral communication is a mode of communication I particularly enjoy. However, I am aiming to better my written communication this semester, as I often struggle to communicate messages in a concise manner through writing.

The TV show I have chosen to review through this blog is Portlandia. This show was created by Carrie Brownstein, who also stars as one of the main characters alongside SNL alum Fred Armisen. The series takes a satirical view of life in Portland, Oregon; each episode explores a different aspect of life in the city and takes ideas to their logical extremes, thereby exposing their absurdity. I was especially excited to review this show because it is one that I have heard a lot about but have never had the chance to watch. It also provides an interesting cultural commentary through satire – a style of comedy that I am quite fond of. Lastly, the show is easily available to watch on Netflix, which makes it a great choice for me. I cannot wait to begin watching this hilarious show and sharing my experiences through this blog. Thanks for your time in reading this and good luck to the rest of y’all! Get blogging!

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