Assignment: Listen to a podcast.
Me: Um, ok…I do that every day.
Assignment Details: Critically analyze the podcast.
Podcasts are part of my regular routine. I commuted long distance for several years and that time happened to occur during the recent boom of popularity for podcasting. My Apple Podcasts app (don’t knock it, it’s the app that works for me, though I’m always open to recommendations) is filled with the usuals: NPR Politics, TED Radio Hour, Politically Re-active, The Sporkful, Reply All, and Strangers. This context is to say, I thought I knew about podcasts. Then I read this assignment for my Digital Authorship class with Dr. Renee Hobbs: Provide a critical analysis of a specific episode of Burst Your Bubble, a podcast by Morgan Jaffe.
The episode I listened to was “Cheers and Queers” (Jaffe, 2017). In this episode, Jaffe problematizes an episode of Cheers, “The Boys in the Bar”. This installment of the classic, decade-running television show introduced us to Tom, a friend of the main character Sam. Tom reveals he’s gay, Sam is unsure of how to respond, things go awry in the bar, stereotypes fly like confetti, and a voice of reason emerges from a white cis female character who Jaffe describes as “a voice from an ally”. Jaffe is quick to call out this “whitewashing” effect and the tokenism of Tom’s character, but I’ll save that for the analysis.
While I fully enjoyed the podcast, especially since it’s around a topic I’m passionate about and try my best to advocate for, I’m here to provide critical analysis of the podcasting genre, not a detailed review of the content, so I’ll leave the previous summary as is and move into three areas of podcasting at which I felt Jaffe excelled.
Theater of the Mind
Hobbs (2017) uses the term Theater of the Mind to describe how personal stories create universal appeal (p. 124). Jaffe does this by using spoken word, audio, historical facts, and commentary to create context. Her voice, which can be described as warm but calculated, remains objective, letting the details of the story emerge with their own textures and emotions. Audio from Cheers makes you feel as if you can see the faded colors of the 80’s/90’s series on a small screen, surrounded by VHS tapes and a Nintendo game console in your living room. Jaffe also weaves in audio and commentary from real events regarding violence towards the LGBTQ community. Reporters are heard recounting gruesome and heartbreaking details of attacks on individuals and groups. One clip is the newscast from the recent Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people lost their lives. Jaffe further pulls at your emotions by then listing, in a measured tone, several names of individuals who have lost their lives because of who they love. The balance of inundation from the newscast and quiet spoken word when listing the names creates a space for the listener to move from one emotional plane to the next. (For more information on these events, I encourage you to explore this list. It is not exhaustive, but it is a starting point: Significant acts of violence against LGBT people)
Story for Social Change
“The Boys in the Bar” is rife with stereotypes, and Jaffe does not hesitate to notice and name these as they occur both explicitly and implicitly from being gay making someone just as likely to advocate for the metric system, to ferns being the decoration of choice, and even the topic of ‘gay-dar’. Jaffe doesn’t hold back in problematizing these comments and misconceptions held by the show’s characters. In doing this, she has used this media in a transformative nature for social change (Hobbs, 2017). At one point, Jaffe calls out an egregious line in the show, which seems to have innocuous meaning to the writers, but immense cultural implications. The line is, “string em’ up”. I don’t need to explicitly outline the historical rhetoric of this phrase, but suffice it to say, Jaffe uses it to make a clear statement about the sociopolitical climate of the era and how it would be interpreted in modern day. In addition to these actions towards external issues, Jaffe opens a small window into her own identity through a repeated use of possessive pronouns when talking about the LGBTQ community. Also, when she critically analyzes Diane’s role in the episode as the “voice of an ally”, Jaffe’s voice changes ever so slightly. Was this purposeful? Did she break her measured tone to reveal just a slight glimpse of herself to the listener? If so, how does her identity as the creator of this podcast affect its construction, content, and message? Does her identity, intertwined with the topic, shift the sociopolitical implications from this media creation ever so slightly in one direction?
“Human creativity is combinatorial: we take old ideas and mash them together to create new ideas” (Hobbs, 2017, p. 75).
Morgan Jaffe has transformed a sitcom into a conversation. She has taken media and used it to problematize a sociopolitical issue that is just as relevant today as it was when Cheers originally aired. Pangrazio (2016) poses an issue of binaries in critical digital literacy and digital design literacy. I argue that Jaffe overcomes this separation and provides an excellent mentor text onto which Pangrazio’s critical digital design framework can be mapped.
To pull and paraphrase a very small piece from William Strunk, (as cited in Hobbs, 2017), every word must tell. Jaffe has used so few words in this podcast, but every one is measured, balanced, and with purpose. She has created a story from a story, and from which more stories may emerge.
Hobbs, R. (2017). Create to learn: Introduction to digital literacy. New York: Wiley
Jaffe, M. R. (2017, July 26). Cheers and queers [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/burst-your-bubble
Pangrazio, L. (2016). Reconceptualising critical digital literacy. Discourse, 37(2), 163–174.