What Makes a Media Text Postmodern?
The majority of postmodern theorists agree upon numerous concepts, such as the flattening of affect, the dislocation of time, and fragmentation, all of which were developed by Fredric Jameson.
One undoubtedly postmodern text is ‘The Hunger Games’ (Ross, 2012, US). This film features an abundance of the concepts described by Jameson, along with Jean Baudrillard’s four stages of the representation of reality.
The main character, Katniss, is “filmed” in an arena; the “real” audience (us) is shown an audience in the in the diegesis, being shown the arena. The diegetic audience fits into stage two of Baudrillard’s four stages: a misrepresentation of reality, since it can easily be interpreted as a parody of ourselves, with an exaggerated passiveness. The explicit nature of this parody – they laugh together, when given cues from the show’s host, Caeser Flickerman – means that it is not disguised, which would place it in the third stage.
On the other hand, the use of screens in ‘The Hunger Games’ illustrates the flattening of affect well, and could be seen as a more implicit parody; we are shown two children having a sword fight, after watching a similar action on a television screen. This could be interpreted as being in Baudrillard’s third stage.
The combination of various levels of reality creates a postmodern text; it establishes fragmentation and contradiction.
The fragmentation of reality, and contradiction between our own world and that of the text, is also seen in ‘Gogglebox’ (Channel 4, 2013-2016), which creates a false sense of community. People very rarely sit with their families in reality, and ‘Gogglebox’ attempts to disguise its misrepresentation of this. The show is filmed in one night; some “characters” travel across the country each week to be together, e.g. Josef and Bill.
They watch six hours of agreed upon programming, with a recording crew elsewhere in the house. Clearly, the sense of community that the programme aims to show is artificially constructed; Tania Alexander, the executive producer, said herself that the show is “made in the edit”.
Despite this, Channel 4 describes the show as a “British observational documentary”, thus placing it in Baudrillard’s third stage of representation. The hyper-reality and bricolage of intertextual references, on which the show is based, both make the text postmodern.
Furthermore, ‘Gogglebox’ succeeds in blurring the boundary between “high” and “low” culture; it juxtaposes a chess master from Cambridge, in a lavishly and regally decorated living room, with a working class family from Newcastle. The producers give them equal amounts of screen time, and bridge the cultural boundary between them by forcing them to react to the same texts, which range from ‘Eurovision’ to ‘Antiques Roadshow’, thereby further blurring the boundary.
The blurring of boundaries is another key postmodern element, and is also seen in an episode of ‘Sherlock’ – ‘The Empty Hearse’ (BBC, 1/1/14, episode 1, series 3), in which the camera pulls back to reveal that Sherlock and Mycroft are in fact playing Operation, not chess, as the framing initially mislead the audience into believing.
The producers of Sherlock incorporate large amounts of ironic self-awareness, e.g. fans are portrayed in the diegesis, modelled on “real” fans. The programme also regularly bridges the boundary between reality and the world of the narrative, e.g. viewers can visit Dr Watson’s blog, which is mentioned in ‘The Empty Hearse’, and this particular episode also shows numerous false explanations of Sherlock’s faked death, which were hypothesised by fans, such as the homosexual relationship between Sherlock and his enemy, Moriarty.
The abundance of self-awareness is extremely postmodern, but the episode is also made postmodern by the contradictions, such as Inspector Lestrade saying “Bollocks” in a sound bridge from a false explanation sequence, and the dislocation of time; the intro to the episode is in black and white, but the next scene is disguised as the present, before it is contradicted by the next scene, with Lestrade. This theme is continued throughout the episode, with the audience’s trust never becoming fully regained.
Postmodernist theory developed synchronously with the feminist movement, and as a result, the ideas of some feminists were adopted as elements of postmodernism. One such idea is Hélène Cixous’ écriture féminine, which describes a new kind of language, replacing the traditional male perspective of the camera with a new space in the narrative for a female protagonist, who rejects any form of patriarchy, and is able to play a lead role without the trope of either being objectified or losing all feminine qualities.
Écriture féminine is highly applicable to ‘The Hunger Games’; Katniss is never objectified, yet maintains a sense of caring, most explicitly shown by her emotional parting conversation with her younger sister.
Katniss only engages with the more traditional relationship role to increase her chances of survival; the bridging of the boundary between the worlds of the arena and the Capitol, with a note saying ‘Call that a kiss?’ followed by Katniss looking angrily at the camera (breaking the “fifth” wall) lets the audience know that she is only agreeing to stereotypically female roles – wearing make-up and being a girlfriend to Peeta – for her own benefit.
In conclusion, texts become postmodern via the inclusion of the core elements, such as fragmentation, an ironic self-awareness, and écriture feminine; the most postmodern texts will blur boundaries, and play with the “real” audience, as ‘Sherlock’ does.