While all of these things are certainly important topics to pay attention to, I fear that we have become blind to another pressing issue that is happening right in front of us. Our very institutions of American democracy have been attacked, and continue to be assaulted on a daily basis. But I fear that we are becoming complacent and not taking this threat as seriously as we should be. Russia has, and continues to, undermine our nation through online attacks and disinformation campaigns, and we seem to be unwilling to even acknowledge this fact. The United States and Russia have entered a new stage of warfare, one that takes place not in battlefields but on social media. We are at war with Russia. And we’re losing, badly.
In 2015 the FCC approved rules guaranteeing a free and open Internet and made official protections for the principle of net neutrality. This principle simply states that Internet Service Providers ISPs must treat all content equally – they cannot discriminate content by slowing or blocking certain websites entirely. This is important to promote innovation, protect the freedom of the Internet, and prevent ISPs from controlling what we are allowed to see and access. But now those same protections are under threat once again thanks to the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai.
In the last several months, the term “fake news” has gone from a rarely-used phrase to a concept that seemingly everyone had run into and had an opinion on. And with a President who casually throws the phrase around in an attempt to discredit media organizations, it certainly seems that the notion of fake news isn’t going away anytime soon. The term has evolved from describing articles that are factually inaccurate to encompass any media that has a distinct partisan bias. On the one hand, you have Trump supporters using it to claim liberal bias in news reporting while on the other hand you have the US Intelligence Community describing a deliberate Russian “influence campaign” to sway the 2016 Presidential Election. Regardless of political leaning or party affiliation, it seems that everyone is at least aware of fake news, and has an opinion on what should be done in response. Though there are disagreements over what actually constitutes fakes news, universally fake news is seen as a problem that must somehow be “fixed.”
So naturally, a handful of solutions have been proposed that aim to solve the problem of fake news once and for all. Generally these solutions have offered a “top-down” approach—attempting to cut off fake news from the source, and prevent it from ever reaching an audience. This has taken many forms, including blaming the media corporations who published the content, holding social media services responsible for their platforms role in spreading the content, or even suggesting that the government take a more active regulatory role in journalism. However, hardly any so-called “fixes” for this problem get at the root of what’s really causing the proliferation of fake news––us. We can attempt to blame media outlets, social media services, or even the government for the problem that fake news has become, but the common factor in it all remains the same: those who read, watch, listen to, and otherwise consume media in their day to day lives. We, the audience, are ultimately responsible for the rampant spread of fake news.
By now, I’m sure you’ve seen it appearing all over the Internet, a new meme that has surged in popularity. Its basis is quite simple: a stock photo of a young couple walking down a city street. The man turns to look back at an attractive woman walking back the other way. His girlfriend looks on in disgust. The original photo is quite simple and could have easily lived its entire life as an obscure stock photo – a man looking away from his girlfriend at another woman. Antonio Guillem, photographer of the original image, likely thought that it wouldn’t go much further than that as well.
Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
But that soon changed as some users started adding text on top of the people in the photo to assign different names or personalities to the original. Each version of the photo now told a slightly different story: looking away from what you currently have, or what may presently make sense, and considering a different (and more preferable option) For example a love of dogs:
Or maybe even the scenario of playing new games, or old ones:
What makes the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme especially interesting is the fact that the same format can apply in numerous situations – even to specific details that only certain groups would be able to understand. For instance Penguin Random House got in on the meme fun:
Regardless of what group was using the meme format, its overall meaning remained the same. Each instance of the Distracted Boyfriend meme portrayed the same scene playing out again and again–someone who had already made a decision, or had an obligation, wondering about whether or not they made the right choice, and wishing that they could take a different action. Each individual instance of the meme feeds into the meme’s overall meaning as a whole; simultaneously the overall meaning of the meme feeds back into how each individual instance is interpreted. Thus, even if we don’t understand the specific details of how one particular group is using it, we still understand the general usage of the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
Guillem even referred to this fact in an interview for WIRED. “Regarding what I think about the photo has gone viral, I think the image was a good foundation to whoever had the great idea to turn it into a metaphor that works for almost everything,” he says. No matter what group uses the image, and no matter how it is adopted, the overall meaning is still approximately the same. The memes even became self-referential, and many instances appeared that speak to the actual act of creating meme instances and running a meme social media page:
Perhaps, the Distracted Boyfriend meme has become so widespread in its popularity because it revels some universal truth of the human condition. The fact that life inevitably presents each of us with a series of choices that we must make, and that you’ll always question if you actually made the correct decision–or if there was a “better” option that you turned down. Perhaps the meme is our contemporary rendition of the problem that Robert Frost was trying to get at in his famous poem:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
-Robert Frost, 1916
Or maybe it’s just a stupid Internet that’s running its course.
For better or for worse, memes have fully entered the world of politics. And they’re here to stay.
An inflatable chicken meant to resemble President Trump on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, on Wednesday. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Earlier this week, a new political protest appeared outside of the White House–an enormous inflatable chicken stylized to look like President Trump. The chicken, with Trump’s distinct hairstyle and signature hand gestures (👌) was placed on the Ellipse, a park between the White House and the Washington Monument. The large balloon representation of the President drew plenty of attention, from both side of the political spectrum. According to the New York Times, the inflatable chicken’s trip to Washington was planned and organized by Taran Singh Brar, and was meant to represent trump as a “weak and ineffective leader.” Brar said that his goal was for his political statement to go viral and his inflatable chicken certainly did exactly that, though perhaps not exactly in the way that he was hoping.
Beyond the initial coverage of the chicken’s appearance, there has been very little information about Brar and his message of Trump as an ineffective leader. Instead, Trump supporters have flocked to the inflatable chicken and used it as a unifying symbol and as a rallying cry. The specific messaging has varied–from the chicken as a symbol of “butthurt liberals” to being representative of the President’s personality and his “enormous cock.” Despite these variances one fact remains, which is that Brar’s inflatable chicken, originally intended to criticize Trump, was now being used in a positive manner by his supporters.
The frontpage of /r/The_Donald, a subreddit for Trump supporters, was filled with links to images, articles, and comments all relating to the giant inflatable chicken. Trump supporters visited Washington, posing for photos with the chicken while wearing their Trump shirts and Make America Great Again hats. Other redefined Brar’s original message of cowardice and saw the chicken as representing strength, bravery, and leadership–or in one user’s words, “The President’s huge cock.” For them, the chicken was a symbol of Trump’s style of leading the nation, his America-first style of diplomacy, and the manner in which he pushes his legislative agenda. And finally, one last common theme that was found throughout /r/The_Donald was that Brar’s chicken represented liberals’ inability to accept Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 Election. For many, the chicken was seen as an immature response from the left to the Trump Presidency.
However, what’s really interesting regarding this whole chicken business is that this conflict over its meaning did not take place in the form of debate, discussion, or even as an argument. Instead these messages arose in the form of memes, and spread in a similar fashion. Originally meant as a single political statement, the giant inflatable chicken had become its own meme and had begun to spread virally, just as Brar had hoped.
Instances of the inflatable chicken meme ranged in form and style–some were simply a photograph of the chicken with a simple caption placed on top. Some copied previous memes, such as “I Made This” and simply edited in imagery of Trump supporters stealing the chicken from a Clinton supporter. And some Photoshopped the chicken image into other photographs, as if to represent their view of Trump’s wide-reaching power and influence.
And if the meme instances alone were not enough confirmation that Trump supporters had reclaimed the inflatable chicken imagery entirely as their own, the comments that were left on each post confirmed this point even further. The general theme of most comments was that the meme had successfully been stolen from the left, and that the right’s memes were significantly better than what the other side could ever come up with.
“BECAUSE THE LEFT CANT MEME” – /u/HIGHENERGYBASTARD
“We have the best cocks, don’t we folks?” – /u/God_I_Love_Men
“We have the best meme thieves, don’t we folks??” – /u/MAGANOPOLIS
“WE HAVE SEIZED THE MEMES OF PRODUCTION” – /u/kingofthekarts
Interestingly, there has been little to no dialogue from the other side, from those who the meme was supposedly stolen from. Though /r/The_Donald is filled with comments bragging about stealing the chicken meme from the left, nobody on the left really seems upset nor seems to even realize that something was “stolen” from them in the first place. In other words, the transformation of the inflatable chicken from single political statement to Internet meme underscores many of the issues relating to the increasing prevalence of memes within politics. Specifically, the inflatable chicken meme calls into question the notion of ownership when it comes to the issue of memes.
I am currently writing my senior thesis on Pepe the Frog and that meme’s role in American politics; many of the concepts my research has led me too are echoed by the recent appearance of this inflatable chicken. Memes are unique because unlike other political statements, there is no one single owner. There isn’t a single person, or even a single organization, that can rightfully claim ownership of a meme and define what its specific (and “real”) meaning actually is. The inflatable chicken portrays President Trump simultaneously in a negative and positive light–and neither interpretation is intrinsically more correct than the other. Memes serve as a vessel to carry and transmit to complex ideas, and distill them down to a simple image or phrase. The conflict between Trump supporters and Trump opponents, and the complex relationship between Republicans and Democrats, and the inherent complications of the US political system are all somehow simultaneously embodied by this giant inflatable chicken.
At first glance, the chicken is merely a simple political stunt, and images of it that appear online are nothing more. However the chicken has grown to represent in simple terms the complex political ideas, discussions, and debates that are currently unfolding in the so-called “real world.” The fact that a simple inflatable chicken can serve as a symbol of such a wide array of topics is significant, and underscores the new reality of the 21st century: Whether you like it or not, memes matter. And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Donald Trump has been in office for 200 days now, and during that time he has completely redefined our understanding of what the President’s role is for our nation. He has questioned the legitimacy of American journalists, taken numerous vacations, and continued his attacks on Hillary Clinton – all while somehow failing to enact any meaningful legislation. As a President, Trump is an anomaly – something that this country has never seen before. Reading the news can be quite disheartening, especially when it seems that we can’t go an entire 24 hours without hearing of something else ridiculous that the President has done. His erratic behavior and unusual leadership style runs the risk of becoming normalized, and being accepted as the new standard for American Presidents. However we must never lose sight of the fact that nothing about the Trump Presidency is usual or ordinary. This is not normal.
It is not normal to tweet at early hours of the morning, and interacting with Twitter accounts who are likely paid bots
Is it not normal to follow the same propaganda tactics used by the FSB and other similar Russian strategies
It is not normal to continually question and undermine the legitimacy of a Special Counsel’s investigation into election interference
It is not normal to go on the offensive about leaks of sensitive information, only to later tweet articles that rely heavily upon leaked intel
It is not normal to continue having campaign-style rallies, where the crowd is encouraged to revert back to their 2016-esque “Lock her up” chants
It is not normal to have a constant revolving door of White House staff, where Anthony Scaramucci only lasted 10 days as Communication Director
It is not normal to praise dictators and other violent leaders for their “strength,” such as China and Turkey
It is not normal to speak disrespectfully and immaturely to leaders of our ally nations, Mexico and Australia
It is not normal to threaten North Korea with “fire and fury” in regards to their nuclear program
Nothing about the Trump presidency is normal, and it is critical that we remind ourselves of this fact. It seems that every news cycle is filled with more stories about how erratic Trump is acting, or the crazy comment that he made last. And while it certainly is true that Donald Trump behaves in this fashion, it is not acceptable behavior nor is it indicative of the nation as a whole. President Trump is not normal, and we cannot ever allow ourselves to forget that fact. The immediate weeks following his election, and again following his inauguration, we kept reminding ourselves about this. That the next four years would be filled with norms and establishments being challenged, that we must remember that the events that are happening in fact are not typical, and that we must fight back against them being normalized. However 200 days into the Trump Presidency, I already see us forgetting this fact and becoming numb to the daily deluge of news. I myself am guilty of this, but on the 200 day marker want to remind myself of this fact.
The Dietler staff is an incredibly dedicated group of young men and women who deliver the greatest experience that Scouting has to offer. This is a camp staff like no other, and the things that we accomplish are unmatched by any other camp and by any other staff in the nation. The Camp Director’s leadership and direction is critical to guide the staff’s energy, enthusiasm, and dedication toward excellence. Dietler staff have the most difficult jobs at all of Peaceful Valley—we require so much of each individual, provide little downtime for rest, and have very high standards that we pride ourselves on living up to. It may seem like you’re pushing very hard on minor details, but those details truly do matter and are the reason that Dietler staff truly is the best. I’ve compiled this section of general thoughts—some my own, some from previous staff—as inspiration to future staff, and a reminder of the rich tradition from which we come.
Will you just “go through the motions” or dare greatly to be the master of the ultimate Scouting experience? The choice is yours and we need you to step up and make the difference.
Boon Eck, 2014
Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, and Urgency – Ben Pettis, 2016
There are many ways to motivate a group of individuals to do a particular task, but not all are equally effective. The first, which is often used in many workplaces, is the “carrot and stick” technique. By either offering rewards, or threatening punishment, staff are directed to complete certain tasks. For instance, if you complete these tasks, you’ll receive your paycheck. Or if you don’t complete these tasks, or don’t meet our standards, you’ll receive disciplinary action. But under this model, even though tasks are completed, they are often done begrudgingly, and simply because they “have to” and not because they are important to the function of camp and delivering the Scouting program. A camp staff that is motivated only through “carrots and sticks” is not an effective one, and will struggle to run even a mediocre summer camp.
However, when the camp staff is empowered to act independently and take ownership of their positions, the quality of staff and of the camp as a whole flourishes. The staff completes their tasks not because they are required to, but because it’s necessary for the day to day function of camp. Instead of being motivated from external factors (the carrot and stick), the staff should be self-motivated through the qualities of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
Autonomy – the ability to work independently, without direction. Staff should understand what needs to be done, and make sure it gets done—even if not specifically told to do so.
Mastery – the staff are skilled and knowledgeable and strive for excellence in everything that they do. The staff prides itself in the quality of its work, and aims for excellence not because they will be rewarded for doing so, but because achieving a high standard of work is reward in and of itself.
Purpose – The staff is here at camp for the right reasons. We do things not for the recognition, or to be the person at the center of attention, receiving praise from others. Instead, the ultimate reason that we are here at camp, and strive for excellence, is to provide an incredible scouting experience to the campers who populate our camp. Everything we do ultimately is for them, and it is important to keep this goal in mind.
Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose comprise an important tool to motivate the staff and empower them to do their jobs with pride and excellence. However this is one additional trait that differentiate the work ethic and mentality of the Dietler staff, and underscores the unique manner in which we work. Urgency—everything we do, while motivated by Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, is done with a sense of urgency. This does not mean that the staff should rush through their jobs and complete tasks in a substandard manner. However it does mean that if something needs to be done, the staff completes that task as soon as possible. It means not letting the little things pile up and become bigger issues. Solving a problem early on keeps camp running smoothly, and provides a great experience for our campers. Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, and Urgency are traits that all great staff members should embody.
Thoughts about MDC/Camp/Life on Staff – Tim Cycyota, 2008
Initiative. I feel that if a word could replace “Hardcore” while still maintaining the integrity of what Hardcore means, it is initiative. Initiative is getting up and going hard and fast. Initiative is finding a hole and filling it, even if it is a simple as sweeping down the decks or talking to scouts. Initiative is only sitting down to catch your breath before getting back out into the fray. Initiative is understanding what this program, this camp, this ranch means to the staff that run it and the campers who populate it. Initiative is taking care of this camp and its campers, but also taking care of you. Initiative is working smarter, not harder, and initiative means no one burns out. As Dietler staff, we take great pride in the integrity of our work. I will debate any other staff that says they work harder than the staff at Dietler. We work this hard because of our possession of so much initiative. Hardcore in recent years has become inseperable from nostalgia, as in “Remember when we stayed up for an entire 24 hours cleaning the Commissary? That was Hardcore.” This nostalgia only serves to drive a wedge between older staff and younger staff, preventing true staff unity. If all of staff is on the same page, if all of staff understands the importance of showing initiative, then our staff will be in my opinion the best camp staff in the country. Maybe I’m a tad biased, but it’s entirely possible.
Camp Colorado Staff Guide – Boone Eck, 1988
Your job at Camp Colorado is to facilitate opportunities for activities as well as provide the necessary support to ensure a Scouting week full of enthusiaction (sic). You are a representative of the Denver Area Council, which has a strong heritage of quality camping experiences. Your role is to ensure good programming but in no way are you to become the leader of any unit. In a way you’ll act as an assistant Scoutmaster.
As a staff member, you need to be ready to work as a team to accomplish the many thigns that happen at camp. Enthusiasm is the key to our success this ummer. Your utmost example of the Scout Oath and Law will demonstrate a lasting impression of Scouting—good or bad. You are a role model and expected to be one at all times.
As a staff member, you must have the energy of an hunharnessed volcano, the drive of a rocket, the memory of an elephant, the understanding of a clergyman, the wisdom of a judge, the tenacity of a spider, the patience of a general, the diplomacy of an ambassador, and the common sence of the Supreme Court. As a staff member you must always remember that Scouts are trained by doing, by example, and by a sincere interest in the subject at hand.
Marilyn Monroe was one of America’s most well-known stars to come out of Hollywood. Though the peak of her career was in the 1950s and 1960s, Marilyn Monroe’s stardom has lasted until even today. Almost half a century later both her name and image are still easily recognizable, a sign of how well her legacy has endured. This long-lasting history makes Marilyn Monroe an excellent case study for the phenomenon of stardom. Film theorist Richard Dyer, in his essay Stars, describes various aspects of stars and stardom, and provides ways to analyze them. Marilyn Monroe’s career provides us with several examples of a real application of Dyer’s star theory. Her own status as a star is a microcosm for the stardom phenomenon as a whole.
One of the first components of Dyer’s theory is to examine the star as a construction. The star figure is not actually real, and is instead artificially produced both on and off screen by studios, directors, and actors. The platinum blonde sex symbol that appears throughout Hollywood films is not the real Marilyn Monroe, but rather a mere portrayal of her star persona. Monroe’s persona was deliberately constructed and promoted throughout her career. In fact, her real name was Norma Jeane Mortenson, which she used throughout her early career as a pin-up model. It wasn’t until her first contract with Fox that she picked the stage name Marilyn Monroe. Her star persona developed through the films she performed in, playing characters such as “the girl” and “the blonde.” These roles highlighted her beauty and established her sense of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” These qualities and appeals to the male gaze eventually became defining features of Monroe’s stardom. To complement the on-screen construction, Monroe’s appearances in off-screen settings also perpetuated her star persona. In TV and magazine interviews, she presented herself as naive and unashamed about her natural sexuality. Through the combination of both on- and off-screen construction, Monroe developed as a star, known as an American sex symbol. According to Dyer, stardom is somethign that is carefully constructed and promoted. Had this construction process not occurred, Monroe may have remained Norma Mortenson and her career gone in a completely different direction. Marilyn Monroe, as a star, is the product of construction.
Dyer also wrote that stars can be studied as commodities. They are, according to him, commercial products that can be sold and consumed to generate studio profits. For example, Monroe appeared in advertisements for various products and helped increase their value and appeal. Additionally, many of her films were star vehicles–films written specifically for her to appear in. Audiences weren’t necessarily coming to the theater to see the film, but merely as an opportunity to see and consume the star image of Marilyn Monroe. Not only did Monroe contribute directly to a studio’s bottom line, but she also promoted consumption and consumerism in general. In her interviews, and film appearances, Monroe represented capitalism and the importance of spending money as a signifier of success. In these ways, Monroe as a star fits right in with Dyer’s theory of the star as a commodity.
Finally, Dyer has written that stardom can be studied in the context of ideology. Stars can produce and promote ideals that appear throughout the rest of culture as well. In a cyclical fashion, trends in culture contribute to the creation of stars who in turn promote and reinforce those same cultural trends. This is most apparent in Monroe’s status as a sex symbol for Americans. She was a “household name” equated with the idea of sex. Monroe’s star persona as a sex symbol developed alongside the 1950s new ideals regarding sexuality. In the 1950s, sex became much less of a taboo subject. Playboy started publishing, people were willing to talk about sex, and in general sexuality was being embraced. Sex was now considered natural, normalized, and acceptable. Monroe not only adheres to these characteristics but perpetuated them throughout society as well. Her star image–eyes half closed, mouth open, large lips, and lit face–appeared throughout media, further helping to normalize the 1950s sexual revolution. The ideological development and the appearance of Monroe as a star occurred concurrently and perpetuated each other, much as described by Dyer’s theory of stars as ideology.
Marilyn Monroe was quite possible one of the most well-known stars in the history of Hollywood. Her rise to stardom as well as her successful career are indicative of the general phenomenon of stardom as a whole. In perhaps the most tragic paradox of stardom, nearly all of American knew Marilyn Monroe, but very few people knew the “real” non-star version of her. This outcome of the stardom phenomenon is common and perhaps still ongoing. By using a single star such as Monroe as a case study, we can begin examining the entire notion of stardom in general.
Consumer culture is a phrase that many people are familiar with, and associate with mass production of, and subsequent mass purchase of manufactured goods. In this culture, goods are not simply purchased and utilized, but consumed. However, consumerism does not apply only to the physical goods that can be purchased in stores; instead nearly every aspect of society has become commodified and is reformulated as something to be sold to the masses. This is the case for nearly every sector, including higher education. The University of Oregon (UO), for instance, has created a distinct school identity that plays into this culture of consumerism. The UO’s 2016 “Throw Your O” advertising campaign fits this model, and serves to create and reinforce a common identity surrounding the University. This identity is used to create a school culture consisting of students, alumni, faculty, and more and turn them all into consumers, and increase revenues for the school.
The UO culture, and the ways in which it operates, are not immediately apparent, especially for individuals who themselves are members of the culture. Cultural theorist Raymond Williams described this phenomenon in his statement that “Culture is Ordinary,” from his essay of the same name. (2009) Williams describes that members of any given culture will typically view their own culture very differently than someone outside of it, and that many aspects about the very culture in which one is a member will be invisible and unnoticeable to that person. This is equally the case for the UO and the unique culture that it has developed. No matter their specific affiliation with the school—student, alumni, faculty, or even just the surrounding Eugene community—members of the UO culture do not see every aspect of it, and might possibly not even recognize their own membership within it. For members of the UO culture, the action of “throwing your O” is an ordinary and everyday occurrence, so little attention is paid to it. However, for someone outside of the UO culture, the action of placing one’s hands in a loosely formed O to symbolize an institution of higher education might seem unusual. This is why the “Throw Your O” campaign is effective—it uses an action that members of the culture are already familiar with, and offers those outside of the culture an easy way to join it, by simply performing the action of “throwing their O.”
The two versions of the advertisement feature UO student tour guides Kiara Galicinao and Gustavo Feria leading a tour group of prospective students. Their voiceovers follow the roughly same script, stating that “Here, at Oregon, it’s about you. It’s how you change the world,” and “It’s how you make your mark on the world,” before each saying the catchphrase of the campaign, “It’s how you throw your ‘O.’” Feria and Galicinao then form the “O” symbol with their hands, to which the camera quickly moves in toward, and quickly switches to a match cut of the “O” logo painted on the side of Lillis hall, a building at the UO campus. The video then proceeds to a rapid montage of UO students doing various things, including sitting in classrooms, studying in libraries, and attending sporting events. This montage is accompanied by an fast-paced and upbeat soundtrack that evokes a sense of excitement. The video concludes with Feria and Galicinao presenting the audience with a call to action. When they directly address the viewer and ask, “So you decide. How will you throw your O?” they are directly inviting the viewer to “throw the O” themselves and become a member of the UO’s culture as well. (University of Oregon, 2016a) Because, as Williams eloquently explained, “Culture is ordinary,” many of the cultural effects of the “Throw your O” videos are not immediately apparent, especially for those who identify as members of the UO culture. However, by carefully picking apart the campaign and its elements, it becomes possible to discern its results, as well as begin probing the University’s motivations for creating this culture.
Luckily, the UO provides a starting point for deconstructing the videos and analyzing them. The Around the O section of the University website featured another video explaining the “Throw your O” advertisements, including not only their production, but the motivation behind them as well. In this video Kyle Henley, the University’s Vice President of University Communications, explains the advertising campaigns and what the action of “throwing your O” is supposed to represent. In Henley’s words, “It’s really a physical symbol—kind of a metaphor for how you make your mark in the world as a duck.” (University of Oregon, 2016b) To put it another way, the unique culture created by the university has been consolidated into a single hand gesture. The simple act of forming one’s hands into an “O” shape is now made to evoke every aspect of the UO culture. Not only are the wide reaching aspects of culture now consolidated, but they are now highly exportable and reproducible. The UO culture is no longer limited to the physical location itself; it can be performed before, during, and after everyone’s time at the school, and can be performed by anyone—students, faculty, and more. Thus Henley’s casual description of the “Throw your O” campaign is more than just a simple demonstration of the physical symbol, but also subtly portrays the wide reach that the UO culture has grown to achieve.
The wide reach of the UO culture is achieved through advertising campaigns such as the “Throw your O” videos, and it has several important implications about the homogenization of culture. All of the minute differences that comprise culture of the University are consolidated and reduced into a single action, the idea of “throw your O.” Even with a multitude of differences between individuals, they are all able to be a part of the UO culture, which in turn allows it to continue its spread and growth. The “Throw your O” campaign suggests that it is not just possible, but incredibly easy, for anyone to become part of the UO culture and be a duck. Additionally, Henley states that the “O” hand gesture symbolizes “being the person that you want to be in the future.” (University of Oregon, 2016b) By stating this, he is suggesting that the UO culture is something that can be exported worldwide, and that the hand gesture tis the method by which it can be spread. The members and participants of the UO culture are the ones who are responsible for spreading it. This is similar to the work of Marxists theorists Adorno and Horkheimer, in which they describe the culture industry. According to them, the mass media functions not to produce media content, but rather to produce and export culture. (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012) Whenever and wherever media is consumed, culture is consumed as well. They that consumers of culture from this industry are also responsible for spreading it as well.
Even though Adorno and Horkheimer were writing about media industries, their writings can apply to the University’s “Throw your O” campaign as well. The videos are not just a way to promote the school and its culture, but to package that culture into a simple gesture and employ its members to spread it. At the 2016 Convocation ceremony, UO President Michael Schill gave a speech in which he alluded to the “Throw your O” campaign. He explained that “throwing your O, is the way you make your impact on the world as Duck,” and challenged students to “’throw [their] O’ far and wide, in ways [they] cannot yet imagine.” (Michael Schill, 2016) Though the message of making a mark on the world can be seen as purely inspirational, the addition of the qualification phrase “as a Duck,” reveals a different motivation behind Schill’s worlds, and behind the “Throw your O” campaign as a whole. It is a way for members of the UO culture to be responsible for spreading it as well. People who identify with the UO culture have become employed by the University to “work” within this factory that endlessly produces and exports the University’s culture. This process is cyclical in nature. Members of the culture contribute to its growth, which encourages more people to come to the University. These people are then exposed to products of the UO culture, such as the “Throw your O” campaign, and become members of it as well. Thanks to the simplicity of the O hand gesture, paired with campaigns such as “Throw your O,” the UO culture spreads easily and this cycle repeats endlessly.
The “Throw your O” campaign is a method used by the University to spread its culture, but it is not solely responsible for creating it. Though there are many small factors that contribute to the UO culture, it is all encapsulated in a single symbol, the “O.” This single symbol represents the entirety of the UO culture and is responsible for the hegemonic power of the culture. The “O” appears on various forms of University communications, advertisements, and is even embedded within the very architecture of the campus. Because it represents the UO culture itself, it has high value for the University. For this reason, the use of the “O” is highly regulated. The University’s brand guidelines dictate the specific proportions of the O, and very minute detail of how it is allowed to be used. The guide outlines specific rules such as its sizing, color, and where the “O” symbol is allowed to be used. (University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services, n.d.) Control over this trademarked symbol is so strict that the University does not allow it to appear on any clothing that is not Nike branded. This specific aspect of the UO brand could be discussed in depth, but the key takeaway is the same—by limiting its ability to be reproduced, the value of the “O” symbol, and by extension its culture, is preserved.
The value of the Oregon “O” and its relation to reproducibility can be explained through the work of theorists like Walter Benjamin. His theory of the aura can explain why a symbol like the Oregon “O” can have so much power, and why the University uses it to promote its specific culture. Benjamin wrote about the nature of artistic work, especially in the context technology such as photography and cinema that makes its replication very simple. He argued that among original works of art, there is an “aura,” or indescribable property that makes them seem more valuable. (Benjamin, 2012) This is why even those familiar with images of a famous work of art, such as the Mona Lisa, will also find value in the original piece as well. The iconic Oregon “O” has an aura of its own, which is why it is a powerful way to contain the UO culture.
However, the “O” will only have an aura if its ability to be reproduced must be limited. Unfortunately, though limiting the ability to use and spread the symbol preserves its aura, it severely limits its utility for spreading culture. In order to use a symbol to spread culture, it is necessary to replicate it repeatedly. The University found a way to confront this paradox by using two separate forms of the “O” to grow and spread the UO culture. There are two forms of the “O,” each with the same meaning, but intended to be used in two different ways. The first is the official trademarked “O.” It is tightly controlled and only allowed to be used in specific situations. Because of this high degree of control, it has an aura, and therefore high value as well. The second form is the one featured in the “Throw your O” campaign, the simple hand gesture that anyone can perform. It evokes the same ideas of culture as the other form of the “O,” but without threatening its aura. The first form, the trademarked “O” brand, has monetary value and the second form, the hand gesture, has cultural value. This duality of symbols allows the University to maintain the high value of the symbol, but while also utilizing it to advance its goal of spreading the UO culture.
Though the University has many methods by which it develops and spreads culture, its reasons for doing so are quite simple. The University uses campaigns such as “Throw your O” in order to create a unique culture and portray it in a manner than can be easily spread. However, its motives for doing so are not necessarily just a message of positivity and inclusion. Instead, it can be attributed to a method for the University maintain its power and increase revenues. Spreading the UO culture enables more people to become members of the culture as well. Each new member identifying with the culture represents increased profit for the school. Students that attend the university will pay high tuition and fees. Alumni of the university can be solicited for donations. Community members outside of these groups can still contribute to the University’s profits by purchasing branded merchandise. The University’s culture is wide-reaching, and represents an important source of revenue for the administration.
However, the fact that people still choose to willingly be a part of this culture, in which they provide profits for the school and receiving few benefits, suggests that the UO culture is more than just a small set of ideals, but a hegemony in and of itself. As outlined by theorist Antonio Gramsci, cultural hegemonies are an idea central to many Marxist theories, and describe a manner in which a ruling class can maintain its power without resorting to force or violence by maintaining power over ideas instead. (Marx & Engels, 2012) By presenting the ideas of the ruling class in a manner that they appear as being the ideas of the people as a whole, they are accepted and left unchallenged. (Gramsci, 2012) This is exactly what the University has achieved with its symbolic use of the “O” and the “Throw your O” campaign as a whole. Ultimately, it serves the monetary ends of the University, but is presented in such a way that the audience receiving it will accept it without question. Just as Gramsci wrote, the ideas the ruling class become the ideas of everyone. The UO Style Guide website’s description of the “Throw your O” campaign explicitly states that the brand “is not something that marketers or communicators made. It’s something the university itself made—the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community—over the course of its entire history.” (University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services, n.d.) Of course, this is blatantly untrue, as the entire campaign was developed and produced in-house by the University’s marketing department. However, by presenting in this manner, the ideas of the ruling class—the University—are accepted as the ideas of everyone. In this way, the University is able to maintain its tight control over the unique culture that it created, and utilize it for its own monetary gain.
The University of Oregon’s creation of a distinct school culture is an invisible process, something that is meant to happen without anyone noticing. However, even if the process is invisible, its effects and outcomes are not. The creation of a distinct culture serves the University’s monetary interests. The UO culture spreads easily to all groups—students, alumni, faculty, community members, and more—and interpellates them into a culture of consuming the University’s products. It is unimportant whether this is in the form of tuition from attending the school, donations from alumni, or simply buying UO branded products—these are all means to the same end, increasing revenue for the school.
This method of creating cultures is certainly not unique to the University of Oregon, and is ubiquitous throughout nearly all institutions in the age of consumerism. Though the invisible creation of culture seems like an inherently malicious process, it is important to note that this is not necessarily always the case. Though the process itself is not evil, being able to identify it and question it is the first step to determining its moral standing, and to begin to push back against it and change it.
Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (2012). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In D. Kellner & M. G. Durham (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 53 – 74).
Benjamin, W. (2012). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 37 – 53). Wiley-Blackwell.
Gramsci, A. (2012). Three Selections – (i) History of the Subaltern Classes; (ii) The Concept of “Ideology”; (iii) Cultural Themes: Ideological Material. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 34–37). Wiley-Blackwell.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2012). The Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 31–33). Wiley-Blackwell.
Michael Schill. (2016, September 2). Convocation: Throw Your O. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from https://president.uoregon.edu/convocation-throw-your-o
University of Oregon. (2016a). #ThrowYourO. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from https://around.uoregon.edu/ThrowYourO
University of Oregon. (2016b). #ThrowYourO | What It Means. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4WzU0SjQVo
University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services. (n.d.). Style Guide | University of Oregon. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from http://brand.uoregon.edu/
Williams, R. (2009). Culture is Ordinary. In J. Turow & M. McAllister (Eds.), Advertising and Consumer Culture Reader (pp. 91–100). New York: Routledge.
In contemporary society, the phenomenon of stardom plays a large and always-present role. It might be considered unusual to run into someone who does not have a favorite movie star, music performer, or television personality. Our society is saturated by countless forms of media, and we have become obsessed with the individuals that appear within them. Of course, it is no surprise to most people that the people we see on the screen are different than the real people who they represent. Instead, stars are merely an artificial construction created through the culmination of the effort by studios, the actors themselves, and society at large. Film theorist Richard Dyer was one of the first to analyze aspects of stardom and the effect they have on society. These artificial constructions, the star personas, represent the public image of the star and how they are generally viewed. For instance, Marilyn Monroe is associated with sexuality, Rock Hudson with masculinity, and Donald Trump with over-the-top business antics. These stars are almost inseparable with their personas, and might even be unrecognizable if they were presented differently. However, it is interesting to consider what might happen if a star were to try to redefine themselves and reconstruct their persona. Stars are defined almost exclusively by their persona, so any attempt to adopt an entirely new persona calls into question the very nature of stardom as a whole.
Regardless of if a star can successfully change their persona, the fact remains that the phenomenon of stardom is closely related to culture that they exist within. Simply put, stars are cultural products and are the embodiment of ideologies. (Dyer 2) When discussing the general notion of stardom, Dyer continually uses the example of capitalism—production and consumption—as ideologies that stars embody. The neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci described these types of ideologies even further, calling them cultural hegemonies. (Gramsci) For him, a hegemony is a dominant ideology that permeates so widely throughout culture that it exists largely unnoticed, and are accepts simply as “just the way things are.” Gramsci argues that hegemonies stay in power if they go unnoticed. Contemporary examples of hegemonies could include U.S. politics, including the two-party system, and the deeply-held nature of political beliefs. Stars are an ideal vehicle for perpetuating hegemonies such as these because they occupy several different areas of culture, and are seen by many members of the public at large. Even if a star is able to successfully change their persona, such a change is ultimately insignificant because the underlying ideologies that the star embodies remain unchanged.
There are many stars that could serve as examples of this phenomenon, and much academic work has been done examining the relation of stars and various ideologies. However, this paper aims to examine a star’s attempt to change his or her own persona, and the effect that it might have on their underlying ideologies. Stephen Colbert, who is a star from his television appearances, makes for an ideal case study especially in terms of his transition from hosting The Colbert Report on Comedy Central to hosting The Late Show on CBS. He hosted his final episode of The Colbert Report on December 18, 2014, and premiered on The Late Show on September 8, 2015. During this interim, there was significant speculation as to how Colbert’s star persona would be portrayed on the new show, to the point that Stephen Colbert specifically announced that he would not appear “in character” in the new CBS show. (Zuckerman) Despite the uncertainty over what version of the Colbert star would appear, it was always a given that Colbert would still be involved in the propagation of certain ideologies. Cultural theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno describe this concept in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. They argue that the primary export of the entertainment industry and of mass media is no the movies, music, and TV shows that they produce but instead the hegemonies that they promote. (Adorno and Horkheimer) By extension, stars are yet another product that the Culture Industry produces. Stars are important not because of the people they represent or the characters they play, but for the ideologies they carry. In her book on Lady Gaga, Amber Davisson reaffirms that “stars themselves do now lack ideological significance,” which indicates that the decades-old theories of Dyer, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Adorno and others still applies to contemporary notions of stardom. (Davisson 4) Stephen Colbert is the epitome of this relationship between stardom and ideology; on both of his shows, he embodies the same ideologies, which means that no matter what outwardly changes he makes in appearance, his star persona is unchanged from one show to another.
During his time hosting The Colbert Report, Colbert’s star persona and performance portrayed him as a parody of traditional cable news political pundits. The show was designed in such a way as to mimic the hegemony of typical cable news shows. For instance, Colbert’s set featured him sitting at a desk, with a stack of papers in front of him. The set was decorated with red and blue, with graphics appearing over his shoulder as he presented various topics. (Colbert, Truthines) These However, his actual performance was different than traditional political pundits and was unique to Colbert. His way of speaking was loud, abrasive, and aggressive. He frequently used the word “nation” to refer to his audience—both within the studio and on TV, which characterized him as talking at the audience and not necessarily with them.
On his first episode, Colbert introduced the term “truthiness,” which came to define not just his show, but his star performance as well. He specifically stated that Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news. At you.” (Colbert, Truthines) Because this appeared in his first episode, it essentially serves as an assertion of what his entire show would be about—namely distilling politics down to a simple form and telling the audience what to think, or in this case, feel. Though it appeared more than 50 years later, Colbert’s performance echoes what Horkheimer and Adorno wrote about the Culture Industry—that “The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction…through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided.” (61) In this segment, Colbert specifically tells his viewers that he will tell them exactly what to think throughout his show, which is a clear confession of the ideological purposes that his stardom serves. Namely, Colbert’s stardom reasserts the hegemony of U.S. politics and the two-party system. His performance erases any nuance between conservatives and liberals and forces the audience to identify with one of those two categories. Colbert encourages the audience to view their political views in a similar manner as religion—not something to be thought about rationally, but as a deeply held personal belief that cannot be challenged. This ideology is encapsulated within the star construction of Stephen Colbert and presented to the audience.
Colbert’s embodiment and performance of these political ideologies is especially effective because it is effective at reaching a wide array of audiences. Viewers of The Colbert Report saw in it what they wanted to see; Liberals saw it as over the top satire, and conservatives often read it as genuine political commentary. (LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam) This universality of Colbert’s performance on The Colbert Report is indicative of stardom in general. (Dyer) Stars are for everyone and the ideologies that they embody serve to strengthen the hegemonies that exist within society at large. The ideologies that Colbert, the star, portrays remain in power because they are presented in a manner that they can be accepted by anyone.
Luis Althusser, another cultural theorist, describes this process in his essay on Ideological State Apparatuses. He argues that an ideology can retain its dominance if it can be presented as and accepted as something that everyone accepts. (Althusser, Balibar, and Bidet) Ideologies are presented to a subject, who is then “interpellated” and hailed to join it, which is exactly what Colbert’s stardom does to his viewers and their political beliefs. His loud and abrasive performance are merely the surface-level of Stephen Colbert the star; the true effect of his stardom is the political ideologies he promotes.
Therefore, it is effectively irrelevant if Colbert appears differently in his performance on CBS’ The Late Show. Though it may seem that he has adopted a new star persona, if the underlying ideologies that he propagates are unchanged, then Colbert is effectively the same star as before. On the final episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert acted out the end of Stephen Colbert, and supposedly the end of his previous star persona as well. He claims to have “won” television and leaves the show by flying away with Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, and Alex Trebek. (Colbert, Season 11, Ep. 40) Following this supposed end of his previous persona and that fact that he seems to be different, Colbert is presented on The Late Show as being an entirely new star persona. One example of this is a difference in his performance on the show. Rather than using the phrase “nation” to talk at the audience, he begins each show talking with the audience and asking “how’s everybody doing?” The Late Show Additionally, on his first episode he included a segment in which he asked “Who Am Me?” and took a personality test to reveal the “real” Stephen Colbert. (Colbert, Who Is Stephen Colbert?) Of course, this very notion of a “real” Stephen Colbert even existing is inaccurate, as stars by definition are illusions; it impossible for a real Colbert to appear on his show. (Dyer) And even though his outward appearance on his new show are different, Colbert’s star persona is effectively the same as the one that appeared on The Colbert Report because the underlying ideologies that he embodies are the same.
On The Late Show, Colbert embodies ideologies that reinforce the hegemony of U.S. politics. Specifically, his performance perpetuates the polarization of political ideals and that those politics are akin to religious beliefs in how tightly they should be held. When discussing the Republican primaries in the 2016 presidential election, The Late Show featured a segment about the word “Trumpiness.” (Colbert, Trumpiness) In this, he directly referenced The Colbert Report from 11 years earlier and presented again the same ideologies. In the segment, he directly compared Donald Trump’s supporters with supporters of Bernie Sanders by asserting that each candidates’ followers didn’t just agree with their messages, but deeply believed them as well. This representation has two effects: first, it posits that there are only two potential political parties—democrats or republicans. Second, it underscores that political beliefs should be deeply held by an individual, much like a religion. In other words, conservatives and liberals are not actually that different, at least in terms of how their members choose to follow them. Or as Horkheimer and Adorno describe it, “even the aesthetic manifestation of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm.” (41) Colbert has only been hosting The Late Show for a few years now, so it is unclear whether or not his performance will evolve to look completely different from that of The Colbert Report. However, because the ideologies that he perpetuates are unchanged, his outward appearance is irrelevant in determining a change in star persona. Because these ideologies are identical, his star persona did not change.
From his final episode of The Colbert Report in 2014 to his first episode of The Late Show in 2015, Colbert seems to have attempted to take on a new role and new performance. Ultimately, his appearance in his new role may look slightly different from his earlier role, but the effects that he has on his audience are generally the same. Colbert embodies and promotes the same ideologies in both roles. As a product of the Culture Industry, Colbert has the same role in the reinforcement of dominant hegemonies. His shows promote U.S. politics, the two-party system, and the personal nature of political beliefs. Though stars may not be real people, the effects that they have on the world certainly are.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Ed. Douglas Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham. Second Edition. N.p., 1944. 53–74. Print.
Althusser, Louis, Etienne Balibar, and Jacques Bidet. On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London ; New York: Verso, 2014. Print.
Colbert, Stephen. The Colbert Report – Season 11, Ep. 40 – Grimmy – Full Episode. N.p., 2014. Film. The Colbert Report.
—. The Word – Truthiness-The Colbert Report – Video Clip. N.p., 2005. Film. The Colbert Report.
—. The Word: Trumpiness. N.p., 2016. Film. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
—. Who Is Stephen Colbert? N.p., 2015. Film. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Davisson, Amber L. Lady Gaga and the Remaking of Celebrity Culture. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013. Print.
Dyer, Richard. Stars. New Edition. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Print.
Gramsci, Antonio. “The Concept of ‘Ideology.’” Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Second Edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 1971. 34–37. Print.
LaMarre, Heather L., Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam. “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 14.2 (2009): 212–231. SAGE Journals. Web.
Zuckerman, Esther. “Stephen Colbert Will Take Over for David Letterman.” The Atlantic 10 Apr. 2014. The Atlantic. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.