Talking Through Reality/TV: Black/Feminist Viewing Party Pedagogies

by Louis M. Maraj

As scholars of Black rhetoric point out, call-and-response modalities have long been inherent to Black cultural production. In On African American Rhetoric, for instance, Keith Gilyard and Adam Banks illustrate the ubiquity of this dynamic, calling it “so pervasive in African American culture that one could hardly test Black verbal soil and not discover it” (2018, 48). These scholars build on Molefi Kete Asante’s postulation that within African-based and African-diasporic-based communication systems, the audience guides a speaker, with such participation integral to the effectiveness of any particular rhetorical performance ([1987] 1998, 52). Examples abound from soul concerts to rap music (Gilyard and Banks 2018, 42) to African American churches in the United States (Moss 2003) to Caribbean fetes where an emcee’s questions asking partygoers about their national or community origins remain standard practice—an example usually along the lines of “anybody from [insert island or town here]?!” asked by the emcee with a verbal “yea!” as a mandatory part of the night’s exchanges. But what happens when a static text or medium (like a movie screen or television set) speaks from the front of the room? Well, interactions might simply take a different form, with an audience’s verbal responses challenging the authority of the fixed object (as “listened-to subject,” to draw on Stó:lō scholar Dylan Robinson’s indigenous theory of sound [2020]); although, of course, not all Black people engage static texts and mediums in these ways.

But I grew up around Black Trini women—my mother, granny, sisters, aunties, community other-mothers—who casually talked back to screens and the images circulating on them. I have striking memories of my mother taking in her “stories,” questioning characters on soaps like The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful about how they could be so foolish or more pointedly asking both on-screen characters and others along with her in the viewing audience (physically present or imagined), “what does really wrong with these people?” This kind of participatory viewing experience extended to other, more public spaces in my home community. Part of the lure of visiting the local cinema off Tunapuna’s main road—as opposed to the “rich people” multiplexes at the malls further away—was to join in with others in talking back at a film with no classed distinctions or objections about who was or wasn’t the “peanut gallery.” I learned to listen to (and sometimes join in with) the multiple, even if conflicting, multivocal layers of these audiences’ para-texts that offered interactive and collaborative viewing practices and oftentimes nuanced alternate storylines.

Meanwhile, I knew the stereotypes about Black people as “loud watchers.” I vividly remember visual representations of these stereotypes and learning how “loud watching,” collaborative or not, is policed. In one particularly violent scene of the Wayans Bros. Entertainment (2000) parodic film Scary Movie, the main Black woman character, Brenda Meeks, watches Shakespeare in Love in a crowded movie theater. Her responses to the action on the screen, such as “don’t go in there!” and “ooh I am scared!” prompt the irate responses “excuse me!” and “do you mind?” from white men and women seated around her. When Meeks takes a cell-phone call from a friend and starts discussing Shakespeare in Love’s content with her, it is not Scary Movie’s main villain seated next to her, knife in hand in the dark theater, who responds with violence. Her fellow white movie-watchers take turns stabbing her, while giving each other high fives. As Meeks stumbles into the theater’s aisle, more and more white viewers join in the assault—one notable inclusion: a police officer. These attackers catalogue the movies Meeks has “ruined” with their blows, and the farce grows as a man in Orthodox Jewish garb and a man of color dressed as though a Buddhist monk contribute to the violence. A Catholic nun and priest hit her with sticks. Bloody and screaming in front of the screen, she continues to be struck by popcorn-hurling onlookers until she groans and finally hits the ground. The crowd cheers before settling back into the quiet of the non-Black film-watching experience. While high-key outlandish, the scene emphasizes the violence of white respectability politics, celebrating those politics as a kind of “multicultural” or universal authorial violence to silence Black audience participation painted as disruptive.

But what if that Black modality of active listening through expressive rhetorical participation with screens and their displayed content, of thinking the moving image a call to be met with (collaborative) responses, were positioned as generative, meaning-making disruption? During the cultural moment of the coronavirus pandemic, most teachers and students became tethered to screen interaction in order to pursue learning once mostly done in-person. While the worldwide epidemic disproportionately impacts Black, indigenous, brown, and other people of color, laying racialized health disparities bare, the same screens brought us more images of Black death at the hands of the state, continuing to catalogue the gross brutality of antiBlack violence in the Western world. In my own teaching at this time, I drew from my lived experiences and the Black cultural and rhetorical practices outlined above to deploy viewing party pedagogies in the university classroom as one means to use screen time to granularly work against such antiBlackness. Viewing party pedagogies cull the energies of reciprocal communal viewing to augment and animate learning through dialogic rhetorical reception of media texts. Mobilized through affective, collaborative, engaged, and cacophonous interplay, these pedagogies (de)constructively disturb perspectives of authority, authorization, and oppressive social power codes in mediated exchanges. This essay outlines the Black and Black feminist philosophies enacted through such pedagogies, offers a particular classroom context for its use, and navigates the affordances and constraints of these learning approaches.

I situate viewing party pedagogies in Black feminist epistemological tenets that value lived experience, dialogue, personal accountability, and the richness of the everyday (Collins [1990] 2000) in teaching a series of sessions of a Writing for the Public class, which examined writing and writing practices of public interest in a six-week summer 2020 term. My students and I used these learning stances to understand how reality-based television as public writing might be critiqued to offer pluralistic and more culturally aware views of US “reality” than meets the eye. The particular thematic through which we pursued this objective was “The Public Athlete”—one of incredible social importance in summer 2020 when “Black Lives Matter” began appearing more pronouncedly on WNBA and NBA courts and on the backs of soccer players’ jerseys in Europe, and when the NFL suspiciously widely embraced the social movement after they had blackballed Colin Kaepernick years earlier. I’d taught the course before, but in this newly formatted online version, I thought through fresh ways to approach our learning goals and engage with public writing about sports—both by and about athletes. We would not only study histories of sports writing but also consider how today’s technologies can shape representations of public athletes. We would read and write in a variety of journalistic, informational, creative, popular, and research-based genres while considering carefully the role of sports and athletes in shaping notions of racial, gender, and class-based identities. Understanding the formation and representational politics of social identity categories remained central throughout.

Enter the Black feminist pedagogical foundations for our course community. In doing the work of relational social critique, I invited those in the class to think together about social power: what systems produce it; how institutions encompass and embody these systems; how these systems offer binary formulations of who has access to power (through sociopolitical privilege); and who these systems deny such access (through sociopolitical marginalization). We destabilize these binaries. We make lists. We draw maps. We think with scholars like Audre Lorde (1984, 2009), bell hooks ([1989] 2015), and Patricia Hill Collins ([1990] 2000) about how intersectional identities form and dissolve through lived experiences by telling our own stories of privilege and marginalization and considering how our varying positionalities complicate those narratives. We relate these stories to games, sport, public representations of athletes, and the role that recreation plays in developing senses of ourselves and others. And while all of these discussions take place via a combination of the learning management system (Canvas) and Zoom, we use the browser extension “Netflix Party” (now Teleparty) to engage screens in a different way altogether. Our viewing party pedagogies on this platform offered a different kind of everyday praxis of social critique.

Teleparty uses an internet browser extension to allow simultaneous screening among audiences across many different physical locations as well as synchronous communication via text messages in a chat box alongside the screened content. The platform thus offered means to comment while we watched—to talk back to and with the narratives as they unfolded and to engage with each other. The text we analyzed was Season 1 of the Netflix documentary series Last Chance U (Whiteley 2016), which followed the JUCO (junior college) division football team at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC). The series drew its name from the storylines of many of the Black players on the EMCC football team, one of the most successful JUCO football units in the United States. These players found themselves, through one route or another, understanding sporting “success” as their final path to redemption—with much of that redemption framed as prospective transfer to big-name NCAA Division 1 college football teams as an eventual route to the NFL. Some of the main student-athlete characters, like quarterback John Franklin III, sought more playing time by transferring to EMCC (from Florida State University), while other characters were surviving especially violent and traumatic pasts and presents at home. The series explored these narratives alongside the white head coach Buddy Stephens’s often out-of-control anger issues and the efforts of Brittany Wagner, the team’s academic advisor. Because the series represented the “realities” of these people and others in their community through fraught stereotypes, a kind of “truth” in public writing, Last Chance U was ripe for analyzing the circulation of received tropes around race, gender, sexuality, class, and dis/ability.

As sports administration scholars Evan Frederick et al. explain in their study of the documentary series, the first season centered on notions of redemption and the American dream through the themes “(a) second chances, (b) escape, (c) athlete-student, (d) football as family, and (e) religion in football” (2019, 120). That centering, through the editorial and narrative decisions in the series, eschewed focus on institutional, social, and structural issues in order to present (college) football as a net benefit to those who play (Frederick et al. 2019, 126-27). Considering Last Chance U as public writing that uses the public truth-based discourse of documentary, our conversations on Teleparty became means to critique the realities it represents through live discussion of (the characters’ and our own) lived experiences.

Once a week, I used the second half of our three-hour biweekly sessions to collectively view the ongoing story lines of this series. As we watched combative brawls—a trope introduced in the opening scene of the series—between young Black men described as “thugs” and stereotyped as “lazy,” “violent,” and “criminal” by their coaches, all while playing an incredibly brutal game, I posed questions about who was telling what story: “Who controlled the narrative?“ “Who were objects for description as opposed to subjects of their own making?” In the chat on Teleparty, I often asked “Who is speaking first?” (in a scene or episode); “Who is describing themselves and who is describing others?”; and “How do we get information about the student athletes?” The dialogue that emerged between members of the class picked up on how the “reality” of the series highlighted voices of white characters and racialized Black men often in animalistic ways. Students deconstructed what some might understand as normative speech within sport culture—referring to Black athletes as “studs” and “beasts,” for instance—thus participating in “talking back” as described by Black feminist bell hooks. This synchronous “speaking as an equal to an authority figure” (hooks [1989] 2015, 22)—where the documentary series, universalized “truth,” and the weight of heteronormative white supremacy operate as that figure—complicated the portrayals of reality in Last Chance U. In reflective blog responses about each episode, my students recalled various details from our chats about how media, film editing, and film shooting construct identities from certain dominant vantage points. This “use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims” in our real-time conversations—one epistemological tenet of Black feminist thought according to sociologist Patricia Hill Collins ([1990] 2000, 260)—occurred as we watched, with students’ analyses generatively disrupting the documented “realities” in the series as an integral part of our viewing experience.

As the narrative throughlines in the documentary progressed, racialized, gendered, and classed scripts about the rural Southern United States, white women as saviors, and Black women as hypersexualized also sprang up in our discussions. In regard to the latter two, asking “How are women portrayed in this scene?” during the brief moments they appear prompted critical on-the-spot observations about gender, race, and sexual representation. For example, the season’s episodes often showed Wagner, the white woman academic advisor for EMCC football, attempting to convince the student athletes to go to class but also empathizing with particular students like Ronald Ollie, who was mostly raised by relatives after his birth parents were involved in a murder-suicide. My students first described Wagner’s relationship with Ollie as maternalistic, caring, and nurturing. But when pressed with questions like “Why does she care so much? Particularly as a white woman for young Black men she hardly knows?” responses about familiar gendered and racialized tropes of “white woman as savior” (à la Sandra Bullock’s character in The Blind Side [Hancock 2009]) popped up as we watched Wagner chase after the student athletes to get them pencils to take tests, for example. When one of the few scenes featuring sustained conversation with Black women occurred, I asked in the Teleparty chat, “What and who are these women talking about?” and “Why do you think we get this kind of information from them?” Students pinpointed that these Black women were asked by the film crew only about how they feel about the men on the football team, and thus the serial documentary’s representation of them focuses on their gendered and sexualized relationships with men.

The above scene, placed alongside the narrative of one student-athlete football player being caught with a woman in his dorm, made more visible the transatlantic slave plantation logics of EMCC and its athletic programs: both Black women and men were portrayed as hypersexual, racialized objects at the whims of administrative staff (and documentary makers) with “unsanctioned” intimate relationships among them deemed illicit. The historical comparison again arose as an alternate narrative in our Teleparty conversations as the student athletes, nearing the end of the semester, used language associated with imprisonment to describe their relationship with EMCC—they framed leaving the college as their primary goal, prioritizing survival and escape as motivation. Indeed, these discussions elicited what Black feminist theorist Christina Sharpe calls “knowledge of the wake,” which she excavates as the still present afterlives and machinations of transatlantic slavery (2016, 62). I hope such connections encourage students to hold these “documentary” portrayals accountable for their implications—in this case, the knowledge claims involved in creating problematic representations and realities (Collins [1990] 2000, 265).

Watching a “reality-based” series also meant wrestling with the value of the everyday and apprehending how media representations and those who make them fashion our reception of the stories of culturally marginalized peoples. More than that, viewing party pedagogies also animate ways that quotidian communicative modes might be understood and circulated as purposefully intellectual, a deeply Black feminist knowledge-making ethic (Lorde 1984; 2009; Collins [1990] 2000). As our chat exchanges went on, students seemed more comfortable expressing their views about particular characters. They began to poke fun at EMCC coach Buddy Stephens, noting the volatility of his anger, for instance, with references to memes like “that escalated quickly.” They critiqued the hypermasculine arrogance of other characters in similar ways, drawing on their own multiliteracies and cultural discourses to relate to content and contribute alternate storylines and interpretations that augmented what we watched. In sum, viewing party pedagogies illuminate how everyday activities might be informed by attention to the matrixes of domination at play in media representations of “truth” and how these representations socially, linguistically, and aesthetically construct such “truths.”

And while one might decry critically viewing “reality-based” TV or other media in these ways as contributing to the trope of the “feminist killjoy,” others, following cultural theorist Sara Ahmed (2010), may lovingly welcome and play in such identification as a means to critique the very nature of happiness and pleasure in orienting our reception of the world (and media texts therein). Feminist media scholar Janice Loreck, for example, seeks to claim pleasurable criticism as viewing practice. On the other hand, Black feminist activist scholars such as Brittney Cooper, amplifying Lorde’s legacies, locate Black feminist rage as “legitimate political emotion” (2018, 12) and means to process our antiBlack cosmos. Our Teleparty discussions about stereotypes masked as “truths” navigated pleasurable discord and anger in critique and pinpointed affective worlds of possibilities. Cooper, importantly, urges us to “embrace our messiness more [and] embrace the ways we are in process more” (2018, 12). So though that embracement might mean diving into the “ole talk” as we say in Trinidad, into the clamour and the racket of chatty screenings, there lies much to be learned, talked about, and felt in viewing party pedagogies and the pluralistic story-making they facilitate. We move through these frameworks to grasp how noisily critiquing public knowledge, media representations, and discourses might dis-cohere the constant formation of race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, class, etc. that often means the violent undoing of those marked different.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Asante, Molefi Kete. (1987) 1998. The Afrocentric Idea. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. (1990) 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Cooper, Brittney. 2018. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s.

Frederick, Evan L., Marion E. Hambrick, Sam Schmidt, and Megan Shreffler. 2019. “Queue the Drama: Netflix’s Last Chance U and the Portrayal of Myths in Sports Documentaries.” Journal of Sports Media 14 nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall): 113-36.

Gilyard, Keith, and Adam J. Banks. 2018. On African-American Rhetoric. New York: Routledge.

Hancock, John Lee. 2009. The Blind Side. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers. 126 minutes.

hooks, bell. (1989) 2015. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. New York: Routledge.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 36-39. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Lorde, Audre. 2009. “Poet as Teacher—Human as Poet—Teacher as Human.” In I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, 182-83. New York: Oxford University Press.

Loreck, Janice. 2018. “Pleasurable Critiques: Feminist Viewership and Criticism in Feminist Frequency, Jezebel, and Rosie Recaps.” Feminist Media Studies 18, no. 2: 264-77.

Moss, Beverly J. 2002. A Community Text Arises: A Literate Text and a Literacy Tradition in African-American Churches. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Robinson, Dylan. 2020. Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wayans, Keenen Ivory, dir. 2000. Scary Movie. New York: Dimension Films. 88 minutes.

Whiteley, Greg, dir. 2016. Last Chance U. Season 1. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Louis M. Maraj thinks, creates, and converses with/through theoretical Black studies, rhetoric, digital media, and critical pedagogies. His scholarship specifically addresses anti/racism, anti/Blackness, and expressive form. Maraj’s book Black or Right: Anti/Racist Campus Rhetorics explores everyday notions of Blackness in historically white institutions. His recent essays appear in Prose Studies, Women’s Studies in Communication, and Self+Culture+Writing. He is an assistant professor in University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, Writing, and Media and co-founder and former co-director of DBLAC (Digital Black Lit and Composition), an inter-institutional network of Black scholars in language-related fields.