Today, I jumped into a twitter thread started by a retweeted response to Alyssa Rosenberg’s recent post about the rise of “Trojan Horse” television shows.
Full disclosure, I have never met this person and have no idea of his or her background or context, but it was an interesting idea that I wanted to push a bit. The use of genre television here, as in much popular uses of the term, seems to refer to the fantastic genres: fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and the further examples used in the twitter thread follow this line.
In case you’re new to this blog or have never met me, you should know that I tend to work through this idea–that genres, particularly fantastic genres, can “make safe” challenging social topics through displacement–in a lot of my writings. Also, thanks to taking a general genre theory course pretty early in my graduate career, I am highly conscious of the shifting boundaries around the definition(s) of genre(s). Now heading toward taking a comprehensive exam on the subject, I find questions about genre as a term coming up again and again: Why use this new term when “genre” will do? Why does this other term seem like it’s trying to swallow “genre”? How are industry and audience discourses shaping how we think of any particular genre? In short, I am both aware and wary of the often fraught shorthand of “genre” in both popular and academic circles. That’s what happens when you spend an entire semester defining, undefining and redefining an idea and then think, “Yeah, let me continue doing this all the time forever.” That’s me. Hello!
So, genre. I think about it a lot. Some might say overthink it. But one of the fundamental things about most definitions of genre (at least most that are studied and taught today) is that audience plays a role, even if it’s just a fantasy of their expectations. There is some sense when discussing genre that the audience is engaged with the text. They expect certain things, are savvy enough to “read” the genre. This is a movement away from early text-based genre definitions and toward Jason Mittell’s definition of genres as discursively constructed. In Genre and Television, he writes:
[I]nstead of reading outwards from a textual interpretation to posit how people make sense of a genre, we should look at the meanings people make in their interactions with media genres to understand the genre’s meanings. (5)
This is a way of looking at genre befitting the cultural-studies-skewing television studies.
“Trojan Horse” television, however, is a relatively new term, at least as it’s being used in the popular discussions now. Meaning has not settled in its use. The Trojans have yet to be agreed on: Showtime President David Nevins and author of Difficult Men Brett Martin imply the audience are the duped Trojans, but Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan configures network executives as those who are tricked to let something past their gates. This leads to two distinct ideas of “Trojan Horse” television, both explored by Rosenberg in the essay that started this whole post, that nevertheless appear to me to share a similar idea of superiority over the intended audience. As Rosenberg defines it, Trojan Horse television uses “characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places . . . For a Trojan Horse to function as such, of course, it has to offer up something to lull audiences into accepting its outward appearance.” For Kohan, a woman trying to get other women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and kinds into the representational field, the “audience” is the mostly white, mostly male cohort of network executives. For her, “Trojan Horse” television is a tactic used to help the subaltern speak and be seen. It’s not about sneaking into the home of Netflix subscribers and surprising them into feeling for a transgender woman or a former drug addict. It’s about circumventing the power structures that have barred so many such representations from the powerful worlds of fiction and changing the industry from within by playing on the very ideas of the audience that shape the other kind of “Trojan Horse” television. In her NPR interview, Kohan describes Piper, in terms of selling the show to networks, and even when audiences figure, it’s still the business of television that is foregrounded.
In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful. (Fresh Air,emphasis mine).
This is the kind of thinking of that other mode of “Trojan Horse” television that uses sensationalism or popular tropes to draw audiences. For those who think in this mode of television, like Nevins and Martin, deep, complex, troubling, taboo, and under-represented issues or characters will not draw the attention of the audience quick enough to gain traction. Thus, the audience needs to be lured in, lulled into complacency, then basically tricked into engaging. When Rosenberg calls for television (read: producers, executives, and other cultural gatekeepers) to learn the lessons of both modes of Trojan Horse television, the audience is barely a factor. Which brings me back to why I must disagree with the idea that genre television is always Trojan Horse television.
It’s an intriguing idea, but one that configures the audience in troubling ways and ossifies too much of genre’s plasticity. One of the great values of the fantastic genres has historically been and continues to be its openness to allegory by reconfiguring reality into a fantastic past, present, or future, but this has also often been a weakness of the genres as well. Allegory is interesting but when layered onto generic formulas can come across as trite or heavy-handed. Where “Trojan Horse” television implies some degree or kind of producerly or authorial intent (packing the Greeks into the horse, if you will), genre allows for more audience agency in the creation of meaning. Certainly authors and producers of fantastic television shows can create their shows as “Trojan Horse” television, as Gene Roddenberry famously did, but Star Trek gave rise to slash fiction as much as it preached tolerance. Fantastic genre television operates through displacement that provides space for “safe” approaches to complex and potentially ratings-crippling topics and ideas, that space should not be given wholly to the producers’ side of meaning-making. Without the producerly intent of “Trojan Horse” television, fantastic television fans can find or build a religion or a political movement or a charity out of an ethos or a character that was created as exposition or characterization. They can construct a “Trojan Horse” from within the walls of Troy, to belabor the metaphor. But then it’s just a regular construction, an idea that has taken form and created something from the scattered materials provided, purposeful but not forced upon them. What does thinking of fantastic genre television as always “Trojan Horse” television give us that continuing to develop its genre discourse does not? I think it gives us nothing extra an diminishes the importance and power of the fans in building meaning from and within the fantastic space of displacement. Perhaps it will be a new buzzword or way of diminishing ratings failures by talking about a new type of quality, as Faye Woods suggested on twitter. But if so, let’s talk about it as an industry term and not let it invade the negotiated space between industry and audience that genre gives us.