Cultural Identity in Mass Media Remixes

Ashley Hamouda's picture

Between headlines on Twitter bemoaning President Trump doomsday scenarios, one lighter tweet caught my eye: “Here's the nostalgia-heavy first trailer for Disney's Beauty & the Beast remake.” The trailer opened with the same delicate piano notes I had obsessively replayed over and over again in my childhood, creating a sense of ease I’ve been sorely missing these past few chaotic post-election weeks. Familiar scenes glowed from my screen, creatively re-imagined for an audience accustomed to a digitized, CGI movie world. Emma Watson, modern-day feminist icon, injected a sense of strength and backbone that had been missing from the original animated Belle. The trailer was only a brief insight, but it left me hopeful that Bill Condon has managed to stay true to one of my favorite stories while addressing some of the dated anti-feminist messages modern viewers have critiqued.

Jean Baudrillard1 notes that “the social becomes obsessed with itself” (p. 580). He points to our anxiety as a society to see ourselves reflected in the media in order to know at all times what we’re thinking; our love for adaptations of popular stories is one way to see this principle at play. I think reboots can be too easily dismissed as a cynical function of capitalism—a lazy way for corporations to recycle stories to get money from a reliable fanbase. However, the drive to create large-scale franchise reboots is not so different from the drive to that causes fans to labor over content remixes for free: we want to see ourselves reflected in the worlds that we love. On an individual level, fans insert themselves via forms such as Fanfiction, artistic renderings, or cosplay. On a large cultural scale, when new iterations of familiar stories are reproduced by industries, they are updated to reflect (or critique) values of the society at that moment the time.

In a recent MediaCommons post, Stephanie Vie calls for us to think about the impact of remix and appropriation on composition practices. Tracing text remixes is one place to make explicit the cultural values that inform the composition. Ideologies can be traced beyond the end products, found within the processes of creation themselves. Creators now have access to fan discussions on social media, and as a result evidence of fan influence is clear within some texts. For example, after the most recent season finale of Game of Thrones, fans rejoiced at several on-screen nods to their theories that had been circulated on platforms such as Twitter and Reddit.

The fan-inclusive process of creation speaks to the crowdsourcing ethics of internet culture, and can be a useful tool for teaching students how to navigate issues of modern day authorship. Audiences who are accustomed to creating and appropriating their own content on social media have come to expect, rather than hope, for their voices to be heard. The process does also speak to more thorny aspects of this type of collaboration, such as the ease with which corporations can exploit fan creativity for profit. Although the barrier between fans and creators has shrunk, the access to large-scale creation rests at a massive imbalance. The consequences of the imbalance are reflected in the persistent homogeneity of mass culture; while I cheered for a less dainty Bell in the most recent Beauty and the Beast iteration, at the same time I noted the glaring lack of on screen diversity. Somewhere at an intermediate level—between individual fanfiction and massive blockbuster reboots—access has been opening. On YouTube, for example, a re-imagined Cinderella musical with an all-black cast went viral in 2013. Smaller scale platforms such as Netflix allow much greater access for creators from groups who are too often excluded. When barriers to creation are disrupted, a world of possibilities for remixes open up as familiar stories are infused with new identities and shared.

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1Baudrillard, J., & Maclean, M. (1985). The masses: The implosion of the social in the media. New Literary History, 16(3), 577-589.