90 Day Fiancé: Adjustment of Status

90 Day Fiancé: Adjustment of Status comes from my own experience as a marriage-based immigrant and an avid “hate-watcher” of the 90 Day Fiancé franchise. As many reality television viewers, I did not feel my issues accurately portrayed. Admittedly I was not a K-1 filer, and have not met one personally — but in my adjustment of status experience, and of other marriage-based immigrants I have commiserated with, the stress and anxiety of the filing process was greater than any cultural or social challenges. My viewing experience had to be negotiated: I could enjoy the entertainment value of the show while fundamentally disagreeing with the way they framed the immigration process. 

This is a common tension in the reality television genre, and one of the topics I explored in my midterm essay. Reality shows about non-mainstream lifestyles have to acknowledge differences without gawking at or mocking them — a challenging and delicate balance which TLC, the channel behind the 90 Day Fiancé franchise, has often been criticized for fumbling. My essay also delved into Orientalism and immigration dialectics, exploring how the dominant immigration narratives in the US depend on otherizing the immigrant figure. In the case of 90 Day Fiancé, I argued that by devoting too much unchallenged time to US citizens questioning the motivations and intentions of immigrants, the franchise perpetuates these xenophobic narratives. My concluding questions revolved around the challenge of undermining these narratives: how could the franchise shed a light on these harmful assumptions, especially for audiences who do not have personal experiences with immigration? Could an accurate (bureaucratic) portrayal of immigration even exist within the salacious genre norms of reality television? 

I set out to create a parody of a 90 Day Fiancé show that highlighted the unglamourous drama I have personally felt plagued by in my immigration process. I cast three couples who would introduce themselves as former K-1 visa filers now in the process of adjusting their status to become permanent residents — a crucial part of the process that the franchise conveniently glosses over. In order to craft an authentic script, I went on VisaJourney, a large immigration online community, and found forum comments detailing paperwork challenges: medical certificates, social security documentation, and change of address processing issues. Each couple selected the problem they liked best, and fabricated a backstory about how they met internationally. I then edited the footage, trying to maintain a close fidelity to the franchise’s editing style. In this process, I hoped to create some dissonance: do these problems feel fitting to this kind of show, or are they too small? Would it make good television? If not, why? The stakes are high — even minor filing issues can have dire consequences for the people involved. Could these boring problems possibly be more relatable to audiences? Could they paint immigrants in a more ordinary light? Would couples seem more unified, less different, when they tackle a problem together, instead of having immigration come between them? On the other hand, is relatability even the goal when it comes to reality television? Or is it just spectacle?

week 13

Our last week of readings and discussion yielded some really interesting and rewarding insights. From Design Pedagogies, the quote, “”As feminist scholar Jo Freeman notes in her classic article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” too often the pretense of a flat structure serves primarily not to truly flatten power dynamics, but simply to mask them” brought me back to much earlier in the semester, in the cybernetics documentary that mentioned the struggles of communes to not recreate harmful power dynamics in their communities. Whether this is something that malicious people set out to do when joining or creating decentralized groups, or an unintentional failure to adapt to a different structure, it seems like it’s something groups have to always be conscious of, and carefully plan against. Another quote from that reading that stuck out to me was, “For Du Bois, in a phrase that he would repeat in multiple speeches and writings, “The object of education was not to make [people] carpenters, but to make carpenters [people].” Following Du Bois, we might ask of the recent emphasis on learning to code: Is the ultimate object to make people good coders, or to make coders good people?” This feels very emblematic of this class, and even IDM as a whole — it’s not enough to just create things without questioning the human side (both of your audience and of yourself as a designer).

Racial Bias in Technology was also rife with memorable pieces, in this case as examples of technologies that can and do perpetuate harm. The most significant to me was the mention that the Citizen app used to be called Vigilante — such a telling slip if your mission is (supposedly) to make communities safer, which betrays a more pernicious goal of surveillance. The rebranding is extremely clever, not just giving the app some better PR, but also working to create a direct parallel between policing and citizenship (being a good citizen means surveilling your neighborhood). As a counterpoint to this, the example of a “White-Collar Early Warning System” is very effective at illuminating what types of crime create more fear in our current landscape, regardless of how often they happen, how much impact they have, and how much punishment they carry as a response. In addition to subversive experiments like that, Benjamin’s concluding thought that “If inequity is woven into the very fabric of society then each twist, coil, and code is a chance for us to weave new patterns, practices, politics. Its vastness will be its undoing once we accept that we are pattern makers” stood out as a galvanizing way of coming to terms with these issues and working to undermine them. 

In the lecture, I really enjoyed hearing about Sasha’s experience and work. I was inspired by the Design Justice Principles, and particularly enjoyed seeing them translated into several languages (including Portuguese!). I did catch myself thinking the Portuguese translation felt a little stiff (even wondering at points if it was specifically European Portuguese, though it didn’t seem like it in the end) — maybe it’s a product of not being exposed to the design industry in Brazil and being familiar with certain words, but I had the impression that certain parts stayed a little too faithful to the original English syntax, at the expense of a more fluid reading experience. It wasn’t detrimental to the translation, but it got me thinking about the challenge of balancing original content and taking more liberties as an adaptation. From our class discussion, I was inspired by Sasha’s thoughts in response to my question about convincing stakeholders of the importance of accessibility issues. The techniques she mentioned, from creating a power mapping alignment to some more subversive ways of creating outside pressure, were all very interesting and helpful. 

Moving onto the final project, this week I was able to edit my video and practice my presentation. The video turned out to be a lot longer than I’ll have time for, since I wasn’t sure how long our presentations would be when I started planning the script. I do like the final result more with three scenes rather than just one (which, given the background I’ll need to explain the concept, is what I’m expecting to be able to show). I think it gives the video some more variety, and helps the audience empathize more with the participants (rather than potentially assume only one couple would be having paperwork issues). This was a really rewarding project from start to finish — it’s a subject I deeply care about, and it was very fun to film and edit since I took a more lighthearted route. I’m very excited to show it to the class, and to be able to see what everyone else has created over the course of the semester!

week 12

I really appreciated how this week’s lecture delved into the historical context of colonialism and coloniality — as well as how it distinguished between the two terms. Out of this week’s readings, Smoke That Travels resonated the most with me. It was impressive to see how such a short film could have such a strong message — especially one produced by a teenager, without decades of experience in filmmaking to ground her work. I think the film’s intimacy, being centered around her father, her people, her language, really increased the impact of the content. Hearing how there are less than 10 speakers left carrying their language, I could imagine the desperation to keep it alive, as if it were my own language and history. The film mentions how there is no way to keep the “true” Prairie Band Potawatomi heritage alive, because the people left cannot really live as their ancestors did. I could imagine this expanding onto the language — like in a bottleneck event that critically endangers a community in genetic terms. When each person is so deeply important to the survival of a language, their linguistic quirks or memory gaps can quickly mutate the language. While digesting the film, I kept thinking of the psychological weight of carrying a language. Living in the US, I’m obviously immersed in English, to the point that most days I speak it better than my own native language. It takes time and energy to switch my brain back to Portuguese, and each time I slip up in some way — translate something literally from English, or completely forget a word — I feel a sense of inadequacy, even shame. But I don’t have to work to keep Portuguese alive; it’s spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Beyond the burden of language, another thing that struck me about the movie was the comparison of reservations to concentration camps. It can be a shocking thing to hear at first — having studied World War II in a lot more detail than the genocide of Native Americans, I recognized that as a basic instinct to avoid comparing anything to the Holocaust. But pushing past that gut reaction, I can definitely see how the comparison makes sense: reservations were meant to contain, condense, confine people based on their perceived otherness. The mention of alcoholism and suicide being rampant in the communities is something I have heard many times before, and it wasn’t until recently that I really connected that to the trauma spanning so many generations. Traumatized parents can easily raise traumatized children; especially when they are continuously grieving a community and way of life constantly in danger of disappearing. Without support, how could they be expected to heal on their own? 

Beyond the readings and lecture, this week I did quite a lot of work towards the final project. I spent a few hours reading comments from VisaJourney’s K-1 to AOS filers — meaning the people who have already gotten married after receiving the K-1 fiance visa, and are now applying for their actual green card. I realized this was the best route for my plan, since I wanted to film the couples together, meaning they had to have already been approved for the K-1 visa to be living in the US together. The K-1 forums on VisaJourney tended to focus on the path leading up to the visa; there is no bureaucratic process in between that and the AOS. I think this worked out for the best, though, since it creates a unique opportunity for this parody show to fit into the 90DF universe — in between the original show and 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?, which tends to follow couples years after their marriage rather than in the immediate aftermath. I can picture the title card as 90 Day Fiancé: Adjustment of Status (or something like that) following the same sound effects and transitions as the original show. In compiling comments, I tried to find a wide variety of paperwork issues — USPS delays, health insurance snafus, and so on — and give my volunteers some options for which script they’d like to take on. I filmed two scenes this weekend, and will do the third in the next few days, so that I have time to edit at the end of the week. Filming has been a lot of fun so far, and easier than I was expecting. I’m particularly excited about the challenge of editing it as faithfully as possible (especially now that I have learned some After Effects thanks to our Visual Design class — it actually feels a lot more doable). I’m also really looking forward to seeing other people’s projects on our last day of class!

week 11

The question of ethics in technology feels very daunting — it is such a challenge, if not outright impossible, to fully or precisely predict the consequences of a new technology (until it’s too late, most of the time). Sacasas’ reading captured this really well to me: “A hammer may indeed be used to either build a house or bash someone’s head in. On this view, technology is morally neutral and the only morally relevant question is this: What will I do with this tool?” The hammer is a simple example, a physical tool with limited features; and yet the question is already intriguing. The very same features or affordances that allow the hammer to fulfill its productive goals — its heaviness, sturdiness, the way a well-designed hammer fits so well into one’s hand — can also be weaponized for the purpose of doing harm. There is no way around that; you can’t design a hammer that’s effective at pushing a nail into a wall but not at breaking a human skull. 

When we apply the same logic to digital tools with complex algorithms, the question gets exponentially harder to answer and even conceptualize. What are the potential harms of each facet of a given social media platform, for example? We may be questioning some of them — the algorithms could be making us angrier, lonelier, sadder, more polarized, more insecure, and so on — but what else might be there that we can’t even foresee right now? Of course just asking these questions — as Sacasas does so thoroughly with the 41 questions at the end of the article — is an important first step. The questions that most resonated with me were #2 (What habits will the use of this technology instill?) and #11—13 (What was required of other human beings/other creatures/the earth so that I might be able to use this technology?). Posing the questions like this lets us evaluate whether the technology is worth it; it reminds me of my feelings while binge-watching Shark Tank at the beginning of the pandemic, seeing a novel product that solves a very minor problem and wondering do we really need this?

Gebru’s talk was also really interesting, especially in its mention of our automation bias (trusting automated systems to be right simply because they’re non-human). We can recognize and laugh at very overt examples of this — I immediately thought of the iconic The Office scene where Michael drives into a lake (“THE MACHINE KNOWS, STOP YELLING AT ME”). But like any bias, the real danger is in its pervasiveness and perniciousness; how many times have we based decisions on incorrect data and never even noticed? How much inequality has been maintained or worsened because of automated systems that have bad data because of human flaws? Gebru’s mention of APIs with skewed data sets displaying racial inequalities was familiar to me, and yet it’s not something I think about often when using technology. By the nature of data sets — background information, invisible to the users — it is so easy to forget until a terrible mistake like labeling people as gorillas makes the inequality blatantly obvious. And there’s also the question of user behavior informing the algorithm — if creators of color are significantly less promoted on YouTube or Instagram, for example, is it because the algorithm has always been preventing users from finding them? Or was the algorithm trained by the users’ racial biases? Does one bias feed right into the other in a feedback loop

The class discussion/lecture of different kinds of ethics, as well as pessimistic and optimistic imaginaries, seemed very relevant to my semester project. The ethics of reality television was already a topic I explored in my research, both from the perspective of the audience (what harmful stereotypes are viewers absorbing?) and the participants (what abuse are they being subjected to, either on or off the show?). I think it’s extremely pertinent, and the concept of optimistic imaginaries affecting cultures fits into it really well — as soon as a show is perceived by the majority as too exploitative or not diverse enough, for example, the format has to change in order to keep viewers content. To use another The Bachelor example, even though the franchise surely was aware of its lack of diversity in casting and the problems it could create (going so far as producing a segment in which Black contestants recited and discussed the racial abuse they have received from viewers), it only turned its sights to a diverse cast after the public pressure that followed the 2020 George Floyd protests. Even after that, contestants and even the show’s host have been continually involved in scandals about race. I wonder at what point its reputation will be beyond apology and repair — when audiences feel that the harm is too great, or the drama is more painful than entertaining.

week 10

This week’s readings were very helpful and relevant (particularly James Morris’ Simulacra in the Age of Social Media, having been published just last year). I was familiar with Foucault’s panopticon concept from my undergraduate classes on media, but once again it was really useful to revisit it with fresh eyes and new experiences under my belt — most relevantly in the working/corporate world, I think. Whether from my own work environments or from hearing my friends’ stories, I could relate to the idea of constant surveillance creating immense pressure. I thought of my internships in open office spaces, where my laptop screen was visible by everyone around me; or my first “alcove” office, which didn’t have a door, so people could always look at what I was doing as they walked down the hallway. In less literal senses, this of course extends to productivity tracking software (which I thankfully have had no experience with), or online presence and activity in general — seeing who is active on Gchat or Slack, and how quickly they reply to messages. Maybe the sneakiest way I’ve felt this was when I heard a friend comment that they thought some of their colleagues sent emails in the late hours of the night or during weekends on purpose, to show that they are working around the clock and thus be seen as very busy and devoted to the company. 

Morris’s essay shed a light on the issue of fake news or news as entertainment; of course most of us are extremely familiar with the concepts by now, but the way he outlined the evolution of these practices and the commercial motives that have brought them on felt new to me. In particular the quote, “This is the only way human beings have found that they can cope with the deluge of information they are met with every day—by focusing on what fits with how they imagine the world to be, or how they want it to be” seems like an empathetic look at the psychology of our media landscape — not blaming people for being “stupid” for not knowing the truth, but acknowledging the extreme challenge of absorbing all the information we are flooded with each day (let alone being able to parse truth out of it). Naturally, the end of the essay struck a chord with me as a Brazilian — in mentioning the state of the pandemic in “those states led by right-wing populists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro,” who “have found that simply Tweeting a macho message or making a bold statement on TV can’t contradict the truth of tens of thousands of people dying from an incurable virus.” It would be a silver lining to have this extreme level of simulacra denounced after the pandemic, but seeing the number of people still supporting these politicians even as their own family members die because of the virus is hardly encouraging.

An Introduction to Baudrillard‘s brief mention of the paradox of reality TV also struck a chord given my midterm project — “Contestants on reality TV are already hyperreal choices: averages, ideals, chosen with expectations, designed to provoke by their likeliness to entertain in the “correct” way. Big Brother contestants chosen by how well they’ll fit into a hyperreal narrative, contestants and stars pressured to act and talk how they think they should act and talk, under the all-pervasive eye of the camera and the audience.” The tension between reality and fiction is always present in reality television, and to some extent most audiences familiar with the genre realize this. The most engaged and savvy audiences even incorporate this into their engagement with the show — you will find in Bachelor forums plenty of viewers dissecting the meta-narrative of the show, acknowledging the tropes and constructs, even giving them specific titles: TPTB for “the powers that be” (meaning the producers; particularly when their powers are felt in the show’s narrative), or mentioning a contestant getting a “Bachelorette cut” (meaning a favorable edit in the show because she’s already been chosen as next season’s Bachelorette; therefore she must be likable to the audience). While most viewers aren’t posting on or even reading forums, they are often aware that true reality can’t be captured in the sensational editing of these shows; the problem is that if you aren’t very savvy (if you haven’t watched many seasons, noticed repeating patterns, or followed participants who denounced the show off-camera), it can be hard to notice exactly where the editing is distorting reality the most.

week 9

Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was a dense reading, sometimes hard to parse through but full of interesting observations. This was my first time engaging with a more formal or academic piece on feminist or gender theory since my undergraduate class on gender and communication — which exposed me to a ton of concepts but left me maybe more confused than when I had first started. It seems really difficult to nail down exactly what gender is — it means different things, and is used/performed/present in different ways, depending on who you ask. When I was younger, I remember feeling like the idea that my gender expression was “performative” was condescending, borderline offensive (thinking “I don’t do XYZ for other people, I do it for myself” in the way teenagers are prone to reject any notion that they might be influenced or manipulated in any way). In a somewhat similar way in terms of defensiveness, I have heard certain groups criticizing trans women, for example, for “cosplaying womanhood” in the sense that being a woman does not boil down to wearing lipstick (and it doesn’t; but of course that’s not all there is to trans women’s womanhood). I left that class basically deciding that gender is just something you feel, and the more you think about it, the more complicated it’s going to get. The idea of a gender spectrum is useful here, and it reminds me of a color spectrum — you can’t exactly define where yellow ends and green begins; you could try to poll every person in the world and find the exact hue that matches the average answer, but how useful would that be? In this vein, Haraway’s quote that “Cyborg feminists have to argue that “we” do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.” really resonated with me. There’s no universal woman, whether in appearance, tastes, perspectives, ideologies, desires, and so on — trying to encompass all women with a single, succinct definition is basically impossible. This is a challenge in taxonomy in general; I was randomly reminded of this while listening to a Dear Hank and John episode this week, where the two podcast hosts get into a conversation about eels and fish (starting at around 25min): 

Hank: “Electric eels are electric but not eels, it turns out.”

Katherine: “Are they fish?” 

Hank: “They’re a kind of fish, they’re just not related to eels. They look like eels, they’re long skinny fish. But yes they are fish. And eels are also fish. There’s a lot of kinds of fish.” 

Katherine: “I thought there was no such thing as a fish.” 

Hank: “[Pauses] This is the thing.”

Katherine: “Okay. [laughs] Yeah, yeah, saying something is something but not something else, or is that thing, but — yeah — like, who cares” 

Hank: “Taxonomy is a big ol’ mess. There are many things that are not actually in a box that makes sense.”

Katherine: “Do you know what I’m talking about when I say fish? That’s what I mean. That’s what matters.”

Looking back at it now, I can’t help but think the conversation could easily translate into a discussion about gender (“There are many people who are not actually in a box that makes sense” in particular, since the “box” metaphor is so common). I guess the crucial point is the last — “Do you know what I’m talking about when I say X?” With gender, this can easily be harmful if people’s expectations or desires regarding the same concept don’t align: if someone communicates their belief that being a woman requires a specific set of body parts, they’ll alienate any woman who doesn’t have all of them (whether they are trans, intersex, or cis women who have gone through procedures like histerectomies or mastectomies). In an even more concrete example, if a husband believes that his wife, as a woman, owes him her full sexual availability regardless of her own desires, that woman is at risk of marital rape and abuse. I feel like Haraway’s “no construction is whole” helps in these situations too — we can stop assuming that the category of “woman” comes along with these bodies and behaviors, and instead look at each specific characteristic when it becomes relevant (for example, when discussing menstruation, referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women”, since a) not all people who menstruate are women and b) not all women menstruate, for a variety of reasons). Obviously, we have a long way to go until everyone can agree to do away with rigid taxonomies of gender, but I’m glad to see the discussion has been around and hopefully will continue to evolve.

week 8

Finishing my readings and sitting down to actually write my midterm essay this week was both challenging and fulfilling. It didn’t help that my first shot of the vaccine knocked me out for a day and a half the Friday before our due date, but I was still able to refine my outline and think about the topics I wanted to cover in between naps (I did end up dreaming about 90 Day Fiancé on Saturday). I had a lot I wanted to say about this show, and not enough time or space within the wordcount to do it. It’s been rewarding, now that I’m finished with the first step of the project at least, to have some deeper conversations about this show, reality television, immigration, and so on, with some people in my life this past week (friends and family in Brazil who aren’t as familiar with US immigration, and American friends, both born and naturalized, with varying levels of exposure to the topic). I find it really interesting to analyze topics or media that may seem mundane or ordinary, I think because it can be so digestible to people without a formal background in the field. Being able to hear thoughts from friends and family who have never studied media, but who of course have absorbed it and can identify trends whether or not I point them out through theory, is both enriching to my own understanding of the topic and also a lot of fun

Happy Objects was a very interesting and relatable reading. I have definitely experienced being called, or implied to be, a killjoy over the years just for pointing out or questioning certain things. While tone can affect how defensive people feel about your comments, it doesn’t always guarantee you’ll be safe from the accusation — even when trying to phrase a comment like, “I’m not judging, just trying to help you because I can see how people may perceive this [sexist joke]” I have still felt an angry backlash just for implying the joke was not okay. As Ahmed mentions, “The exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence.” This rings true to me even beyond a social justice sphere — for example, pointing out potential flaws in a project can be perceived as a criticism of the project itself, as if you want it to fail, instead of being seen as a commitment to problem-solve so that the project can succeed. I can see how this ties to our discussion of happiness being over-emphasized in Western societies, to the point of becoming toxic positivity. Plenty of projects can be full of yes-men who refuse to acknowledge issues so that they “look like team players” and “don’t damage morale” — only for the whole thing to fail because no one thought it through. This doesn’t happen on its own or by coincidence; it’s encouraged and even enforced in the work culture, usually subconsciously (it’s not very rational to chastise problem-finders, since the practice can lead to improvements, and yet it still happens). 

The idea of happiness being intrinsically superior to other emotions was definitely a core belief for me. Our discussion about it reminded me of the feeling of falling in love — something I also feel like is over-emphasized as a completely, solely positive thing. When I first started dating my now husband, I remember having felt absolutely overwhelmed with the feeling, to the point where it wasn’t just positive. I was constantly distracted by it, sometimes unable to focus on work or classes — things that objectively mattered more than, for example, whether I should check my phone every five minutes for notifications from him. I felt anxious, doubtful, even insecure (does he like me as much as I like him?). This part of the feeling was not pleasant, and so it led to a lot of confusion for me — wasn’t this supposed to be the best feeling in the world? Is something wrong with me if I don’t feel so great about it all the time? Since I wasn’t prepared for it, I didn’t know how to handle myself. In that way, it also reminds me of Ahmed’s comment about happiness receding or becoming anxious once we are aware of it. You worry about something going wrong — “this is too good to be true” — and the feeling going away. The anxiety makes sense when we believe the feeling is superior to others, and it only gets worse when we then become aware of the anxiety itself (“I should be enjoying this; this is as good as it gets; I can’t ruin it by worrying”).

week 7

I really appreciated the articulations of cultural capital, habitus, and practices in this week’s readings and lectures — these are all concepts that I had felt in some way or another in my life, though I didn’t always know exactly how to articulate them. The timing seemed perfect too: while finishing the readings I selected for the midterm essay, I found two different ones that mentioned concepts from Bordieusian theory. 

One of the books I found on reality television as a genre mentioned cultural capital as interpreted by reality show audiences, who might judge reality show participants if they’re perceived to not have good taste; or who might negotiate their own viewing and enjoyment of the show as a “guilty pleasure,” indicating they know the show is culturally “bad,” to avoid being judged as having bad taste themselves. This also reminded me of a comment from Cameron’s lecture that resonated with me: the idea that “taste has a cruelty to it,” which I think is particularly visible in reality shows with a voyeuristic streak. Taking Hoarders as an example, there are ways to watch it solely based on neutral curiosity and empathy; maybe if you are a psychologist who might encounter people with hoarding disorders and want to learn how to best handle their needs. But in my own experience, I can’t help but think that the show is framed to elicit disgust and even a grotesque sense of relief (“thank god I’m not like that“), which in the end is cruel and demeaning to the people suffering from these conditions. There are other ways to portray these disorders without making the subjects so vulnerable to scorn — but maybe then the show would not be so entertaining, falling more towards a “proper” documentary than a “guilty pleasure” reality show and potentially losing both viewers and money in the process. On a similar note, the mention of habitus I found was in a book discussing a totally unrelated topic: immigration. It touched on the journalistic habitus in order to make a point about how media narratives about immigrants can be constructed through certain practices. From camera angles and color grading in photojournalism to the language used in headlines or laws (“alien” and “illegal” used as nouns particularly jump to mind), it’s easy to see how efficiently human beings can be dehumanized simply because they are not where they are supposed, or allowed, to be. As with the reality shows, these are deliberate choices — there are other words to describe people than “alien” — that are made for specific reasons (economic, political, and so on).

The idea of user personas as Bordieusian profiles was also interesting to me as a starting point of discussion on the practice. I understand the criticism of personas, but I find it hard to characterize them as inherently good or inherently bad. It’s definitely possible — and very easy — to create badly thought-out personas that serve little use other than shallow stereotypes retrofitted to your product. But to me, adding nuance and quirks that still let you recognize this person as part of larger groups (not just one single group, most importantly; people have dimensions to them, and what might appeal to them as part of one group might turn them off as part of another) can be a really important exercise in empathy. Of course, they’ll never be a universal, foolproof method; just one of many tools that have their time and place. 

Finally, the parts of Cameron’s lecture that focused on concepts like the teleo-affective quality of practice, as well as the felt sense of words, also spoke to me in their power to describe things that feel so hard to articulate. It’s impressive to think of our ability to sense what is a “good lunch” or to recognize a poster is “too blocky” without necessarily thinking about the details and characteristics that make up those definitions, and which ones are present in those specific lunch/poster instances. These are things that do come with practice, by seeing people use those words in certain context, by trying to apply them ourselves, and also by seeing how others react to our use of those words (I can definitely think of many times I’ve used jargon or slang wrong, and the embarrassment that followed helped me learn when and how to use them properly). Thinking about these concepts makes me more cognizant of jargon, and how I can communicate more effectively with audiences who may not have that specific background knowledge.

week 6

Out of this week’s readings, Oudshoorn’s chapters on the archeology of sex hormones and the development of the birth control pill were particularly fascinating. As with Ramanathan’s From Vishnu to Vegas look into the hair-selling industry, it is eye-opening to realize how many social, cultural, religious/spiritual, political, economical — and so on — processes factor into something that may seem like a simple activity now, like taking your daily Yazmin or going into Richie’s to buy a wig. 

Growing up in the 2000s in a socially liberal environment, and having started taking birth control at the age of 16, I absolutely took for granted all that went into this one pill. The first time I thought about the pill more deeply wasn’t until I was doing my undergraduate thesis research, some of which involved the history of sex in television. I came across Rodger Streitmatter’s Sex Sells!, the first chapter of which is entirely devoted to the relationship between the pill and the media — how quickly the former was embraced by the latter, and how deeply the latter changed because of the former. Streitmatter discussed the sexual revolution that followed the pill, which allowed the media to portray, for example, married couples sharing a bed on screen, or acknowledgements of pregnancies — things that would have scandalized audiences just years previously. I had not realized how repressed these mid-century audiences were, and was fascinated by the thought of how quickly they witnessed such drastic changes in media portrayals. 

It’s now very interesting to come back to this analysis of the birth control pill from an earlier perspective — not the changes that it brought on, but the changes and processes that were required for the sake of its development, let alone acceptance. The framing of the pill as family planning rather than contraception, and the use of woman-years or menstrual cycles in reporting data rather than simply women or participants really called attention to the power of persuasive communication. They may be subtle changes, but they can convey very different messages: contraception is about the full prevention of pregnancy, while family planning both highlights the family unit and can easily assume that pregnancies may still happen, just in the future. Showing data by menstrual cycles rather than by number of participants helps make it more impressive, obscuring issues of sample sizes or drop-out rates — but also has the effect of detaching the human subjects out of the data in some level; making it feel more clinical, rational, objective. Another extremely entertaining example of this was the mention that “The Spanish Pharmacopoeia described estrogen-progesterone combinations as effective in regulating menstrual cycles, but as having the serious side effects of preventing pregnancy.” I could immediately picture this as a scene in Mad Men or any period drama/comedy — a doctor almost winking at a young woman while telling her that her medication will unfortunately prevent pregnancy, while she solemnly nods, pretending this will be a grave sacrifice.

Other than the readings, this week I devoted a lot of time to preparing for the midterm paper. I solidified my reading list — including some books on the medium of reality television; some on immigration politics and media representation; one on the psychology of marriage; and Edward Said’s Orientalism. I narrowed down the couples whose 90 Day Fiancé content I felt warranted a rewatch, and eventually settled on just two to focus on (practicing a lot of self-restraint; my original list was eight couples, and I truly wanted to talk about them all). Following that rewatch, which resulted in some pretty extensive notes, I revised my outline to think about what specific topics I wanted to cover, and what artifacts could be generated from each. I settled on “otherness” as a general subject, looking at how the non-American partners in both couples are otherized through different ways: first, the way “risk” is only discussed when an American partner is the one risking themselves; second, how non-American ways of living are shown as strange or unacceptable; third, how non-American partners are questioned on their truthfulness or “real motives” regardless of their level of commitment; and finally, how the relationship or marriage priorities of non-American partners are overlooked or deemphasized in comparison to their American counterparts. This may have been heavily influenced by the fact that my first reading from my list was Orientalism, which I was very excited to get to, since I’d read the introduction during my undergrad. My original ideas for the project were a lot more focused on the different ethnic stereotypes portrayed on the show, but I felt like that could be said of many other shows — whereas these ideas of validity and transactionality in relationships, and how deeply immigration and “otherness” can factor in, feel a lot more unique to the 90 Day Fiancé universe. I feel really excited to delve deeper into the reading list and get the ball rolling on this project.

week 5

The two documentaries we watched this week were incredibly compelling, providing a look into these complex academic topics with digestible case studies and analogies. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace expertly captured the tension between two views of ecologies — one that promotes equilibrium, which can be seen as embracing the status quo, and another that advocates for (or at least more deeply acknowledges) dynamism and constant change. Watching it, and having our class discussion, I kept feeling paralyzed or defeated by the challenge of changing any complex system, almost regardless of scale. Someone in the class discussion articulated my feelings really well — it seems that the difficulty in changing a system comes precisely from the interconnected nature of our current systems. Usually, there’s no way to isolate one element in order to try something new; every small change can feel monumental because different sections of the whole system are dependent on each other and therefore will be affected. The geodesic dome metaphor for ecology, mentioned in Curtis’s documentary, feels very relevant here: each stick that makes up the dome is individually weak, but together they make an incredibly strong structure. But the sticks have to stay together to achieve that — so what happens if you want to change a section for whatever reason? Can you replace one stick at a time, or in chunks, without the dome falling apart? Even if you can, is that the best or most efficient way to do it? Or should you just tear it down and start over? And what happens when the dome is your family’s relationships, or your company’s culture, or your country’s politics, or your world’s economic system — what does tearing it down to start over even mean?

The discussion of craft as it related to humans and machines was the most interesting aspect of Being in the World to me. As we talked about in class, it seems that machines can’t craft because they lack that human expertise; using the recipe example again, a robot cannot just perform steps from a written recipe — regardless of how well-written or detailed it is — and come away with a perfectly delicious meal every time. There is infinite variability, from environmental conditions (altitude, humidity, or temperature), technical factors (any of the kitchenware used, from ovens to pans to spatulas), down to the organic matter (the ripeness of produce, age of condiments, and so on generating different tastes). An experienced cook will account for this infinite variability and compensate for it: adding oil to balance out the acid, for example. Because a machine can’t taste or feel — because it lacks instinct and judgment —, it can’t craft in this sense that humans can. All the examples of craft and “masters” (the restaurant chef, the carpenter, the flamenco artist, and the jazz player) in the documentary really helped connect these ideas, grounding them in our lives and experiences. The flamenco artist’s argument in favor of a handmade guitar in particular, saying that it feels different from a mass-manufactured instrument  — even saying it makes the music sound better —, because you can feel the devotion of the maker in it, really stuck with me. It made me think of my own handmade-ish objects: some pieces of pottery (a bowl and two plates) I’ve painted with my husband at a studio called The Painted Pot. Technically, these pieces aren’t any different from my other dishware (if anything, they’re a little bit worse because they aren’t microwave-safe), but the joy I find in using them is very real, and any time I find a new chip or crack in them I get way more upset than I would if they weren’t handpainted. Of course, I feel that way because these objects are unique, one-of-a-kind, and imbued with the memories of the time we spent together while painting them. But there are other unique objects that we could have made together — maybe personalized and ordered online, manufactured far away from us. I have to think that I would still be upset if I found a chip in a personalized yet machine-printed bowl, but not quite as upset as I get about our Painted Pot bowl; the effort that we spent in picking out colors, coating it multiple times, thinking about a pattern and then trying to execute it (with dubious, but heartfelt results) — it all adds up to produce a much more meaningful piece, almost with a human character of its own.