Storytelling for Media Justice: Interview with Brad Simpson, the Burden of Truth creator

Interview with Brad Simpson, creator, writer, and producer of Burden of Truth, in Toronto, conducted by Pauline Greenhill and Heidi Kosonen over Zoom and audiorecorded, July 2, 2021, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Transcription by Maria Mikaela Biteng Castro, edited by HK and PG.

Pauline Greenhill: Please tell us anything you would like to share about your personal and educational background especially with respect to media making, but specifically related to Burden of Truth.

Brad Simpson: I did an undergraduate degree in Film and Drama at Queen’s University, Ontario, in the Stage and Screen Program with a focus on playwriting and screenwriting and then I did a Juris Doctorate of Law at Brooklyn Law School in the United States and passed the New York bar exam. And then I completed the Canadian equivalency law degree at the University of Ottawa and wrote the Ontario bar. I articled,[1] but that was really the end of my legal career. It was very clear after a year on Bay Street in Toronto[2] that it wasn’t for me.

Pauline: I hear you.

Brad: I really liked law school. It was very engaging and lively, but I knew legal practice wasn’t going to be like that, but I really enjoyed those three years and I liked studying the law. I mean I love writing about it, because I find it really fascinating.  But once I was hired at a law firm, I was miscast as a corporate lawyer. I just went to the firm with the best offer because I was in my 20s and I was lured by the promise of success at a big law firm and I was not really sure what I wanted to do. I think there was probably an area of law that I might’ve enjoyed, but it was not corporate and securities law. That was not it, you know. I think I was voted “the associate most likely to quit and write a legal drama.” I think it was very clear. I wrote a feature film script while I was articling. I was supposed to be working, but that’s just clearly what I wanted to do.

Pauline: How did you get into media-making, other than writing a script while you were articling?

Brad: I would say it was a lot of writing scripts, particularly bad ones, early on. But actually, my father was a film producer, so I grew up in the film business. I feel like if that’s how you’re raised, it’s hard to work in any other job because it’s so alluring and it seems so much fun. He just loved his job and he loved doing it. So as soon as I became a lawyer I was like “this is just not interesting enough.” So that’s how I got introduced to the business. It’s all I ever saw growing up and it’s all we talked about in our house, so I think it was just inevitable. But then it takes a long time, especially in the craft of writing. I think there are different ways to get in the business faster, but writing is really hard. Even bad writing is really hard, so it does take a long time to get that craft and then work your way up.

Pauline: So how long did it take you? When did you move out of being in the law business and then move into media?

Brad: I wasn’t in a hurry. My wife and I moved to Mexico. I wrote a lot there. There were no distractions. It was such a great place to really get started. We lived there for three years and then we had a family, and because she was teaching I raised our daughter. So I was having a meandering experience getting into the business. We moved back to Canada when I got a deal to write a pilot for one of the networks. It didn’t get ordered, but it was clear I couldn’t live in Mexico and be a TV writer.  I set myself a goal on my first show as a staff writer. I was hoping within five years to get a show ordered that was mine, and I set myself a goal for ten years to be a showrunner and that felt realistic. And Burden came about five years later.

Pauline: So tell us about your interest in crime- and justice-related media.

Brad: Crime and justice have just the natural stakes for writing. My dad loved film noir. He showed me lots of great old movies and it was just something I was drawn to, but I think it’s just the natural stakes of drama of writing. It’s very clear for the audience what the situation is, and I think it’s why we’re all a little bit drawn to it. It’s just very natural for storytelling.

Pauline: What makes crime and justice a good subject for you as a media creator?

Brad: For me I think there’s a few parts to it. I love the David and Goliath of it. I love the underdog, and in particular being able to portray the legal system the way I saw it, which in my brief experience was that it was so impenetrable for people without resources and without an incredible lawyer. Every time we would read about a big civil case, it would take 20 years for any resolution. A lifetime would pass. And so, the idea of justice seemed to be so unachievable for the average person and then so easily found for people with wealth and privilege. I remember getting into corporate law class and reading the New York State Corporate Law Statutes and it was just very clear to me: this is a license to steal. It felt like “oh these are the rules and it’s so rigged.” And I remember my classmates just feeling fine with it all, because they knew they were going to be on the winning side. I think that’s what drew me to corporate law. I felt like someone has to get in there and learn all the tricks to warn people about it, because it just felt so impossible to succeed if you weren’t born to wealth. And I think that’s what’s always attracted me to it.

Pauline: And hence perhaps the extensive corporate law content in Burden, of uncovering aspects that people who are not familiar with law might not know about corporate law and how it works.

Brad: Yeah! I think what I learned going into that law firm experience was that our job was to defend assets. No matter what area of law you are in at a big firm, the goal is the same. When you’re an articling student you rotate through all of the firm’s practice groups and I was very excited to get to environmental law, because it was an area of interest and I got there and I realized “we’re defending the polluters.” Of course we are! Because the other people – the ones affected by the pollution – can’t afford us. And so you’re always looking for a way to make sure your clients maintain what they have. There’s a line in the pilot of Burden when Billy says to Joanna “you know you’re the bad guy”. That’s just how I felt. So I ended up writing stories about that feeling. And I know that I could have gone out and joined the other side as a lawyer, but I just don’t think I was a good enough attorney. I wish I had been Joanna Chang, but I wasn’t. So I was like, “oh I’ll create a fictional lawyer who could do all of that.” That seemed easier to me as a way to fight against a system.

Pauline: What would be your idea of justice?

Brad: That’s a very hard question, and also such a great question. I feel like for me justice is having a chance or an opportunity to be heard, to be listened to on a reasonable timeline, to have reasonable access to counsel and chance to tell your story. The Charter gives us important legal rights, but as the years go by those protections have eroded in practice. Like the right to counsel has become you get a person, he or she may not be very good, but you get a warm body sitting beside you. That wasn’t the intention of the right to counsel. And so, I think we had some clear ideas about what these legal rights were, but no one’s checking up on whether we’re actually offering any of those protections in practice. People are in detention for years waiting for trial, so many plead guilty because it’s faster. That’s not justice. So, for me I think justice is about an opportunity to have someone hear your story.

Pauline: And how does your idea of justice fit with your ideas of media creation?

Brad: I think it’s a similar problem. Most of the TV shows that we’ve watched, they’re not unlike the lawyers defending the assets. Most of them work towards bolstering that system. They’re going to make you feel that there’s justice, because at the end of the hour the bad person gets caught and only the guilty get convicted. Like the way TV teaches us about the way police do their jobs. I’ve written on a couple of police dramas. They’re really fun to write, but I’ve looked back at some of the harm we’ve, at times, caused by portraying police officers or the legal justice system as efficient and functional. You know in Law and Order they find justice at the 47 minute mark at the last commercial break. And we’ve all been watching for years with an uncritical eye, but those ideas seep in.

Making a television show is such a huge financial endeavour. You need so many people, you need so much money, people just can’t just make it themselves. They could write a book or a short story, but to make something this big and have it on the air, there’s so many people who need to be involved and so many big companies. At every stage, you’re negotiating, particularly with the big companies, whether you’re going to challenge or enhance the system. For a show like Burden I feel like we snuck through the cracks and no one said we couldn’t write a show that took the system on directly. I did feel the whole time like I couldn’t believe we were addressing the issues we were addressing and a corporate master wasn’t telling us to make changes. I was very grateful to be on the CBC.

Pauline: So it was pitched directly to CBC? Can you tell me a little bit about the whole process of getting involved with Burden, with the story, with your concept? How did it come about and what was your initial idea?

Brad: My agent was always pushing me to pitch a legal drama because of my background. So I had pitched several different takes on a legal show. We hadn’t made a legal drama in 20 years or something on Canadian TV. The networks were always concerned about the distinct Canadian elements –  the court room, the robes, the flag, hurting international sales. In a police drama you could hide it better. That was the theory, that you couldn’t hide it’s Canadian-ness. The first question was always – “what will you do about the robes?” So I kept trying to figure out a way to pitch a legal drama where we didn’t have to go into court. I was hoping to do a bait and switch or something. Sell them on no court and then convince them to do court later. My theory was we should just wear the robes, they look amazing. We should put a Canadian flag. I’ve always been the person in the writers’ room who’s asking “why are we pretending this isn’t Canada?” That’s what I like when I watch a show. I want to know where it’s from. I want to know if it’s an Australian show or if it’s a show from France. I want to know the specificity of it.

So I was trying to figure out a way to have the lawyer as an investigator cracking the case. And Broadchurch had just come out so everyone was pitching full season serialized murder stories. But I was tired of series that open with a dead kid or a dead woman. So I thought what if they were just sick? Could we create the narrative drive with a whodunit mystery over a legal case? One case a season? And that was where it started. And then I had this case in my research I could never let go. It was this mysterious illness in Leroy, New York, about 2006. Some teenage girls had developed mysterious twitches. It was this crazy story on Good Morning America. And I had researched it at the time. They never really came up with a definitive solution for it. But one theory was that there had been a train derailment years before and toxic chemicals had spilled into a river that ran down to the girls’ sports field. And I thought “I don’t care if that’s the reason, but that should be the reason.” The environmental angle was dismissed quickly because it was so hard to create the causal connection between the spill and the harm, so I used that in the show pitch. The show became about the dilemma in law of proving cause and effect, and what if that lawyer was also looking into her own life, trying to figure out how she got to where she was in life – and trying to determine the causal connections in her own life, and I put the personal and procedural stories together – with the toxic secrets of the past bubbling to the surface in both. The main character tries to solve the case and tries to solve herself in Season 1.

When those elements came together I felt like “all the pieces are fitting.” I pitched it to eOne and they really liked it and they put it in development. Development can be slow, but then Kristin Kreuk came on board. They asked her to look through a pile of projects they had in development, to see if any of them interested her, and she picked this one out. She said “I like this one. I like this character, I like this story, I want to attach myself to it.” That was such a huge boost for the project. We still had to pitch it to the networks, but it changed everything, because she has a built-in audience, she brings credibility. She came to all the pitches with us and spoke to the reason she liked the show and the character and I think it helped them picture the show. It changed the project forever. We were very lucky.

Pauline: Wow. I’m interested to what extent your original vision of Burden had extensive participation by Indigenous actors, extensive attention to Indigenous issues. Was that something that was there right from the beginning or was it something that came later?

Brad: The first pitch has the character of Luna Spence and in the pitch she’s Indigenous. I would say that where we went with the Indigenous stories in Burden was something I wished for and wanted, but wasn’t really prepared to reveal, at the time. I certainly couldn’t have pitched or promised that as a white creator and writer, but it was something I wanted. When I was researching the story, I kept coming back to Grassy Narrows. I read a lot about it and about the legal challenges they’ve had getting compensation. It was exactly what I wanted to write about. But the Grassy Narrows case is so clear; there’s a factory that used mercury and there’s mercury poisoning. I couldn’t build a mystery out of Grassy Narrows. I needed a harder case to crack. But every time I considered any of the potential season-long legal cases (and I already had in my head the Season 3 child and family services and Season 2 where a character is wrongfully accused of murder), it was just very clear Indigenous people were overrepresented and disproportionally harmed. So I felt it was really hard to do the series without speaking to that, but I didn’t want to scare the networks or producers off because I still wasn’t sure, and they weren’t sure about me and what my approach to it would be. I guess the other part of it was, I was never sure if the show would actually get made, because I didn’t know if you ever, as a Canadian creator, can be confident about that, because we make so few shows in this country. Often, when we write a pilot script or pitch a series, it’s just a networking opportunity. But I did think “well I’ll investigate the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in all of these legal issues, and I’ll learn about it.” I felt like I needed to know more. I felt a duty to be more active and informed as a citizen, but to make a difference at all, I only have a few skills to offer to positively contribute to the cause, and writing television is the only thing I feel like I’m really good at. So, I thought if I include this character I’ll learn about it, I’ll know about it, and then maybe we could build on it, and maybe we could get to ultimately where we did.

The original plan/pitch was set in Nova Scotia, because I had been out on the east coast and I was in a town, where I saw a train tracks running behind a school, and some heavy industry and I thought “Oh this could work! All the pieces could work in a place like this. This is really beautiful.” And then, after CBC ordered the show, the producers went and shopped around for the best place to shoot for the budget. I never thought we’d end up in Manitoba. It wasn’t on my radar at all. But what a gift it was! What an opportunity. It changed everything because it opened the door to all of the things we wanted to explore. I’m not sure the show would’ve developed the same way anywhere else.

Pauline: I just reread an interview with Meegwun Fairbrother and he had mentioned that originally his character was supposed to be a bad guy. And he was certainly one of the characters that I identified as potentially not initially having to be an Indigenous person.

Brad: Yeah, he was not originally. And actually he was two characters initially: Billy’s best friend Owen, and then there was Officer Beckbie, who was a bit shady. One of things that happens early in a writers’ room is you have to make the world smaller, tighten the elements because you can’t have a big cast, just for budget. And you want people in your world to have more than one relationship and to do several things. So you’re more efficient with your characters. So, he was Billy’s friend, but we had this other character who used to date Luna’s mom, so Luna was kind of his stepdaughter for a while and he longed for that relationship. So yeah, we did end up combining them. But it actually started when Meegwun went to a costume fitting and the costume designer was amazed by how nice his eyes were and said “This guy can’t be a bad guy.” Meegwun has played a bad guy before and I think he could’ve played it really well in Burden, but he was too big an asset so we did tweak the Owen character. We ended up with an Indigenous police officer trying to make it in the colonial system, which gave us so much story and character. We ended up creating a new shady cop who was played by Paul Braunstein.  The other thing that developed in the writers’ room was when we started to explore Luna’s life, we created a family and characters. Luna’s mum’s, Gerrilyn Spence, wasn’t specifically in the pitch document – only that Luna’s mother had been the victim of a crime. So, we got to create that character and that took us to an extended family and to a Reserve.

Pauline: So, you told me Burden was not originally meant to be shot in Winnipeg and Selkirk. But having become Winnipeg and Selkirk as Millwood, things moved into a new direction?

Brad: If I go back and read the original pilot, the biggest thing that’s missing is the town has no identity, because you don’t know where you’re going to be shooting when you’re writing. I’ve never lived in a small town so the pilot also wasn’t very grounded. It was definitely a city kid’s idea of a small town. We flew out to Manitoba to meet the Eagle Vision group and they took us on a location scout. When we went to Selkirk, I just remember getting out of the van and looking around and feeling like “Oh Millwood. Let’s write this, let’s just make it this, now we have a place.” It’s not exactly what Selkirk is, but it’s a prairie town, and making Millwood a prairie town made so much sense. So yeah, I think a huge part of Burden’s development took place after we got to Manitoba.

Pauline: What was it like working with so many Indigenous creators, producers, writers, and actors? What was that experience like for you? Was it what you expected? Not what you expected?

Brad: It was both. And it was better than I could have ever imagined and it has changed the way I look at everything.  In Season 1 we had one Indigenous writer, Shannon Masters, in our writers’ room. That was the way rooms were built at the time. We had one Indigenous character in the pitch, so we hired one Indigenous writer. As the Indigenous content grew, and the number of characters grew, it was just clear that one wasn’t enough. We were getting Shannon’s perspective, but then as a writer, she’s in the writers’ room trying to write scripts, and pitch stories, and do her job, and also has to represent all Indigenous people and all of the different opinions and voices. It’s a uniquely unfair situation. But one of the challenges is writers’ rooms are small because we don’t have a lot of money. But it’s also hard to have a bigger writers’ room because it’s not efficient. The bigger the writers’ room gets, the harder it is to manage the group. Everyone needs to pitch an idea and everyone has notes, so a smaller room is more nimble, but then you end up with not as many voices. There are no easy solutions. So, as we went on to the next season, we brought in more voices, because it wasn’t fair to Shannon. So then we just added every year —I mean the writers’ room experience on Burden was pretty life-changing for me. To be able to sit and discuss those issues, to talk, to learn.

I had lived for decades in Toronto and never met an Indigenous person. Or well, like Meegwun told me, “You have. They just didn’t tell you they were.”  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t have any personal relationships, and I felt like there’s a huge hole in my life experience and my knowledge of the land and the history. I’m a voracious media news consumer, but that wasn’t enough anymore. I read novels by Indigenous writers, but I was craving human experience and friendship. I guess. So personally, it’s been totally life-changing, and for my family too. My kids came to Winnipeg to visit set and they went back to their schools with their perspective on this country’s history changed forever. They’re now fierce allies and advocates. I don’t think that would have happened if they had learned from a textbook like I did.

You have to sit with someone and hear their stories and create a personal connection. It’s those personal relationships that I found through the show that made me feel like it’s an honour to write this show, but I was not obligated to make sure it was done right. And I felt like this is a unique experience, one that most people don’t get, so I’d better not mess it up. I felt honoured to be trusted with these stories, so I worked to make sure I didn’t let anyone down. I’m so proud that we have been able to create a writers’ room where writers share those stories about their families and about their experiences. I hope we get to a time when it doesn’t feel like the Indigenous writers need to spend 20% of their day educating the other writers. That we do that education ourselves, and then can just start the day creating television.

Pauline: I know that historically the excuse for not hiring Indigenous actors and people of colour actors is “well they don’t have enough experience.” So, because they don’t have enough experience, they don’t get more experience, it’s a vicious circle. We talked with Rebecca Gibson and she was talking about bringing in actors who don’t necessarily have a whole lot of background. They’re not the most seasoned, they’re not Kristin Kreuk for example. I don’t know how much you were involved in that kind of process, but I wonder how that feels for somebody in your position who’s creating a show. Was that a concern? Is it an issue? How did it work out?

Brad: It’s always a concern when you bring in a person without a lot of experience, especially for big parts because so much is at stake, but that can’t be an excuse not to cast Indigenous actors for Indigenous roles. We used a lot of very inexperienced Indigenous actors over the four seasons and what I learned was that I’ll take authenticity over experience any day and that the writers – and the rest of the production – has ways to make sure they succeed. I think two good examples are two of our young leads Star Slade and Anwen O’Driscoll. They were both very young when they came onto Burden. Anwen had a lot more stage experience, but in the original pilot, the character of Taylor had almost no part whatsoever. She had a couple of lines, but Anwen was very advanced in her craft after years on stage, so we wrote her another scene, and then we gave her a few more things, and then we created this entire storyline for her character. It allowed us a lot of freedom and flexibility with our stories and her experience did give some comfort to the producers and networks.

Star Slade wasn’t as experienced, but in the audition, she was just so clearly the perfect Luna. I’ve never been more sure of any casting choice before. I didn’t make the casting decision, but the producer felt the same way. When Star came to set to shoot her first scene, she was very nervous. Luckily, in that scene, she had to be nervous, because she was hiding a secret. I knew that she had to succeed for the show to succeed, particularly with the storyline planned for Season 2, so if there was a line that was too wordy or didn’t feel right, I just reworked it to something she was more comfortable with. The words weren’t as important as the story. There were early scripts where she had lots of dialogue, so we reworked them and let other actors carry the scene, like Kristin, Peter or Meegwun. We knew that on camera she just sparkled, like there was just an incredible raw energy, she just needed a chance to get comfortable on set, with the crew and the character. Maybe when I was younger, I may have been more precious about the writing, but you can leave young actors vulnerable.

It didn’t take Star long to get comfortable, but it was a good lesson for writers – rewrite to make your actors successful. Everyone’s on the same team. Also Rebecca (Gibson) was so amazing with them. She gave them acting lessons and supported them. Everyone on the crew did their best to make sure all those young actors could succeed.

Pauline: And it definitely worked.

Brad: Yeah, they were remarkable! And it’s amazing they had just turned 18 the first season. Unless you’ve seen it, you have no idea how hard that job is for a young person. There are so many things to learn and so much pressure. We just got so lucky. In all of the casting decisions. A lot of the success of a show is how good the cast is. All credit to our casting director and producer – this show was so well cast. Hopefully, experience won’t be an excuse not to cast people anymore. There are a lot more newly experienced young Indigenous actors actor now after Burden.

Pauline: Definitely. I certainly see some movement from Season 1 to Season 2 and Season 3, in particular looking at Indigenous issues and class issues. So you said that originally you had planned on having Luna be the focal character for Season 2 but I’m wondering about that kind of movement to really be looking at Indigenous issues and class issues that happened in in Season 3. Looking at custody and systemic racism and systemic classism and so forth. Was that something that kind of grew out of what you had already been working with? Or was that in your mind when you originally thought of it?

Brad: Yeah! I did have 4 seasons planned which I never said out loud because it just felt so bold. I only pitched two seasons to the CBC, but I pitched them the idea that the show could keep going each year by taking a case from the headlines to remain timely and topical. But I also felt like I couldn’t pitch systemic racism to the CBC. It feels, now, like people are comfortable or aware of that term in a way they weren’t four years ago. Then it didn’t necessarily feel like good drama to write about the system. The Wire is a show about the system, and it’s very successful, but I don’t think they would’ve picked our show if it wasn’t rooted in a personal story. So, we were very careful, talking about those things. But we certainly felt those things and we talked about those ideas in the room. They were just underneath the story in Season 1, but as we went on and got bolder, we started putting more of it in the show.

There was a big discussion in Season 1 about where we were going with the toxic dump story and originally we were going to find that there was a bigger toxic dump at our fictional Reserve, Long Grass. That felt truthful to us, because those communities often take the brunt of the harm. But we ran out of episodes and couldn’t make it work. A lot happened in Season 1, as we were launching the show and it wasn’t as well planned as we would have liked. A lot of it was just survival. If I had one wish about the show, it would be to make Season 1 again with what I know now after making four seasons of television.

Anyway, we had to break a promise to Shannon about turning the story back to the reserve. So Season 1 was supposed to have a slightly stronger Indigenous storyline. When we started to plan for Season 2 we wanted to repay that debt by telling more stories. We knew we wanted to write about racism in the legal system, but we also wanted to show more positive and smaller, personal stories.  At the end of Season 1, Luna goes off to Montreal to school and my instinct was that being on campus hardened her politics and opened her eyes to things that Millwood had shielded her from. I saw a documentary on the Bear Clan and we thought that was a perfect thing for Luna to get involved in. The writers, producers and some actors went on Bear Clan walks to learn about what they do and we met all these amazing and dedicated people, and we decided to put them in the show.

I think Seasons 2, 3, and 4 also reflect the personal experiences of the writers who came out to Manitoba, the influence of going and meeting people in the city, and being on set and hearing stories from crew and actors and incorporating them. Meegwun came in the writers’ room in Season 2 and consulted for us, and we were just exploring what we were learning about. And I think we were all very excited to learn about it and to collaborate.

Pauline: We’re interested in the inclusion of Indigenous people. How skittish are mainstream companies—even CBC—about creating content about Black, Indigenous, people of colour, and including actors who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour? The presumption tends to be that our biggest audience is white people, and white people only want to watch other white people, and only care about white people problems—whatever white content might be, who knows? And so, if we create a show that has so many Indigenous characters, that has so much Indigenous content, white people won’t watch it, and those are the audience that we’re looking for. I’m wondering if you ever explicitly encountered that, if it was sort of in the background, if it was ever a concern or an issue? Or once you proved that you could do it, they gave you your head and “Go ahead and do that”?

Brad: I think we waited to test the waters a little bit to see how far they were willing to go. CBC never said no to anything, and they were very positive about our show, and the Indigenous characters. But we didn’t fall into the category of a show that was about any group in particular. We weren’t an Indigenous show, but we also weren’t a white show. Of our six or seven main actors only Peter and Anwen are white. But I was aware of the presumption about white audiences and I had a strategy to address it that I picked up on a show years ago. I was on a police drama and a junior writer wanted to write an episode about a mother and daughter and she wanted them to be Indigenous, but she never wanted to make any reference to it. I think she felt TV shows and white writers were always pointing out things to get credit for using non-white actors, which was probably true.  And so, I pitched that approach to Shannon when we started, and she loved it. We decided we were just going to start our show and we weren’t going to say anything about who Luna is, or Owen. We were just going to let them be in our world and let the audience understand them as people first. The first time there’s any mention is they go to a Reserve in Episode 4. For almost all of Season 1, it’s just a story about people. Then in Season 2, we felt like Luna’s identity is imposed upon her by the legal system. She’s picked out of a line up or there’s an eyewitness report of an Indigenous woman and she simply fits that description. And that’s the first time our show says “Oh, you know, she’s Indigenous.” Before it’s just Luna, and her mom, and this nice police officer, but we never wanted to say what we were doing. I’m not sure it was consciously to sneak past white audiences, but if you look at the promotional material for the show, there’s no mention of anything Indigenous. Maybe we were wrong to be nervous about it. At least among my friends, it was the part of the show they loved the most.

I never felt like we couldn’t tell a story with so many Indigenous characters, but I wanted to make sure we didn’t get stopped for whatever reason. I was nervous they were going to cut the Luna storyline. It seems crazy now, but I was waiting for someone to question it, the Luna character, all through the development process. Because I’ve seen the way casting used to be done. If a character was written as Asian-Canadian, then they could easily end up casting a Black actor with the idea being “well, you know, it’s a non-white character.” As if there wasn’t a difference. So I learned to write very specific characters descriptions. That was what we learned as writers, write really specifically, because you’re not in control of the casting, someone above you is just going to get an idea, or they’re not going to listen to what you say unless they have to. So we tried to be as specific as possible. And we always say to our writers “if you have a vision, write it in. Don’t be vague, because then you could lose. And put it in the DNA of the character, by putting facts in the dialogue. Make it undeniable that that person is who you want them to be, or you’re at the whim of others, because writers just don’t have that kind of power.”

Pauline: This is, I have to say, such a great answer, because we’ve been working through all of these issues and looking particularly at American TV’s notion of so called “colour-blind casting.” Do you just create any old character and then put any old person and does it really matter what they look like? The sort of Bridgerton effect. Or, you know, how do you actually create characters when you put someone on the screen and they don’t look white, but everything else about them is absolutely culturally similar to myself or to Heidi or to yourself? There’s a problem! And this is a really interesting perspective to bring us in to how you actually do that. How do you avoid casting a Vietnamese person to play what’s supposed to be a Japanese character? Or how do you avoid having someone who is Mexican playing a person that you thought of as being an Indigenous character? Does it matter? How do you make that matter? And I really like your perspective on that. What about creating content that would be acceptable to an alleged mainstream audience?

Brad: Yeah. Like so much of our industry, casting has changed so much in the past few years. When we auditioned Lunas, we were sent several Latinx actors, because they could conceivably pass as Indigenous. That probably wouldn’t happen even a few years later. As for the mainstream audiences, I think they’re so hard to figure out and to understand. That’s definitely not my area of expertise. I do think workplace shows or shows where you can blend a cast are a safer choice for networks. It’s easier to build a diverse cast. As opposed to family dramas.

Pauline: And I think to a certain extent too their model is not necessarily what the world is right now.

Brad: The demographics of this country are a challenge for all us making content, because our population is so small anyway. Then, the percentage of each particular group is so low that unless there’s cross-over, there’s a question if they can sustain supporting an entire show. We haven’t had a show that’s proven the case. And I don’t think America provides any guidance, because it’s huge, the numbers aren’t even close or comparable. So there you can make a specific show for a specific audience and get big ratings and not even need a white audience, but in Canada you do. It’s still such a dominant number. 

Heidi Kosonen: From the perspective of international viewership, and international audiences, were there any particular challenges for gaining views with Canadian content? Or opportunities? You mentioned already that you wanted it to be explicit that Burden is situated in Canada, in comparison, for instance, to Schitt’s Creek, which pretends to be situated in New York.

Brad: Well, I loved what’s happened to our show thanks to Kristin having such a huge audience internationally. Smallville was so big, and she has so many fans all around the world. But I just thought of myself as an audience member and what I like about a show. When I watch a show, and I watch a lot of international television, I am very happy when there’s a local reference that I miss. I’ll just look it up. If they make a reference to someone as the mayor of some town or a local historical event, I’m going to learn about it. So, I just thought, “let’s be as specific as possible about where we are. Let’s mention the local minor league baseball team. Let’s talk about Canadian law and geography. Let’s make it exactly about where we are and not make it general. Let’s just send it out and test that theory.”

I felt like everyone else in the world does that except Canada, because historically our biggest sale is to America and we’re so afraid of Americans feeling something is Canadian, that we try to make it American and don’t succeed very well. And so, it’s the worst of both worlds. And because I had some measure of creative control, I just wanted to test that theory, that people like to hear about specific things. I love being rooted in a place. I love a show that shows me something I’ve never seen before; a part of the world I’ve never seen. And I couldn’t imagine a European show pretending to be American, pretending they aren’t where they are. An Australian show would never do what Canadian shows do. So I felt like we were in this unique position because we were making a show outside Toronto and our specificity was going to be special to Canadian audiences too. We could test the theory that it harmed international sales. I was pretty sure people were wrong about that, even the experts in international sales. And I do think more shows are doing it. I don’t know the sales numbers, but it feels like we’re selling well internationally, not just our show but all the CBC shows and all the other Canadian shows. Specificity is everything, I think, in drama.

Heidi: What are the main challenges in creating content that fosters change in terms of gender parity, accessibility, and Indigenous peoples’ inclusion?

Brad: Well I think historically the biggest challenge is who has creative influence in the room. Who has the power to make choices? Who creates your cast of characters? Who do you give the best lines to? Who are your guest stars and so forth? I’ve worked for a lot of different showrunners, and I’ve seen different levels of importance they put on the need for a show in making change. I think for me it was about just finding a balance, or a way of telling the best story and doing our best to fulfill the promise of the show and of positive representation, while still creating the best drama we could. We’re always balancing what’s the best story and what’s the right thing to do. Sometimes those things are at odds and our job is to write the best show we can.

And I think it’s probably the thing we argued most about in the writers’ room. How do you have a positive portrayal when, in drama, mostly we’re watching people who are worse than us, or people who are in conflict? It can’t just be showing people being good people. We need to have some bad people, and we need to have bad things happen to good people. Drama is conflict. So I think it’s a constant challenge. Our biggest argument is Season 1 was whether Millwood was a homophobic town, and what Molly’s and Luna’s experience was as couple. We had two writers who had similar experiences and they were on opposing sides. And so, we debated, what has it been like for Molly and Luna? Do we want Millwood to be that kind of place where they are free to be in a couple and be out? Or were things yelled at them from a truck window? Were they afraid to hold hands? The argument was, do we want to show the harder experience, which makes for better drama, or do we want to show the more accepting one that was more hopeful. Do we want to be aspirational, or do we want to be representational? And do we want a part of the drama of our show to leverage the trauma some people face growing up, or do we want to show to young queer teens this is what it could be like? We went with somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the positive, and we felt that was right for our show. There wasn’t an appetite in our room to give a voice to homophobia, but we feel like there’s an undercurrent in Millwood. Maybe Luna and Molly pick their spots to be publicly affectionate, but we knew among their friends they were out, they’re in love, they kiss at school. I would say in Season 1 that was the one question we wrestled with the most.

Heidi: I’m glad that you mention the battle between the positive and the negative representation, because I loved in Burden that its take on the world is so positive. Like this story between Luna and Molly happens! And that these positive representations happen in so many intersections. Did this diversity come from the writers’ room? Or did it already exist in the pitch?

Brad: Some of it existed in the pitch, but we definitely built it in the writers’ room. We talked about representation a lot in the writers’ room. Everyone saw this show as a chance to do better.  On the topic of Molly, we put put Molly and Luna together in the early days of the writers’ room. Molly’s sexuality wasn’t in the pitch. A senior writer on our team told me that whenever she gets on a show, she looks for the character “who is gay but doesn’t know it.” When she came aboard the show, she read the documents and said “Molly’s gay”.  I loved it. What an amazing gift. That’s why I love writers. Someone like me probably would never have seen that in Molly, but when you have key influential decision makers who are not straight white men you get different and more inclusive creative results. It’s hard to imagine the show without it.

Heidi: How was finding Indigenous actors in an industry that we know mainly promotes white actors and their careers. How was it in Burden of Truth?

Brad: In the beginning, you had to push the casting directors to send you only Indigenous actors. And then we also started looking beyond the actors who were auditioning. At the same time, the casting directors started to push themselves to look elsewhere, too. We let casting know we were going to need a lot of Indigenous actors. With procedural shows, they might do one episode with Indigenous characters, so a show would only need a couple of actors for a season, and only for a day or two. But we were asking for new faces every season and in big roles. We challenged them to look at people they hadn’t looked at before, or to look for people who were just entering the business, or who were thinking about trying acting. There’s a lot of talent out there, but getting into the auditioning process isn’t easy, so it’s important to try to go and find them. A lot of our cast of our cast came through Toronto, but then in Season 4 with COVID no one could travel, so it was like “OK every actor we haven’t used in Manitoba, we need you to step up.” And we got amazing people. One of our writers and directors Madison Thomas is really tied into the young Indigenous arts community in Winnipeg and she brought us Victoria Turko, who played Dee in Season 4, which was another pivotal role for an inexperienced actor. She did an amazing job in difficult circumstances.

Pauline: Is there anything else you’d like to say about how Burden relates to your idea of justice?

Brad: Well, every season I pick the overall case. I look for a mystery, a power imbalance – a situation where someone’s found themselves in trouble and needs the best lawyer ever to get them out of it. And I worry sometimes about the things that we’ve portrayed, because the reality is it’s unlikely that in any of our four seasons that our plaintiffs would have found justice. In Season 1, the company would have strung out litigation until the girls gave up or went broke. It would have been years before they even got a hearing about an environmental spill. In Season 2, on the facts as we presented them, Luna would definitely have been convicted. Without her sister lying on the stand, destroying evidence, and concocting some ingenious plan to get a confession out of the real killer, Luna is going to jail for twenty-five years. Season 3 is based on the Motherisk case at SickKids (The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto) – a case I’ve wanted to write about for so long, but in that case the kids never came home. Almost none of the kids were ever reunited with their birth parents. And the parents were denied a class action at the Court of Appeals, and so they’re all now required to sue on their own. It was nothing like the ending we gave the character Kodie Chartrand and her kids. And then, in Season 4, the likelihood of victims of sex trafficking suing a mining company for civil damages is hopeful but not likely. That case was the one that was most aspirational for me, because it wasn’t based on a real case, but a legal approach I offered in a law school discussion.  In theory it should work. But again, it just feels like so unlikely, given the realities of the legal system. So I feel, at times, guilty of presenting easily won justice, because I know the truth is that most of the time David loses to Goliath. But this isn’t reality. This is a TV show, so we have to be mindful of our job. But that’s the nature of storytelling.

There was an argument about having the girls lose in Season 1. When I came to write the finale, we considered it strongly. But I wasn’t prepared to serve that ending up to an audience without the promise of something after and we didn’t know if we were getting another season. If the network had said “You’re getting four seasons. Write the show you want to write” then I think it would have been a different show, because we might have had the confidence to say: the girls get nothing, Luna gets convicted, and the next season they might get her out on something. But you write the happy finale because you want to get another season. You’re also afraid you’re not going to get another season, so every year you have to write an episode that feels like a series finale. Like the finale of Season 1, I thought that was it for us, so Joanna wins, she changes her name, disappears, and starts a new life, and has learned something about herself. I was happy with that as a complete story. I felt I could live with that as a finale. And so, each season writing the final episode is finding a finale I could live with but hinting at ways we could do it again. Until the final season, when we decided to end the show. There were several reasons, but mostly, the Joanna character arc felt complete. We were out of turns for Joanna and Billy too. The only way is to break up a couple, which didn’t really work for me as idea. I wanted to leave them all happy. Or happier than they were.

Pauline: Your viewers would be very unhappy with you if you did something like that.

Brad: Yeah! And it’s something Kristin and I discussed often – and sorry but this is real inside TV talk – but she has always been on shows with love triangles, and we decided early not to have any of them. It was a promise I made to her, which was Billy would never come between her and some other attorney. We never wanted to do that. And those are the easy story crutches that shows use to get six seasons of something, you know? But if you’re invested in two people, there’s only so many turns you could do before you start to degrade what that relationship means. And so we were careful, thinking what can we get away with. And we thought having a baby is really hard, and it creates enough tension and conflict. We wanted to push Billy and Joanna. The showrunner of Friday Night Lights said to the main couple: “You are never going to break up. There’s never going to be a divorce but, in that, we’re going to find as much conflict as we can so we’ll test this marriage to its limit, but we’ll never break it.” And that’s what we wanted to do the second Joanna and Billy were a couple.

Pauline: Any particularly memorable moments in creating Burden?

Brad: One day in Season 1, because of the way TV shows are shot, all the scenes for an entire day involved Jessica Matten as Gerrilyn, Star as Luna, and Meegwun as Owen. And we were on set, and I think it was Kyle Irving from Eagle Vision who noticed first—we’re a week or two into Burden—that the entire cast of the day was Indigenous. And, as I said, I didn’t set out to do it, but I know what that means. Or, it was clear what it meant to Eagle Vision and to all the people who work for Eagle Vision. That it was an important moment for our show. I wasn’t really expecting it, and it was an accomplishment that I didn’t necessarily set out to do. And it was this magical day of these three actors playing people, interacting, and not necessarily playing their traumas or being victims. They’re just people, and one is solving a mystery, one is trying to do his job, another is trying to be a good mom. And it wasn’t about the past, or politics. That was a joyous day.

And then another memorable moment was when we were shooting in the Exchange District, a camera operator was looking through the lens at the buildings and he stood up and said “I can’t believe we’re shooting Winnipeg for Winnipeg.” And he was smiling, and it was clear after years of pretending your home town is another city, it was so satisfying. We don’t understand, as Canadians, how good that feels, because we don’t do it enough. We’re starved of not seeing our stories. We didn’t grow up with that feeling so we don’t know it’s missing. I really think it’s hurt us as Canadians.  Toronto is always supposed to be New York, so we accept that our stories means less. And even though I’m not from Winnipeg, I found it a very easy place to fall in love with. I think it was just how much the crew all loved it, how much they loved living and working there, and I definitely got caught up in it. We were a Manitoba show, and I’m not from Manitoba, but I quickly became the most Manitoba guy. I loved putting that beautiful city on screen. And I loved finding something unique and local to put into it, because I love just feeding off how the crew felt about it. Everyone in Manitoba was responding so positively that we just went with it. One of the MLAs[3] came to set and all she wanted to do was talk about the show. Everyone was just loving what we were doing.

Pauline: And it also worked internationally. I recommended the show to colleagues and friends, particularly in the US. And they’re all blown away, happy, excited. People from lots of different locations really enjoyed it. It being available on Netflix has been really helpful.  And you sold to Finland and also on the CW and there’s a UK network that has it as well.

Brad: I think if I’m lucky enough to have another show I would maybe be more conscious of some of these things. In the beginning you’re just trying to get the scripts out and survive. You’re not thinking of the international audience.

Pauline:  So what is next for you then?

Brad: Well, next for me, back to the beginning. Try to develop another idea. Do it all again. I am also doing some collaborating. I would love to give someone else this experience. I had some amazing senior people help me find my way through, and learn the job, and it would be really exciting to help someone else’s story get there, too, particularly someone who hasn’t had a chance to tell their stories. In terms of representation and diversity, for me Burden set a standard that is now the bare minimum.  Ten years ago I was in an all-white, all-male writers’ room. And we were writing a show about a female police officer, which is so absurd now. It would never happen now for a lot of reasons, but creatively it wasn’t successful. I saw a scene from the show recently and it was clear it was written by a bunch of men, because she sounds like a guy. It isn’t authentic. I had to write the episode where she’s grieving over a miscarriage. It’s preposterous that someone like me would write that story. But no one was having those conversations then.

So, I mean, what I’ve seen change in the business in ten years, it seems glacial, but it’s really unrecognizable. And we’ll never ever see that again. You’ll never build a room like that again and our shows will be better for it.  And writers are better at understanding the topics they can write about and the characters they can write for. So I think I think there’s an admission or acceptance that there are things we don’t know and we shouldn’t write about.

But the other part I’d learned is the right people will come along. Putting Luna Spence in my pitch document was such a leap of faith, especially for a white writer, but if you include that character who is out of your comfort zone, you’re going to get Shannon Masters, and then you’re going to find Eagle Vision, and Madison Thomas, and those people will come along because it’s a collaborative medium. And so that is something that that would always be a part of anything I created again.

Pauline: Anything else that we should know about the show and you and your involvement in it?

Brad: Well, it was just a great example to me of how much representation matters. The response from a lot of different segments, for instance the response from people in Manitoba. People loved seeing their province and their city. Or the reports from people on the show about how their Indigenous families enjoyed watching it together, or the way Molly and Luna captured the queer audience in the first season. I think we undervalue its importance. For someone like me, I’m used to seeing myself presented in the media. And this stuff really matters. There’s a good reason why we should be doing it, and it’s not about bringing in audience numbers but the impact the show will have on certain audience members. That’s the most important thing, and I was so blown away by some of the responses on social media. I never thought that would happen. I’m so proud of it. And the things that people have said to me about the show, I could kind of just retire and be very proud of it.

We have a super fan who just lives for the show and has been one of our biggest supporters. I think the show spoke to her, because she saw some of her own struggles in the show. There were things she didn’t think other people felt or other people had gone through. She reached out to me to thank us for the show and I could tell her that most of those things that Joanna went through, I did too. It’s a work of fiction, but the issues our characters face – their struggles – those are all real, because they’re the same ones the people in the writers’ room are struggling with. As a writer, you have to be honest and put that stuff in to make the show real. It’s awkward sometimes to write that stuff and to send it out in the world, because the entire crew is watching you and probably thinking “Wow you have some daddy issues.” But if you don’t put that stuff in it, it doesn’t resonate the same way. It isn’t the truth, and ultimately drama is just a search for the truth.

Pauline: Thank you, Brad! I really, really appreciate you taking the time.


[1] Articling is a full-time supervised internship with a law firm, usually for one year, a necessary step after completing a law degree to being called to the bar and becoming a lawyer in Canada.

[2] Bay Street is the centre of Toronto’s main financial district and the location of the most prestigious law firms, especially those specialising in corporate and business law.

[3] Members of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba are elected representatives in the provincial government. 

Storytelling for Media Justice: Interview with Rebecca Gibson from Eagle Vision

Interview with Rebecca Gibson, Partner, Head of Development, and Executive Producer at Eagle Vision conducted by Heidi Kosonen and Pauline Greenhill, over Zoom and audiorecorded, April 14, 2021, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Transcription by Maria Mikaela Biteng Castro, edited by HK and PG.

Heidi: Hi Rebecca, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us! Eagle Vision’s website says that you’re committed to gender parity, inclusion, and accessibility, and also fostering change. Would you please tell us a bit more about these aims and how you’ve achieved them?

Rebecca: Okay, awesome! Well, Eagle Vision is celebrating just over 20 years since its founding by Lisa Meeches who is Anishinaabe, otherwise known as Ojibwe, from Long Plain First Nation. And I started very shortly after, joined as an artist collaborating with her on a show called Tipi Tales. Tipi Tales was the first mainstream kids’ show that included Indigenous culture. And it premiered on Treehouse, which is a major Canadian broadcaster for children’s content and also it was on APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) and also it played around the world. And on that show, they’re learning about the Seven Sacred Teachings, and each of the animals in Anishinaabe culture represents one of those sacred animals. And including me, who is not Indigenous, in the cast, was something that Lisa has always fundamentally believed in; that participation from all nations is needed for the world to be right.

We were led by Dave Courchene, who was an Elder who gave Eagle Vision its name and who continues to work with us. We work with elders and knowledge keepers on every one of Eagle Vision’s projects and at every stage to make sure we’re on the right path. I was not the only non-Indigenous person to participate in that show, but it was mostly Indigenous people in the cast. And there was a lot of Indigenous people on the crew, including people who hadn’t ever done that work before. If somebody comes to us and we do have an opportunity, we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that that person has the mentorship and support they need to not only succeed in the job that we are offering, but to help them with their future goals throughout their career.

So Tipi Tales was the start of that, and we did that show for three seasons and we had a lot of international accolades too, including the Parents’ Choice Gold Award, which we received twice, which is for all children’s television from all over the world. And throughout that, I was mentored. It wasn’t like they ever said “Parity is important, accessibility is important, inclusion is important, diversity on all levels is important,” it’s just how it works in Eagle Vision. I had no professional writing credits. I had been writing a lot, I had gone to film school, I had worked in production on several shows, and I had been an actor for a decade at that point, but they said, “You should be writing.” And so they gave me some episodes, along with some other people who had never written before. In fact, Jacquie Black, a writer I work with to this day, and now a director, also had her first professional writing credits on Tipi Tales. The energy was always there at Eagle Vision and it has continued for 20 years in many different ways.

Heidi: Giving chances to people.

Rebecca: Yes! One of the big excuses that our industry uses for not including people is “Well, they aren’t experienced.” But that’s never been a barrier to us. People will come to us and we’ll just get this little glimmer of “I think I can see how we can support or invite them to explore their gifts and their interests,” which is one of the seven sacred teachings, wisdom! And what I learned from Tipi Tales is wisdom is sharing your gifts and seeing your own gifts and seeing the gifts in others and inviting others to share their gifts as well.

Heidi: I absolutely love that.

Rebecca: But the sad thing is that people use it for racist memes now. And, even back in the day when we made that show, on the Treehouse website, people would go to the message boards on the TV show’s websites and the amount of racism that we saw was terrible. And I researched other shows as well, “Is Dora the Explorer getting this?” No. It was our show that was getting it, and it was from Canadian white mothers, who decided that they would basically online protest that this show should be taken down.

Heidi: Gosh! What would you describe the main challenges for getting gender parity and inclusion, accessibility, all your beautiful aims. Obviously reception, but what else in the industry?

Rebecca: There was a time when we had a sense of fear as our shows started to get bigger in budget, that our broadcasters wouldn’t approve of us hiring people who didn’t have the experience of others who were clearly capable and had a proven track record of delivering on a big budget show. There was a fear at all levels–with the directors, with writers, and with cast and with crew. There was always a fear that we wouldn’t be allowed to hire who we wanted to hire. And we always were going to be pushy about all the things that we believe in! It’s just so easy to us. We have seen it happen successfully so many times that we wouldn’t think twice about it, but convincing broadcasters we feared would be a challenge. And with APTN, it was incredible. In the first season of our show Taken, we had more than 50% female Indigenous writers, directors, and editors. And many of those women had never written for television before, never directed for television before, never edited for television before.

We were nominated for a Canadian screen award, for the Barbara Sears award for the best editorial research, and none of the research team had ever done that job before. Oof! Some of this is going to get me a little emotional [laughs]! And APTN didn’t question it even once. At that time, when we started, it was funny because I think about six years ago that we started to produce that show and nobody was talking about gender parity or accessibility in the media in the industry. And so it was just something that was important to us, it just felt like, I don’t know, because we go in ceremony, we hear answers to things we didn’t even ask, and so that made sense.

And then it was shortly after that that we started to do Burden of Truth, and that was a much, much bigger show! Taken was a big show for us, but Burden of Truth was 20 times the size of Taken! And we hadn’t created that content, and we were partnered with ICF and with CBC and with Entertainment One (eOne) who were already involved. And so at first we didn’t push our luck. But by season 3, and they had three Indigenous writers in the room, and they had had an Indigenous writer in the room prior to that, and they had somebody who was shadowing. That was a bit of a hard sell, because when you have a shadow in the industry, it has a cost.

And so, the bigger the show gets, the more costly it gets, and the more constrained it gets in many ways. So that’s been a challenge. But it was so successful that by season 4, Madison Thomas, who directed her first drama series with Burden of Truth, was in the writers’ room. And now she’s directing drama series all over the place. We’re in prep for her second feature film right now. And she was very successful. And Michelle Latimer had her first drama series experience on Burden of Truth, and she is an Indigenous woman, although that has been called into question in the recent past. And that was also groundbreaking because we were saying “Michelle obviously can do this.” My business partner, Kyle Irving, had to really vouch for her and say “I know Michelle can do it.” At the end of the day everybody saw that Michelle was probably more capable than any other director that they could think of, but I think there is a little bit more convincing the higher you get.

And then another thing that I’ve noticed recently is complacency with the people who feel that they’re doing enough, because they’re doing one thing. And even if that one thing is a little checkmark for them, it’s just not a commitment overall to open their processes to a diversity of people. So I think that that will change, honestly, because a lot of people are insisting upon it. And that always helps. Especially for people who are kind of faint of heart or afraid to lose what they have, afraid to lose the power they have and the privilege they have, if they’re going to lose it because they’re not making these choices, fine. That’s fine by me [laughs]. If that’s their motivator, fine, as long as they’re motivated!

Heidi: Why do you think it is important to be inclusive, behind the screen and not only on the screen?

Rebecca: I’ve never answered this question, but, to me, there’s a little bit of a personal element to it that’s fueled my entire career. When I was a kid I knew from the time I was three years old, I always knew that I wanted to be a director, I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be a producer. And I think it’s because I was such a voracious content consumer, even at that age, which a lot of kids are. But this was in the 1970s, they didn’t have as much access to content, so whenever I got to watch a show it was a special, magical thing that I knew I wanted to be a part of. But until I hit about 25 and I had accepted the call for real, every time I would mention it, it would be “Oh, you can’t do that you’re a girl,” or “You’re not pretty enough,”–I mean not pretty enough to be a director!–or “People are going to try to rape you,” or “What about the casting couch?” to be a producer, or “You’re from Canada, you’re from Winnipeg, you’re from Saskatoon,” and “Who do you think you are,” and “You’re selfish,” and “You think you deserve to be famous?” even though I have never expressed fame as being part of my journey. “Do you think you’re better than other people?”

And, frankly, I didn’t have talent [laughs]. Some people have that natural talent to sing or dance. All I had was grit and so I did everything. If you’re a girl they’re going to let you take dance lessons, “I’m going to take those dance lessons.” And even though I had no talent and no physical ability in dancing, I became a teacher’s assistant because I was like “This is one step closer.” We didn’t have a drama program in my high school, so I made shows. I was like “Can we do this?” and they said “I don’t care, go ahead,” and so we were doing Brecht, Mother Courage and her Children in my high school [laughs], because I knew that there were other people who couldn’t do it, and I wanted to do it for them too. And so, I was going take everybody with me who wanted to come and that’s why my path has been exactly what my path has been. And, sometimes when I’m advocating to get an opportunity in this business, I always think of the phrase, if you throw me a bone, I’ll make soup for everyone. Because that’s what my career has been. Sometimes I question “Am I doing the right thing?” I see some of my colleagues who are directing big series or big movies and I’m not doing that. But what I have focused on is doing what I do really well, which is supporting and sharing my gifts that I’ve hard earned because I didn’t have talent. I had to really learn technique. It’s important to me because I don’t want anybody to feel the way that I did when people said no. And also I think that our media should represent our world. It just doesn’t make any sense to me for that not to be a thing.

Pauline: How is finding BIPOC actors in an industry historically promoting the careers of mainly white actors? I’ll be interested to know about what your experience with Eagle Vision is.

Rebecca: Well, I was a white actor cast on Eagle Vision’s first show Tipi Tales. They tried to find somebody who fits with the role, very hard, they tried in the Indigenous community. And because of the budget, they couldn’t fly somebody in. And so they were like, “Here’s somebody right here who can do it.” And Lisa was like, “Obviously that’s who should do it.” That was something that I wasn’t uncomfortable with at that time, and I’m not uncomfortable with now. Because it was a choice–can we make this show or can we not make this show? Lisa was surrounded by people who cared very deeply about her and about the project. But the drive wasn’t able to be actualized in the casting of that role. So I got that part. And my friend Jan Skene was another white person in the cast. We were the only two. Jan had been the lead puppeteer on Fred Penner’s Place, which was a locally produced show that was nationally broadcast, and Jan knew how to run puppets, and nobody else around had that level of experience, even if you looked nationally. So, it was decided that these two white actors would be cast in this show. And if Eagle Vision were to do Tipi Tales now, that would never happen.

It’s a new phenomenon, where if you want to cast somebody who is not white, then you’d have to find somebody from the community that you’re representing. Even up to a couple of years ago, we were still saying “OK, if you want us to participate in this show, this character who you want to be Indigenous can’t be played by a Chinese actor, they must be Indigenous. And if you want them to be Inuit, they should be Inuit.” And then if people would say, “We’re not doing that,” we would say “We’re not working with you.” Over the course of my career I’ve done a lot of training to bring people into the industry. OK, I know some people can’t afford classes. This is a huge barrier, because there’s no seeing is believing that can happen. It’s starting to change, but if people don’t see themselves represented, they don’t think they can be a part of that. And so, just to even convince people, “Hey, do you want to come and try?” It’s really scary for people to take that leap. And the broadcasters don’t even think about it! The writers, the directors, they’re not thinking: “Oh it would be cool to include a non-white person in this.”

We worked on the web series Frozen Justice including the episode with Andrea Braithwaite (“The Case of the Made-for-TV Movie”) about Hallmark female detective films and how the characters were all white. And then there was backlash–why is this all white? And then Hallmark was like “Oh yeah. OK.” They hadn’t thought of it! Or maybe they thought of it and actively decided that they were not going to cast non-white actors. But I think a lot of content comes from a fear that if you don’t have white characters, then white people won’t watch it. And I used to hear this too for women. “You can’t have a woman as the lead, because then men won’t watch it.” So what? And I know that there’s dollars involved and everything comes down to dollars and power which are interchangeable, but those are some of the challenges for non-white actors. But that’s changing so fast that it’s remarkable to see how easy it is. It really is very easy. Just don’t just cast white people [laughs] and have people who are writers and directors who are not white and producers who are not white and then you’ll have diversity in front of the camera too.

There was a time where my acting career was getting very successful, about 20 years ago, and I was getting lead roles in American stuff and there was talk of me having my own sitcom and it was accelerating very quickly. I didn’t have an agent and I lived in Winnipeg and I had a baby girl and I was a single mom so there was all this pressure, but I didn’t know what to do with it. There was pressure but no plan. And so then I got an agent and I started getting auditions for roles that were the best friend of the lead. I was like, “Great!” I mean I was getting auditions for the lead, but I kept not wanting to do it because she’s a detective, and she shows her breasts [laughs] and I was like “I don’t want to do that movie! If I’m showing my breasts it’s to feed my child” [laughs]. I liked auditioning for the best friend but it would always say “Submit all ethnicities.” And then you knew you’re probably not going to get that part because that’s going to be the one person in the show who’s not white. It was a new thing that people were kind of dipping their toe into. Could we have one person who’s not white in the show? But it was never the lead. It was assumed that that all the characters would be white, unless they said “Submit all ethnicities.” I don’t think it says that on breakdowns anymore.

Pauline: I’m really interested to see what you think about that whole question of so-called colour-blind casting.

Rebecca: We have a project in development called The Rush, with a South African company and we’re writing a season overview, like a bible that has all the content of who the characters are and where we want to go with the series. There was diversity in the writers’ room; we have people from different countries in the world and from different backgrounds and we worked with historians on a few different continents, to make sure that our storytelling was accurate. Could these characters have come together? What would have been the historic incidents that could have provoked them coming together at these moment in time? And for sure, for us, it was important that they’re people who could have existed.

And there is a character who is a teen, Indigenous woman who is Two Spirit and so it was important to us to understand, how does she end up in Johannesburg in the late 1800s? And we figured it out and if we couldn’t have figured it out that wouldn’t have been a thing. And we will continue to work really hard with people who are from the Two Spirit community and leaders in that community, to make sure we’re doing things accurately and include writers who share that identity. And everything about that for us is important. It’s based on historic events and so want to make sure that it is as authentically represented as possible. And we didn’t have a big meeting beforehand and say “This is how we’re going to do it.” It’s just what makes sense to us.

We’re working on a sci-fi movie right now that’s set in the dystopian near future, and it’s got a lot of diversity in many different ways. We just cast an Inuit actress to play a role that was written for an Ojibwe actress and so that’s being rewritten to reflect that she’s Inuit, but she could speak Ojibwe–it was very carefully plotted out. How could this have happened? And if we couldn’t figure that out we wouldn’t have done it. And we could figure it out so we did it [laughs].

Pauline: Was there push back on Burden? Did anyone say “OK, this is a really nice show but too bad there’s not more white people involved” [laughs]?

Rebecca: We had such a positive response from viewers, not about the diversity but just about the show. There were so many white people that I know of who really enjoyed the show and at no point was there ever like, “Oh but too bad Kristin Kreuk is half-Chinese and not 100% white.” It just never came up!

CBC does have a commitment to honour the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations and that includes Indigenous representation in their storytelling. And I don’t know how they work that in terms of deciding how much of the content represents Indigenous stories and Indigenous characters and Indigenous creatives. There were a lot of people who would have liked to have seen Burden continue. I wonder if some people didn’t watch because there weren’t more white characters, but the people who did watch really liked it.

Pauline: I’m wondering if you have any kind of feelings about someone in the industry who’s an apparently intelligent person thinking that it’s all over and everything’s equal and good. Sorry. That was a bit of a charged question.

Rebecca: [laughs] Okay so I’m going answer this question by putting it on me. Because every day I look at myself and ask “Am I doing the best that I could do? Am I putting harm into the universe with my work and with my existence? Or am I doing good things?” And when I’m in a position of power, which I have come to be, and affluence, which I have come to experience, which is very new to me, it’s easier to be complacent, and it’s easier not to see that we need to keep fighting as hard as we ever fought. Because it feels like we could just sit back and go “Oh this is comfy. We’re working on a feature film cowritten by two Indigenous women, one of whom is deaf, directed by an Indigenous woman, with producers who are Indigenous, and a crew that’s really diverse, and a cast that’s really diverse. We’re fine. The world is fine.”

And I don’t feel that way. I’m working on a show right now called 7TH GEN. It’s all good stories, that are positive in nature, about young Indigenous leaders who have come through adversity, largely in part due to colonization, and who are living incredible lives and doing great things and sharing their gifts with the world. And I feel the show wouldn’t be happening without me because I drove that show. And it’s a good show. It’s an important show, but all I can think about every day is getting out of the way. It would be very easy for me to say “Oh, no, I created this show. I am the one who should be the showrunner. I am the one who should write more episodes. And I could get away with that” [laughs]. And no part of me wants that. So I can only speak for myself. But I feel like, maybe it is wrong for me to be doing this work, and that terrifies me, but it terrifies me less now. There’s part of me that I don’t think will ever get complacent, but I can see how people’s views may change when they feel like they’ve done enough, or if they feel like enough has been done.

Pauline: Beautiful answer.

Heidi: I totally agree. How it is for Eagle Vision, committed to making Indigenous films, in Canada? Is it a fight for you to gain funding for your projects?

Rebecca: It’s very hard to get funding for TV, and it’s very hard to get funding for films. I think in particular since I joined as Head of Development a year ago, we really started to look for how can we ensure that we have a diverse slate, that very much includes Indigenous content creators, and writers, and directors, and producers. And how do we support the people we work with? Because it’s kind of a family. People would come to us often through mentorship programs because we all do volunteer work. “OK, so you’re researching with us, now you can edit with us. You want be a director, you can direct with us. You want to be a writer, you can write with us. Let’s have a conversation. You want to direct this movie, how can we support?”

And so we have committed to asking for money. And now that the Indigenous Screen Office is involved in with working with Telefilm, the major funder for Canadian films, we have that opportunity to work with some of the people who we love to work with on their projects and know that we at least have a stronger shot than we might have a few years ago. It is hard for every filmmaker in Canada to get money. But we have the track record that we are trustworthy. We know how to make an application, we work with people who have so much ability and talent and promise and are gaining experience. And actually, we’re in prep for our first film as Eagle Vision that we’re producing that is led by an Indigenous woman, that was written by Indigenous women. And moving forward our development slate has a lot more from Indigenous content creators. And I think that the world changing has an impact, but we’re also braced for it because we’ve been doing this work for several years to encourage people to explore their gifts.

Heidi: How easy is it for you to gain access to global markets?

Rebecca: On Burden of Truth, we partnered with eOne, which is a company that we’ve worked with before. They sell it around the world, and it’s been very successful in terms of international sales, which I know is very very hard for drama series. There are very limited windows for non indigenous with the small “i” content in a country. Burden has cut through and has been seen in many countries. And when we had our show Taken, we went out with a distributor called Flame that’s based in Australia and New Zealand and they are selling that around the world, too. But that one is very regional. The content is very interesting to people, but it’s stories about Kamloops, and stories about Elsipogtog, which are Canadian places and these are very Canadian stories and so they don’t necessarily connect with an international audience. The people we know in South Africa we’re working with, they watch Burden and they thought it was American. But when it’s very very specifically Canadian, that’s a challenge. It’s hard to sell shows internationally and people will accept them more if they think they’re American than if they think they’re Canadian.

Heidi: What about specifically Indigenous content? I know that some Scandinavian films resort to whitecasting because those sell better to international audiences.

Rebecca: There was a time when Lisa was working on Sharing Circle that they were talking about doing an episode about how there is a fascination with a version of North American Indigeneity that was created by white people. And there’s a real appetite for that content in Germany, and they did a TV show that was really popular. I was in Germany when the actor who played this Indigenous character passed away and he was not Indigenous and it was a romanticized false version that made Indigenous content very appealing in Germany but was not accurate. I don’t know how accurate representation of Indigenous characters would play there. But I really want to find out! [laughs]. I really want to give them some content and see “Hey! Do you like this content? I bet you will! It’s going to be pretty good!”

Heidi: When you feature stories from real Indigenous histories, that also moves into the question of who views them. Should they be directed to Indigenous audiences or a diverse viewership?

Rebecca: For Lisa, it’s very important for all people to see the Indigenous content that we’ve created so far. I don’t know about the future, but for instance we did a film called We Were Children that is about residential schools and white people participated in residential schools, and white people must be accountable for the genocide that residential schools perpetuated and it is important that white people watch that film. And white people have watched that film and it was part of a collective understanding in our country about what residential schools were that still is very vague for many Canadians.[1]

The same thing for Taken. Taken was broadcast on APTN and it was on CBC and it was very successful in terms of the number of people who watched it. And that is something that, we are pleased with. It’s part of how Lisa justifies, to me, why it’s important for me to participate because these are not just Indigenous stories. They impact all Canadians and the whole wide world. We have a sitcom that’s in development right now, and Lisa and I are co-show runners and it’s about an Indigenous family that moves into a predominantly white neighbourhood and so it’s important to Lisa that there be white representation in the writers’ room, it’s in the cast, and it’s for all audiences. And it’s part of reconciliation to her, part of the healing that has to happen is for us to laugh together. And so there’s some really, really hard topics that we touch on that nobody would talk about if you couldn’t approach it through the lens of humour so that we can all have a release of the tension, so that our guard is down and we can have a real conversation and our real feelings will be impacted. And I think that that’s something that will always be really important to Lisa. I don’t see her making content that’s just for Indigenous people.

Heidi: What about supporting reconciliation and healing in your dramatic works?

Rebecca: We feel very lucky, very grateful to have the elders who we have to support us from many different communities. And they come from all over the place. We did a film called Diaspora that was written and directed by a white man of Ukrainian descent and in this cast, there were people from all over the world. None of them were actors, but they all acted in the film for the first time and they all speak their language and there are no subtitles. It’s about a young woman who moves to Canada and we as audience are as lost as she is in terms of what’s going on and how to fit in and how to understand. For that, Lisa brought someone who is a knowledge keeper from Arizona to come and he sent prayers for us for that show. She knows who to ask for different shows. There’s a lot of diversity of even the Indigenous knowledge keepers and elders she brings to our shows to make sure we’re doing things right.

Pauline: Can you please tell us about limitations against asking people about their backgrounds because of employment equity laws?

Rebecca: I think casting sneaks through. I’m not acting now but my daughter is, and she’s got one of the top agents in Canada and she gets breakdowns all the time and specificities sometimes. We’re doing a show here called The Porter, and I know that they were looking for Black actors, and so that does go onto breakdowns, which are the invitation that actors or their agents get to submit for different roles to be considered by casting directors to come in for an audition. So we get around it somehow. Twenty years ago, I was a casting director, and I was told by producers, for background performers for instance, “25% Black, 5% Asian, the rest white.”

Pauline: Of course people can always self-identify but there are issues with that too. Self-identification as “ethnically flexible” is good, but it’s also bad, because that’s exactly the same kind of colour blind thinking that led to white actors playing people of colour and the idea that it’s perfectly okay to hire a Chinese person to play a Japanese person and so forth. What about the Indigenous actors and other actors of colour who have worked for Burden, to what extent are they making their way into kind of other venues?

Rebecca: For us it’s pretty specific. We have a sitcom in development which is separate from the other sitcom we’re talking about. It’s set in an Anishinaabe, First Nation community and so I raised the question: “Do we want to have Indigenous people from all nations in our show, or do they have to be Anishinaabe?” It’s still in development, but we’ve been told we’re doing it next year. So that’s a question that we don’t know the answer to. We just don’t know! It’s hard to know! These conversations are kind of new, because there weren’t sitcoms starring Indigenous people. And so we’ll listen to what the elders and knowledge keepers tell us about that. But so far, Lisa says everybody should have the opportunity to audition, so, it’ll be interesting. And then there’s that claim that people are actors so they should be able to act and you don’t have to be queer to play a queer character. I do a lot of beard stroking and listening [laughs] when it comes to that kind of thing.

Heidi: How was the process of casting for Burden of Truth? I know that you intern and hire actors who don’t have previous acting background. I wonder if the same happened for Burden of Truth as well?

Rebecca: Oh yeah! Oh yeah! I was involved in Burden from the beginning because I’m involved in Eagle Vision. I am an actor in that show and I’m a partner in Eagle Vision. So casting is something that I have been a part of, a little bit, throughout the process because they come to me. My area of expertise as a casting director has always been finding actors you wouldn’t typically find. The way that actors are typically found is they have agents and they’re on a site called Casting Workbook. So the actors don’t personally communicate with the casting directors in general in our industry. It’s the agents who communicate with casting directors by responding to breakdowns. A casting breakdown would say “We’re looking for these characters for this show,” and then an agent will go “I have an actor on my roster who could play this character, so I’m going to submit that person’s headshot and resume.” And then the casting director will say “OK, I have the time to see six people for this role. So I’m going chose from the 200 submissions” and then the auditions happen. There’s no outreach.

For instance we just cast a deaf actor to be the lead in this film that we’re doing and we didn’t go to Casting Workbook, we went to ACTRA which is our film and television union, and we said “Is there any way that we can find out who are your members who are deaf?” And so they allowed us access to a diversity portal on their website, and there were no actors who fit the description of the character that we were looking for. Zero. And so, then “OK, who could we ask?” So we asked theatre actors, we asked athletes, we sent out a web of communication all over the country to find this person. That’s my time to shine. Finding people who are not already working actors, that’s my time to shine. But it is hard for people to take the leap and to trust that if you cast somebody who has little or no experience that they can carry the role.

But on Burden, one of the ways that I supported that is they wanted to cast Star Slade who had very little acting experience and they really believed in her. And I said “OK, if you need me to, I’ll come to set, or I’ll work with her” because that’s another thing that I do is to come and be an acting coach for the people they’ve already hired. And so, Star has all the talent in the world, but there were things in terms of technique that would make her feel more confident. So we worked together on some very simple techniques so that she could get to where she needed to get. We talked about how to empower Star Slade and we worked together on a crying scene and we talked about a kissing scene and she was off to the races.

And in season 4, they were casting an elder, and they said “We can’t find an actor to play this role, do you have any actors who could play this role?” And I know an elder, Mary Wilson, and I know that people wrote the role for Mary. And the casting director was like “OK, well some of the people are not so sure if she can do it. She’s never acted before and this is a really big key moment. It’s one of the climactic moments of the show, and we really need a good actor.” And I’m like “You need Mary Wilson.” So of course they hired her and in the show she gifts Star’s character with her spirit name. The other day she came in and she said “You need your shows to be real. So much of what goes out into the world in terms of media is fake. Eagle Vision’s content needs to be real.” And I was like “That is right! That is right!” And because leaps of faith kept being rewarded, they continued. But if it had been a fail, we might have seen a different climate on our set.

Heidi: Beautiful. Any stories on any other actors on Burden?

Rebecca: Of course we want more diversity in our shows, always. We work tirelessly to ensure that that’s going to happen, but you can’t communicate that necessarily without admitting that you’re not doing enough. And so the thing that gives me tears is that I know we’re not doing enough, but we are still working very hard to ensure that there’s representation for all people in our content. And in Burden that was something that once we got a little taste of it, we could push for that kind of thing, then everybody was on board with running with that. And so there were storylines that had never been seen on Canadian television because people had that desire to just keep telling those stories with more and more diversity in the cast. And in season 4, there was a casting decision that was between a woman of colour and a white woman for a role and the director was an Indigenous woman and she had worked with both actors and loved both actors, and one of the actors was a safer bet, and that was the person who was the white actor because they had more experience. And one of the actors was incredible and the director knew that even though she had less experience she would be wonderful in the role. And, of course, even small roles in shows are hugely important. That they’re not just going to give someone a role. It’s really hard to get a role, ever. So they ended up casting the less safe bet who was not white and she was incredible. One of the best parts of the show. And nobody regretted that decision, but it was still a fight, even in season 4, because it’s always a fight.

Heidi: I wonder if you think quotas or quantitative measures are enough?

Rebecca: Oh that’s a good question. A weird thing that happened in the film industry that I noticed was in Women in the Director’s Chair a few years ago. I was with Loretta Todd, who did Monkey Beach. That was her dream project and she was like “I will never get this movie made but I’m going to keep trying forever.” And she did get that movie made but at that time, women didn’t get to make movies. And that was the year that I was going to make my own dream project, Jane Garbage. And in Women in the Director’s Chair I had been working toward getting their nomination to be considered for this low budget fund that Telefilm had to offer called the Micro-Budget Production Program. And I was told, “You would have been our nomination. However, the rules are going to change tomorrow, and you’re not going to be eligible” because I had cowritten H & G with my business partner from way back when, Danishka Esterhazy, I would not be eligible for the Micro-Budget because you could not have written, produced, or directed a film that was a feature in order to qualify. And so because I had produced Danishka’s film, and cowritten it, I couldn’t do Jane Garbage through the Micro-Budget film fund. And it was devastating, because that’s why I went to Women in the Director’s Chair because I wanted this nomination. I knew that if I worked hard enough, I had a good shot at it.

We’ve had a lot of faith in the project, but the rules were changing to exclude people who have had that level of experience. And so, I was, like, that’s cool. I’m going to apply for the main fund for Telefilm. And there were twelve films at the Western regional Telefilm fund supported, and mine would have been the thirteenth on the list. I got the rejection on the day that I thought I was going to get the money. I had been told that I was going to get the money through the grapevine. We had everything lined up: we had the locations, we had the cast, everybody was so excited to do this film. So who got to make their movies that year? Twelve men and zero women. And there was no gender parity, it wasn’t a conversation. It was something that nobody was considering. And then the next year, the conversation started to happen about gender parity and the essential nature of that. And then, our funders made quotas, and then all of a sudden you put a quota in, all of a sudden there’s gender parity. And it went across TV, like all of a sudden women were directing TV. And it was a lot of white women. And there was a period of time where. I feel sick to say this, but it felt like it was like “Oh, well if you’re a woman who is not white, then we get to check two boxes.” But you realize there’s also a really competent director. So, just look at that. Let them direct. We wouldn’t have a lot of the inclusion that we have if it didn’t say we have to or you’re not going to get money. And this business runs on money, so a lot of the decisions are made based on money.

Heidi: Any final thoughts about Burden?

Rebecca: We didn’t want to watch Burden when it came out, episode by episode, because we watched one and then we were like “That’s it!? We want to watch all of it!” But Burden was serialized, so you have to know who the people are, every episode builds on the other, and so a lot of people wanted to binge that. So it might have had more commercial success had it been a procedural. And very early in the process that was part of the conversation. Some wanted it to be a procedural, because more people would watch, like The Murdoch Mysteries. People watch that for years and years and years and years. You drop in, you watch this story, you’re done, you don’t think about it after that. And Burden was never that show. So we didn’t have explosive rating success or commercial success, and if your numbers are low, then you can’t sell enough commercials, then you can’t afford to pay for the shows. So, although we had record breaking success when we premiered on the CW and also Universal UK it wasn’t, like, “Holy moly this is the next–I don’t know what’s the big show that people watch on TV? Law and Order?” [laughs]. But it was respectable. And the people who watched it loved it. That’s what we kept hearing. The people who watched it watched it very, very happily.

Pauline: Those happy viewers include Heidi and me! We really appreciate your taking the time to talk with us. Everybody watch Burden of Truth! Everybody check out all the great work that Eagle Vision is doing!


[1] Shortly after this interview, in May 2021, news broke nationally and internationally of 251 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Many more residential school unmarked gravesites have been identified since, across Canada, and more will follow as processes of investigation are ongoing. With the publicising of the graves, finally, the rest of Canada started paying attention to what Indigenous people had been saying for years about the genocide–abuse, starvation, disease, unbearable conditions–and cultural genocide—deliberate attempts to wipe out language and families–perpetrated by residential schools.

Storytelling for Media Justice: Interviewing Burden of Truth creators

Cover image by Heidi Kosonen: Image rights: Canva

What does media justice look like? Does it look like 1990s American hit series Ally McBeal in which lawyers comedically navigate their cases and personal lives, and Law & Order, in which the police and District Attorneys work through the causes and consequences of crime? Or is it like courtroom dramas addressing crimes and injustice from the perspectives of law or reconciliation, such as Aaron Sorkin’s recent The Trial of the Chicago 7? Or can media justice take less literal forms, extending from what the audience sees to representations and processes behind the camera? Sorkin’s 2020 film, for instance, draws attention to the imbalance between White media-makers’ over-representation and others’ under-representation in telling stories of structural injustices, or crimes in the legal system, among other issues of access to justice. The same historical events “glossed over” in Trial, related to the Black Panther lead figures Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton, look quite different in Shaka King’s 2021 Judas and the Black Messiah, when they are not just referenced for wokeness but centered, in a film written and directed by a BIPOC filmmaker. In this contrast, as Adam Nayman writes in his review, “while The Trial of the Chicago 7 may not be an all-time offender in the field of movies that mobilize Black suffering to trouble the consciences of white characters, it edges close to that territory.”

Within the past decade, social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo, or tools like the Bechdel test have made it important to discuss representations and the measures taken by film and television industry from the perspectives of inclusivity and justice in general. After the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite backlash against the film industry’s lack of diversity on all levels, productions all over the globe must respond to the Academy’s 2024 diversity initiative, mandating any Best Picture nominee to comply with representation and inclusivity quotas for race, gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and/or ability both on and off camera. Simultaneously criticisms about casting people of colour as historical white folks (like Anne Boleyn) and fictional roles alleged to be white (like the Little Mermaid) go on and on and on and on. And media justice can also be invoked in relation to shows like Shonda Rhimes’s 2020 Regency-era period piece Bridgerton, stirring conversation due to its casting BIPOC actors to play British nobles written as White. The questions related to media justice are not simple, and answers hard to divine, when a step towards diversity in one domain can signal ignorance over the struggles of lived experience or proliferate racist, sexist or other harmful stereotypes, as shown in discussions of Bridgerton and the work of media scholar Kristen J. Warner in The cultural politics of colorblind TV casting (2015).

In theory and practice in humanities and social science discourses, justice as a critical problematic can proceed from normative, critical, philosophical, and relativistic standpoints, often producing enduring questions without clearly defined answers, as Richard Jochelson, Steven Kohm & Michael Weinrath (2012) propose. Fictional and factual narratives’ ongoing relevance and malleability to different cultural contexts, and narratives’ continuing address to common issues of justice in and across cultures, make them significant to media and society at large. Stories’ diversity both on and off camera, and their sufficient, accurate and useful representation of different people, by the groups themselves, are targets to strive towards from progressive paradigms. Research project Storytelling for Justice: Documentary, Semi-Documentary, and Fictional Media (funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada‘s (SSHRC) grant number 435-2019-0691) has been driven by a research objective of considering how film and television can foster justice for people who are marginalized by Indigeneity, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and so on.

As Burden of Truth, a legal drama produced for CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Television (in collaboration with Eagle Vision, ICF Films, and Entertainment One) recognizes, law is not the same thing as justice. Similarly, media justice cannot be simplistically confined to legal dramas. Burden combines involvement with law and (in)justice in a courtroom setting, and a dedication to fostering justice in the industry in terms of diverse participation in its production. The series is aimed at mainstream (rather than niche) audiences while featuring diverse talents (women, Indigenous people, and individuals from other under-represented groups) both on-screen and behind it. It spotlights relevant storylines from ecological harm to discrimination against Indigenous peoples, from prejudices related to disability to thriving lesbian relationships despite small-town setting. First aired in 2018, Burden of Truth spans altogether four seasons, and follows a prestigious originally Toronto-based corporate lawyer Joanna Hanley (later Chang) (played by Kristin Kreuk) returning to her roots in small hometown Millwood, in Treaty 1 territory. She struggles to free herself from the profit-oriented worldview imposed by her lawyer father by extending her legal skills to helping, co-operating with or being helped by inhabitants of Millwood, such as her Indigenous step-sister Luna Spence (played by Star Slade), her new partner in law and life Billy Crawford (played by Peter Mooney), her former school friends Diane Evans (played by Nicola Correia-Damude) and Kodie Chartrand (played by Sera-Lys McArthur), or the local police officer and to-be chief of police Owen Beckbie (played by Meegwun Fairbrother).

In our research, we have focused on this series as a positive example of representation that empowers Indigenous and other marginalized groups, demonstrating possibilities for creating impactful productions. To learn more about how such work can come about, we interviewed media-makers involved in its creation. In the following interviews that will be published biweekly in this blog, some of the people behind Burden of Truth discuss their thoughts related to inclusivity, justice, media creation, and what it took to ensure this internationally screened Canadian show accurately represents the Canadian population. We found the interviews so inspiring that we asked the interviewees’ permission to publish them. We hope they offer inspiration also to others and thank them for their work and insights.

Heidi Kosonen and Pauline Greenhill


“Storytelling for Justice” and other news

Last December I joined The University of Winnipeg’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies to work with the fabulous Professor Pauline Greenhill on a joint project Storytelling for Justice: Documentary, Semi-Documentary, and Fictional Media (funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada‘s (SSHRC) grant number 435-2019-0691).

In this newsletter, published early February, we describe the project thus: “Intersectional feminism, decolonial and eco-critical perspectives are an important part of this research. We are interested in how film and television foster justice for people who are marginalized by race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and so on, as well as how they foster justice for the environment.” Excited and grateful to be here working on the project (not the easiest transition ever, with the ongoing pandemic and all)!

Ever since my last blog post also some articles and interviews, dealing with my work with suicide cinema, hate speech, and The Disgust Network, have seen the daylight. Most of them are in Finnish, so I’ll refer the interested readers to look them up under “publications” in this blog, and only link here the one English-language article, Suicide, Social Bodies and Danger: Taboo, Biopower and Parental Worry in Films Bridgend (2015) and Bird Box (2018), published in The Journal of Somaesthetics late December.

Also our Cultural Approaches to Disgust and the Visceral (a research anthology co-edited by Max Ryynänen, myself, and Susanne C. Ylönen) received a publishing contract with Routledge, so there is plenty to be excited about! The interdisciplinary and international anthology, with altogether 18 articles offering interesting avenues to disgust from humanities perspectives, will be published by Summer 2022.

Lectio Praecursoria

My lectio praecursoria, i.e. the 20-minute lecture to be presented in the public defense of a doctoral dissertation, was recently published in Tahiti – taidehistoria tieteenä 2-3/2020, and will soon be published also in Thanatos 1/2021. Thanks to my co-conspirator Pauline Greenhill, I translated the lectio so that it would be accessible also to the English speaking readers. The translation was funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada‘s (SSHRC) grant number 435-2019-0691.

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Lectio Praecursoria presented at the successful public defence of dissertation “Gendered and Contagious Suicide: Taboo and Biopower in Contemporary Anglophone Cinematic Representations of Self-Willed Death” 2.10.2020, Jyväskylä

Venerable custos, honored opponent, esteemed guests,

In December 2017, the American YouTube entertainer and social media giant Logan Paul uploaded onto his YouTube channel a vlog shot at the Aokigahara forest, also known to Western audiences as the “haunted” suicide forest of Japan. Coming across a corpse of a suicide, the video captured Paul cracking jokes at the expense of suicide and the people whose lives had ended in the forest. In the vlog’s immediate reception, both Paul and YouTube as his platform, slow in its response to the video, were judged for disrespectful and derogatory behavior and for trying to monetize this sensational and click-worthy human tragedy. That the video caused a scandal could easily render the Paul case a singular exception to how suicide is generally discussed and represented in media and entertainment. Yet, studied as an extreme example of suicide’s position in the Western attention economy, the Paul case rather crystallizes some positionings that frequently recur in Western entertainment’s depiction and discussion of self-willed death.

Starting with seeking thrills from the haunted forest of Japan, Western entertainment regularly strays to Aokigahara or another similarly exotic or hair-raising setting to face the topic of suicide. Suicides touch the hearts and lives of many individual human beings across all socio-cultural divides, yet when it is presented in entertainment media, the topic is frequently addressed at a distance, through exoticizing frames and the context of horror. As such – as an exotic and spectacular death – suicide has gained a rather visible foothold in Western entertainment. To give an example from the heart of my research, Anglophone cinema witnesses approximately 250 new titles featuring self-willed death every year. The films included within this commercial mass, however, are notably rarely about suicide. More frequently,  suicide is featured in these films as a narrative instrument reduced to its shock value as a particular kind of bad death and as an affective spectacle, shaped by its history under Western institutions of morality, punishment and knowledge production. In this sense, reality – with its many lived life stories, experiences and emotions related to self-willed death – escapes suicide when it is represented and reiterated in Western entertainment.

Similar loss of lived realities is reflected also in the many mundane contexts where suicide appears as a metaphor. For instance, news headlines that I, as a scholar researching representations of suicide, have fortuitously encountered over the years, discuss the professional suicide of a news reporter, the geopolitical suicide of a Western nation and the suicide orbit of one of the moons of planet Jupiter. Many readers will have witnessed similar use in their daily encounters, where individuals not only use suicide as metaphor for their mundane struggles but also emphasize their words by lifting fingers up to their temples as an imitation of a self-inflicted shot to the head or by mimicking wrist-cutting with imaginary knives. Often such metaphoric use is intended to emphasize the weight of the issue discussed, but sometimes also to render it laughable as excessive or ridiculous.

The point, related to suicide’s use and manifestation in the Paul case as well, has surely become clear so far. When the vlog is approached through suicide’s conventional use as a shocking death – a macabre metaphor, attention grabber or narrative device – the vlog’s derogatory approach to self-willed death deviates only very little from the usual representation and discussion of suicide. More often than not, self-willed death is featured in a variety of contexts as if it were something other than a human tragedy or a complex individual, social and cultural phenomenon. Both as a concept and as an image, suicide is too frequently used in news media, entertainment and everyday discussions as merely a violent – either tragic or comic – spectacle, instrumental to some gain. At the same time, suicide remains a particular type of taboo in its socio-cultural contexts and in the media, when real life suicides and their bereavement are discussed; when we try to find fictitious or documentary narratives, where self-willed death would be discussed in depth as a human phenomenon.

Suicide’s tabooed status is testified for instance by a recent autobiographical Finnish-language book (Surun istukka, 2019) by Finnish translator Kaarina Huttunen. Having lost a daughter to suicide, in her book Huttunen affectively describes the stigma imprinted on her by this death. A mother’s mourning is made lonely and disenfranchised by the silence of both kin and strangers, who one after another turn their backs on her grief. Next to these lived life experiences of suicide’s taboo-ridden bereavement, this death’s prevailing ontology as a socio-cultural taboo is illustrated in the reception of Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, facing requests for censorship and silencing on its release in spring 2017. Of the many reasons for the moral panic surrounding the series, voiced or implicitly expressed between the lines, several were related to the fact that in the series the suicide of the protagonist, a seventeen-year-old girl, is studied particularly emphatically as a death that – instead of simply being presented as caused by madness – is shown as a planned decision caused by accumulated hardships.

The dynamic I seek to describe, related to the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of suicide in Western cultural discussions as a shocking death and a taboo, first caught my attention fall 2011. I then graduated from University of Jyväskylä with an awarded master’s thesis in which I had studied suicide’s appearances in visual artistic modernism and postmodernism. As one of the results of my thesis, I recognized suicide could be considered a “pornified” death, based on how it was depicted in some works of art belonging to my corpus, referring to wider culture’s appropriation of the aesthetic pertinent to the “body genre” of pornography (Nikunen et al, 2017, Williams 1991) or its “romanticism” with spectacular deaths (Aaron, 2014). Using the theory of British sociologist Geoffrey Gorer, this “pornography of death” could be seen to illustrate the phenomenon where a socio-cultural taboo was in art or culture represented in graphic ways aiming to provoke reactions in the viewers or readers, without effects on the tabooed nature of the topics thus represented.

Moving on to accomplish a doctorate, in my doctoral dissertation I wanted to direct my gaze on this dynamic according to which suicide could be argued to have been “pornified” in contemporary art and culture while still maintaining its ontology as a silenced, stigmatized and shame-ridden death. I wanted to center in particular on self-willed death’s nature as a taboo, as a result of which I dived deep into the conceptual history and theory of taboo in the discipline of anthropology. I also ended up using the Foucauldian theory of biopower. These two concepts, taboo and biopower, could be considered as symmetrical in that both refer to normative and classificatory systems and mechanisms of control and knowledge production that seek to regulate individuals’ bodies, sexuality and deaths – self-willed deaths included.

Today, approximately nine years later, I am standing before you ready to defend a dissertation in which these two theories form the analytical backbone for my scrutiny of how suicide is represented in contemporary Anglophone cinema. In the dissertation, by employing discourse analysis, semiology and visual analysis I examine contemporary cinematic representations of self-willed death with theoretically oriented considerations of taboo and biopower, as I try to understand how Anglophone films make sense of this death. The research materials are a corpus of 50 Anglophone feature films produced between 1985 and 2014. For the four research articles, constituting my dissertation alongside a theoretical introduction, I also conducted three case studies of the films Unfriended (2014), Vanilla Sky (2001) and The Moth Diaries (2011) as well as of the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017), each seeming to crystallize a fundamental principle about the topic of my dissertation.

The research questions guiding my dissertation are qualitative and query how the chosen cinematic representations of suicide participate in the practices of self-willed death’s biopowered regulation on the one hand and how these representations both reflect and renew suicide’s tabooed position on the other. In other words, I examine the kinds of cultural meanings of suicide that are created through its commercial cinematic representations: What kind of death does suicide appear as, when we consider for instance the films’ reiterating ways of representing characters who either die by suicide or are susceptible to it? Or: What kinds of chains of events lead characters to contemplate or accomplish suicide in these films? Or: In what ways do the films feature self-willed death as part of their narration?

In several ways my dissertation bolsters the presumptions regarding suicide’s pornification, that I depicted as having raised my interest on the topic. Yet many of the cinematic ways the so-called “pornography” of suicide manifested were surprising. For instance, in my analysis I witnessed suicide’s gendering and sexualization: the suicides and suicidality of female and male characters were depicted in different ways depending on their gender. As social philosopher Katrina Jaworski describes, the general understanding of self-willed death connects suicide to masculinity as one of the manifestations of male violence. Yet in my analysis, suicides were visually embodied especially through female characters. This paradox caused me to focus in particular on the ways suicide was in varied ways attached to femininity in the films studied.

In order to better understand how the evident gendering occurred in a field that featured what appeared to be an even number, in terms of gender, of self-harming characters, I chose to apply Durkheim’s typology differentiating between egoistic and altruistic suicides. The notion of suicide cinema’s gendering also led to the adoption of theoretical approaches pertinent to gender studies, especially those drawing on feminist and queer theories. In short, I noticed that when a death was not depicted as beneficial to the community – as it would be for an honorable sacrifice in the war field, typed altruistic in the Durkheimian scale – the films tended to focus on female characters’ “egoistic” suicides. The gendered characters were also offered gendered motifs for killing themselves: the suicides by female characters were connected to their bodies, emotions and sexuality, and rendered understandable based on alleged feminine irrationality and weakness. When they recovered, it was because of significant help from other characters or a rescue by heterosexual romance, whereas male characters were also offered rational reasons and even possibilities for recovery on their own.

I also noticed that the self-destructive storylines of female and male characters were intertwined in parallel narratives, where main characters often survived at the expense of side characters killing themselves. Often the protagonists were male, and the side characters female, and their relationships heteroromantic, like for instance in such high-profile productions such as Vanilla Sky (2001) or Inception (2010). In both films, the suicidal spirals of male characters, studied through abstractions and metaphors, are rendered explicable through the suicides of their female lovers whose minds have been disturbed. Other kinds of parallel narratives could also be found, for instance from box office hit Girl, Interrupted (1999), where a young woman diagnosed as borderline personality recovers in a mental institution among male psychiatrists, female nurses, and teenage girls manifesting a variety of different mental disorders, having been made vulnerable by promiscuous relationships to boys and men.

Central to most films I studied appeared to be suicide’s instrumentality to maintaining a binary conception of gender and the hetero norm of love relationships. Most glaring examples of this were those films where suicide was connected to homosexual characters or LGBTQI2S+ figures, who were often, as if punished for their allegedly deviant sexuality at the end of the film with suicide, loaded with the value of spectacular, violent and bad death. Atom Egoyan’s whodunnit Where the Truth Lies (2005) stands as testimony of this type of use for suicide with its besieged self-willed death of a bisexual murder suspect with compromised means for protecting his reputation. The manifestations of the stereotypical male violence were in the films treated in varied ways from empathic to ridiculing, yet their most exemplary forms could be discovered from the deaths of so-called villains, who were similarly punished with suicide. Such is evident, for instance, in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) where the suicide of a corrupt prison warden closes the film along with the protagonists’ escapes to freedom.

As these cinematic illustrations I have brought up might already have given away, next to self-willed death’s gendering, another important discovery I made in my analysis was related to suicide’s medicalization in the cinematic corpus studied. Suicides were often made sense of with diagnoses, pertinent to medical knowledge production, as well as to their popularized versions: vernacular depictions of madness. At their most medicalized, the films studied suicide in institutionalized settings like the aforementioned Girl, Interrupted, or in other similar contexts such as The Sixth Sense (1999), where a murder-suicide by a schizophrenic patient to the child psychiatrist protagonist opens the film. In opposition to such diagnostic, and often quite pejorative, depictions of madness, willingness to understand suicidality, when it was connected to depression, sometimes also facilitated even empathic interpretations of self-willed death, as for instance in Tom Ford’s acclaimed A Single Man (2009).

Although many films also offered possibilities for reading these representations against the grain, or even in significant ways reiterated some of the conventions in representing suicide against the norm, I deduced that cinema tends to represent suicide in ways that participate in its marginalization and stigmatization. As hinted in my opening lines to this talk, rare were the narratives about suicide which showed interest in self-willed death as a human phenomenon, in opposition to the wealth of films rendering suicide a mere narrative instrument.

Both marginalization and stigmatization can be connected to taboo and biopower, which rely on normative and classificatory mechanisms of knowledge production as means to regulate individuals’ bodies and deaths. The medical mechanisms of knowledge production and the dominant discourses regulating gender and sexuality have already been exposed in the context of biopower. The connection to taboo – a less popular field of study – instead, manifested particularly clearly in the reception of 13 Reasons Why.  The Netflix series was subjected to the aforementioned volatile discussion alongside requests for censorship, that extended from cutting out the show’s suicide scene and amending the age limits to discourage the young audiences from viewing, to prohibiting the series’ discussion in some Anglo-American schools.

The series was criticized by medical specialists for its limited representation of medical diagnoses and treatments and for representing the suicide of the protagonist under too rationalist a lens, among other flaws. For these and other reasons, various authorities feared the series would cause a wave of imitated suicides – a suicide contagion – among its young audiences. As it was connected to these authorities’ simultaneous criticism of suicide’s insufficient connection to depression, suggestive of audio-visual fiction’s dominance by such institutions of knowledge that bespeak of biopower and whose hold over art and culture could be questioned, to me this fear of contagion was symptomatic of self-willed death’s biopower-regulated and tabooed ontology, suggestive of the regulation and censorship directed at suicide’s manifestation in popular culture.

These suicide contagion arguments were made particularly thought-provoking in anthropological theories. In this discipline, taboo has a complex theoretical history as a normative structure seeking to protect the so-called social body from specific kinds of risks and dangers. This structure is empowered by ideas of dirt and contagion in instances where classificatory borders and collectively agreed values are threatened or breached. Fascinatingly, it is this selfsame fear of contagion that helped the pre-war era anthropologists, burdened by a colonialist baggage, deem taboo a primitive structure in opposition to Western rationality. It could also be argued these prejudices can make it hard for many contemporary viewers to recognize the regulation of taboo happening in contemporary culture, including in the context of pornified self-willed death.

So what, you may enquire: why is this all valuable? My research constellation, that recognizes the effect of the normative structures of biopower and taboo on how suicide is represented, arises from a paradigm central to cultural studies, which witnesses cultural discourses’ influence over human lives. The repetitive conventions for representing or discussing suicide hold tremendous influence over how we perceive self-willed death or react towards individuals expressing suicidality in their lives. These representations can also affect the individuals battling against suicide in varied ways. My discoveries of marginalization and stigmatization are made particularly significant by the recognition that taboo, shame, guilt and the closely related fear of being stigmatized are among the reasons that might discourage individuals considering suicide from seeking help. In studying biopower’s and taboo’s effect on suicide’s representation, we are specifically discussing the popular cultural production of such modes of being, that are made to look abnormal, unnatural, bad, filthy and shameful.

Thus, in particular triggered by the discussions related to 13 Reasons Why, I find it necessary to close my talk with an emphatic question for the viewers and producers of suicide cinema alike: why is an empathic representation of self-willed death – finding many reasons for suicide – considered more problematic as cinema’s reiterating manner of representing suicide than, for instance, a comic spectacle or a narrative instrument for punishing women, sexual minorities or villains. At their best, the fiction of art and culture could be argued to provide nodes of identification also for such individuals who find it hard to discover themselves in the norms and ideals constructed by the biopower-regulated society. Whether in considering the diagnostic, gendering or other dominant modes of representation, holding fiction in their reins, their excessive normativity and stigmatization can easily become more problematic than stray empathy.

Honored Opponent, docent Leena-Maija Rossi, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my dissertation.

References

Aaron, M. 2014. “Cinema and Suicide,” in Death and Moving Image. Ideology, Iconography and I. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 40-68.

Durkheim, É. 1897. Suicide: A Study in Sociology (trans. J.A. Spaulding & G. Simpson 1951, reprint 1966). New York: Free Press.

Gorer, G. 1955. “The Pornography of Death,” in G. Gorer (ed.) Death, Grief & Mourning in Contemporary Britain, 1965. London: The Crescent Press, 169–175.

Huttunen, K. 2019. Surun Istukka. Helsinki: Schildts & Söderströms.

Jaworski, K. 2014. The Gender of Suicide: Knowledge Production, Theory and Suicidology. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Nikunen, K., Paasonen, S. & Saarenmaa, L. 2007. Pornification: Sex and sexuality in media culture. Oxford: Berg.

Williams, L. 1991. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44(4): 2-13.


Väitöskirjan tarkastustilaisuus 2.10.2020 / Public defence October 2 2020

Allekirjoittaneen, eli FM Heidi Kososen taidehistorian väitöskirjan “Gendered and Contagious Suicide: Taboo and Biopower in Contemporary Anglophone Cinematic Representations of Self-Willed Death” tarkastustilaisuus pidetään perjantaina 2.10.2020 alkaen klo 12.00. Vastaväittäjänä toimii yliopistonlehtori, FT Leena-Maija Rossi (Helsingin yliopisto) ja kustoksena professori emerita Annika Waenerberg (Jyväskylän yliopisto). Väitöstilaisuuden kieli on suomi.

Väitös on verkkovälitteinen. Yleisö voi seurata tilaisuutta verkosta, osoitteessa https://r.jyu.fi/dissertation-kosonen-021020

Väitöskirjasta on julkaistu suomenkielinen tiedote Jyväskylän yliopiston sivuilla: https://www.jyu.fi/fi/ajankohtaista/arkisto/2020/08/2-10-2020-fm-heidi-kosonen-humanistis-yhteiskuntatieteellinen-tiedekunta-taidehistoria

Englanninkielinen väitöskirja on myös kokonaisuudessaan luettavissa JYX-julkaisuarkistossa: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-39-8313-0

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MA Heidi Kosonen defends her doctoral dissertation in Art History “Gendered and Contagious Suicide: Taboo and Biopower in Contemporary Anglophone Cinematic Representations of Self-Willed Death”. Opponent is senior lecturer, FT Leena-Maija Rossi (University of Helsinki) and custos is professor emerita Annika Waenerberg (University of Jyväskylä).

The doctoral dissertation is held in Finnish. The audience can follow the event online, the link to the defence is: https://r.jyu.fi/dissertation-kosonen-021020.

The English-language dissertation has been published online in the University of Jyväskylä publication series and can be accessed through this link: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-39-8313-0

An approaching defence and a new blog series from Jytte

It’s a busy fall! I’ll be defending my doctoral dissertation of Art History (visual studies) in two weeks, October 2. I’m honored by having Ph.D., Docent, Senior Lecturer and the pioneer in Finnish visual studies Leena-Maija Rossi act as my opponent in the defence.

There will be a Finnish-language press release coming out next week. At the same time my English-language dissertation, “Gendered and Contagious Suicide: Taboo and Biopower in Contemporary Anglophone Cinematic Representations of Self-Willed Death”, will be published online in the University of Jyväskylä publishing series.

Before the press release and the dissertation see the light of day, more details of my approaching (Finnish-language and livestreamed) defence can be found from here: https://www.jyu.fi/en/current/archive/2020/08/2-10-2020-fm-heidi-kosonen-faculty-of-humanities-and-social-sciences-art-history

Another exciting thing that will be published next week is the first blog post to Jytte’s new blog series edited by myself and Melissa Plath from Researchers and Teachers of Jyväskylä.

In the blog series, invited writers representing the University of Jyväskylä community comment and reflect on the academic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic from both critical and reparative perspectives. The texts are published in Jyttes’s blog biweekly, starting September 25 with Panu Moilanen‘s text dealing with virtual teaching.

Me and Melissa introduced the entire sevenfold blog series in an introduction that can be accessed through the following link: https://tieteentekijat.fi/en/covid-19-learning-lessons-introduction-to-a-sevenfold-blog-series/?fbclid=IwAR3_OG_u7sKF-e48cVGrnbLo2igq0d69-UROMuhhP4szDx3RnUsoeOHyGj4

Call for Papers: Tracing Disgust – Cultural Approaches to the Visceral

CfP for Book Proposal // Article Proposals for an edited collection

Tracing Disgust: Cultural Approaches to the Visceral (edited by Max Ryynänen, Susanne Ylönen & Heidi Kosonen)

We often recoil at the thought of mold gathering at the dishes used for eating, of bad breath on a person we do not specifically like, or of a spider walking across our body. Disgust, exemplified in these classic illustrations, is probably the most visceral of the basic human emotions. Some argue that it engages in particular the so called lower senses — taste, smell and touch —with a function for an organism’s preservation. It is also one of the recognized ”moral emotions,” functioning symbolically on social and cultural scales and serving, for example, as an instrument of political discourses. This can be traced in different examples, such as the discrimination of sexual minorities or the populist rhetorics of racist and fascist movements.

In a more deconstructive vein, disgust has also facilitated the criticism and resistance of prevailing norms and hierarchical constitutions often reiterated in its moral uses. In countercultural movements, such as artistic avant-garde or punk, or in children’s culture, disgust, disgustingness and varied kinds of disgust-objects from slime toys to disgust-evoking sweets serve also as sources of pleasure. In art and popular culture disgust has proven to be a welcome enhancement to spectacle-seeking entertainment. Disgust, manifested not only in our instinctive recoiling from danger and decay, but also in these varied kinds of symbolic discourses and cultural products aiming to provoke, agitate or bring about enjoyment, is thus more than the biological mechanism seeking to protect animals from particular kinds of dangers, or a negative emotion negatively felt.

We now invite researchers from a variety of fields ranging from arts and cultural studies and philosophy to sociology and anthropology to reflect on the different varieties and functions of disgust. We especially welcome unexpected approaches that consider the topic from perspectives that are novel both methodologically and content-wise. The themes may consider but are not restricted to:

  • disgust’s relationship to other emotions and affects
  • disgust’s moral, social and/or biological aspects and uses
  • disgust, decay and biological, cognitive, socio-cultural or symbolic dangers
  • disgust and it’s uses as low or high culture
  • disgust and disgust-objects as humour or art
  • disgust and disgust-objects as pleasure and entertainment, for instance in popular cultural phenomena, transgressive art, extreme cuisine or children’s culture
  • disgust’s and disgust-objects’s relationship to cultural change, for instance in political discourses, hate speech and their rhetorics
  • countercultural disgust and its potential for change
  • disgust, ethnic minorities and refugee crisis
  • disgust, gender, sexuality and LGBTQI
  • disgust and death
  • disgust and climate change
  • disgust, foodways, food identities and food economies
  • disgust, social class and social hierarchies
  • disgust and identity

The proposals for an article (300 words) and additional information (such as contact details, affiliation and a short biography), should be sent to editors via email (tracing-disgust@jyu.fi and max.ryynanen@aalto.fi) by August 15th, 2020. Notification of acceptance will be sent by September 15, 2020. Full texts (max 9000 words) are expected by December 15, 2020.

We seek to widen our networks to find as interesting article propositions for our book as possible. Thus, although we already have some great authors with interesting papers on board, we have decided to also open this CfP for article propositions beyond our current range of authors. We are currently negotiating with several high profile publishers, and aim to put forward a more detailed book proposal, based on the abstracts we receive, in September 2020. 

If you have any inquiries, you may contact us through email: tracing-disgust@jyu.fi.

Visuaalista kulttuuria ja sen tabuilmiöitä tutkimassa

20121204a9nyancatstar.aDmHei, tervetuloa Jyväskylän yliopiston Musiikin, taiteen ja kulttuurin tutkimuksen laitoksen TAIA121: Taiteentutkimuksen näkökulmia ja menetelmiä -kurssin “luennolleni”, joka onkin tänä vuonna kirjoitus tutkimusblogiini. Tämän tekstin tarkoitus on tehdä tästä viime vuodelta kierrätetystä prezistä astetta selvemmän hahmottaa, vaikka en voikaan tänä pandemiakeväänä 2020 olla puhuvana päänä läsnä tutkimussaleissa. Suosittelenkin, että luet ensin tämän kirjoituksen, ja sitten etenet selaamaan ylle linkitettyä preziä (ja, mikäli olet kiinnostunut lähestymistavoistani, tätä tutkimusblogiani tietty muutenkin)!

Olen yleensä puhunut kurssin luennollani tutkimuksestani ja väitöskirjastani melko yleisluontoisesti ja keskittynyt “taiteentutkimuksen näkökulmiin” metodologisen ilotulituksen sijaan. Olen taidehistorian väitöskirjatutkija, joka on tehnyt väitöskirjaansa erityisesti visuaaliseen kulttuurin tutkimukseen ja kulttuurisiin tabuihin liittyen. Tutkimuksen edetessä väitöskirjani on tarkentunut erityisesti itsemurhan elokuvarepresentaatioihin, joiden suhdetta itsemurhan tabuasemaan ja biovallaksi kutsuttuun hallinnan mekanismiin tarkastelen. Avaan näitä käsitteitä hieman myöhemmi tekstissäni.

Sain jatko-opinto-oikeuden syksyllä 2011, ja jätin väitöskirjani esitarkastukseen nyt maaliskuussa 2020. Väitöskirjaprosessini on ollut melko monivivahteinen, ja sen sivuun on mahtunut paljon muutakin tutkimustyötä konferenssityöpajoista, yhteisartikkeleista ja -tutkimushankkeista ammattiliiketoimintaan, populaareihin kirjoitustöihin ja tutkimusverkoston perustamiseen.

Kun pohdimme vallitsevaa rahoitusmallia, joka rohkaisee väitöskirjatutkijoita väittelemään neljässä vuodessa, olen liki kymmenen vuoden väitöskirjani ja sen sivuprojektien kanssa karmaisevan huono esimerkki kaikille jatko-opinnoista haaveileville. Toisaalta, rönsyilevine polkuineni voin olla varsin kelvollinen esimerkki visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimuksen avaamista tutkimusmahdollisuuksista.

Tässä tekstissä käyn läpi visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimusta ja oman väitöskirjatutkimukseni suhteutumista siihen. Havainnollistan alan käytännön tutkimusmahdollisuuksia myös muutaman tapausesimerkin avulla.

Visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimus

Aloitan “luentoni” visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimuksesta, johon yllä kuvasin suuntautuneeni. Nykykulttuuri on kuvallisuuden läpäisemä, kuten esimerkiksi emojien merkitys, monien internet-meemien suosio ja visuaalisuudelle perustuvien teknologioiden (Instagram, Snapchat, Tiktok) paljous osoittavat. Visuaalinen kulttuuri on typistettynä sellaista kulttuuria — taidetta, populaarikulttuuria ja uusmediaa — joka on näköaistin läpäisemää mutta joka toki voi sisältää myös muita kuin näköaistiin vetoavia aistiulottuvuuksia ja kerronnan ja vaikuttamisen muotoja.

Prezini diassa visuaalisen kulttuurin monimuotoisuudesta ja merkityksestä puhuu puolestaan esimerkiksi monien tuntema “Hitler reagoi” -meemi, jonka kuvamateriaali perustuu saksalaiseen Perikato -elokuvaan (2004) ja joka on tarjonnut keinon kommentoida monia ajankohtaisia ilmiöitä, oli kyseessä sitten Star Wars -heeros Han Solon kuolema tai Uudenmaan eristäminen. Internet-meemissä sama voimakkaan tunnelatautunut videoklippi suurine eleineen toistuu, mutta tekstitykset vaihtuvat kommentoitavasta ilmiöstä riippuen.

Sen lisäksi, että meemi tarjoaa tämänlaisen välineen hetkellisiin ilmiöihin reagoimiselle, meemissä tiivistyy väkisinkin monia pysyviä yhteiskunnallisia rakenteita ja tapakäytänteitä; itseäni sen audio-visuaalisessa aineksessa kiinnostavat esimerkiksi ne tavat, jolla se heijastelee suhteitamme tunteisiin ja niiden ilmaisuun sekä sukupuolittaa näitä. ”Hitler reagoi” -meemi myös herättää tunteita: joistakin se on nerokas, toisista mauton, ja siksi kiinnostava esimerkki visuaalisen kulttuurin asemasta nykykulttuurissa.

Visuaalista kulttuuria tutkitaan varsin monilta eri tieteenaloilta ja erilaisista teoreettisista perinteistä käsin. Itse taiteentutkimuksesta käsin omaksumani lähestymistavan juuret ovat yhtäältä 1980-luvun “uudessa taidehistoriassa”. Tämä radikaali uusi taidehistoria oli Marxilaista, feminististä ja kiinnostunut taiteen ja vallan välisestä suhteesta: läntisen taiteen historiaa tarkastellessa on hankala olla näkemättä niitä luokka- ja sukupuoliasetelmia, joissa taidekentän jako toimijoihin ja katseen kohteisiin on muovautunut. Suosittelen aiheesta kiinnostuneille luettavaksi kahta klassikkotekstiä: Linda Nochlinin esseetä ”Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971) ja John Bergerin BBC:n dokumenttisarjaan perustunutta kirjaa Ways of Seeing (1972). Uuden taidehistorian feministiset ja Marxilaiset taustat huomioiden ei ole ihme, että sukupuolen ja luokan kaltaiset kysymykset olleet läsnä myös monissa visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimusasetelmissa.

Visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimus on muovautunut tämän taidehistorian uuden paradigman lisäksi erityisesti kulttuurintutkimuksessa, joka syntyi 1960-luvulla Birminghamissa sosiologien Richard Hoggart ja Stuart Hall vaikutuksesta. Kulttuurintutkimus poikkesi lähtökohdistaan ottamalla tarkastelun kohteiksi alhaisiksi ja populaareiksi miellettyjä kulttuurin muotoja, kuten televisiota ja mainoksia, ja kiinnostumalla myös näitä kulttuurin muotoja kuluttavista yleisöistä aktiivisina ja yksilöllisinä toimijoina. Näiden aikaansa heijastelevien kulttuurin muotojen ohella kulttuurintutkimus oli erityisen kiinnostunut kulttuurin ja yhteiskunnan välisestä suhteesta: yhteiskunnallisten valta-asetelmien heijastumisesta kulttuurisiin “teksteihin” ja näiden tekstien edelleen yhteiskunnallista todellisuutta (valtarakenteineen) tuottavasta ja uusintavasta voimasta.

Suhteessa kulttuurintutkimukseen, josta visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimus kehittyi ja jonka kanssa se jakoi samat intressit, alan erityisyys syntyi eritoten keskittymisessä visuaalisuuteen. Visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimus pyrki haastamaan kulttuurintutkimuksen tekstikeskeisyyttä ja nostamaan esiin sekä näköaistin että kuvallisen viestinnän erityislaatuja ja näiden roolia todellisuuden tuottamisessa ja sen valta-asetelmien uusintamisessa.

Vaikka visuaalista kulttuuria lähestyttäisiin taiteentutkimuksesta käsin, kuten minä itse, ei tarkastella siis pelkästään institutionaalista kuvataidetta, vaan monia muitakin populaareja tai marginaalisia nykykulttuurin ilmiöitä. Suomessa visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimusta ovat edistäneet muun muassa Leena-Maija Rossi, jonka pioneerityö liittyy sukupuolen esittämiseen mainoskuvastossa. Seuraavan sukupolven tutkijoista Annamari Vänskä on keskittynyt sukupuolen, lapsuuden ja muodin tutkimukseen, kun taas Harri Kalha taas on varsinainen visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimuksen moniottelija artikkeleissaan ja teoksissaan, joissa on keskustellut muun muassa Marilyn Monroesta, Belle Epoquen postikorteista ja Tom of Finlandista erityisesti sukupuolen ja seksuaalisuuden näkökulmista. Itse olen omista vaihtuvista vinkkeleistäni tarkastellut kuvataiteen ja elokuvan lisäksi muun muassa Game of Thrones -hahmo Hodorin kuolemaan reagoineita meemejä, YouTuben DIY-lima-videoita ja kuvituskuviin ja taiteeseen liiittyviä skandaaleja.

Kuten mainittua, monitieteistä visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimusta on kuitenkin varsin monenlaista ja kenttää voi myös tutkia monilla eri tavoilla. Alaa ei määritelläkään omaksi oppiaineekseen, vaan pikemminkin tietynlaiseksi sateenvarjoksi, jonka alle mahtuu monenlaisista tutkimusperinteistä ammentavia tutkimuksia. Omaa fokustani visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimuksen saralla ohjaa nimenomaan kiinnostus sen pitelemään valtaan suhteessa tietynlaisiin valtarakenteisiin, joista jatkan seuraavassa kappaleessa.

Visuaalinen kulttuuri ja valta

Kun puhutaan visuaalisesta kulttuurista ja vallasta, lähdetään monesti liikkeelle sosiokulttuurisen rakentumisen paradigmasta: käsityksestä siitä, että kulttuuri eri muodoissaan osallistuu sosiaalisen todellisuuden tuottamiseen. Toisin sanoen, sosiokulttuurisen rakentumisen paradigman myötä todellisuus mielletään joksikin sellaiseksi, joka ei pelkästään heijastu kulttuurin eri osa-alueille vaan joksikin, joka tulee rakennetuksi, uusinnetuksi ja neuvotelluksi kulttuurin välityksellä. Myös visuaalinen kulttuuri osallistuu todellisuuden tuottamiseen yhtenä osana muita kulttuurin muotoja kuvataiteen, populaarikulttuurin, kaupallisten mainosten, internet-meemien ja näitä käsittelevien keskustelujen, kiistojen ja kohujen välityksellä.

Kulttuurintutkimuksen suhdetta valtaan ohjaa yhtäältä sille ominainen Gramscilainen ajatus “kulttuurisesta hegemoniasta”. Toisaalta sitä ohjaa käsitys toiston todellisuutta tuottavasta voimasta. Koetaan, että kun tietynlaiset representaatiot ja diskurssit, ilmiöiden tietynlaiset esitykset ja näiden ilmiöiden esittämistä ja niistä keskustelua ohjaavat sosiaaliset käytänteet, toistuvat, ne vaivihkaa muovaavat käsitystämme siitä, mikä on normaalia, sallittua, hyvää tai luonnollista. Tiettyjen representaatioiden ja diskurssien toistumiseen vaikuttavat taas erilaisten ihmisten epätasa-arvoiset mahdollisuudet osallistua kulttuurin tuottamiseen, jolloin yhteiskunnallisten valtarakenteiden vaikutus korostuu.

Esitysten ja sosiaalisten käytänteiden toistaminen vaikuttaa paitsi ihmisten käsityksiin todellisuuden luonteesta, myös ihmisten käytökseen, kuten esimerkiksi omaan ymmärrykseeni aiheesta vaikuttanut sukupuolentutkija Judith Butler hahmottelee performatiivisuuden käsitteen välityksellä. Tämä käsite pyrkii tavoittamaan sen tavan, miten kielellä, teksteillä ja kuvakulttuurilla on valta tuottaa niitä nimenomaisia ilmiöitä, joita ne esittävät, jopa siinä määrin, jossa ihmisyksilöt omaksuvat määritellylle sukupuolelleen sallittuja käyttäytymisen tapoja ja kehollisia eleitä tai alkavat muistuttaa lääketieteellisissä prosesseissa omaksumiaan psykiatrisia diagnooseja. Teoksessaan Bodies That Matter (1993: 2) Butler tiivistääkin performatiivisuuden: “[a]s that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.”

Keskeistä kulttuurin yksilöllisten ja yhteiskunnallisten vaikutusten tarkastelussa on kuitenkin näiden prosessien kompleksin luonteen ymmärtäminen. Toisin sanoen, kulttuurin vaikutusta sekä mentaaliseen että materiaaliseen maailmaan ei käsitetä tietyn “injektioneulamallisen” teorian lävitse, jossa merkitykset ja vaikutteet sanellaan kulttuurin koneistoista kulttuuria kuluttaville yleisöille tai valtaapitäviltä ihmisryhmiltä alaspäin. Pikemminkin ajatellaan, että kulttuuriin liittyen käydään erilaisia merkityskamppailuja, joissa merkitykset muodostuvat myös vastaanoton prosesseissa, joiden luonne vaihtelee yleisöistä riippuen.

Feministisen tutkimuksen tutuksi tekemä intersektionaalisuuden käsite lienee tähän yhteyteen sopiva, sillä se näkee yksilöiden paikoittumisen erilaisiin ihmisryhmiin (luokkaan, sukupolveen, sukupuoleen, seksuaalisuuteen, etnisyyteen, uskontoon, harrastusten ja mielenkiinnon kohteiden kautta kehittyviin alakulttuureihin jne. liittyen), joiden intersektioissa eli risteymissä yksilön tapa tulkita ja vastaanottaa kulttuuria muovautuu. Tällöin yhteiskunnalliset valtarakenteet ovat läsnä yksilöiden tavassa vaikuttua kulttuurista tavalla, joka ei kiistä jokaisen yksilön ainutlaatuista, esimerkiksi yksilöhistoriaan ja temperamenttiin sidottua tapaa kokea ja nähdä maailmaa.

Koska mahdollisuuteni keskustella aiheesta tämän blogikirjoituksen puitteissa ovat kovin rajalliset ja sidotut omaa tutkimustani ohjanneisiin mielenkiintoni kohteisiin, suosittelen aiheesta kiinnostuneita perehtymään esimerkiksi Stuart Hallin, Jessica Evansin ja Sean Nixonin toimittamaan Representation -teokseen (1997), joka on kulttuurintutkimuksen perusteoksia. Toisaalta Richard Howells ja Joaquim Negreiron teos Visual Culture (2012), käy kattavasti läpi erityisesti visuaalisen kulttuurin suhdetta valtaan kappaleissaan “Ideology” ja ”Semiotics”.

Kun tutkimusaihe löytää tutkijan

Oma väitöskirjani käsittelee edellisessä käsiteltyjä kysymyksiä elokuvassa, joka on yksi visuaalisen kulttuurin kattamista medioista, ja itsemurhan osalta, joka on yksi yhteiskunnallisesti säännellyimmistä kuolemantavoista. Tulen lisäksi vallan jatkumoon erityisesti tabun käsitteen kautta, joka mielletään sitä käsittelevissä teorioissa omanlaisekseen valtasysteemiksi. Kaiken taustalla on etnologiatieteiden ja taidehistorian väliiin paikoittuva tutkimushistoriani Jyväskylän yliopistolla sekä Canterburyn University of Kentissä, sekä pitkäikäinen kiinnostukseni itsemurhan kuvallisen representoimisen (eli esittämisen) kysymyksiin.

Ennen jatko-opintojani olin tehnyt jo kaksi opinnäytetyötä itsemurhan taiteellisista kuvaamisen tavoista. Etnologiatieteiden kandidaatintutkielmassani tein ikonologisen analyysin Kalervo Palsan teoksesta Kullervo (1983), joka on itsemurha-ajatusten kanssa julkisesti kamppailleen ja vasta kuolemansa jälkeen tunnustetun taiteilijan graafinen tulkinta Kalevalan itsemurhaan päätyneestä sankarista. Taidehistorian pro gradu -työssäni tarkastelin puolestaan läntistä taiteenhistoriaa, joka pitää sisällään varsin monenlaisia itsemurhan representaatioita, ja pyrin ymmärtämään itsemurhan rooleja taiteessa typologisen lähestymistavan avulla. Kiinnostukseni itsemurhan ja tabun välistä suhdetta tarkasteleva väitöskirjaa kohtaan syntyi tätä pro gradu -työtäni tehdessäni. Aineistojeni paljoutta ja niiden laadullisia seikkoja ihmetellessäni löysin itsemurhan tabuluonteisuuteen liittyvän ristiriidan, josta kehitin itselleni tutkimusongelman.

Kuvaan sen tiivistetysti tässä. Vaiettuna ja stigmatisoituna kuolemana itsemurha mielletään ja toistuvasti myös nimetään tabuksi. Toisaalta, kun perehtyy tämän luonnottomaksi ja pahaksi mielletyn kuoleman visuaalisen esittämisen kysymyksiin, saattaa huomata, että itsemurhan tabuus ei ulotu sen asemaan visuaalisessa kulttuurissa. Kuvataide mahdollistaa sellaisen kulttuurisen tabun taiteellisen ja terapeuttisen käsittelyn, jonka voimme ajatella olevan linjassa itsemurhan sosiaalisen tabuaseman kanssa, mutta myös monin eri tavoin asemoi tämän kuoleman sellaiseksi shokeeraavaksi välineeksi, jonka avulla voi joko kommentoida muita yhteiskunnallisia ongelmakohtia tai jakaa didaktisia opetuksia muun muassa seksuaalikasvatukseen liittyen. Toisin sanoen, tietynlaisen pahan ja väkivaltaisen kuoleman aseman sallimana itsemurha esiintyy taiteessa myös monissa sellaisissa yhteyksissä, joilla ei ole paljonkaan tekemistä itsemurhan itsensä tai sen realiteettien kanssa.

Sama toistuu myös viihteellisessä populaarikulttuurissa. Vuosittain julkaistaan noin 250 elokuvaa, joissa itsemurha eri tavoilla ja eri yhteyksissä esiintyy. Tällä representaatioiden ja funktioiden paljoudella ei myöskään ole vaikutusta itsemurhan hyväksyttyyn tabuasemaan. Esimerkiksi elokuvien Girl Interrupted (1999), Inception (2010) ja Dead Poets Society (1989) kaltaisissa korkean profiilin elokuvissa itsemurhaa käsitellään näkyvästi ja eri tavoin vailla vaikutusta siihen, käsitetäänkö itsemurha tabuksi vaiko ei.

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Puhekieleen vakiintuneen suppean määritelmän myötä tabu mielletään kuitenkin useimmiten vaietuiksi puheenaiheiksi ja esityskiellon ja sensuurin kohteiksi, eli tietynlaisiksi ”tabuiksi aiheiksi”, jollainen itsemurha ei yllä kuvatuiltaan aspekteiltaan vaikuttaisi olevan. Sekä mediassa että monissa nykykulttuurissa teorioissa toistuviin diskurssehin onkin vakiintunut mantra “tabujen rikkomisesta” ja “viimeisistä tabuista”, jollaisena myös itsemurha on toisinaan määritelty, viimeksi esimerkiksi keväällä 2017, jolloin graafisen itsemurhakohtauksen sisältäneen 13 Reasons Why -sarjan aiheuttama kohu nimesi itsemurhan jälleen kerran viimeiseksi läntiseksi tabuksi.

Yksioikoinen mantra ei tietenkään ole ongelmaton. Esseessään ”The Myth of the Last Taboo” (2016) Gregory Woods kritisoikin sitä queer-tutkimuksesta käsin, josta on helppo havaita seksuaalimarginaaliin ja kaappiin sysätyn homoseksuaalisen yksilön kokemusten sekä median taburikosten ja negatiivisten stereotyyppien välinen kuilu.

Väitöskirjassani kiinnostuinkin paitsi itsemurhan populaarikulttuuriseen esittämiseen liittyvistä kysymyksistä, myös tabun käsitteestä. Esimerkiksi antropologien Franz Steiner, A.R.  Radcliffe-Brown ja Valerio Valeri teorioissa tabu määritellään tietynlaisena yhteisöä ja sen vallitsevia arvoja suojelevana rakenteena, joka on sidoksissa yhteisössä vallitseviin luokittelujärjestelmiin, normeihin ja näitä uhkaaviin vaaroihin. Mary Douglas lisäksi tunnistaa tabun kytköksen yhteiskunnallisiin vaaroihin, tartunnan pelkoihin ja kulttuurisesti rakennettuihin käsityksiin liasta.

Toisaalta edellisissä kappaleissa kuvaamissani kulttuurintutkimuksen teorioissa tiedostetaan, että kulttuurin toisteisilla representaatioilla on ennennäkemätöntä valtaa ihmisyksilöihin ja yhteiskuntaan. Moniin kulttuurintutkimuksenkin teorioihin vaikuttanut historioitsija Michel Foucault puhuu The History of Sexuality -teoksensa ensimmäisessä volymissa (1976) jopa biovallasta, jonka normatiivisten — siis ihmisiin tiedon ja tilastojen pikemmin kuin kieltojen ja sensuurin kautta vaikuttavien — teknologioiden hän esittää modernina aikana korvanneen hallintavallan ihmisten seksuaalisuuden, kuoleman ja ruumiiden säätelyssä.

Sekä biovallan että tabun teoriat ovat keskeisessä roolissa väitöskirjatutkimuksessani, jossa tarkastelen luonnottoman kuoleman kategoriassa sitkeästi pidetyn itsemurhan elokuvarepresentaatioita. Tarkastelen 50 Angloamerikkalaista vuoden 1985 jälkeen tuotettua elokuvaa, ja pohdin, millaisia merkityksiä elokuvat rakentavat itsemurhasta, millaisiin normatiivisiin keskusteluihin ne osallistuvat ja millaisia kulttuuriseen luokittelujärjestelmään kytkeytyviä arvolatautuneita tulkintoja ne rakentavat itsemurhasta. Oletan, että nämä elokuvat osallistuvat itsemurhan kesyttämiseen ja sen tabuluonteen rakentamiseen pikemmin kuin sen tabuaseman rikkomiseen.

Voisi siis sanoa, että tutkimustani ohjaa selvä teoreettinen viitekehys. Toisaalta voitaisiin myös kertoa tutkimusaiheeni löytäneen minut pikemmin kuin minun sen, koska innostuin näistä itsemurhan esittämiseen liittyvistä kysymyksistä aiempaa opinnäytettä tehdessäni.

Tutkimusta väitöskirjan ohessa ja kaksi tapausesimerkkiä

Vaikka yllä kuvailtu tutkimusasetelma vaikuttaa kuin taikaiskun kautta syntyneeltä, se on rajautunut lopulliseen muotoonsa vasta tutkimusprosessin edetessä eikä siten ole sisältänyt mitään ilmiselvää graduvaiheessa löytämistäni polttavista kysymyksistä huolimatta. Kun puhutaan tutkimusasetelman rakentamisesta, tutkimuskysymykset ovat aina riippuvaisia tutkimusaineistoista ja tutkimusaineistojen ja -metodien valinta aina sidoksissa siihen millaisia tutkimuskysymyksiä aineistolle esitetään, ja omani ovat vaihtuneet.

Tietynlainen tutkimuksellinen haahuilu onkin sallinut minun tarkastella väitöskirjani sivussa monenlaisia itseäni kiinnostaneita ilmiöitä. Itsemurhaelokuvien lisäksi olen tehnyt tapausesimerkkejä elokuvista Unfriended, The Moth Diaries ja Vanilla Sky, ja tarkastellut muun muassa Miley Cyruksen Video Music Awards -esiintymiseen liittynyttä kohua kesällä 2013, Image -lehden “Moomin of Finland” -skandaalia keväällä 2017, Dana Schutzin Open Casket -taideteoksen (2016) vastaanottoa kevään 2017 Whitney-biennaalissa, 13 Reasons Why -sarjaan liittynyttä kohua keväällä 2017, Game of Thrones -hahmo Hodorin kuolemaa seuranneita Hodor-ovikiilana -meemejä, lastenkulttuurisen DIY-liman YouTubevideoita, hyönteissyönnin mediaesityksiä ja suomalaisten poliittisten päättäjien kohtaamaa vihapuhetta osana laajempaa työryhmää.

Olen ohessa valinnut tarkempaan tarkasteluun sekä 13 Reasons Why -sarjan että Miley Cyrukseen liittyvän kohun. Aloitan 13 Reasons Why -sarjalla, joka on myös yksi väitöskirjaani sisällyttämistä tapausesimerkeistä.

13 Reasons Why -sarjaan liittynyt kohu 2017

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13 Reasons Why -Netflix-sarjan ensimmäiseen kauteen liittynyt kohu oli kiinnostava esimerkki väitöskirjaani liittyen, sillä siihen tartuttiin sellaisesta tartunnan pelosta käsin, joka on monella tapaa mielenkiintoinen itsemurhan tabuluonteisuuteen liittyen. Käsittelenkin sarjaa yhdessä neljästä väitöskirjaani sisällytetyistä artikkeleista ja kahdessa aiemmassa blogitekstissäni: tässä ja tässä.

Kyseessä on teinitytön itsemurhaa käsittelevä Netflix-sarja, jonka kolmessatoista jaksossa tarkastellaan sitä tapahtumaketjua, joka johtaa nuoren itsemurhaan. Sarja perustuu Jay Asherin kirjaan vuodelta 2013, ja sarjan julkaisun yhteydessä keväällä 2017 molemmat näistä joutuivat sensuurivaatimusten kohteeksi, joiden myötä nuorille suunnatun sarjan ikärajoja muutettiin ja jopa sarjasta keskustelemista pyrittiin rajoittamaan tietyissä englanninkielisissä kouluissa. Sisällöllisesti samankaltaisia elokuvia on julkaistu lukuisia, joten itseäni kiinnosti, mikä teki juuri tästä tapauksesta niin kiistanalaisen, että sitä ympäröinyt kohu rantautui jopa suomalaisiin otsikoihin.

  • Otin sarjan tarkasteluni kohteeksi kesällä 2017 kohun jo elettyä luonnollisen kaarensa läpi. Tutkimukseni koostui seuraavista osioista:
  • Sarjan analyysi, jonka myötä katsoin sarjan kokonaisuudessaan kaksi kertaa, tein kustakin jaksosta yleisluontoisen teema-analyysin ja valikoin erityistarkasteluun muutamia avainkohtauksia, jotka litteroin sekä dialogin että kuvakerronnan osalta ja joista tein kuvakaappauksia jatkoanalyysia varten.
  • Mediadiskurssien analyysi, jossa tarkastelun kohteena olivat erilaisissa sarjaan liittyvissä kirjoituksissa toistuvat käsitykset itsemurhasta ja itsemurhaa käsittelevistä elokuvista. Painotin erityisesti kriittisesti sarjaan suhtautuvia puheenvuoroja.

Tarkastelin mediatekstejä ja sarjaa suhteessa toisiinsa, ja myös kontekstualisoin sarjaa suhteessa siihen itsemurhaelokuviien kaanoniin, jota olin jo aiemmin tutkinut, sekä itsemurhaan, jonka kulttuurinen asema tabuna oli tutkimukseni ytimessä. Tekemiäni luentoja ohjasi yhtäältä kiinnostus sitä kohtaan, miksi niin monilta osin tavanomainen sarja aiheutti kohun, ja toisaalta itsemurhatartunnan käsitettä kohtaan. Perehdyin itsemurhatartuntaan liittyneeseen tieteelliseen keskusteluun ja käsitteen historiaan, ja koitin hahmotella sarjaan liittynyttä kohua tarkastelemalla, millaisia tekijöitä oli löydettävissä sarjasta itsestään ja mitä taas niistä erinäisistä mediumispesifeihin ja laajempiin kulttuurisiin konteksteista, joihin se asettui.

Kirjoitin tähän blogiini sarjasta esseistisen tekstin, jossa tarkastelin sarjaa suhteessa muuhun itsemurhaviihteeseen ja sitä kohdanneeseen ryöpytykseen, ja nostin esiin seikkoja, joissa se nähdäkseni puolsi paikkaansa tv-ruuduilla. Myöhemmin kirjoitin vielä tieteellisen artikkelin, jossa tarkastelin tarkemmin itsemurhatartunnan käsitettä tietynlaisena tabuhallinnan muotona. Valitsin vertailevaksi esimerkiksi The Moth Diaries -elokuvan, jonka kerronnassa tämä 13 Reasons Why -sarjan vastaanottoon vaikuttava itsemurhatartunta esiintyi paitsi vanhemmalta lapselle tarttuneessa itsemurhassa myös oivaltavan historiallisen esimerkin itsemurhatartunnan historialle tarjonneessa vampyyrimetaforassa.

Miley Cyrus Video Music Awards -gaalassa 2013

Miley Cyruksen Video Music Awards 2013 -gaalaesiintymiseen liittynyt kohu oli minusta kiinnostava monesta syystä. Ensinnäkin, Cyrus oli itselleni tuttu tapaus jo väitöskirjani alkuvaiheilta, jolloin hahmottelin laveammin seksuaalisuuteen ja kuolemaan liittyviä tabuja käsittelevää väitöskirjaa. Cyrus oli joutunut ensimmäisen skandaalinsa kohteeksi jo 15-vuotiaana esiintyessään Annie Leibovitzin ottamassa Vanity Fair -lehden kansikuvassa 2008 pelkkään lakanaan puettuna. Tapaus oli mielenkiintoinen tarkasteltaessa tabujen kytköstä kulttuurisiin kategorioihin — tässä hahmoteltaessa seksuaalisuuden tabujen kytköstä aikuisuuden ja lapsuuden välisiin rajanvetoihin. Samat motiivit tuntuivat toistuvan myös VMA-gaalan yhteydessä viisi vuotta myöhemmin. Olenkin monesti käsitellyt tapausta luennoillani, koska se on mielestäni vasrsin toimiva havainnollistus kulttuuristen tabujen ja visuaalisen kulttuurin kohujen välisestä suhteesta.

Vuoden 2013 kohussa oli kyse uudesta, aikuisemmasta imagosta, jonka avulla Hannah Montana -showssa suuren fanikunnan kerännyt ja Disneyn lapsitähtenä tunnettu 21-vuotias Cyrus pyrki murtautumaan musiikimarkkinoille. Cyrus lanseerasi uuden provokatiivisemman imagon uuden Bangerz-albuminsa julkaisun yhteydessä. Jo gaalaesitystä edeltänyt We Can’t Stop -single ja sen musiikkivideo saivat ristiriitaisen vastaanoton, ja elokuussa 2013 Cyrus twerkkasi VMA-gaalassa suurten yleisöjen kauhistukseksi latexbikineissä muovisella jättietusormella seksuaalisia eleitä tehden. Vanhemmat ja entiset fanit pahastuivat roolimallin huonosta käytöksestä, viihdemedian edustajat (toimittajat, kriitikot, bloggarit jne.) ilakoivat Cyruksen epäonnistuneen show:n kustannuksella ja rodullistetut yhteisöt kommentoivat (syystäkin) esitykseen sisältyneitä problemaattisia alistavia rakenteita.

Miley Cyrus twerkkaa myös taidehistorian klassikoita vasten seuraavassa Buzzfeedin humoristisessa jutussa: https://www.buzzfeed.com/jenlewis/miley-cyrus-twerks-on-famous-paintings

Artikkelissaan ”The Vexed History of Children and Sex” (2017) Beth Bailey nimittää lapsuuden ja aikuisuuden välisen rajan merkitsevän rajaa myös seksuaaliselle toimijuudelle, ja etenkin seksualisoivien katseiden alla kasvaville naisartisteille kyseessä on monesti hankala siirtymä. Cyrus ei suinkaan ole ensimmäinen lapsitähti, joka on joutunut kohun kohteeksi pyrkiessään siirtymään aseksuaaliseksi määritetystä lapsuudesta seksualisoidulle populaarimusiikin kentälle. Toki Cyrusin roisissa show’ssa oli monia muitakin kontroversiaalisia elementtejä, mitkä tekevät siitä itselleni sitäkin kiinnostavamman tapausesimerkin, kuten erilaisia “seksuaalisia performansseja” miehille ja naisille sallivat sukupuolinormit ja twerkkiin kytkeytyvät kulttuurisen appropriaation kysymykset.

Itseäni kiinnosti erityisesti Cyruksen lastenkulttuurisen aseman ja sukupuolinormien vaikutus häntä ympäröineisiin kohuihin. Tutkimusta tehdessäni tarkastelin seuraavia:

  • Millainen Cyruksen esiintyminen VMA-gaalassa oli visuaalisen kulttuurin tapauksena: millaisia elementtejä siinä oli puhtain silmin tarkasteltuna, ja millaisia elementtejä siitä nousi esiin kun esitystä tarkasteltiin joko teoreettisemmin orientoituneista lapsuuden perspektiivistä tai suhteessa sukupuolitettuihin seksuaalinormeihin.
  • Miten median edustajat uutisoivat Cyruksesta, ja miten toisaalta yleisöt reagoivat esiintymiseen sekä uutisten kommenttibokseissa että Twitterissä. Luin mediatekstejä ja esiintymistä sekä erillään että suhteessa toisiinsa, ja kiinnitin myös huomiota siihen, mitä esityksestä nousi esiin, kun sitä luettiin suhteessa mediateksteihin.

Tästä tapauksesta en ole ehtinyt kirjoittaa vielä, mutta kuten sanoin, olen käyttänyt sitä havainnollistavana esimerkkinä sitäkin useammin.

Olemme nyt saavuttaneet feikkiluentoni eli tämän blogitekstin lopun: tällaisia ovat minun näkökulmani ja tapani tehdä tutkimusta. Toivottavasti etenkin nämä kaksi tapausta avaavat kiinnostavia näkökulmia visuaalisen kulttuurin tutkimukseen ja taiteentutkimustaustan avaamiin tutkimusmahdollisuuksiin liittyen! Ja mikäli huomaat ajatusten tai kysymysten (esimerkiksi kirjallisuusluetteloon liittyen) heräävän, löydät yhteystietoni prezistä ja jostain päin tätä blogia!

Kuulumisia — ja Tracing Disgust -seminaari 18.-20.3.2020

Sarjakuvataidetta Liv Strömquistin Kielletty Hedelmä-teoksesta (2016)

Päivitin tänään julkaisut-välilehden ensimmäistä kertaa sitten elokuun 2019, ja tuumin, että voisi olla ajankohtaista koota yhteen viimeaikaisia tekemisiä myös varsinaisen blogin puolella.

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Kiinnostuin ruotsalaisen sarjakuvataiteilija ja yhteiskuntakriitikko Liv Strömquistin sarjakuvista sen verran, että kirjoitin Strömquistin tuotannosta kaksi kirja-arviota. Vulvan kulttuurihistoriaa luodanneesta sarjakuva-albumista Kielletty Hedelmä (2016) julkaistiin uusi painos vuonna 2018. Lähestyin teosta tabun ja stigman näkökulmasta Agricola-humanistiverkoston sivuilla. Sukupuolentutkimus -journaaliin kirjoitin Strömquistin Einsteinin Uusi Vaimo-teoksesta (2019), joka julkaistiin uudelleen editoituna juhlapainoksena Einsteinin Vaimo-teoksen (2009) pohjalta. Arviossani pohdin muun muassa sukupuolittuneiden affektien vaikutusta lukukokemukseen.

Sain kaksi pientä tilaustyötä kuolemaan liittyen. Nuoren voiman Iho-numeroon (3-4/2019), pääsin kirjoittamaan kolmesta kotimaisesta kuolemaa tarkastelleesta tekstistä: Astrid Swanin Viimeinen kirjani -muistelmasta, Katriina Huttusen Surun Istukka -teoksesta ja historiantutkija Ilona Pajarin kollegoineen julkaisemassa Suomalaisen kuoleman historia -artikkelikokoelmasta. Peilasin teoksia keskenään, ja pohdin tekstissäni kuolemiseen yhä liittyvää häpeätahraa. Kleion numerossa 3/2019 puolestaan käsittelin kuoleman kuvaamisen etiikkaa elokuvatutkija Michele Aaronin lanseeraamasta nekromantismi-käsitteestä ja rodullistamisesta käsin, joista molemmat tuovat ilmi kuoleman kuvakulttuurista eksotisointia ja toiseuttamista.

John Everett Millais’n maalaus Ophelia (1851) osana kuoleman nekromanttista kaanonia

Valtaosan vuodesta 2019 olin Valtioneuvoston kanslian tilaamassa Viha Vallassa -hankkeessa mukana projektitutkijana. Yhdessä hankkeen tutkijoiden Aleksi Knuutilan ja Tuija Saresman kanssa selvitimme suomalaisiin poliittisiin päättäjiin kohdistuvan vihapuheen määrää, laatua ja vaikutuksia, muun muassa haastattelemalla päättäjiä aiheesta eduskuntavaalien 2019 alla. Hankkeemme tuottama raportti julkaistiin Valtioneuvoston selvitys- ja tutkimustoiminnan julkaisusarjassa lokakuussa 2019. Hankkeesta myös raportoitiin laajasti mediassa. Julkaisuluettelosta löytyy omalta osaltani kaksi radioesiintymistä (Hyvä kysymys -podcastissa ja Ylen Politiikkaradiossa) sekä yhteistyössämme kirjoittama teksti Haaste-lehden vihapuhenumeroon. Tieteellisen kirjoittamisen osalta työ on vasta alussa: olemme edelleen Knuutilan ja Saresman (sekä hankkeen asiantuntijoiden Paula Haaran ja Reeta Pöyhtärin) kanssa kirjoittamassa hankkeen tuloksista.

Yksi Sirpa Variksen Jytten kampanjaa varten piirtämistä sarjakuvista

Kirjoitin Jyväskylän tieteentekijöissä (jonka hallitusjäsenenä ja tiedottajana toimin) toteuttamastamme sarjakuvakampanjasta jo aiemmassa päivityksessä. Tuolloin puolet kampanjan tuloksena syntyneistä, sarjakuvataiteilija Sirpa Variksen piirtämistä sarjakuvista oli julkaistu Johanna Turusen kanssa laatimiemme saatetekstien kanssa Acatiimi -lehdessä. Sittemmin viimeisetkin sarjakuvat saateteksteineen on julkaistu Acatiimissä, numeroissa 7/2019 ja 8/2019. Näin tutkijoiden kohtaamaa vihapuhetta, mikä on aiheena valitettavan ajankohtainen, ja kansainvälisten tutkijoiden kohtaamia syrjinnän muotoja luodanneet sarjakuvat ovat saaneet kavereikseen erityisesti nuorten tutkijoiden jaksamiseen ja naistutkijoiden asemaan akatemiassa pureutuneet sarjakuvat saatteineen. Tällä kertaa kiitokset kuuluvat erityisesti Tieteentekijöiden yhdistyskoordinaattori Miia Ijäs-Idrobolle, joka kommentoi saatetekstien luonnoksia! Sarjakuvista on myös tuotettu englanninkieliset versiot, jotka on tarkoitus julkaista pian Jytten blogissa.

Mainitun lisäksi olen mm. luennoinut historiallisella Jyväskylä Pride-viikolla kollegani Joonas Säntin kanssa, opastanut kollegani Tuija Saresman kanssa Jyväskylän Kesän osanottajia nykytaiteilija Emma Ainalan feministiseen taiteeseen Jyväskylän taidemuseon festivaaliohjelmistossa ja tarkastellut hyönteissyöntiä Kööpenhaminassa Foodways & Identity -konferenssissa (18.-22.11.2020). Ja, suurimpana saavutuksena, pusertanut viimein väitöskirjani johdannon valmiiksi. Tätä kappaletta kirjoittaessani päätinkin lopettaa ihmettelemästä, miten en ole ehtinyt päivittää blogia.

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Tänään päivänvalon näki Ilmiömediaan kollegani Susanne Ylösen kanssa kirjoittamamme artikkeli tee-se-itse-limasta ja sitä kohdanneista mediakehyksistä, joiden koimme sukupuolittavan ja “kotoistavan” ilmiötä.

— Oikein sopivaan aikaan, sillä ensi viikolla keskiviikosta perjantaihin (18.-20.3.2020) toteutuu Jyväskylän yliopistolla järjestämämme kansainvälinen Tracing Disgust -seminaari. Kolmipäiväisessä seminaarissa tarkastelemme inhoa mm. sosiologiasta, kulttuurintutkimuksesta ja filosofiasta käsin, ja ohjelmistossa käsiteltävät aiheet vaihtelevat lihavuudesta etniseen identiteettiin ja äitiyteen liittyviin kielteisiin tunteisiin. Kooltaan pieni seminaari toteutuu etäyhteyksien sallimana, mikäli hallitus ei kiristä toimiaan Suomen korona-tilanteen hallitsemiseksi, ja tarjonnee mielenkiintoisia perspektiivejä pandemian symbolisten ja affektiivisten ulottuvuuksien kartoittamiseksi. Itse pääsen seminaarin myötä pohtimaan jälleen hyönteissyöntiä ja sen mediaesityksiä. Seminaarin pääpuhujina toimivat filosofian professori Sara Heinämaa ja markkinoinnin professori Jeffrey Podoshen, joiden yleisöluentojen teemoista voi lukea lisää Jyväskylän yliopiston tiedotteesta.

Tällä hetkellä työn alla on seminaarijärjestelyjen ja vihepuheprojektin julkaisujen lisäksi oma artikkeli, jossa tarkastelen itsemurhan yhteiskunnallista uhkaa kahdesta nykyelokuvasta käsin, sekä useampia yhteistyöartikkeleita mm. Bong-Joon Ho:n Parasite-elokuvaan (2019). HBO:n True Blood– sarjaan (2008-2014) ja Ninja Theoryn Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice -videopeliin (2019) liittyen. Ja mikäli kaikki Suomen kansalaiset määrättäisiin kotikaranteeniin, ei haittaisi: näiden kirjoitustöiden lisäksi voisin nukkua ja lukea Brahen antikvariaatista löytämiäni kirjoja.

Edit:// Seminaari jouduttiin perumaan. Luen siis kirjoja. Palaamme asiaan kartoitettuamme mahdollisuuksia järjestää seminaari myöhempänä ajankohtana.