Anti-Professionalism and The Legal Genre

Reality TV has been a booming industry in America for a while. Something about publicizing people’s lives and personal problems is entertaining. Films, shows, and now podcasts, on real court cases can also be considered as forms of reality entertainment. As in the case of reality TV, nonfiction legal texts follow certain storytelling patterns and themes familiar to their fiction counterparts. The storyline of texts in the legal genre follow typical patterns or include stock characters. What is lost and what is gained when entertainment platforms, mimicking fictional depictions of legal stories, attempt to take on serious cases of legal complexity and deliver them to an audience with average knowledge on the legal system? The Serial podcast is an interesting piece to analyze in this regard because it both strays from typical legal genre themes and also abides by them. By doing so, Serial transcends the meaning of the genre standards it follows.

Professors McCann and Haltom discuss a recurring theme of the legal fiction genre in their article, Ordinary Heroes vs. Failed Lawyers. In the article, the professors analyze several Hollywood films about court trials. They discuss the way these films have a pattern of depicting lawyers as “unqualified moral heroes,” parallel with ordinary people competent in the field of law because of their ability to exercise common sense and moral reasoning. The authors understand that the idea of portraying ordinary people as successful in achieving their motives in court is not a bad thing. But they argue that “the tendency to focus attention on professional elites portrayed as heartless, often feckless villains…obscures [their] distinctive aspirations and variable achievements.” When films and other legal texts emphasize professionals, and in this case lawyers and other law officials, as antagonists incompetent in their field because of their elitism, people begin to disvalue the need for professionals.

The theme of ordinary heroes in other genres is not unfamiliar; it is a common fact that people like to hear about ordinary and average people accomplishing feats that even professionals can’t complete. But it is not necessary to belittle the importance of professionals in order to raise the level of attention given to the accomplishments of ordinary people. When legal films and other texts want to celebrate the achievements of ordinary heroes, they do so by simultaneously detracting from the importance of lawyers and other law professionals. This anti-professionalism leads people to believe that there is not a need for law professionals and that ordinary people can take legal actions alone.

Sarah Koenig, the narrator of Serial, can be viewed as the ordinary hero in Adnan Syed’s story. The Serial podcast was created when Koenig was approached by Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and family friend of Adnan Syed, who hoped Koenig could take a look at Adnan’s case. Koenig decided to take on the task of attempting to figure out the details of the day Hae Min Lee went missing. Although Koenig is portrayed as the typical ordinary hero—a journalist with no particular legal background attempting to crack a case 15 years after the event—two aspects of the podcast prevent it from falling into having the same implications discussed above.

Sarah Koenig makes clear in the introduction of the first episode that she is not attempting to portray herself as a detective or crime reporter; “I’m not a detective or a private investigator…” This is an important clarification because Koenig is pointing out that she is not trying to do a job she thinks other professionals did not do well. This idea carries through throughout the season as Koenig constantly checks in with several professionals like lawyers, detectives, and investigators, to ask for their point of view on her speculations. For example, in the first episode, when Koenig learns about Asia McLean, a very probable alibi for Adnan, she becomes extremely skeptical to why Adnan’s defense lawyer did not bring Asia to testify at trial. But before Koenig jumps to conclusions, she “put the question to a few defense attorneys” to verify her doubts. Whenever Koenig has a speculation or thought she is unsure about, she talks to a professional in that field. She grounds the idea that listening to professionals in the field is necessary to making proper conclusions and informed opinions. By doing so, Koenig establishes herself as simply the narrator, a person who is taking her audience through the story of the case and trial, rather than building the story off of opinions of her own. This is the second characteristic of the podcast that sets it aside from other true crime narrations.

Koenig’s engaging way of storytelling is arguably one of the main reasons Serial became so popular. Serial is a “thoughtful exploration of real, recognizable people,” Sarah Larson states in her New Yorker article, “Serial”: The Podcast We’ve Been Waiting For. While Koenig maintains this idea of exploration throughout the season, listeners naturally hoped Koenig would come across a smoking piece of evidence that would confirm or deny Adnan’s innocence. But Koenig ends the season on a note of reflection rather than a firm stance; “As a juror I vote to acquit Adnan Syed…but…as a human being walking down the street…If you ask me to swear that Adnan is innocent, I couldn’t do it.” By mentioning her decision to acquit Adnan while not being completely sure of his innocence was an important step in establishing to her audience the nuances of real court cases.

Sarah Koenig’s role as an ordinary hero that depends on the advice of legal professionals and her contrasting stances of herself as a juror and as regular human being highlight two important, interlinked lessons for audiences. Koenig is able to portray throughout the season that while considering morality is important when it comes to trials, the decisions of jurors, prosecutors, lawyers, and other positions in court are going to depend on different factors. While to an ordinary person it may have seemed unreasonable for a defense attorney to not bring a possible alibi to trial, the lawyers Koenig contacts explain that there are plausible reasons for a defense attorney to do so. Koenig shows her audience that while the jury (and some audience members) might have felt like Adnan was guilty, they are responsible for only making a decision that is evidently beyond reasonable doubt, even if that means they have to feel like they are letting a guilty man free. Serial gave Sarah Koenig the opportunity to act as an ordinary hero who does not try to show listeners that she can outshine legal professionals, rather to use her ordinary role to bring attention to the nuances and complexities of true crime.

 

 

A special thanks to Professor Larissa Werhnyak for teaching her class on Trials and Popular Culture.

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First World Privilege

The idea behind the internet was to create an ideal, virtual dimension of our world. Thus the internet became a space where seemingly endless amounts of information could be found online and communicating instantly with anyone around the globe became the standard. Although the internet, in many respects, remains a diverse place to explore, it has also become a space that confines and shelters us. Our false perception of the internet’s expansiveness and diversity is an illusion that majority of us have fallen victim to.

We have come to perceive the internet as an inclusive and interconnecting space but why or how is this false? According to InternetLiveStats.com, only forty six percent of the world’s population has daily access to the internet—while in the US, the percentage is over 80. We often forget that the only people we are able to connect with on the internet are those who have access to it and the only information and ideas we receive are coming from people who have internet. While we might deal with the internet on a daily basis and allow it to play a role in essentially every aspect of our lives, we do not realize that for more than half of our global population the internet is still a rarity.

This may have come as a surprising statistic considering how fast we’ve seen the evolution of technology take over our lives. But realizing how foreign the concept of not having internet is to us represents our privilege. We subconsciously assume that the rest of the world is receiving advancements in technology at the same pace as we are. Because we have become so used to our lifestyles that circulate around technology and the internet, we often associate a country or place without a similar lifestyle with being uneducated or behind. This concept can be termed as first world privilege. A person with privilege lives within its confinements and benefits daily from what it offers, rarely getting a glimpse of what lies beyond it to realize the bubble in which they live. This exclusivity makes the person fall under the assumption that their lifestyle is superior, causing them to value their life and culture over others that may be different.

Beyond our perception of the internet, our interactions online have also been sheltering us. Because of features like tailored search browsers and ads, our interaction with the internet has become an entirely personalized experience. Tailored searches mean results will reflect previous searches done by a user and/or are limited to results from within the user’s physical location. Drawing from a user’s information through recently visited webpages and past searches, ads on websites and social media can also be tailored to fit the perceived interests of the user.

Features like these tremendously narrow the scope of the internet for each individual person as their experience online becomes catered to them specifically, significantly lowering their chances of venturing beyond their familiar network. Being unaware of our privileges and prejudices caused by being online can be detrimental to our society. With awareness, we are more able to nurture understanding and appreciation for diversity, giving us the will to care for a world beyond our own.

More Than A Few Bad Apples

Recently, a cop and his story were featured on the popular blog, Humans of New York. The man talked about the hatred he’s seen towards the police and how he believed it was unfair. He claimed that he “didn’t find any more racism in the police department than [he’s] found in boardrooms and retail stores.”

For the purpose of clarity, it is important to define that there are roughly two types of racism. First, there is plain, old racism–the one where discrimination and prejudice is blatant and outwardly. The second is institutionalized racism; the one that is subtle and systematic. It is not easily definable and many fail to notice it.

Racism within the police force is arguably unique–to a certain extent. An act of racism here is, more often than not, protected by a corrupt justice system. A system drenched in institutionalized racism, one that has allowed for numerous fatal racist acts to pass uncriminalized, without punishment or consequences. Unchecked racism in a system of governmental authority only makes the path easier for these acts to repeat themselves again and again.

Racism within the police force follows a corrupt and dangerous pattern that leaves murders unjustified and entire communities in fear of an industry that’s meant to protect them. To dismiss racism within this industry as a few bad apples is to dismiss the severity of its impact on an entire race. A race that has experienced, throughout the history of America, the corrupt and brutal extremes of this justice system in their every generation.

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Satire Gone Wrong

In a country where bigoted, racist, and radical opinions and views grabbing the spotlight can get easily overwhelming, we often turn to humor for relief. Through it, we seek to make sense of a society in which presidential hopefuls can speak unchallenged words of blatant extremism. Mockery of these incredibly backward situations helps us stay sane—creating a barrier between the sometimes ridiculously unfathomable reality and our penetrable minds. Popular TV shows like The Daily Show, The Late Night Show, and Last Week Tonight all fill the void for political humor.

A large majority of viewers turn on these channels for just that purpose—a break from taking reality too seriously. The aim of most of today’s satirical shows is beginning to focus mainly on pleasing an audience whose political views already align with their own. Many of these now lean left, for example, and as a result the critical questions the shows raise get clouded over by the shallow, left-wing jokes and scripts that are used to fill the gaps.

Is this a normal process of satire gaining its popularity or did its focus remain around a critical analysis of society?

The origin of satire, as far as we can tell, dates back as early as the 7th century, where as Joshua Wimmer explains, “poems and plays harshly but humorously [critiqued] society.” After disappearing from literary canon for several decades, the genre of satire returned to popularity after the Dark Ages during the late 14th century. It continued to progress with famous satirical pieces such as the Canterbury Tales, The Rape of the Lock, The Importance of Being Earnest, and many others.

The common, centralizing theme behind all of these works was to critique society through subtle irony and exaggeration during a time when open insults to the elite and political would not be tolerated. The poems and plays urged audiences to think critically about the world that surrounded them, to not get lost in or brainwashed by the dominating rhetoric of society. In its truest form, satire can influence a society to question its views and standards—but when satirical TV shows of today begin to litter their content with personal insults and shallow comedy, they subconsciously (and not so subconsciously) lose that influential power.

While we now have the first amendment allowing and protecting us to express our disdain towards anyone, including the rich and powerful, we are not guaranteed anyone will listen. This is especially true considering no one will willingly pay attention to an open mockery of their views, much less of themselves. Satire provides the perfect platform to express unpopular critiques in a way that will capture people’s attention through its witty humor. But what happens when our favorite satire channels begin to fill their air minutes with undisguised personal insults? Is it necessary to poke fun at the way politicians speak or gesture with their hands? Who will then continue to regard these channels with respect and attention?

A 2012 Pew Research study shows that around 42 percent of The Daily Show’s and other left-wing satirical shows’ viewers are liberal, meaning that just less than half of those that watch these programs are not likely to give necessary criticism on shallow content; often finding it entertaining to watch while the insults remain targeted towards those they have opposing views with. But this useless and derogatory dialogue is extremely detrimental; pushing against the other half—a significantly large portion of the audience—who will choose to ignore the subliminal, critical questions addressed towards their views because they feel the show loses its credibility when it stoops to get personal. The basis of satire, while it may always be bias, should be critical of all sides, creating irony and humor about views and not the people behind them.

Not only does this shallow sense of humor work to discourage and deter viewers, but it also gives way to another harmful rhetoric; the assumption that personally insulting those who have views different from your own is acceptable in our politics. One step further from degrading those with differing views is degrading those of different races and religions. If we continue to see an increase in these types of gags displayed in satirical shows, we’ll only dive deeper into the narrow-minded way of thinking that we are trying to break out of.

The genre of satire was meant to bring a noetic form of irony and humor, one that requires an audience to think critically about others’ views and their own, in an indirect, subconscious manner. Shallow humor, one that serves no other purpose but to gain laughs and an increase in viewership, takes away largely from this concept behind satire. It removes the focus from generating critical thinkers and analysts to simply producing entertainment comedy.

Satirical TV shows need to be more mindful about the content that they produce, ensuring that each aspect persuades the audience to think critically. Satire plays an important role in broadening society’s perspectives, as Harvard student, Anthony Thai states in his article, Political Satire; Beyond the Humor, “satire has made politics more accessible, leading to more informed viewers who have the potential to form more educated opinions.” By refusing to allow their shows to simply serve as mere entertainment for those with similar mindsets, satirical broadcasts can uphold a greater obligation and will not irresponsibly and unreasonably limit the power of influence that they hold.

A Reflection of Society

Walking through the streets of downtown Dallas on a late afternoon in September, I stopped suddenly in my tracks. I was stunned. Displayed before me was a larger-than-life sized poster; a shot of a man and a woman. The man completely clothed in a smart tuxedo and the woman in her birthday suit–save a slim strip of cloth clinging to her hips. They were shown underwater, as if to portray the woman as prey, being attracted to bait; the man and his suit. The ad hung in the window of Suit Supply, a high-end men’s suit shop.

Burning with rage and disgust, I wondered why places like Suit Supply felt completely comfortable blatantly using a woman and her sexuality as a shameless marketing tool. How can people view this as acceptable when, at the same time, they look back with contempt at the sexist and repressive ads of the mid-20th century? Does society see the ads of today as improvement or has the media blinded and brainwashed us enough to actually believe that stripping a woman–or a man–down, is liberating? Are we in control of setting the standards or have we left that power to the industry?

Commercial media has played a large part in shaping American culture since the beginning of the 20th century. According to Jay Walker-Smith, president of the Yankelovich marketing firm, an average American can be exposed to as many as 5,000 ads per day. This strikingly high statistic affirms that no American is a stranger to the influence of the advertising industry. Ziad Abu-Saud further explains in a piece for the Huffington Post, writing “adverts…present us with values, ideals and social standards.” They aim to reflect the desires of society; manipulating those desires to make them easily profitable. Companies do not simply sell a product; they instead work to associate that product with an idea or message that viewers strive to achieve. For example, an advertisement for a new oven does not only bring you an easier way to cook, but also the idea that it will give you a happy family that enjoys each other’s company. However, beyond images like that of a happy family, commercial media also works to construct the roles that men and women play in society.

The way that a person is portrayed in an ad reflects what commercial society believes is his or her role and purpose in that culture. A purpose that is eventually seen as their defined and definite role by all of society. During the first half of the 20th century, predominantly, the only role a woman in an advert had was as a wife or a homemaker. Advertisements, for everything from dishwashers to typewriters, showcased women hoping for nothing more but to be the best of housewives. Stuart Ewen, researcher on the role of advertising in the 20th century and author of Captains of Consciousness (1976), is paraphrased by William O’Barr, explaining that “advertising offered women labor saving devices like washing machines and at the same time instructed them in their proper domestic roles as mothers and homemakers.” These limiting roles became the only future women saw for themselves; the full extent of their aspirations. They set goals only to reach the glass ceiling society had placed far too close above them.

Many will argue that society has come a long way since the homogenizing ads of the 1920’s and 30’s. While we have certainly moved beyond the ever-present totalizing concept of the happy housewife, that alone doesn’t mean we’ve escaped the oppressive norms engrained in advertising. What is media telling us about the role of women in today’s society? What are the subtle messages they use to sell a product? Does a nude woman in an ad to sell men’s clothing truly mark progress?

Following the rebirth of feminism in the 1970’s, women were looking for empowerment and liberation. For the marketing industry, it wasn’t a societal revolution, but simply an opportunity to take a new angle. Instead of allowing women to set their own individual standards and ambitions, media stepped in, claiming to know exactly what a woman needs to have full liberation and freedom.

Commercial media then began to create the ideal woman, dressing her in revealing costumes, her beauty portrayed as her power and weapon. They sexualized women; once again limiting their values and abilities, this time focusing on sexual appeal and objectification. The marketing industry cleverly cloaked this ideology beneath the notion that this is what is needed in order for a woman to be empowered, in order to, very ironically, gain her freedom from being under the demanding rule of a man–as she might’ve been in the role of an obedient housewife in the 1920’s.

The realization and recognition of the potential for this narrative to influence roles outside of the media is vitally important. The rhetoric of media works to shift the range of socially acceptable norms by exposing and feeding society distorted ideologies of happiness, liberation, and empowerment. The manipulated and unattainable standards that have been driven through our society blinds us to heights we would otherwise be able to reach, were we not shackled down by false notions of material and physical achievements.

As a whole, society is responsible for allowing the media to take the reins in shaping its culture. The industry does not work to improve society; it hands out instant and short lived gratification. We expect this industry to give us what we need–turning to it to seek out our desires. We empower the media and hand over control by comparing ourselves and our lifestyles to the standards that the medium of advertising creates. The situation has not, and will not, get better until we choose to shift its power and influence over our society.

As the next generation, we are the cultivators of the future. We have the knowledge, resources, and, most importantly, the responsibility to overcome the repressing influence of commercial media and to break through the glass ceiling. We are more than the over sexualized and photo-shopped images that bombard us. We are more than a marketing tool, a pawn in the industry, a mind to be manipulated with.

Change will not come quickly. But, as technology grows and the world shrinks, we, as a society and community, have found a place for our voice. Harnessing the tools of social media, videos, and online campaigns, the potential for change is within our grasp. We are capable of restraining the influence of commercial media to only go as far as images on a screen and pictures in store windows; staying within the world of consumerism–far from our self-perceptions, societal standards, and individual ambitions.