Monday, February 15, 2010

Butching the Femmes: US & UK (web) soaps/drama - VENICE & FAR OUT

Web soaps/dramas and lesbian representation

From Guiding Light to Venice
In the final months of the long-running US DayTime soap Guiding Light, I got hooked on the Otalia same-sex romance.

When the show was coming to an end, I became an instant fan of a web show in-the-making, hooked on Crystal Chappell's highly public approach to creating the web series Venice.  I liked that she and her co-producers used social networking as a way to connect with and get feedback from fans, and were aiming to cater to a perceived unfulfilled, international desire for realistic, lesbian-themed drama.
And I liked the premise of the show: centred on Gina (Crystal Chappell), a successful interior designer, her family and relationships within a network of people living in Venice Beach, CA. (MindSchmootz has a great review of the premier episode.)

Venice Fan Expectations: supportive energy or conflicting demands?
Now it seems many fans had/have different expectations of the show, and they may be pushing it in a different direction from what I had anticipated.  Unlike many fans, I have had no expectations of seeing another same-sex pairing played by the Otalia actors, Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia.  While I do favour watching some actors more than others, my interest tends to be more in specific characters and their stories. Knowing which actors will be paired for an on-screen romance amounts to a massive spoiler - and I am SO anti-being spoiled in any way.

But here I seem to be out of step with the majority of posters on the forums, who have filled long strings of topic threads speculating on future hot-romantic couplings, often enflamed by any hint of any spoiler that drops off their cyber-screens. Many fans are happy to have had their requests fulfilled with Venice's latest addition of promo/teaser clips a week in advance. But to me it just taps into a culture of never-fully-satisfied desires, where instant gratification is accelerated into the future - a place where there will always be new desires to be satisfied.  My main satisfactions come from taking more time to enjoy any (often unexpected) pleasures that I come across, by discussing what's actually IN an episode.

Hot or Not?  Desire & lesbian representation?
However, I guess I'm not totally free from the infectious giddiness of the expectation of unfulfilled desires: I had thought that FINALLY Venice would be the show that integrated lesbian and heterosexual stories while including characters of diverse ages, and not only ones who are conventionally pretty.  Yet, there seems to be a trend amongst fans, and supported by the producers of Venice, to celebrate the appearance of youthful and conventional feminine attractiveness. But for me the promise of an excess of "pretty" (as often tweeted by the Venice producers) was more a turn-off than an incentive to watch. Conventionally feminine & pretty women are not always the hottest, or the most charismatic on-screen.

Unlike many fans, I'm quite enjoying the flirtation between Gina & Tracy (played by two talented and experienced 40-something actresses, Chappell and Lesli Kay).  Many fans complain about the lack of "chemistry" between the two characters.  (Please, can that word be banished from the soap fan lexicon? Over-use breeds aversion!)  The "chemistry" can be created in the writing and directing, as much as by the actors.  Often the focus on Allan's (Michael Sabatino) story in the same scenes, sucks some heat from the Gina-Tracy flirtation.

Having seen some of the excitement that preceded the first appearance of Lara (Nadia Bjorlin) in Venice, I wonder how much the intense speculation about some (potentially hot?) pairings, eg the Ani (Jessica Leccia) & Lara one, influences people's perception?  And, in spite of my attempts to avoid speculation, did I get caught up in some of the excitement?

On first viewing, I really liked both parts of episode 9. I particularly appreciated the fact that, for the first time in Venice, we get to see a (potential) couple meet, and meet "cute" - as we are very used to in mainstream productions.  And the cuteness level is raised a little by some snappy repartee (Ani: "Do you take a Metro card?" & "I'm usually so together." Lara: "Yeah, I can see that." - the show could do with more of this).

While I tend to to be turned off by a whole cast of pretty, Lara has a major dose of it, and it is mesmerising. In episode 9 she has a strong screen presence that goes beyond a conventional feminine prettiness: it hints at a restrained but powerful personality, and a quirky kind of fun.  But, on re-watching episode 9,  I'm just not feeling a gay vibe in the Ani-Lara interactions, expecially not from Ani.  Leccia plays a very charming, down-to-earth Ani, one who successfully conveys many emotions - hurt, caring, frustration and deep attachment, for instance.  But I'm not seeing any (woman-to-woman) passion or desire in her feelings for either Gina or Lara.

US Glamour: UK 'realism' - Desire, diversity & lesbian representation?
Perhaps I'm a bit out of step with much of the Venice fan energy because I have more of a background in watching and enjoying British soaps and dramas, which lean more to 'social realism'.  US soaps have tended to focus on excessively perfect people in an enticingly glossy world. In contrast, British soaps tend to create a familar, everyday world with characters that engage because of they are very like the viewers - and with varying degrees of the 'pretty' and the 'plain'.

Hot, exciting & 'real': can we have it all?
Maybe different viewing histories at least partly explain the differences amongst lesbian and bisexual fans, in the ways we want to see lesbians portrayed on the screen?  Some want to see conventionally feminine & pretty lesbian characters, because they undermine the stereotype of 'unattractive' mannish lesbians. Others, including me, want to see lesbian characters more like ourselves and ones we know, and/or that have a less gender-conventional kind of sex appeal.  We ask, why is it that the standard idea of female attractiveness lies within traditional femininity?  When will we get more lesbian soap/drama characters with the sex appeal and/or magnestism of
 Rachel Maddow,                     or Jeanette Jenkins, or Queen Latifah.

The pilot epsiodes for the British web series Far Out,  (created, written and directed by Faye Hughes: Inner Sanctum Productions Ltd.) makes a strong contrast with Venice, in being more within the British social realist tradition.  The characters are not especially glamorous or overly pretty. I have seen them described as ugly and poorly acted on afterellen forums. However, this show has potential.  As with Venice, I like it's premise and cast of characters.

But also like Venice, the faults are more in the execution and the details of writing, directing and cinematography, than in the main ideas and stories.  I wasn't surprised to see that the Far Out actors have had more stage than screen experience. The show comes off as quite stagey, which makes it seem 'over-acted'.  But I do feel that, at least, one character has an attractive screen presence (Jen Stuart - played by Fliss Waldon - seen in the pic above leaning against the wall in a dark suit and specs), even though she isn't conventionally attractive.

On the other hand, the Far Out cast is largely young, unlike Venice with its appeal to my no-longer-very-young self. And HOW GOOD was it, to see Gina and Guya (Hillary B. Smith) playing so well off each other without a lot of  glamourising make-up and Dos?  They looked so delightfuly trashed and playful, enjoying a bit of 'everyday' fun and interaction that cuts across some genre-dependent, screen stereoptypes of women.

Some say Venice's frequent inclusion of booze and profanities jar.  They see them as an immature attempt at rebellion, unrealistic for characters of their age - throw backs to college days that they long ago left behind (ah, but weren't they some glorious times?  And did we have to leave all the pleasures and progressiveness of those days behind in order to be, what is often regarded as, staid, mature and grown-up?)  I like that the Venice creators are trying to take a little walk on the wildside rather than stick to the more conventionally femininised decorum of US soaps. And the swearing and booze don't seem out of place in my world.  Growing up is SO over-rated (and I never said I wasn't contradictory - like most people!).

So I will be interested to see how much these two very different web shows engage me in the future.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Destini's Indie Intertube, web series and soap operas: history, women and change

Indie Intertube & the History of Web Series

I have been listening to Destini's first Indie Intertube podcast on Web Series. There is a lot of great information there about the history of web series, format, funding issues and the connection with TV soaps.

I learned about the first web series The Spot, made in 1995. Sadly neither Destini or I have found any videos of it, but there is this one about it. Fittingly this also was a soap. There also is another early one, Eon 4. If anyone has a link to videos of either of these series, some of us will be really interested to see it.

Soap Operas: Gender and broadcast drama series

While some look down their noses at soap operas, it was actually a defining format for serialised broadcast drama, first on the radio and then on TV. And most other TV genres have regularly borrowed from features of soaps to engage viewers with the characters and their stories - from crime shows and sci fi, to reality TV.

I think the reason that many see soap operas as a low status art form, has to do with the fact that they have always primarily appealed to a female audience. DayTime soap operas targetted housewives at a time when that was assumed to be women's primary role. For the soap sponsors it was a means of advertising to the people who were most likely to have control over the household budget. For the women listeners/viewers it often had a different role, connecting them to the people outside their homes, and providing content for chatting to other women over coffee/tea or on the phone.

The Evolution of Soaps: from TV to the Web

Consequently, soaps always have tended to encourage a kind of interactive viewing. Women have often used them as a focus to discuss relationships and the rights and wrongs of human behaviour - a very important way of improving their ability to conduct and support inidividuals and their relationships.

Now US DayTime soaps are under threat with the longest running soap, Guiding Light being axed last year, and As The World Turns also being cancelled. This has to do with the fact that these days many women are in paid employment, and there isn't the same home audience that there used to be for soaps. So, as is discussed in Destini's Indie Intertube podcast, many are looking to the Internet to find a new audience, or re-connect with long-term soap viewers, and to try to re-create soaps on relatively low budgets.

The interactive potential of the Internet is ideal for soaps, or dramas that focus on characters and their relationships. It provides an environment where viewers can engage with other viewers to discuss their favourite characters and stories, to give feedback to the producers on audience reactions and desires, for viewers to provide creative responses to the characters and stories that engage their imaginations, and to enjoy the fun of doing this easily and quickly.

Jacking-In To Online Fiction: how I became a web series fan.

I have been interested in web series since developments in technologies enabled posting of short videos online.  Two of the first series to catch my attention were Sanctuary  (later to be shown on TV) and lonelygirl15. Both were ground-breaking in their own way. 

Amanda Tapping’s Sanctuary used high definition technologies when they were first being used by significant numbers of people online, although, unfortunately not me.  I was a mature postgraduate student on a limited budget.  I also couldn’t afford the subscription for it.  But I was impressed by the look after the hours it took to download the first free episode.

Lonelygirl15 excited me a lot because the producers attempted to slot it into the recent developments of youtube and personal vlogging.  It caught people’s attention by linking to and commenting on other personal vlogs.  The aim of the makers was to blur the boundaries between fiction and “real life” vlogging.  It got a following for this lonely girl vlogging from her bedroom (Bree, played by Jessica Rose).  In keeping with gender conventions, the voyeurism of such an intimate format is more often successful with a focus on a young attractive female. 

Very quickly followers made good use of online technologies to discover that the Lonelygirl was played by an actress.  This is not the hoax that mainstream news media often made it out to be   (perhaps because they see the extensive potential of the internet as a threat). The creators, Miles Beckett, Mesh Flinders, Greg Goodfried, and Amanda were happy to be “outed” and welcomed the interactivity with fans, sometimes incorporating fan videos in the story, having online chat sessions with the shows “characters” and including clues into the show videos that the fans helped characters to solve.  

KateModern  spun off from LG15, extending the global reach of the LG15 fictional world to a London setting, and focusing on slightly older characters, with more of a woman-centred focus than LG15. By then LG15 had come to focus on male characters saving young girls from a vampirish cult, who needed transfusions of the specific kind of blood in the bodies of their victims.

I was excited about this new form of interactive storytelling and the way it adapted to the changing technologies of the Internet.  My main criticism of most of the web series I saw at the time, was that they tended to be very heterosexual, focus on the very young, and conformed to fairly conventional gender conventions (though Sanctuary centred on some older characters).

Then I discovered that the afterellen website was hosting and/or posting about a range of screen stories online that either centred on a lesbian character/s or were lesbian-themed.   

More to come on this and various other web series later.