Science Fiction Representations of Cyborgs in Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s“My Space Heroine”

http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2021/4/3/science-fiction-representations-of-cyborgs-in-kim-cho-ypsmy-space-heroine

Seoyeon Lee, a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures, is a student this semester in my seminar, Science Fiction As Media Theory. For her first assignment, she wrote about Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s“My Space Heroine”, a work little known outside of South Korea. I thought there would be broader interest out there on this topic. For those who would like to know more about Korean science fiction, check out this episode of How Do You Like It So Far?, the podcast that I co-host with Colin Maclay.


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Science Fiction Representation of Cyborgs in Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s“My Space Heroine”

by Seoyeon Lee

Introduction

As a techno-dystopian locale for human trafficking and prostitution, Asia has been depicted against a dark, rainy background full of neon signs in Blade Runner (1982), Ghost in the Shell(1995), and Blade Runner 2049(2017). The Western fear of and fascination with technologized Asia recently shifted from Tokyo and Hong Kong to Seoul, for example, in the cyberpunk film Cloud Atlas(2012), which presents the SF trope of a female cyborg as the very image of a futuristic East Asia. In this film, South Korea in 2144 is depicted as a dystopia governed by transnational corporations that divide the world into the upper-level and the underworld, where the genetically transformed human clones are treated as slave labor.Cyborgs or humanoids in an Asian female figure are no longer unfamiliar in science fiction (hereafter SF) literature, film, and animations. 





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At this point, a clear SF pattern is drawn from the Western imagination of the Asianized future: Otherizing the Orient by either over-simplifying or over-fantasizing it in order to alienate it from the Western criteria of humanity and humanism. Facing the West’s projection of its technological fear and fantasies of Asia, how does Asia respond? Are Asian SF writers, especially women writers, able to reappropriate the pattern of yellow peril anxieties of technologized Asia in the age of globalization? Considering that SF cultural products are often associated with various factors, such as transnational capitalism, state censorship, and global technological innovations, how do Korean SF women writers conform to or deviate from the status quo? This paper examines the SF literary representation of female cyborgs in Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s“My Space Heroine” (2019) from a feminist viewpoint.

Kim Ch’o-yŏp (김초엽1993~) isa South Korean SF woman writer who is interested in the theme of marginalized identity. Kim majored in chemistry at Pohang University of Science and Technology, and she won the Grand Prize at the 2ndKorea SF Awards with her novella “Book Missing Inside Library” during her graduate year in 2017. Kim’s SF short story, “My Space Heroine” (“Na ŭi uju yŏngung e kwanhayŏ” 나의우주영웅에관하여), which I will discuss in this paper, is included in her first SF collection bookIf We Cannot Move at the Speed of Light, which has been a sensation since its publication in 2019. Given that only a small number of studies on Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s selective SF works have been published and no English translations of her works exist, this paper as the first case study aims to explore the trope of cyborgs in Kim’s short story. In the plot, thefemale protagonist Ka Yun and her idol, aunt Jaegyeong become cyborgs through the SF concept of “Pantropy” to explore a new time-space in the universe. Through the process of becoming a cyborg, Ka Yun understands Jaegyeong’s choice of death; and meanwhile, Kim seeks the possibility to build an alternative world that reflects reality and imagines a future. In other words, Kim’s world-building provides an avenue to understand the characters and the world away from a familiar perspective while questioning the criteria of normality. In this respect, I argue that the SF concept of the female cyborg not only reflects on Otherness to challenge the binary demarcation of the center and the periphery, but also blurs the boundary of the nation-state, race and gender while imagining an alternate future.


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Science Fiction Concept of Cyborgs: “My Space Heroine”

As Darko Suvin has argued in “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” “SF is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (Suvin 118). According to Suvin, SF is a literature of cognitive estrangement. It is neither metaphysical nor entirely naturalistic, but a meta-empirical genre that emphasizes a strong relationship with the real world(s). SF, thus, does not simply play the role of the prophet that imagines the near or real future of our society in a pessimistic or optimistic way, but rather aims to unfold the present as history in the form of “some future worlds’ remote past” (Jameson 217). 

When it comes to the literary aesthetics of cognitive estrangement, Kim Ch’o-yŏp deploys the SF trope of a cyborg in her short story. If the definition of a cyborg is “a hybrid of machine and organism” (Haraway 291) that is not afraid of “their joint kinship with animals and machines” (295), then Kim’s “My Space Heroine” is a great example to delve into. This short story depicts a female cyborg who changes bodily fluids and organs to complete the global mission of exploring an unknown space in the universe. Kim herself has become a “cyborg” since she was medically diagnosed as having a hearing impairment and wore a hearing aid from her early teens. When asked how it felt as a cyborg to live with a disability, Kim responded that “We are all in symbiosis with technology and we are hybrids of machines and organisms. … We already acknowledge the potential impact of becoming a cyborg which dismantles various dichotomies between machine and organism, human and non-human, and so on. If we cannot stop obsessing about the concept of normality, however, cyborg technology would merely become a means to fulfill the practice of normality. What kind of cyborg shall/should we eventually become?”[1]This response highlights Kim’s main idea of (becoming) a cyborg that is often combined with a transformed body and extended mind to question the criteria for being human.

In Kim’s SF short story, the second-generation female astronaut, Ka Yun, tried to understand the mysterious death of her heroine, aunt Jaegyeong, the first astronaut to participate in the Aeronautics and Space Administration Project. In order to pass through a black hole like a tunnel and arrive at a new time-space in the universe, the selected astronauts were trained to rebuild their bodies through “Pantropy,” a so-called “cyborg grinding project.” During the multilevel training, the original human body is supplemented with artificial organs, skins, and blood vessels to endure the acceleration of gravity and pressure inside the tunnel. After their body fluids were replaced, both Jaegyeong and Ka Yun became cyborgs, hybrids of metal machines and nanobots. Although the first attempt of the project failed due to an unexpected explosion, Ka Yun, inspired by her long-time heroine Jaegyeong, was selected as the final member of the project to accomplish the incomplete mission. Through the process of becoming a cyborg, Ka Yun realized the reality of Jaegyeong’s death and gradually changed her feelings about Jaegyeong from a sense of admiration to betrayal to sympathy. Ka Yun understood why Jaegyeong was not in the spacecraft the day before launch but dived into the deep sea, where her marginalized identity as a disabled Asian single mother was finally liberated from the oppression of normality through the practice of becoming a cyborg.

            Throughout the story that addresses Jaegyeong’s mysterious death from Ka Yun’s perspective, Kim employs the SF trope of a cyborg both to reflect the hierarchical dualism of reality and to imagine an alternate future free from the various social regulations and norms. In particular, when Jaegyeong was selected as the first woman tunnel astronaut, she was embroiled in controversy due to her background: 

[Jaegyeong] was at the center of controversy over the selection of qualified astronauts, when the press released the fact that her skinny, small body had less muscle mass and a lower bone density, which were below the standard of the normal human body. She even had chronic vestibular disorders and was an Asian woman who once experienced pregnancy and childbirth. People were curious about how such an inappropriate agent, Jaegyeong, was chosen to be the representative of human beings. It was not emphasized that Jaegyeong was one of the three final selectees, and the other two astronauts were white men from the Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters.[2]

While Jaegyeong was criticized for beingan imperfect candidate who did not fit into the standardized image of a white male astronaut, she was simultaneously admired as a heroine who was the representative of gender and racial minority groups. Jaegyeong met Yu Jin, Ka Yun’s mother, in an online community, where a single mom raising her non-marital child communicated with others. Jaegyeong and Yu Jin took turns taking care of their daughters and later built an alternative family relationship to live together. This alternate concept of family is considered a big threat to the normative social structure and challenges the heteronormative perspective of family kinship. Jaegyeong acknowledged that a double-edged sword was facing her as if she was the very person to be underrepresented or overrepresented, but she was not able to escape this double burden. In this light, Kim successfully illustrates the tension between fear of losing normative power as hegemony and a fascination for embracing differences in reality through the SF representation of a female cyborg Jaegyeong.

In addition to Kim’s reflection of reality through Jaegyeong’s fragile and disabled body, Jaegyeong’s ironic choice of becoming a cyborg mermaid highlights the subversive version of imagining the alternative future where human normativity is challenged. On the night before the spacecraft was launched, Jaegyeong decided to explore the deep sea rather than achieving the glorious title of being the first Asian woman astronaut. The next day, the media concluded that Jaegyeong committed suicide due to stress, and the public condemned her impulsive choice while proposing a new model of an ideal human that was the opposite image of Jaegyeong. Ka Yun, however, underwent the cyborg grinding process as Jaegyeong did and thought about Jaegyeong’s purpose of jumping into the deep sea as a cyborg body. During the actual diving training that checked whether the transformed cyborg body could withstand pressure, Ka Yun felt an unexplainable sense of freedom under the sea. At this moment, she realized that “what Jaegyeong wanted indeed was not the way of entering the space tunnel but becoming a new human. That is to say, cyborg grinding itself was what she had wanted from the very beginning” (Kim 306). Ka Yun envisioned the alternative space where Jaegyeong already became a cyborg mermaid and breathed freely with her newly implanted gills in the deep sea. This possibility of living in a new world resonated with what Jaegyeong mentioned before: “I want to become a human beyond human” (281). Jaegyeong’s words do not simply mean that she prefers sea to space in order to seek her freedom with her cyborg body. Rather, Jaegyeong’s pursuit of liberation is closely connected with the question of why humans explore new space. For Jaegyeong, regardless of whether the destination is deep space or a dark sea, becoming a cyborg itself provides the opportunity to imagine an alternative future in which a new human, i.e., posthuman decenters the dominant discourse of Western humanity.

 It was not a surprise that the collection of Kim’s SF short stories became a sensational best-seller in South Korea, given that her posthuman narrative not merely reflected global technological innovations in contemporary Korean society but challenged the status quo from the perspective of race, gender, and disability. Although Kim’s vivid embodiment of cyborgs differs from cinematic visualization of cyborgs, her world-building as a communicative form in a written text reveals the power of literary imagination. It refuses to imitate the collective imagery of cyborgs driven by mass communication of audio-visual media; rather, it pushes the boundaries of reality to envision an alternative future making invisible visible.

Conclusion

This paper analyzed Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s “My Space Heroine” to examine the role of the SF trope of cyborgs. Kim provided a creative avenue to empower the act of storytelling through the SF effect of cognitive estrangement. By telling the story about another future, Kim imagined a world that reflects reality impacted by technological innovations and questions current norms to explore the uncertainties. The writer’s scientific imaginations played a significant role in avoiding the reproduction of the Other and blurring the boundary between the center and the periphery. In particular, Kim represented the image of a female cyborg, who was largely marginalized in history, to represent oppressive society and subverted the Western dominant paradigm of normality. Both Jaegyeong and Ka Yun as Asian women astronauts became cyborgs to complete the space mission, but their destinations were different. While thinking about Jaegyeong’s mysterious choice of diving into the deep sea, Ka Yun later realized that Jaegyeong was overrepresented as a part of minority groups and underrepresented as an unqualified agent. Becoming a new human, i.e., a cyborg, was the only way for Jaegyeong to escape the double burden and contest the Western ideal of humanity. Rather than entering the space tunnel to become the first Asian woman astronaut, Jaegyeong chose to belong to nowhere but herself while exploring how to become a cyborg. 

By analyzing Kim’s SF work, I argue that SF as a literary genre is neither a means to propagate science technology nor a mere entertainment to amuse the public; rather it crosses the boundary of science and fiction and its in-betweenness ultimately makes SF writing reflect the present and imagine an alternative future. In this context, SF writers, as well as the audience, should consider the concept of a cyborg that represents the Other within or beyond reality.

 

 

Bibliography

Haraway, Donna Jeanne."A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In The Cybercultures Reader, 291-324. Edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy. London: Routledge, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric. “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” In Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 211-24. Edited by Rob Latham. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Kim, Ch’o-yŏp. “Na ŭi uju yŏngung e kwanhayŏ.” In Uri ka pit ŭi sokto ro kal su ŏptamyŏn, 273-319.Seoul: Hŏbŭl, 2019.

Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” In Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 116-27. Edited by Rob Latham. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

 






[1]The Korean essay appears in Ch’o-yŏp Kim, “Shinch'ewa kamgagi pyŏnhyŏngdoen uridŭrŭi chilmun,” Sisa-In169, Sisa-In co., Itd. https://www.sisain.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=35180

[2]This is my translation from Korean. The original text is found in Ch’o-yŏp Kim, “Na ŭi uju yŏngung e kwanhayŏ,” in Uri ka pit ŭi sokto ro kal su ŏptamyŏn(Seoul: Hŏbŭl, 2019), 279-80.





SEOYEON LEE is a second-year Ph.D. student majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. She graduated from Ewha Womans University with a bachelor's and a master's degree in Chinese Language and Literature. Her current research centers on science fiction literature in Korea and China. In particular, she is interested in the intersection of contemporary Korean and Chinese science fiction writers’ works while exploring possibilities of imagining an alternative world beyond the boundaries of gender and race. 







CBS's Clarice: In the Shadows of Lamb and Hannibal

http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2021/3/20/cbss-clarice-in-the-shadows-of-lamb-and-hannibal


Kyle Moody and Nicholas Yanes are the editors of a recent anthology, Hannibal for Dinner: Essays on America’s Finest Cannibal on Television. I was curious to see what they thought of Clarice, the new series also based on characters from Silence of the Lamb and other books by Thomas Harris. Their book was covered by USA Today. Below is what they shared with mel

CBS's Clarice

In the Shadows of Lambs and Hannibals

by

Kyle Moody, Ph.D. and Nicholas Yanes, Ph.D.

 

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We have spent the last several years with Bryan Fuller’s and NBC’s Hannibal(now streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime). With our book, Hannibal for Dinner: Essays on America’s Favorite Cannibal on Television– now published through McFarland Press – it is time for us to look at the future of the characters created by Thomas Harris. As of now, this future is CBS’s Clarice, currently airing Thursday nights on the broadcast network and streaming the next day on Paramount+. (Clarice’s homepage can be found here.)

 

It is somewhat odd to talk about this show because of the differences between Clarice and Hannibal. The productions are obviously separated by  multiple years (Hannibal ended its broadcast run in 2015, while Claricebegan airing this year). However, the impact Hannibal had on the broadcast and TV environment cannot be overstated, and it is clear that Clarice had to find its own identity by navigating in the shadow of what came before. 

 

After all, Hannibal was one of the rare shows to inspire a passionate fandom - a feat which remains unusual for modern scripted network programs (we see you out there, #Fannibals!); it also launched its titular Dr. Lecter – Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen – into superstardom with him appearing in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and set to star as Gellert Grindelwald in future Fantastic Beasts films.And as we are in the midst of the Streaming Wars, Hannibal became a streaming sensation when it finally landed on Netflix during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing others to catch up on the show during the Peak TV era.

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The visual language Hannibal deployed is a major reason for its continued longevity; as a matter of fact, our book uses academic examinations to tackle those tableaus that generated excitement and produced multiple meanings. The recurring black stag, the sensual crosscutting between violence and banal activities, the layout of bodies in ghastly yet beautiful displays, the presentation of meals in a manner that entices and disgusts – all of this was produced weekly during Hannibal’s initial run. Fuller’s production was aesthetically pleasing and cinematic, subverting the cinematic and violent boundaries of network television. But Hannibal was so much more than a visual tableau. 

 

In many ways, Hannibal retained such a loyal fanbase because it made the audience an accessory to Dr. Lecter’s crimes. Viewers knew that Hannibal was a monster, but the artistry of his work caused us to see him as an artist. So, for some fans, Hannibal is less a show about a serial killer and more a show about a culinary artist whose preferred materials are human parts.

 

Legal Issues and a Missing Doctor 

 

Due to complicated rights agreements between Hannibal and Thomas Harris’s estate, Clarice can not legally show or mention Dr. Hannibal Lecter. This sets up a massive obstacle for the CBS series because the star of this franchise is not Starling or Graham, it is Lecter. Our over educated and culturally refined cannibal is more than the primary antagonist; he is the center of gravity that these stories will always orbit around. 

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Remember, some of the most riveting moments of Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs are when Dr. Lecter is facing off against FBI agent turned patient Will Graham in Lecter’s office for psychiatric sessions or when he is verbally manipulating Starling. Hannibal did this to such a great extent by using the visuals of “mind palaces” and by focusing on subtext; creative decisions derived from Hannibal’s presence which showed the ways that Lecter was a master manipulator and polite interloper. (Contributors further explored this perspective by examining the ways Lecter used psychology and Gothic imagery, along with elements of mythology, to create mental palaces that helped guide Will Graham, Jack Crawford, and later Lecter himself to decode the scenes of the crime.)

 

With that said, it was surprising to see Clarice start in a psychologist’s office with a combative meeting between Agent Starling and her FBI therapist. This opening scene is clearly crafted to echo Hannibal the character and Hannibal the show without being able to discuss them. Furthermore, allusions to an “inmate” with whom Clarice became “intimate” are all that remain in this framing device. Moreover, while the sessions between Graham and Lecter in Hannibal and the encounters between Starling and Lecter in Silence of the Lambs were layered with subtext and pushed the characters to evolve, Clarice’s session seems to simply function as an exposition drop to help bridge Silence of the Lambs o this show.

 

Soon after discussions of her personality and PTSD, she is shuttled to a crime scene that is shot much like a Hannibal crime scene, but without the shot composition and strong writing that characterized Fuller’s show. In other words, it tries to echo the ghoulishly artistic style of Hannibal, but comes off as a generic procedural show with a different filter.

 The lack of Dr. Lecter in Clarice not only deprives another actor of the opportunity to bring this character to life, it means that the show suffers from the lack of a memorable villain. Leaving Clarice with no mirror to highlight her weaknesses and strengths as Lecter did.

 

Gender Uncomplicated

In addition to the lack of Lecter leaving Clarice devoid of a main villain to push the heroine forward, it is one of the many elements that erases the issues of gender complexity from this franchise. After all, with Hannibal not being legally allowed to appear in this show, Clarice becomes a world that communicates the misogyny of the Silence of the Lambs without understanding it. Jonathan Demme’s masterful adaptation of Harris’s second novel emphasized the demure size of Jodie Foster’s Clarice in a largely male world of violence and bureaucracy, but found time to ensure that Clarice was a force of her own, driven by a clarity of purpose.

Clarice, on the other hand, is focused on building a world where Clarice can show up week after week, solve a crime, slowly integrate with her FBI team of doubters, and move away from her “inmate.” Moving away from Hannibal proves to be a more difficult task when the show borrows liberally from the visual elements of its predecessor without totally understanding how the visual vocabulary and cinematic language was applied in the first place.

That may not be a bad thing for our heroine on the surface. After all, Clarice is finding her voice and strength throughout the first two episodes, illustrating how her intellect and background in behavioral sciences is essential for unraveling the mysteries of the murdered women in the pilot. While Starling gains one male ally in her new team, her main allies are the women in her life. One bright spot in the world is Clarice’s fellow agent and friend Ardelia Mapp, played with scene-stealing verve by Devyn A. Tyler. She generates questions and frustrations for Starling all while letting her stay in her Washington D.C. loft, even keeping a book of names titled “People I’m Sending to Hell.” Clarice and Ardelia present a hopeful vision of the world and a strong shared chemistry; their scenes together are easily the highlights of the pilot. 

Whether the dynamic between Clarice and Ardelia remains platonic or becomes romantic, it is important to remember that one of the many reasons Hannibal developed such a loyal fanbase was because the world Bryan Fuller crafted was unapologetically queer. It became a show that clearly communicated that people of any sexual/gender orientation were welcomed. In contrast, while Clarice is in no way homophobic, it is clearly falling back on sterotypical and common gender norms within popular crime dramas, especially those present on “America’s most watched network.” Now, part of this can stem from how our culture’s views of people who aren’t cisgendered heterosexuals has evolved. After all, most people were not offended by Buffalo Bill’s depiction as someone with gender dysmorphia in the 1980s and 1990s, but this has changed. 

 

Just Another Procedural

Clarice is trying to differentiate itself from other criminal procedurals by focusing on some key issues: our culture’s renewed interests in everyday people becoming celebrities, mental health, and women in toxic workplaces. As a result, Claricepresents three main questions. Will Starling be able to overcome her trauma from Silence of the Lambs? Will Starling be able to accept her fame and use it to benefit her work? And will Starling be able to earn the respect of all the men on her team?

The answer to all these questions is yes.

Anyone who watches criminal procedurals – especially criminal procedurals on CBS – already knows the narrative formulas this show will deploy. Clarice is exactly what we feared Hannibal would be when it first aired, a procedural that warps Harris’s characters into a mold that doesn’t fit them. Hannibal took this saleable premise (different killer each week, solved by Will Graham and the FBI) and forced the show to be imagined through Dr. Lecter’s pristine tastes. 

In our book, co-editor Nicholas Yanes was able to interview Nick Antosca. Antosca was not only one of the writers on Hannibalbut he also co-wrote the series finale. When asked why he felt Hannibal was never a ratings hit, Antosca simply responded, “It was too weird. It’s not for everyone.” And he is right. Hannibal was a unique show that demanded a high level of engagement from viewers if they wanted to fully appreciate its various flavors. 

 

In contrast, Clarice is a solid, watchable CBS show at this time. It’s the Abel Gideon of Thomas Harris televisual adaptations; it knows how to grab our attention, but it doesn’t do anything noteworthy with it just yet. Clariceis ultimately a warm and friendly weekly crime procedural wearing Harris’s license and the visual storytelling of Hannibal like Buffalo Bill wore a skin suit, but has the potential and the lineage to evolve into something so much more.

 

More about Kyle Moodyand Nicholas Yanes can be found by following them on Twitter.

 

Kyle Moody (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is an Associate Professor of Communications Media at Fitchburg State University, where he teaches courses on social media, message design, new and emerging media, and media history. His research interests include the production of culture through new media practices, online community formation, information creation and dissemination, and examining how cultural practices are impacted by a changing media landscape. His recent work has been published by McFarland Press and Springer, along with Iowa Journal of Communication. He lives in Worcester, Massachusetts with his wife and two children. 

 

Nicholas Yanes (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is a freelance writer and vagabond. His first book, The Iconic Obama examined the 2008 presidential election and its relationship to popular culture. Outside of academia, he is a freelance writer who has contributed to CNBCPrime, MGM, ScifiPulse, Sequart, the Casual Games Association, Shudder’s blog The Bite, and several other publications. His academic and professional interests center on researching and analyzing entertainment industries

Jack Benny and American Radio Comedy (Part 4)

http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2021/3/14/jack-benny-and-american-radio-comedy

One of my Black students recently told the class that he assumed any media product to come up before the 1960s (and in some cases, well after) was problematic in terms of the racial dynamics between white and Black characters. What might surprise him about the relationship between Jack Benny and Rochester?


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 Let me first say that I, as a white cis woman in 2021 can’t presume to speak for anyone else, present or past, for how they might interpret such things as interracial relationships on an old radio comedy program, then or now, given that the commercial network radio system 1930s-50s was so completely dominated by white corporate power.

Back in the day, there was a range of interpretive positions that listeners of color might take (that could provide some interesting context for listeners today). Many African-Americans in the 1930s refused to listen to network radio, as almost no programs included black artists. (White actors routine spoke in ‘verbal blackface’ to voice small roles). When Eddie Anderson won the new, continuing role on the Jack Benny Jell-O comedy program in 1938 (one of the highest rated/most listened to shows on the air,) there was great interest in him and the show from the black community. The Chicago Defender and other African-American newspapers started carrying radio schedule listings, and they called the show the Rochester program with Jack Benny.


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Rochester was wildly popular with both white and black listeners, for different reasons. African American listeners could enjoy the character’s sharp wit and puncturing of his boss’s ego (Rochester called his employer “Boss” more often than “Mr. Benny”, which was a small victory towards parity in the workplace). White listeners could feel that Rochester was “safe” as a servant eternally tied to housework. In my book I describe how Benny’s writers saddled the Rochester character in the first several years with belittling stereotypes (gambling, drinking, calling attention to his skin color, etc.).

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But by World War II, Anderson’s character solidified a major continuing role and gained more autonomy to criticize the “boss.” Scripts allowed him to further develop his personality. Anderson simultaneously starred in several of the big-budget black cast musicals released from the Hollywood studios (such as Cabin in the Sky) as well as virtually co-starred in three very profitable Paramount films with Jack Benny. 

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After World War II, the younger generation of African-Americans grew increasingly impatient with the lack of progression in black representation on network radio and television. They expressed great frustration with roles limited to valets and maids and waiters, and that spilled over to anger at the older black performers who enacted these roles. Eddie Anderson got caught in the middle of this cultural change. His Rochester character in the latter radio years and throughout Jack Benny’s 15 years in television shared a remarkably intimate and convivial relationship with “the boss,” and their repartee is truly hilarious.  Some have described their relationship as like the “Odd Couple” of later TV fame, two older men sharing the house and Rochester being like a domestic partner as well as Jack’s sharpest critic.  Eddie Anderson, because he did few other performances apart from the Benny programs on his own in the 1950s and 1960s (ill health curtailed his career), has not been recognized sufficiently as a superb comic performer who brought a unique voice and sense of timing to amplify his continuing role in Benny’s narrative world. 

 I’d like to mention several other authors who have done marvelous work exploring the historical constraints and cultural contexts in which African-American performers at mid-century worked –

 

Petty, Miriam J. Stealing the show: African American performers and audiences in 1930s Hollywood

 

Savage, Barbara Dianne. Broadcasting freedom: Radio, war, and the politics of race, 1938-1948

 

Watts, Jill. Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood

 

I especially point readers and scholars interested in the African-American actors’ experience in radio to this fabulous unpublished study ----  Edmerson, Estelle. "A descriptive study of the American Negro in United States professional radio, 1922-1953." MA thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1954. Edmerson undertook extensive interviews with black performers, and this report is a treasure. It is difficult to access, however, being available only on microfilm through interlibrary loan, but I have made a digital version that I can share with those who contact me. 

 

 

 

  Benny, like many of the comedians of that period, was Jewish, yet this is played down on the program. Can you speak about the ways that ethnic humor operated on the program? Was Mel Blanc (or Mr. Kitzel) there to deflect attention away from Benny’s own ethnicity. I just heard an episode where the Benny cast imitated the folks on Allen’s Alley to great effect and it really called attention to the more subtle ways that ethnicity was dealt with on the Benny show.

 

I am indebted to Holly A Pearse’s essay “As Goyish as Lime Jell-O?: Jack Benny and the American Construction of Jewishness,” which has helped me better understand Benny’s approach to ethnic representation in his own performance. Unlike many Jewish comedians who were raised in the densely-populated immigrant ethnic enclaves of New York City and the East Coast, Benjamin Kubelsky grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, the son of a Lithuanian Jewish barkeep and haberdasher in a relatively small industrial town an hour north of Chicago which had multiple ethnic groupings but only a small Jewish population. Renaming himself Jack Benny, as a performer, sought to emphasize a Midwestern white identity. He almost never incorporated Yiddish words or phrases into his vaudeville or radio performances. 

 There were long traditions of ethnic performance in vaudeville, of course, in which performers either exaggerated their own identities or took on ethnic costumes and language as part of their act. Historians have described how what Robert Snyder called these “voices of the city” brought constructed stereotypes (always a mix of benign and harmful) of Irish, Scotch, German, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, Russian and other white immigrant ethnicities (as well as Black, Latino and Asian) to audiences in cities and towns across America. Humor involving these ethnic characters both reinforced stereotypes for audiences as well as sometimes made them seem part of a rich, vibrant American “melting pot.”

 Radio inherited these approaches to representation of ethnicity from vaudeville. It seems that radio broadcast creation, with cost limitations on production on the one hand, and freedom to imagine characters (from the audience point of view) on the other, used ethnic voices quite frequently.  In a storytelling world constrained by lack of visual cues, voice accent, tone and inflection carried a great deal of weight. Without other ways of distinguishing between different characters at the microphone, ethnic accents added an all-too-easy differentiation. I believe that in the case of Jack Benny’s early radio broadcast years, his writer Harry Conn often turned to ethnic voices among the supporting cast members to yield a quick laugh at the difference they represented from Jack’s midwestern voice. Conn used German, Yiddish, Greek or Scottish voices for bit players in Jack Benny’s skits.  After Conn left the program in 1936, these ethnic voices were not used very often by the new writers (Morrow and Beloin) who chose to use the regular cast members more intensively. 

 It seems that Jack Benny and his writers offloaded Jewish identity onto a pair of part-time cast members over the course of his radio career. In the 1933-1936 era Jack Benny used comedian Sam Hearn to voice the character of Shlepperman. Shlepperman was a Jewish immigrant with city smarts and a heavy Yiddish accent. In the skits in which he appeared, he usually poped in towards the end for a surprise twist, in places where he was unexpected.  Hearn did not want to relocate to California when Jack moved the radio show to Hollywood, so the character faded out.   

Kathy Fuller-Seeley is the William P. Hobby Centennial Professor of Media Studies in the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin; her research specializations are in US radio, film and TV history. Recent publications include: Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy (California 2017);“Archaeologies of Fandom: Using Historical Methods to Explore Fan Cultures of the Past,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (Routledge 2018); and (edited) Jack Benny's Lost Radio Broadcasts, Volume One: May 2 - July 27, 1932 (BearManor 2020).

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The Mr. Kitzel character was added to the Benny radio program in 1946, a time when interracial and inter-religious tolerance was being promoted by progressive groups. Kitzel was first encountered on the Benny program selling hot dogs in the stands at the Rose Bowl football game. His call of “pickle in the middle and the mustard on top” gained notice in popular culture. Kitzel was the opposite type of character than Shlepperman – a naïve and gentle greenhorn, a barely assimilated Jewish immigrant who constantly misunderstood Anglo American culture and who transposed Anglo names into Yiddish idiom.  Jack Benny encounters him in brief interchanges – Kitzel does not become a fully integrated cast member.


Kitzel’s character is similar in ways to Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum, the Jewish housewife character Fred Allen incorporated into his “Allen’s Alley” radio skits from the early 1940s until his radio show ended. Both transpose Anglo-American words and names into Yiddish sound-alikes, in ways that emphasize their lack of American knowledge on the one hand, but I suppose make the listener laugh with kindness and perhaps pity rather than contempt for their lack of understanding. Social critics in the latter 1940s lodged complaints about the stereotypes at play in both these characters, but Allen and Benny both defended their creations, emphasizing their universal humanity and the opportunities they offered to laugh at human frailty.

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 Henry, you mention Mel Blanc’s characters on the Benny radio and TV program, that’s interesting. Only some of Blanc’s vocal inventions were ethnic characters (I am thinking Polly the Parrot, Carmichael the Bear, the Maxwell’s sputtering engine, the train announcer sending people to Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga, the English race horse, etc.). Other characters, however, had strong ethnic identity. Professor Le Blanc the violin teacher shared Jack’s whiteness. However, the Mexican character Mel played, who answered only “Si, Sigh, Sew, and Sue” to Jack’s queries about his family and occupation, have garnered substantial criticism in the years since the skits were aired for their ugly stereotyping (similar to Blanc’s voicing of the Speedy Gonzales in Warner Bros. cartoons of the same era. 

 Snyder, Robert W. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York

 

Pearse, Holly A. “As Goyish as Lime Jell-O? Jack Benny and the American Construction of Jewishness” Jewish Cultural Studies (2008) 272-290,