Here’s your assignment.
JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, compare and contrast.
One way to study our culture is to compare the roughly comparable. Nothing comes of the wildly different. It’s all contrast, no shades of grey.
No, what we want is a common ground from which Instructive contrasts can then emerge.
JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon are roughly comparable. Both were born in the middle 60s. And in the world of popular culture, both were well born. Abrams’ mother and father were TV producers. Whedon is a third generation TV writer. Both have changed the face of television, Abrams with… well, now I’m doing your work for you.
What I want is a brief essay, no more than 1000 words. Let’s stick to their TV work. Point out the similarities between these two fellas, and then their differences. Show what they mean to popular culture. Compare Felicity and Buffy. Or Lost and Dollhouse. It’s up to you. Tell us how their TV has changed our culture.
Keep it short, crisp, intelligent and illuminating. The winner will receive the winged bird you see above. I like to think of her as the Owl of Minerva from Greek mythology. We have been searching for the right statuette for years now. Ana Domb found this one in a museum catalog. (Thank you, Ana.) Officially, this is the Chief Culture Officer Award. Unofficially, we will call her the Minerva.
The Minerva is really heavy. (I have held an Oscar and I’d say they are about the same weight. It was Julie Christie’s Oscar if you must know.) It will look good on your desk or bookcase. When friends and strangers say, "what’s that?" You can say, ever so distractedly, "Oh, that’s my Minerva. I won it for something I wrote." There will be a small pause as your friend recalculates your standing in the world and considers now whether reverence should perhaps replace the impatience with which they now generally regard you.
Our last contest, Betty White versus Karen Black, has a winner. It’s Tim Sullivan. See his excellent answer below. Congratulations, Tim.
McCracken, Grant. 2010. Betty White versus Karen Black, your CCO assignment. This Blog. May 11. here.
McCracken, Grant. 2009. Chief Culture Officer. New York: Basic Books. Available on Amazon here. (Citing this book in your essay will curry no favor with the judges. But really, if you haven’t bought a copy, please do so now.)
Previous Minerva winners (now immortal)
Tim Sullivan’s answer to the Betty While versus Karen Black assignment
Betty White v. Karen Black
This is a story of generations and media and sex, and the nostalgic value we place on them.
White: born 1922, lived through the Depression—actually arrived in California because of it, and started her career in radio in 1939, followed by TV in the 40s.
Black: born 1939, on the verge of being a Boomer. Trained in theater in college, moved to off-Broadway productions, and then to movies.
White: Since the ‘50s—with her show Life with Elizabeth—she’s had a devilish glint in her eye. She’s played against type: the pretty, sweet, slightly befuddled “girl” who secretly knew exactly what’s going on.
Black: Her first big hit is Easy Rider, 1969, a generational touchstone, cementing her place as a Boomer touchstone. In Five Easy Pieces, she’s plays the easy-to-dupe and pregnant girlfriend—no glint in her eye there. Myrtle Wilson, a variation on a theme, follows in The Great Gatsby.
White: Her medium is TV, in our living rooms every day, especially since her hit shows went into syndication. Some of us ate snacks with her after school or after work. Comforting, familiar.
Black: Lives on the Silver Screen. We visit her once in a while, and we usually don’t much like her—even when she’s determined and focused. By the late 70s and beyond, she had moved on to schlocky sci-fi and horror combined with art house pics.
White: Comedy (i.e., hard work) made to look easy. Sweet, smart, and sexy in our living rooms every day.
Black: Drama that feels hard, a little overwrought, spilling over into a genre that gets no respect.
White: She persists, she’s controlled her own destiny. In fact, with Life with Elizabeth, she was the first woman to have complete creative control over her own show,
Black: The characters she’s best known for were not people we would want to spend time with. Her affect is forced and demanding.
White: Another blow to Christopher Hitchens, who told us, infamously, in the pages of Vanity Fair “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The reaction to that article, and the respect that female comedians have garnered before and since, culminate in the current celebration of Betty as a model for the current crop of successful women.
Black: Celebrated by the fanboy horror community, but b-grade horror flicks have little chance of breaking out into the mainstream. She’s painted herself into a corner. We can’t be nostalgic for her because her early career represents something about relationships between the sexes that we now eschew: the testosterone driven man chewing the scenery while Black’s character tries to create space for herself. She’s pre-Title IX.
Looking forward: A continued move away from and against the Boomers, as we as a society look for icons who create a foundation for Boomers, X, and Y alike through shared media.