Visibility Matters: The Pursuit of American Belonging in an Age of Moving Images

by Distelberg, Brian Joseph, Ph.D., YALE UNIVERSITY, 2015, 329 pages; 3663476

Abstract:

Visibility Matters examines the history of a long-held American conviction: that to be fully present and fairly portrayed in movies and on television is both a prelude to other forms of inclusion and, in itself, an essential part of national belonging. Virtually since the birth of the motion picture as a commercial entertainment with a mass audience in the 1910s, through the movies' maturation and then their midcentury battle with television for supremacy, and on to the rise of network television as the predominant medium for mass entertainment by the 1960s and 1970s, this conviction prompted racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and eventually other marginalized social groups as well, to criticize what they saw on screen, and to organize and agitate to change it. In their pursuit of fair representation, they studied and analyzed moving images and their effects, picketed and boycotted particular pictures and programs, appealed to governments to regulate screen content and diversify employment in the motion picture and television industries, and negotiated directly with producers for specific changes in content and to facilitate routine consultation. Even as Irish Americans and Jews, African Americans and women, and Latinos and gays and lesbians struggled to dismantle the legal, political, and social structures that enforced their marginalization, many were preoccupied by whether people like them were fairly represented on screen. They were certain that their visibility mattered.

Offering a contextualized history of this persistent certitude, Visibility Matters probes a series of key moments between the mid-1910s and the late 1970s in order to lay bare the roots of this notion, trace its development, and weigh its implications. During the twentieth century, racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups staked claims to full citizenship and seized some share of the political and cultural power once wielded by a narrow and more homogenous elite. Simultaneously, new mass cultural forms and media technologies fundamentally altered how Americans spent their leisure time, learned about the modernizing world around them, and participated in politics and governance. In tracing the history of this evolving but persistently powerful way of thinking—one that viewed political and cultural incorporation as tightly interconnected goals—Visibility Matters provides a novel perspective on the diversification of U.S. society and the mediation of U.S. culture during the twentieth century, on the deep entanglement of these two momentous transformations, and on the changes they together wrought in American life. As it does so, it also illuminates Americans' varied and shifting understandings of citizenship and national belonging, of prejudice, and of the influence and political significance of mass entertainment. Finally, it sheds light on the constant but evolving interactions among different marginalized groups and social movements, and it highlights the persistently central role played by African Americans in consolidating the widely-understood common sense that banishing negative tropes and stereotypes in American moving images was a key step toward full belonging for any social group. The broad embrace of the well-traveled notion that visibility matters, and the particular ways in which it was articulated at different moments and by different groups—including the conflicting visions with which it was pursued permits a fresh understanding of the centrality of race and racial struggle in twentieth-century America; of the varying dynamics of exclusions rooted in race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; and of the divergent fortunes of different marginalized groups over the course of the century.

AdviserGeorge Chauncey
SchoolYALE UNIVERSITY
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAfrican American studies; Black history; American history; Mass communication
Publication Number3663476

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