The second part of my reflections of the EUPOP conference held in London, July 2012.
The second day of the conference kicked off with a panel simply called The Body. The first paper was by Janice Miller, entitled ‘Heroes and Villains: When Men Wear Make-Up’. Miller focused on musicians, pointing out that it is not so unusual for musical artists to wear ‘a bit of eyeliner’ (Adam Lambert). Miller discussed the idea of make-up as a mask, drawing on Joan Riviere’s ideas of masquerade. She gives the example of Freddy Mercury’s ‘mask of death’ in the video for I’m Going Slightly Mad.
The superhero is another figure who commonly wears make-up, and is channelled by Michael Stipe, the lead singer of REM. Miller contends that there is always a queer subtext to men wearing make-up and concludes that while a male musician wearing make-up is worthy of discussion and comment, a female musician (Katy Perry) not wearing make-up is far more controversial.
The second speaker was Niall Richardson whose paper, ‘Flex Rated! Female Bodybuilding’ reconsidered the sport from the perspective of feminist debates. Richardson notes that feminism has both historically celebrated and rejected bodybuilding as a feminist resistance to sexualised femininity, as bodybuilding is seen as either resistance to or recuperation into hegemonic regimes of gender. The female bodybuilder transgresses the norms of femininity, but on stage most contenders display markers of femininity: blonde hair, false nails, breast implants.
The crux of Richardson’s argument was centred on ‘muscle worship porn’, and we had the pleasure of seeing a couple of clips (if you are curious, we were informed there is plenty out there on the internet). Muscle worship porn is fetishitic, so is therefore more about the manipulation and investigation of the fetish object, not just coitus. When it emerged that many female bodybuilders were supplementing their meagre income by making money from muscle porn, there was a backlash from feminists who now considered female bodybuilding to be erotic spectacle, rather than feminist resistance.
Richardson concludes that the debate as to whether female bodybuilding is resistance or erotic spectacle is too simplistic. He does posit that bodybuilding is one of the queerest things in contemporary pop culture.
The final paper was by Jo Pickering who presented on ‘Social Class and Pregnancy in the UK’. Pickering examined the TV representation of the teenage/working-class mother, arguing that issues of gender and class collide in her body. Discussing such shows as Snog, Marry, Avoid, ASBO Teen to Beauty Queen and anything featuring Kerry Katona, Pickering points out that a middle class aesthetic is assumed to be universal and that class aspiration is very evident in these objectifying and panoptic programmes.
Pickering contends that the working class pregnant body is the representation of an undisciplined body and an over-sexualised uncontrolled animalism. She concludes by pointing out there has been no such public debate about the representation of the working class in same way that there has for gender, race, and sexuality.
The second panel I attended was Television – And Other Modes of Representation. Gilly Smith began discussing Jamie Oliver in a paper entitled ‘Barthes on Jamie: Myth and the TV Revolutionary’. Smith posits that TV lifestyle food became more about lifestyle than food itself, and was intimately linked with class. Jamie Oliver as the Naked Chef was accessible and like us – the programme was marketed so that we can be ‘pukka’ too.
Smith points out that TV is real people doing real things but edited to present a representation of the truth/real. Smith links with the Barthes and mythology, noting how myth moves into the political, as Jamie does with his school dinners project, concluding that Jamie exploits the idea of myth to sell his political message.
The second speaker was Hannah Ellison whose paper, ‘Skins: A Very British Show That Isn’t British Anymore’ posited that the decline in viewing figures in the UK for the TV show Skins was due to efforts, in later series, for the show to be more international and appeal to non-UK audiences. Ellison contends that what made the show so successful in the first place was its ‘Britishness’, therefore when it lost this, the show lost much of what made it so popular.
Ellison argued that the series was ‘British’ because of the casting of British figures of comedy, such as Peter Capaldi and Harry Enfield as parents, allowing the legacy of their names to suggest a heritage in British entertainment. By the last two series, however, the parental generation was not really shown and this aspect was lost. Similarly, in the first few series of Skins the characters walked everywhere, as British teenagers tend to do. Yet, in the last two series, they drove and travelled more widely, demonstrating a freedom that seemed incongruous with the lifestyle of British teenagers.
Ellison concludes that Skins’ British realism had gone by the fifth and sixth seasons, as the more adult teens took on responsibilities beyond their years, representing a different kind of teenage-hood in the show’s attempts to appeal to a broader international audience.
The third paper, by Jo Turney, ‘Masturbating with Auntie: Sex, Lies, and the Fusion of Cultural Stereotypes in Dressing Zen’ discussed a little-known BBC detective show, Zen, set in Italy and featuring British actor Rufus Sewell as an Italian detective. Turney notes the show’s use of sepia, and images of Italy to create a certain mood and a sense of heat at odds with the terrible British winter of January 2011. Zen thus functions as a travel guide for an idealised, stereotypical Rome. Turney argues that the casting of a well-known British actor as the lead and an Italian woman as sidekick is down to the social stereotyping of Italy as sexy and its expectations of otherness and difference in British culture.
The final paper, by Nuria Sola and Dolors Massot analysed ‘Representations of the Latina body’ in social media (online magazines) aimed at Latino culture in the UK. These sites seem to smash stereotypes about Latina women, but the advertising on them perpetuates these stereotypes in the use of typically sexualised images of Latina dancers.
Following an extended lunch, the final panel I attended was TV and National Identity. Jamie Oliver is clearly more popular than I thought, as the first speaker, Antonella Palmieri was talking about ‘Romanticised landscapes of Italian-ness in Channel 4’s Jamie’s Great Escape’. Palmieri critiques the shows’ representation of a bucolic Italy, arguing that the series functions as a romanticised image of Italy, where supermarkets are invisible and the only people he meets are artisans. She concludes that this fantasy of romantic Italian-ness is a symbolic marker in Jamie’s campaigns about food.
Finn Pollard gave the next paper, on ‘The Persuaders! And the Anglo-American relationship in the early 1970s’. Offering a detailed history of the period, Pollard argued that The Persuaders! echoed the divergence in the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA, noting changes in the representation of Americans on TV over time. Pollard contends that The Persuaders! Is of a different order to other TV shows featuring Americans that have come before, and that the series can serve as a barometer for Anglo-American relations during a period of tumult.
The third and final speaker was Andrew Elliott whose paper was entitled ‘Space, Identity, and a Transnational Past: Rewriting European History in HBO’s Rome’. Elliott began by contrasting Rome with a scene from the film Gladiator, arguing that while the film showcases the ‘epicness’ of rewriting history, Rome doesn’t acknowledge this epicness, presenting history more as a series of accidental events. Elliott acknowledges that films about big historical moments of the past reveal more about the present, and points out that some rewritings use the past to anchor a national identity.
Considering Rome with this assertion in mind, Elliott reveals that the series, which was jointly funded by Britain, Italy and the USA, was not so well received in Italy, with resistance to ‘their’ history being appropriated by Anglo-Saxons. He suggests that the series acted as a ‘cultural seismograph’ about national feeling. Yet, Elliott concludes that Rome actually presents a pan-European, inclusive past, refusing to endorse a single country’s nationalism.
I really enjoyed this second day of papers and discussion although once again, there were papers I unfortunately could not see. Upon reflection, I feel that the conference missed an opportunity for a more general discussion on popular culture in Europe. Pamela Gibson-Church’s provocative question, posed at the start of the conference – ‘what is European popular culture?’ – seemed like the perfect topic for a keynote or roundtable discussion, but this opportunity was not taken. There was a closing plenary on Friday, which I did not attend, but the ‘keynote’ discussions I saw were clearly intended to advertise or organise, rather than develop any sustained, critical questions. I understand that not everyone thinks that conferences need keynotes to provide this kind of organised discussion, however I personally feel that the conference would have benefited from such a group discussion.
I would also have appreciated more information about the association itself. I am not, for example, sure whether EUPOP is an association for the study of any kind of popular romance by European scholars, or whether it is devoted to the study of popular romance as produced by or consumed in Europe. There was also no information about how to get involved in the association or any outline, or organisation of the scope or aims of the association. The participation of Intellect books and journals was made very clear, however, and we were encouraged throughout to approach the stand and discuss potential publication.
Overall, the conference was a brilliant opportunity to meet new scholars in fascinating fields related to my own and I look forward to becoming more involved in EUPOP and attending future conferences – I hear the next one’s in Finland!