Monday, January 30, 2012

New Jersey's governor and same-sex marriage: Shall we let the voters decide?

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of the forthcoming book Gay Rights at the Ballot Box

In a recent article in The New York Times, “Christie Wants Voters to Decide on Gay Marriage,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie warned that he would veto a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Indeed, Gov. Christie argues that voters should get to decide on same-sex marriage via a constitutional amendment. Send it to the voters! It’s the ultimate way of getting the public’s input!

This is the logic behind many ballot measures.

But is it right? Is it fair?

In many Western states like Oregon and California, the initiative process that allows citizens to propose new laws was established by Progressive and Populist activists at the turn of the century. The first statewide initiatives in Oregon created a direct primary election (1904) and a recall process for elected officials (1908). These initiatives were an attempt to circumvent corrupt partisan state legislatures and educate voters on social issues. They were an attempt to make legislatures accountable to the general public. And indeed early initiatives were used to pass laws on issues like child welfare, work day length, and prohibition. Since then, voters across the nation have used ballot measures to vote on everything from nuclear freeze to medical marijuana to euthanasia. In states without a direct initiative process, almost all state legislatures can refer initiatives, which is the origin of most same-sex marriage bans that have passed in the United States.

What also arose out of this process is a long history in the United States of voting on the civil rights of “others,” namely others such as illegal immigrants, African Americans, women, and LGBT individuals. In the wake of the Civil War, residents of Georgetown and the city of Washington, D.C., passed a ballot measure, the Black Suffrage Bill, to prevent newly emancipated Blacks from being enfranchised. States across the country have voted away affirmative action. Californians limited the rights of illegal immigrants’ access to public education and health systems in a 1994 initiative. Women made some gains using ballot measures to gain suffrage. However, in the case of LGBT politics, almost 70% of all relevant ballot measures result in a repeal of LGBT rights (or worse, the creation of an anti-gay law). And same-sex marriage rights have never been passed by voters. Frequently, these votes on civil rights are declared unconstitutional by federal and state courts after their passage. However, it is still routine in the United States to use ballot measures to vote on civil rights.

Is it fair to put civil rights to a popular vote?

I think this ignores the intention of civil rights law. Namely, that if civil rights were popular, they wouldn’t be necessary at all. When laws are passed to protect or recognize civil rights, it is usually because those rights are being taken away. You need an anti-bullying law to protect LGBT teens who are harassed by homophobics; you need a Voting Rights Act to protect African Americans in Southern states where their collective power is restricted; and you need protections for the rights of illegal immigrants in the face of public hostility toward them. Many civil rights would not stand up to a popular vote. Indeed one compelling reason for representative democracy is to protect minorities from the “tyranny of the majority.”

There is also the issue that these ballot measures sap resources away from minority communities. In the case of New Jersey, the creation of a campaign to pass a same-sex ballot measure will involve fundraising millions of dollars, marshalling thousands of volunteers, and months of organizing. It could result in a same-sex marriage law in New Jersey. However, it is more likely to result in the passage of a constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex marriage in New Jersey and can only be repealed by an additional ballot measure.

This is something for Governor Christie to consider. Although the initiative process is used to check the power of the legislature in many states, it is also the responsibility of the legislature to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority.


Amy Stone is author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box (March 2012) and assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio.

"Amy L. Stone crafts a compelling, deeply textured portrayal of the more than 200 anti-gay ballot campaigns in the U.S. since 1974. Through interviews with movement leaders and other sources, Stone deftly analyzes the tension between winning campaigns and building a sustainable movement, between national, urban activists and local, rural communities, as well as debates over tactics and messaging. Gay Rights at the Ballot Box is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the central, disturbing role anti-gay politics has played in contemporary U.S. politics."
—Sean Cahill, Ph.D., Fenway Institute and New York University

Monday, January 23, 2012

George Lipsitz: Why Johnny Otis's death hits so hard.

Professor of black studies and sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara

I knew something was wrong the second I answered the telephone and heard Tom Reed’s voice. Although it has been decades since Tom ruled the airwaves in Los Angeles as the city’s most popular disc jockey — as “The Master Blaster on KGFJ 1230AM — his voice has never lost its luster, it boldness, its compelling confidence. Every time we talk on the phone I feel energized and excited, like I am about to win a contest or hear a great record. But this time, Tom sounded different. He spoke slowly and with sadness. He told me that Johnny Otis had died.

My personal contact with Johnny started with a different kind of phone call. Intrigued by Ruben Guevara’s discussion in a book chapter on Chicano music about L’il Julian Herrera as a Johnny Otis discovery, I wrote a letter to Johnny and asked if I could interview him about L’il Julian. A few weeks later I was sitting in my office at the University of Minnesota on a snowy day talking to a graduate student when the phone rang.

“Hey professor, this is Johnny Otis!” he proclaimed with his own smooth and resonant disc jockey voice.

“We can talk about L’il Julian, but what I want to know first is whether you’re a real professor who know things or just a b.s. professor who pretends to know things.”

Laughing, I replied that in my line of work that could be an incredibly fine distinction. Graciously he invited me to come visit him in California, giving me the kind of direction to his house that only a band leader would give. “Now you vamp along the 110 Freeway until you see your cue. Your cue is Orange Grove Boulevard, and when you get your cue, you hit it!”

Two weeks later on a quiet street in Altadena, California, I walked past the tour bus parked on his front lawn and rang the bell at his door. It took Johnny a long time to answer and I thought that maybe I had made a mistake by setting an appointment with a musician at 10 a.m. on a Sunday. Eventually, however, he did come to the door, wearing a bathrobe, house slippers, and a doo-rag covering his hair.

For the next three hours, we talked nonstop.

We discussed music and musicians, the pigeons, chickens, and exotic birds in the coops in his back yard, and assorted topics in politics, anthropology, religion, and history. I told him how much I liked his 1968 book Listen to the Lambs, how I had pulled off a library shelf at a dismal time in my life and drew greatly needed inspiration and insight from it. I related to him what it was like to see Johnny and his band perform in Houston in a nightclub that previously housed a bank. He remembered that show and that venue well, especially the acoustical and performing challenges that the building posed for the musicians. Johnny told me that he was working on a new book about his life and career and wondered if I was interested in editing it and helping him find a publisher. It was one of the most amazing afternoons of my life, the start of a deep, long, and intense friendship that would make Johnny one of the most important people in my life.

The book he was working on became Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, a collection of essays published in 1993 that ranged from memories of his childhood in Berkeley, California, in the 1920s to analyses about the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion. Over the years I dropped in to watch him conduct his Saturday morning public radio program, gave guest lectures in his classes on Black music for Vista Community College and UC-Berkeley extension, and sponsored lecture demonstrations by Johnny and his band on campuses and at scholarly meetings. I wrote the foreword to the 2009 University of Minnesota Press edition of Listen to the Lambs and authored 2010 biography of Johnny titled Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story, also published by Minnesota. It has been an honor and a privilege to tell the story of Johnny’s amazing life, to expose his ideas and artistry to new audiences, and to interact with him and his wonderful family.

Johnny had just marked his 90th birthday. He led a long and full life. For more than a decade he had been suffering from a variety of physical ailments. He died surrounded by people who loved him, including his wife of more than 70 years, Phyllis Walker Otis. I have never known anyone who was more loving or more loved than Johnny Otis.

Yet this death is not so easy to accept. I understand the sadness in Tom Reed’s voice. It is not just the departure of a dear friend or the anticipation of having to continue our lives deprived of the presence of this great force in our lives. It is knowing that most people in this society will never know what made Johnny Otis’s life so great.

In the obituaries and testimonies that poured forth when his death was announced, ample mention was made of the great songs he composed, the great records he produced, the great singers he discovered, the great performances he made possible. There was extensive admiration expressed for his ability to accomplish so much in music while also creating prizewinning paintings and sculptures, writing four books, and serving as pastor in a sanctified church. Always with Otis, there was also considerable commentary about his unusual identity as an ethnic Greek American who became “Black by persuasion,” who embraced Black culture with an attitude of respectful humility, who honored, respected, and advanced it through tireless effort and unwavering identification. All of this praise is warranted.

Yet as I tried to show in Midnight At The Barrelhouse, the true achievement of Johnny Otis came from his embrace of the Black freedom struggle and his role in it as a participant rather than as a tourist or interpreter. He walked picket lines to support the southern sit-ins of the early 1960s, placed himself and his family in great jeopardy by writing newspaper columns exposing police brutality and housing discrimination, mobilized his church to feed the hungry and house the homeless, and used the platforms afforded him through his radio show and his books to portray the 1965 and 1992 riots as inevitable consequences of white supremacy. Johnny Otis saw that he could not be anti-racist as an individual unless he did something to make society as a whole less racist and more just.

He knew that there is important work to be done and that it is up to us to do it.


George Lipsitz is professor of black studies and sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author of many books, including Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story, and wrote the foreword to the 2009 edition of Johnny Otis's Listen to the Lambs.

"Johnny Otis—he’s the coolest! A true pioneer of the music I love."—Aaron Neville

"We are lucky to have Johnny Otis, as the world is short on smart, soulful, funny, gifted, walk-the-walk folk. Bless his heart."—Joan Baez

"Johnny Otis is one of the most important figures in the history of R&B and rock and roll."—Bonnie Raitt

"Johnny’s career just dazzles the mind. From discovering Esther Phillips and Jackie Wilson, to being a drummer, singer, piano player, bandleader, hit-maker right down to sculpting and painting. He even lost a seat for the California state assembly. You can’t top that. Willie and the Hand Jive indeed."—Bob Dylan

"A story that needs to be read and appreciated." —Choice

Friday, January 20, 2012

What happens when churches support anti-gay ballot measures?

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of the forthcoming book Gay Rights at the Ballot Box

According to the recent Minnesota Star Tribune article “Priests Told Not to Voice Dissent” (January 15, 2012), archibishop John Nienstedt is attempting to mandate the Catholic Church's support of the Minnesota constitutional amendment, which defines marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. This constitutional amendment effectively bans same-sex marriage and is similar to the 34 same-sex marriage bans that have happened in 31 different states from Hawaii to Maine since 1998. Most of these states, like Minnesota, did not have legalized same-sex marriage before the constitutional amendment was passed, although these constitutional amendments eliminated same-sex marriage rights in California and Maine.

Religious support of anti-gay ballot measures—both same-sex marriage bans and the wide array of other anti-gay referendums and initiatives that have been sponsored by the Religious Right since 1974—is common. Although the public spotlight is on the archdiocese in Minnesota, in my research on anti-gay ballot measures I found that usually the support of evangelical Christians and Mormons is more visible. Evangelicals have been involved in anti-gay ballot measure campaigns since the late 1970s and early 1980s, after national attention to Anita Bryant’s involvement in a Dade County referendum on gay rights. Sometimes this involvement includes using church pastors as spokespeople or figureheads for campaigns. Mormons were sporadically involved in earlier anti-gay ballot measures, but the Mormon sect has become an important part of the Religious Right since the 1998 same-sex marriage ban in Hawaii. This involvement includes fundraising and mobilization through organizations like the National Organization for Marriage.

What I find so different about the Minnesota archdiocese's involvement is the prohibition against “open dissension” within the church and the guidelines that Nienstedt lays out for special “marriage prayers” during mass, along with plans to send teams to speak at Minnesota high schools about the important of marriage. It reminds me of the involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that eliminated newly-won same-sex marriage rights for Californians. The documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition lays out a train of evidence that high level LDS officials led a campaign to bankroll and support the Yes on 8 campaign. Even the Salt Lake Times referred to the public attention on organized Mormon support for the same-sex marriage ban a “PR Fiasco” for LDS, and there was public debate on whether or not LDS should be able to maintain its tax-exempt status due to its coordinated participation in political campaigns.

Reading about this coordinated effort by Minnesota's archdiocese, I wonder if it will follow through with a coordinated campaign to support the same-sex marriage ban on the ballot in November. I don’t know the effects this political organizing will have on the experience of Catholics in Minnesota. Will this coordinated attempt unify practitioners within the church or will it lead to dissension (open or not) and disharmony? And if the church does follow through, I’m curious whether the public spotlight will shine on the church in the same way that it did on LDS after Proposition 8.


Amy Stone is author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box (March 2012) and assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio.

"Amy L. Stone crafts a compelling, deeply textured portrayal of the more than 200 anti-gay ballot campaigns in the U.S. since 1974. Through interviews with movement leaders and other sources, Stone deftly analyzes the tension between winning campaigns and building a sustainable movement, between national, urban activists and local, rural communities, as well as debates over tactics and messaging. Gay Rights at the Ballot Box is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the central, disturbing role anti-gay politics has played in contemporary U.S. politics."
—Sean Cahill, Ph.D., Fenway Institute and New York University

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Reality is alright, it's just messy and weird": An interview with Ian Bogost on videogames, social awareness, and the future of gaming

"Will innocents be caught in the cross-fire? Oh, yes. But when your secret weapon is a random act of kindness, it’s only cruel to be kind to other players...." Cruel 2 B Kind is an experimental game by Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal. Here, Bogost, author of How to Do Things With Videogames, answers questions about videogames' potential for cultural transformation, among other things.

Award-winning videogame designer, media philosopher, and professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology

What central question does How to Do Things with Videogames tackle?
The book is about why videogames are a mature mass medium, how to understand them as such, and how people of all kinds are using games for many purposes. The book argues that videogames are everywhere, and I try to show the variety of uses in twenty short chapters, each of which takes on a different use. Those uses are very broad in scope, from experiencing music to politicking, from doing exercise to appreciating art.

When you talk about games, are you also always talking about technology?
Games have many material influences—many things that make them what they are. When we're talking about videogames, computers are always a part of the picture, although there are lots of ways for a game to be computational, from a game played on a minicomputer in a laboratory in the 1960s to a game played by computerized automated voice system over a mobile network. But videogames also derive their form from other games—folk games like chess and go, parlor games like cards and billiards, games of skill and chance like pinball and midway games… not to mention the fact that games have been strongly influenced by other media, particularly narrative media like film and novels.

Instead of thinking about games as technology, it's useful to think of them as media, in Marshall McLuhan's sense of the word—an extension of the senses. Videogames alter the way we experience the world, but they are also made up of other kinds of media, other materials, like stories or chance or fine motor action. And the materials out of which something is made have an influence on how they work and what we can do with them.

How would you convince a doubter of the game's potential to make the world better?
I start one of my earlier books, Persuasive Games, with an example from the 1970s, a game made for a then-popular educational computing system called PLATO. The game is called Tenure, and it was meant to be played by students graduating with teaching certificates, to give them a sense of the trials a new high school teacher might face in the first year on the job. In the game, the player has to get hired, organize a classroom, manage students, and also deal with institutional politics and interpersonal relationships in the school. The means of interaction is very simple—a series of scenarios, each with a set of choices—but the end result offers a very effective portrayal of the dynamics of a secondary school, one in which classroom teaching is often secondary to the various organizational politics taking place between different constituencies.

Education is one of many applications of games, but the interesting thing about Tenure is how it presents the problem of learning the ins and outs of school politics. It presents the player with a model of a part of the world, focusing on the system of school politics, on how they work. Then it offers the player a role to take on, one constrained by that model. You're playing a green teacher, but you can't do anything you want—you're subject to the simulated social conditions of the school. And then it provides a context for that role, a situation in which the decisions you make matter.

So, games don't make the world better by solving our problems for us. There's no magic wand we can wave that makes the world better. Yet, games can give us a different perspective on the world than we're accustomed to, one focused on the way things work, even when that way is a messy way.

You created the game Cruel 2 B Kind (a game in which weapons are acts of kindness) with Jane McGonigal. What new ground did you break with this game? McGonigal's research also focuses on the future of games, and she asks the central question "Why doesn't the real world work more like an online game?" How do you see your work as being similar to or different from hers?
This is related to the problem of making the world better. Jane believes that "reality is broken" and that we can learn from the ways games give us gratification to make our lives more gratifying. But I see things just the other way around: reality is alright, it's just messy and weird. We can't "fix" it even if we wanted to. But we can become more at one with the uncertainty and strangeness and contingency of that world. Games offer a particularly effective way to conduct that exercise. Games help us stop looking for simplistic answers and start realizing that once you touch one part of a problem, something else changes and you have to reformulate your strategy. So for me, the real world is not the problem. The problem is how we've refused to allow the rusty gears of that world to appear beautiful and gratifying to us. Without acknowledging complexity, we can never make any progress.

Cruel 2 B Kind is an interesting example of that outcome, because it's a game all about interacting with strangers in public. You play in a public setting, usually a crowded urban environment. And you capture other players with acts and words of kindness, but you have to deduce who might be playing in order to succeed. And in the process, you're likely to do nice things for random people without realizing it. So to me, Cruel 2 B Kind helps us trace the social rifts between our public and private lives. It doesn't suggest that we should just be nicer people in a saccharine way. It creates a kind of wormhole between the world we inhabit and another way of imagining that world.

What do you make of a game like Flower (a video game that aims to make players peaceful and relaxed)? Are there other games right now that aim, similarly, to relax the gamer?
There's a chapter in the book on Relaxation, and I talk about games like Journey to Wild Divine, which uses a sensor that measures skin galvanic response and heart rate, and that's the interface to the game. You have to relax yourself physiologically to progress. And I've made a strange experimental meditation game called Guru Meditation, which is played on an old 1983 Amiga peripheral called the Joyboard—the goal of that game is to sit still for as long as possible; it's a game you don't play, I suppose. But the most common relaxation games are probably ordinary casual games like Bejeweled. These are the games we play just to pass the time, just to clear our heads. They're a bit like doodling on paper while on the phone, or knitting while waiting for the doctor. The purpose of the system is just to help its players unwind.

A lot of people cite Flower as a relaxing game, but I actually find it pretty nerve-wracking! Its setting and appearance are beautiful and idyllic, and those features definitely suggest relaxation—the petals of flowers gliding on the wind. But the experience of play to me isn't relaxing, it's just another action game, albeit a somewhat slow one. This will sound strange, but for me Flower has more in common with Grand Theft Auto: both of those games are about being somewhere, about the details of a three-dimensional environment, and about ambling (or driving, or floating) through it.

What is your favorite game?
I'll admit that I've always been terrible at picking favorites, and I tend never to have an answer when someone asks. But in the context of How to Do Things With Videogames, I finally have an excuse to refuse to pick: the really interesting and promising thing about videogames is their potential to become ordinary, to become commonplace. Sure, we've got big blockbuster games like we have summer movies or popular novels, and we an always talk about those in terms of our aesthetic tastes. But when we have games for advertising and games for health and games for public policy debate and games as collectible trifles and games as a way to practice parallel parking, then talk of favorites makes less sense.

Where do you think the future of gaming is headed?
Everywhere. As a general-purpose medium, games are increasingly going to be put to use in all the places we use more familiar media like writing, images, and film. That's why technology of specific genres or styles of games, like better real-time 3D graphics or more intuitive interfaces, is less important than the uses to which games are put, large and small, momentous and forgettable. But there's a consequence to this future: as games become a general-purpose medium, they also become a domesticated, familiar one. And that's a bittersweet success for those who have enjoyed videogames as an esoteric lifestyle or identity. No longer will games be strange and unusual. But it is a success nevertheless.

What would a book-as-game look like?
There are several kinds of books, and the game "equivalent" (if indeed there is one) for different genres or styles might look different. In my earlier work I've argued that games can make arguments, and that certainly corresponds with many non-fiction books, scholarly or trade. Idea that are particularly systemic are the most susceptible to being made into a game. For example, many people (myself included) have compared Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel to a game like Civilization.

Then we also have fiction, of course, and the truth is, games are less adept at telling stories than they are at depicting systems (despite the commercial game industry's insistence on copying the styles and themes of Hollywood motion pictures). I've wondered if games share more in common with poetry, and one of my recent games, A Slow Year, tries to make that connection explicit: it's a kind of playable Imagism for the Atari VCS, which I purposely released as a book to make the connection to poetry explicit.

And there are lots of other kinds of books: you could think of the example of Tenure as akin to a textbook or self-help book even. And there are games like Cooking Mama, which are at least something like cookbooks, even if far more abstract.

I suppose the fundamental difference between books and games is that books are textual, at least primarily so. As we think about new ways of conveying ideas and creating experiences, perhaps we'll see more experiments in hybrid media, in chimera that are part-book, part-game. Of course, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of off-shoots or promotional tie-ins, like we see with some iPad books today. Those can be interesting, but usually they are just gimmicks.


Ian Bogost is an award-winning videogame designer and media philosopher. He is professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as founding partner at Persuasive Games LLC. He is author or coauthor of several books, including How to Do Things With Videogames (Minnesota 2011), Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, Newsgames: Journalism at Play, and the forthcoming Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing (Minnesota, April 2012). His videogames have been exhibited internationally and played by millions of people; they cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, and tort reform. His most recent game, A Slow Year, a collection of game poems for Atari, won the Vanguard and Virtuoso awards at the 2010 Indiecade Festival. For more information, go to

"What can you do with videogames? Play pranks, meditate on politics, achieve zen-like zone-outs, turn the act of travel back into adventure, and describe how to safely exit a plane—among other things, as Ian Bogost explains in this superb, philosophical, and wide-ranging book on the expressive qualities of games."—Clive Thompson, columnist for Wired and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine

"(This) collection of essays on videogames confirms Bogost as one of the most penetrating, erudite and original thinkers around on the topic." —The Guardian

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Before we had the Kardashians, even before we had The Real World, we had PBS's An American Family -- the original "reality" series.

The real Loud family (right) meets HBO's Loud family. HBO's triple-Golden-Globe-nominated Cinema Verite takes a look behind the scenes of the filming of America's first reality TV family. Photo from

Before 1973, the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, lived in the privacy of their own home. With the airing of the documentary An American Family, that "privacy" extended to every American home with a television. Jeffrey Ruoff is author of An American Family: A Televised Life, the first in-depth look at this pioneering "reality TV" documentary. HBO's 2011 mini-series Cinema Verite, which is nominated for three Golden Globes at this weekend's awards ceremony, takes an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the filming of An American Family. In anticipation of this weekend's awards, we thought we'd post the preface and part of the introduction to Ruoff's book — which we highly recommend.


The advent of satellite and cable television in the 1980s, together with intense competition among American networks for advertising revenues, left broadcast media scrambling for ways to reach audiences. Using new small-format video technologies that make taping possible under virtually any circumstances, producers have introduced a flood of inexpensive reality-based shows, often called "reality TV" or "docu-soaps." Fox's Cops (1989-present), which follows actual police officers while they patrol the streets of America, led the way. Subsequently, ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos (1990-present) brought amateur footage into prime time as studio audiences voted to award $10,000 to the evening's most amusing clip. MTV's The Real World (1992-present) held casting tryouts for another hybrid form in which seven youths, strangers at the outset of the show, lived together in a loft apartment specifically constructed for filming purposes. As I write this preface, CBS's Survivor, with its game-show format and tropical island setting, has become the hit of the summer of 2000, prompting Time magazine to do a cover story on "voyeur TV." As audiences followed the ups and downs of the dwindling number of contestants for the million-dollar prize, Business Week reported that Survivor was "rejuvenating the network's demographics and boosting summer ratings." Commercial success guarantees that programmers will offer more of the same: reality TV is designed to make real life pay.

But before "infotainment" and "reality programming," there was a nonfiction series called An American Family. Produced by Craig Gilbert, this documentary chronicled seven months in the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, including the divorce proceedings of the parents and the New York lifestyle of their gay son, Lance. Twelve episodes long, An American Family was shown weekly on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1973; millions watched. The Louds—wife Pat, husband Bill, and their children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele—became household names. Unlike the contrived situations and game-show formats of current reality programming, the PBS documentary portrayed everyday life without embellishment. No prizes were awarded. There were no commercials, because An American Family was not broadcast to make money.

Producer Gilbert deliberately chose an upper-middle-class family whose lifestyle approximated that of families seen on situation comedies such as Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-66). As in The Brady Bunch (1969-74), there were plenty of kids in the family. But by the time Pat Loud asked her husband to move out of the house in the ninth episode, the old ideal of carefree sitcom families had crumbled. Gilbert's use of narrative techniques in a nonfictional account of family life blurred conventions of different media forms. Unlike most documentaries, An American Family had no host, no interviews, and no voice-over narration. By bringing cameras into the home, An American Family announced the breakdown of fixed distinctions between public and private, reality and spectacle, serial narrative and nonfiction, documentary and fiction, film and television.

It is worth revisiting this groundbreaking documentary today because it opened doors to a variety of new nonfiction forms, not only reality programming but also confessional talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986-2011) and a wave of personal documentary films such as Ed Pincus's Diaries (1982) and Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1986). Like Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counterculture, An American Family asked audiences to think seriously about family, marital relations, sexuality, and affluence. This realistic view of one family permanently demolished the "happy family" cliches of situation comedies of the 1950s and 1960s. Together with programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and All in the Family (1971-79), An American Family transformed the representation of family life on American TV, introducing a new authenticity and diversity to fiction and nonfiction programs. In the intervening years, despite the hundreds of available channels and the vogue for "reality TV," American television has failed to produce creative nonfiction such as An American Family.



An American Family
was the most significant American documentary of the 1970s and among the most influential television programs of that decade. It reached an unusually broad audience for a nonfiction program; Newsweek estimated ten million viewers for each episode, the high point for public TV in the 1970s. The size of the viewing public astonished the program's production staff. "No one ever looked at public television," coordinating producer Jacqueline Donnet recalled. "We thought that we were working on a little series like The Working Musician. Of course, there was an audience out there, but we didn't think the family was going to make the cover of Newsweek." But the program had unusual resonance with the general public. In the words of a Chicago Tribune reviewer, the documentary "made the trials of the Louds a shade better known than those of Job. Everybody wrote about them and dissected them." Journalist Merle Miller, writing in Esquire, concurred, "I doubt if in the history of the tube there has been so much talk about anything." Cartoonists such as Garry Trudeau and Jim Berry lampooned An American Family. To not watch the show was an act of defiance. Novelist Elie Wiesel's refusal to join fellow New Yorkers in front of a living room TV set was cited in the New York Times Magazine. "One written sentence," Wiesel steadfastly maintained, "is worth 800 hours of film."

The first episode was broadcast by PBS on Thursday evening, January 11, 1973, at 9:00PM (EST), at the same time as Ironside (1967-75) on NBC, The Thursday Night Movie (John Frankenheimer's The Gypsy Moths, 1969) on CBS, and an ABC premiere of Michelangelo Antonioni's documentary China (1972). During its twelve-week run, An American Family went against Ironside and Kung Fu (1972-75) and subsequent movies on BS, including Mark Robson's Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Despite the competition on commercial networks, millions of viewers followed Pat and Bill Loud's unfolding marital problems in a controversial show that some critics called a real-life soap opera. As reviewer Stephanie Harrington noted in the New York Times, "You find yourself sticking with the Louds with the same compulsion that draws you back day after day to your favorite soap opera." People talked endlessly about the program, and the Louds eventually received thousands of fan letters.

The national press gave extensive coverage to the series in January, February, March, and April 1973. Many critics panned it; others applauded. Divorce was a novel topic for prime time, and few viewers had ever encountered an openly gay son, such as Lance, on TV. Equally startling was the style: an episodic documentary about family life with no expert commentary and no interviews. (By way of comparison, the 1973 Emmy Award for cultural documentary went to a scripted historical series, America, hosted by British emigre Alistair Cooke.) No less an authority than anthropologist Margaret Mead declared in an article in TV Guide that An American Family was "as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel—a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera." As intended, Gilbert's program provoked debates concerning family life and sexuality, the state and character of the nation, and the role of television in American culture.

Reviews appeared not only in local, regional, and national newspapers, but in prestige publications such as Harper's, the Atlantic, The Nation, Commentary, Society, and America. Well-known cultural critics and intellectuals weighed in, including novelist Anne Roiphe, journalist Shana Alexander, linguist S. I. Hayakawa, novelist and critic Merle Miller, New Yorker editor Daniel Menaker, theater director Michael Murray, essayist Benjamin DeMott, author Abigail McCarthy, sociologist Herbert Gans, and many others. A number of these reviewers were highly critical of the Loud family. Alexander, author of The Feminine Eye, called the Louds "affluent zombies" in Newsweek. Sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz, interviewed in Time, concluded that the family had "a tendency towards exhibitionism." In an extended essay in the New York Times Magazine, feminist author Anne Roiphe struggled to come to terms with the gay son, Lance, calling him an "evil flower," an "electric eel," and a "Goyaesque emotional dwarf." Many critics, like Roiphe, projected their fears about contemporary America onto the Louds.

Responding to criticisms of themselves and of the series, the Loud family and the producers vigorously entered this discussion, making An American Family the most hotly debated documentary ever broadcast on American television. The Louds gave interviews, wrote newspaper and magazine articles, and appeared on talk shows such as The Phil Donahue Show (1970-76) and The Mike Douglas Show (1961-82). By the time the family appeared on the March 12, 1973, cover of Newsweek, the seven members of this upper-middle-class family from Santa Barbara had become celebrities, attaining, in Andy Warhol's terms, their fifteen minutes of fame. "Eventually," one Harvard English professor noted in the New Republic, "we began to root for our favorite Loud."

A media circus ensued. Rumors of an affair between producer Craig Gilbert and Pat Loud circulated, alluded to by Roiphe in the New York Times Magazine and then repeated by others in Commonweal and elsewhere. As an antidote to the cliches of TV sitcoms, Gilbert tried to make a series about ordinary people and their everyday lives; he ended up making stars out of the Louds. In February 1973, looking more and more like the Partridge Family, the five children performed as a rock band on The Dick Cavett Show. Lance, the charismatic son and erstwhile fan of Warhol, became a symbol for a generation of gay men discovering a more open lifestyle. Offered an attractive contract by Cowar, McCann & Geoghegan, Pat wrote her autobiography, Pat Loud: A Woman's Story, taking up the mantle of the liberated housewife on a nationwide book tour. Bill, for his part, was solicited to host a television game show. Media appearances multiplied: Delilah went on to appear as a "bachelorette" on The Dating Game, and Lance posed in the nude for Screw magazine. Although the series was widely viewed when first broadcast, and it turned the Louds into celebrities, An American Family has received little attention since 1973. In Prime-Time Families, a study of the representation of family life on television in the 1970s, TV scholar Ella Taylor makes no mention of the series.


Jeffrey Ruoff is a film historian, documentary filmmaker, and assistant professor of film and television studies at Dartmouth College. He is co-author (with Kenneth Ruoff) of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1998).

“Insightful and lucid . . . this book is the definitive study of this neglected but enormously influential television text-cum-cultural event.” —Thomas Doherty, Brandeis University

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Home: Writing, performing, curating, replacing

Assistant professor of art history and director of the Art History Gallery at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

With snow tracing the frozen ground, it is the first week of February in Milwaukee, WI – a high of 15 degrees and a low of -5 (give or take a few) – and I am standing on a rock along the edge of Lake Michigan, wearing my book. Or rather, pages of my manuscript painstakingly printed on blush-colored tissue paper, then sewn and sculpted onto a short slip. Almost a year ago, Milwaukee-based photographer Jessica Kaminski launched The Home Project, an ongoing series of conceptual garments and images that examine specific embodied experiences of belonging in and out of place. I had just finished writing Replacing Home, and had moved from Berkeley, CA, to Milwaukee. She asked me what I brought with me to my newly adopted city; I said mainly my books. So there I am, standing with arms outstretched, vulnerably encased in my own words – about the possibility of being in place, of coming together with and apart from others over time, of reusing and resituating structures of belonging – as rematerialized so delicately into my only protection against the elements. It is not enough, and it is everything.

What does it mean, now, to be and belong in one place and with another? This is the most basic and enduring question that drives the conceptual foundation, theoretical framework, historical context, and reasoning behind the range of artists, designers and architects explored in my book, Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art. In order to make publicly visible the displacement of certain social bodies and the networks of dependency required to re-situate us all over time, the book navigates a path that begins by acknowledging idealized historical narratives of individually situated dwelling and that moves towards a program for socially engaged spatial situation, in which temporary, visible, cohesive and public moments of being in place are continuously re-determined. Home, as both a material structure and an experience of belonging, becomes viable through a system of replacing that reinstates embodied interactions in specific sites by way of constantly renewable structural analogies, substitutions and surrogacies.

As a book, Replacing Home refuses an ending, but instead challenges us to continue asking what it means to be and belong, to find new and different proposals, and above all to remain unsure whether or not home is possible – as if the only assurance is to keep asking the question of ourselves, and of others, in varying and particular circumstances. The Home Project initiated an expansion of the book’s parameters, by performing my ongoing desire to keep questioning and to stay uncertain. The next step is Replacing Home, the group exhibition at the artist-run gallery, JAUS, in Los Angeles (January 20-March 4, 2012), which includes artists from the book and others who generate new dialogues with it.

Signaling the necessary portability of structural habitations that respond to our ever-increasing movements across the globe, Lot-ek’s Mobile Dwelling Unit transforms a shipping container into a portable dwelling structure and nomadic system, while Do Ho Suh creates an exact fabric replica of his childhood home in Seoul to roll up and take with him. Presenting a particular material’s genealogy over time as remembered and misremembered, Jim Charles’ Towel Rack gestures towards an unknown object’s past uses, and its potentially endless reuses and reincarnations. For designer Hussein Chalayan, transformations in garments afford hidden possibilities that may help situate wearers as they are forced to move, while Lucy Orta’s Refuge Wear offers emergency relief shelters and communities that make visible the plight of those without homes. Performing the impulse for social connection, Lisa Hecht’s series of photographs track her efforts to communicate with the world outside her studio during a monthlong installation. Indeed, community formation and social cohesion frame the basis for any kind of belonging in place, as evident in the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Nathaniel Stern, and Yevgeniya Kaganovich. Lozano-Hemmer’s Relational Architecture asks real and virtual participants to cooperate in revising their experiences of public buildings and sites. In Nathaniel Stern’s Sentimental Constructions, public space is performed alongside and through minimal architectural structures that rely on communal play and improvised collaborations. Yevgeniya Kaganovich’s mouth pieces, in turn, propose that intimate, unequal and frustrated interactions between two people can offer contingent moments of social dependency that result in the creation of new spaces of connection.

Retaining the same name, the exhibition Replacing Home activates the open-endedness of both my concept of replacing and of the infrastructural relations of home, while suggesting that both written and curated platforms are equally integral, and that there could, as yet, be further instantiations. As a method and system of being and belonging, replacing identifies an infinitely extendable act of being in the place of something or someone again, without fully taking that object, site, or body’s place. Looping forwards and back over time, as current, absent and remembered forms of home coalesce, both book and exhibition catalyze precarious moments and sites of material reconnection between readers, makers, viewers and the various spatial situations in which they are momentarily enmeshed.

As for me, this past August, jet-lagged a day after flying back from Tokyo, I am encased in another Kaminski dress, this one resembling a cocoon. This time, I am standing on Baker’s Beach in San Francisco, on the shores of the city I was born in, where my family lives, and where, amongst all my travels, I keep returning. I close my eyes and tilt my head back. It is not everything, and it is enough.


Jennifer Johung is assistant professor of art history and director of the Art History Gallery at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and author of Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art.

"The study of architecture and installation from a performance studies perspective is an exciting and emerging research area, and Replacing Home is a provocative book that discusses a rich set of artists and artworks. Jennifer Johung breaks important ground by addressing more recent, under-researched developments such as mobile architecture, body architecture, and ‘relational architecture.’"
—John McKenzie, University of Wisconsin, Madison