Common Ground conference features grad student media research

Ellen Glover • Feb. 27, 2018

Common Ground, The Media School’s second annual graduate conference, featured recent, media-related research of more than 20 master’s and doctoral students from a variety of academic departments Friday.

Distinguished and Roy W. Howard Professor Emeritus David Weaver gives the keynote address for Common Ground, The Media School’s graduate conference. (Terry Wicks | The Media School)

The conference, which brought graduate students from all across campus together under a common umbrella of media, included seven 50-minute panels devoted to the presentation of research, as well as three workshops and a speech from keynote speaker and Distinguished Professor Emeritus David Weaver.

Research topics ranged from analyzing “Black Twitter” and other social media platforms to examining the brain through neuroimaging to better understand memory in video gamers’ brains. Two of the research topics, one from the “Intersection of Entertainment, Nationalism and Power” panel and one from the “Different Angles of Sex in the Media” panel, are featured below.

Analyzing the historical significance of Japanese film, Grave of the Fireflies

Skyping in from the United Kingdom, Bridget Shaffrey, a master of philosophy student at the University of Cambridge, presented her paper, “Hansei: Counter-Historical Representations of Children and Animation in Grave of the Fireflies,” in which she looks at the approach the film took in discussing a difficult past in Japan as well as its ability to provide a means of discussion about political ideology.

The critically acclaimed film Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988) follows the survival of two orphan children, Seita and Satsuko, after the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. According to Shaffrey, it has been praised for its emotional narrative animation style and artistic representations of the consequences of war.

“However, some believe this praise is misguided, instead arguing that the film continues the apologist trend of post-occupation, A-bomb survivor cinema in which the child on screen representing a people unwillingly oppressed by fascism perpetuates a Japanese victim history,” Shaffrey said. “And if they die, which they do in Grave of the Fireflies, their death is to illicit sympathy for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and excuse Japan from historical responsibility in World War II.”

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By analyzing the film’s use of children, as well as its use of animation, Shaffrey broke down how Grave of the Fireflies reflects upon this moment in Japan’s history. She also looked at the role of the film in the context of Kokutai, a principle established by the Japanese establishment that was intended to unite the country as a family-nation through harsh empirical will and filial piety. While the emperor is seen as paternal, the authoritarian system underneath normalized the infantilizing of Japanese culture. According to Shaffrey, while operating as a holistic national ideology, Kokutai made Japan a “child-nation, built under an illusory familial bond.”

“Kokutai ideology emphasizes the child’s role as inherent to the imposed political, cultural and societal structure of inner-war Japan,” Shaffrey said. “The Japanese child was, therefore, a double-embodiment of this mythologization, serving as a vehicle for the reproduction of national ideals and living to become a molded instrument of the state.”

So, within cinema, Japanese children were ideal tools for fascist propaganda because, not only are they relatable, but they are also impressionistic and naive.

“Thus, the cinematic Kokutai child is both a sacrificial lamb and the ideal nationalistic figure,” Shaffrey said. “As characters, children personify deference to the state and mask the existing power relationships as both natural and common-sensical. Their narrative conquest conflict the illusory political ideology with the concepts of filial piety and subservience, while simultaneously developing a coherent linearity and resolution through their narrative progression.”

Animation proved to be important in the Kokutai ideology as a means of sedating Japan’s fascist dogma. A 1939 law insisted on programs that included cultural films that would maintain a national spirit, making this form of media especially useful in Japan.

“Animation develops a cinematic reality where the bounds of construction and illustration are simultaneously limitless and under the complete control of the animator,” Shaffrey said. “When animation is appropriated by Kokutai, it furthers and heightens this control ideologically to aid in the construction of fascistic Japanese reality, where the image of Japan is aesthetically and dogmatically superior or unique.”

Shaffrey said Grave of the Fireflies explores the unique culture and history of Japan through both the children’s and animator’s interpretations of both reality and fantasy, forcing the viewer to place the narrative in a larger historical context.

Utilizing conclusions made by other film analysis, Shaffrey found that, while the film’s use of children was intentionally done to provide a sort of canvas for the viewers to project their own thoughts and fears about war, the use of animation was intended to suspend reality. Although the actions on screen are not real, the emotions behind them are. Consequently, these methods serve as both a reminder of history and a means of exploring Kokutai.

Grave of the Fireflies is a fragmentation of the similar. The genealogical difference between it and Kokutai is that the film uses children and animation as a point of departure,” Shaffrey said. “Grave of the Fireflies utilizes the children and animation to introduce multiple and diffused representations and reflections of national historicization. The film does not search for origins but instead isolates and unravels problematic instances of power and mythological reproduction.”

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Revisiting what the ‘average’ porn star looks like

In 2013, freelance data journalist Jon Millward published an article called, “Deep Inside: A Study of 10,000 Porn Stars in their Careers” on his blog. The piece told readers that their idea of what the average porn star looks like, mainly the “blond hair, big boobs” stereotype, is wrong.

He did this by breaking down a list of adult entertainers by traits including hair color and breast-size and averaging out how many possessed which characteristics. In the end, he found that the average entertainer had brown hair and B cups. He also found that the racial makeup of the women in the porn industry matched that of the United States closely.

“When I read this article, it kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” recalls Vinny Malic, a doctoral student in the Department of Information and Library Science. “There was something that really didn’t strike me as correct about it. Eventually, I revisited the article and decided to explore my cynicism a little bit more, which led to the genesis of this project. I was able to quantify and clarify what bothered me about his concept.”

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Specifically, Malic didn’t like Millward’s use of “average.” “Average,” Malic explained, should only be used in very specific circumstances in which the data set is distributed normally, like in grades or weather patterns. 

“However, if you’re dealing with a property that is distributed according to a heavy-tailed distribution, or a highly skewed distribution, the idea of the average doesn’t really tell you much about the phenomenon that you’re studying,” Malic said. “Which is why, for example, when we talk about income in the United States, which is not distributed according to a normal distribution, you can say that the mean income in the U.S. is $70,000, but that summarizing statistic tells you very little about the huge numbers of people with very, very low incomes, and it also doesn’t tell you anything about the very, very small amount of people that have gigantic incomes. It’s not a very useful measure in this context.”

So, Malic wanted to revisit the conclusions made in Millward’s article and re-evaluate what the average porn star really does look like when considering the exposure of these actors.

To do this, Malic and his research partner, Niki Fritz, a doctoral candidate studying sexual socialization and sexual health message communication in The Media School, crawled the Internet Adult Film Database, a crowdsourcing sight that maintains information about actors within the porn industry. They compiled a list of 46,320 female actors and determined their success based on the number of movies in which they had performed.

Then, Malic and Fritz took each of the properties Millward assessed and determined whether actresses’ levels of success differed depending on which traits they possessed.

They found that women with red or blond hair had a distinct advantage over women with brown or black hair.

When it came to breast size, women with D cups had an advantage over women with A cups. But, women with cup sizes larger than D also had a disadvantage. So, Malic said, “larger is better, up to a point.”

“You have a very, very, very clear advantage if you are Caucasian,” Malic said. Also, multiethnic women were more successful than women who were exclusively Asian, Latina or black. “You could say that you knew that before you crunch the numbers, but we’re trying to measure this phenomenon to see if we can confirm what people think about pornography.”

The team also found that the more stringent the requirement for success was, the more egalitarian the outcome.

“So, if we look at the performers who have made it past 20 films, we see it’s very in-egalitarian,” said Malic. “But, if we look at the performers who made over 70 films, it becomes egalitarian again. This is a very interesting phenomenon. I don’t think a lot of people have observed or theorized this.”

Malic suspects this has something to do with the tokenization of these performers.

“For example, it’s hard to succeed in the industry if you are a black woman,” he said. “But, if you make it to the very top, you are one of the few black women who are in the top. So if someone is looking for a black woman, you are the one to be found. We’re not sure if that’s what’s causing this, but it’s something very interesting.”

In the end, Malic and Fritz found that the average successful porn star is the “blond hair, big boobs” stereotype that Millward tried to refute. However, Malic concedes there are several other ways to look at the data.

To start, Malic and Fritz would like to judge success in a different way besides just number of films the actress appeared in. They would also like to analyze the data of other adult film performers, including men and transgender performers.

The team would also like to look at how these different traits interact with each other.

“For example, there is a certain weight that will increase your chances of success. If you get into another property, you can ask a different question,” Malic said. “Is the weight that is ideal for success different among, for example, white performers and black performers? Merging some of these properties together and seeing how they interact could be potentially interesting.

Overall, Malic said he and Fritz would like to better understand how and why this phenomenon is occurring.

“Does porn supply specific bodies because that’s what the audience wants? Or is the industry shaping the preferences of the people consuming porn?”

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