Politix: The Cultural Politics of Netflix

Politix: The Cultural Politics of Netflix


Hi, my name’s Tom and welcome or welcome back to my channel and the first episode in a new miniseries which I’m (slightly
pretentiously) calling Politix, or, Neoliberalism and Chill. As the more
perceptive of you will have already worked out, it’s about Netflix
and politics and the point at which the two meet. And by this I don’t mean
Netflix’s various forays into political drama (although these will undoubtably play a part), instead I mean the slightly broader notion of how Netflix’s programming and
productions engage with the contemporary society around them. Now, like anyone who
makes videos in order to kind of educate or in some way provoke, my aim is to
always make these as short and engaging as they can be. However, I’m also aware
that I’ve created a probably 20 and a few minutes video just introducing this
series. And I can see that that might seem a little counterproductive. However,
before I set about analysing a set of Netflix originals (a process that would
take up most of this series), what I wanted to do was provide two things. The
first is a rationale for doing so; I want to convince you that this is a
worthwhile pursuit and hopefully to persuade you to watch each episode as
they trickle out (on a probably less than perfect schedule). The second thing is to
provide something of a background to some of these videos and into Netflix
generally as well as to introduce some of the theoretical concepts that I’ll be
working with as we go into the rest of the videos. See, YouTube is full of video
essays on various elements of pop culture. In fact, I’ll be surprised if any of the
series I delve into in this one have less than five or ten other videos
dedicated to taking them apart in some way. Most of them, however, are far more
video than essay. Now, that’s not me throwing shade, I think anyone who is thinking
critically about society and culture and then disseminating those thoughts is doing something both brave and, in many ways, important.
But, as someone who ended up doing this whole YouTube thing because I wanted to
throw a bit of light behind the curtain of post-grad study, I also wanted to see
if I can bring some of that academic technique into what I think is areally
exciting format. So, what I can’t promise you is that these videos will be laugh out
loud hilarious or that I can adopt that vocal quality that is both soothing and
provoking at the same time that many other people who make these kind of
videos do. What I hope to be able to do is to ensure that, instead, they’ll be
well researched and (to a certain level) academically rigorous. Overall, what I
want this series to have is a velocity. I don’t want to borrow your time so that
I can make a tiny point about a particular show, some obvious point about
camera angles or the use of grayscale probably. YouTube (and particularly the
algorithmic dependence on keywords and tags) does lend itself well to these,
hence my splitting up of this series into little videos rather than just
doing some kind of feature-length documentary (although that also does
sound mega daunting). Instead, I want to explore the relationship between Netflix
(particularly a selection of Netflix Originals to date) and the society around
us. Particularly, I’m interested in how each of these series engage with and
present to us the contemporary neoliberal capitalist
system, what it suggests its benefits and flaws are and, finally, what do these
works taken as a whole suggests that the most pressing questions hanging over
society today might be. Before we go any further, if you think this might be an
interesting series, then I would be absolutely chuffed to bits
if you hit subscribe down below and perhaps that little notification which
will let you know when new videos come out. And, equally, as we move forward
through this video and the next and the next, if you have any questions or
thoughts then I have a pretty good track record of getting back to everyone who
pops something down in the comments and incorporating those thoughts into
future videos. So, Netflix has been in the news a lot lately. It has recently been
firming up its grip on being the largest streaming service
in multiple markets. Even back in 2016, Netflix could often be said to account
for up to one third of North American Internet traffic at any given time.
A more recent report by the (slightly suspect) media analysis company ComScore
suggested that, of those households which subscribed to at least one streaming
package, seventy-five percent used Netflix and used it more than any other
service. In the UK, the data is similarly strong for the company. 2017 was the
first year in which the number of homes taking at least one streaming service
broke 10 million–by my further research that’s around forty five percent of the
country–of this 10 million, 8.2 million held a Netflix subscription. As a
distribution company then, Netflix is smashing it. Yet, it is interesting that,
when discussing Netflix, we instinctively tend towards discussing it as a
technology. Despite the company’s continuous journey since the release of
House of Cards season 1 in 2013 towards not just content distribution but
content production. Even my use of the word content there, which I found myself
instinctively using in preparing this video, frames the cultural texts (the TV
series’ and films that Netflix distributes) as little more than widgets
for the technology to pop out. In the introduction to their edited collection
of essays The Netflix Effect, McDonald & Smith-Rousey highlight the significance of
this remaking of Netflix from only being a distributor to being a studio. They
suggest that ‘if there is a singular Netflix effect it may simply be that
technology and entertainment are merging at an accelerating rate and seriously
impacting the business and economics of mass media’. In short, the technology and
cultural texts of Netflix cannot be viewed independently but must be
discussed in tandem. See, while the Netflix algorithm gets a fair bit of
slack (and often for good reason), if you take the time to view the home screen of
someone with an entirely different taste than
yourself, you will see a vastly different Netflix. And thus, despite its flaws, it
does have a significant role in how we consume media. Like on this site,
algorithmic suggestions funnel us into ever more specific niches. If you’ve
watched my What the Theory video on cultural hegemony (which I will link up
in the corner above) you’ll recognize some similarities here between the way
in which ideas become deeply ingrained in society and the way in which
algorithms perpetually present us with similar kinds of content. And yet, even
that very book I mentioned a moment ago which has the statement about the
inseparability of technology and culture when it comes to Netflix on page 2,
largely (though with one or two exceptions) still focuses on analyzing
the technology behind the service without taking a meaningful critical
approach to the texts delivered by it. This is not new. Whenever a new mode of
storytelling has dawned, the earliest tendency has often been to talk about
them in terms of form rather than content. Examples of this are present in
early commentary on both film and television.
Jonathan Gray and Amanda D. Lotz suggest that it wasn’t until the 1970s
when television programs began to be critically engaged with as meaningful
cultural texts rather than simply examples of the application of a
technology. That’s 40 years after the first station began broadcasting. But we
also see examples of such a skepticism towards new forms of culture at least as
far back as the popularization of the modern novel in 18th century England. As
Louis James rightly points out, it is impossible to discuss the popularization
of the novel without discussing the decreasing cost of print reproduction
enabled by the Industrial Revolution. His signposting to commentary produced at
the time, again, shows much of the commentary surrounding the novel
discussed the potential societal dangers of this new print technology
rather than the narrative or artistic content of the novels themselves. As Terry Eagleton points out, TS Eliot also refused to treat the
vast majority of novels as a form worthy of critical analysis. Those he did
discuss, he approached as poetry, thereby ignoring the specificity of the form.
Perhaps we might suggest that there is a similar notion here to the American
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decision to continue to
disallow films which debut via streaming to be considered for the Oscars. For the
most part, however, streamed culture has avoided these kind of direct criticisms.
Largely, I think we might suggest due to the clear inheritance between Netflix
Originals and Amazon Prime originals etc and traditional broadcast television.
What I would argue, then, is that there have been two main approaches to
discussing Netflix’s output thus far. The first has been to discuss it simply as
technology and only as technology and the second has been to discuss the
cultural texts put out by Netflix as being absolutely no different from those
broadcast on traditional television service. Now, many would probably argue
that this latter endeavor is entirely appropriate. Behind the scenes perhaps
there is little difference between the writing pre-production filming and
post-production of a program destined for Netflix than one which might end up
on the BBC, HBO or other broadcast channels. For some tasks the old
analytical tools might still do the job. If you want to discuss focal lengths or
dialogue or lighting in a bubble then the same theoretical approaches will
still apply. Yet, when we come to discuss Netflix Originals within their wider
social, political and cultural contexts I don’t think we can suggest that the same
concepts might apply that we might have used to discuss broadcast television.
Indeed, I would argue that the manner in which we receive these texts has changed
so much that we need to find new ways to discuss them. Writing in 1974, the
cultural critic Raymond Williams introduced the idea of flow into academic
discussions of television programming. Broadcast television is perhaps typified by choice and in the decades after Williams was writing this would become
even more so with satellite television and cable television etc. His observation,
then, was that channel programmers, on constructing an evening’s television, would do their best to ensure as smooth a flow as possible between one program and the
next. Even when there was a considerable difference in form (perhaps a news report
following a drama following a game show), there was a considerable effort to
ensure that the viewers stuck around. Data from the time showed that if
someone (or perhaps a family or group of housemates) were to start watching a
particular channel at the beginning of an evening, well put together
flowing programming would ensure they stuck around for the duration of that
evening. Thus, despite the increasing presence of choice, viewers were fairly
unlikely to act upon it. Perhaps we might view the auto-playing of a series from
one episode to the next as being a more contemporary example of this concept of
flow enabled by Netflix’s decision to more often release every episode of a
series simultaneously. However, there is also a further significant development
in the fact tha,t with a streaming service, even when we do take up the
option to switch away from one program to another, the algorithmic suggestions
supplied still keep us within a certain type of content: I might switch away from
House of Cards to find myself watching Designated Survivor, I might leave behind
Orange is the New Black only to be pointed towards Glow. Thus, through
gradually combining the distribution of cultural texts with the creation of them,
Netflix has garnered a huge power over what we watch. Even when, within its
system, we exercise our choice, our choices are limited by those algorithms.
When placing the programs produced by Netflix within their wider cultural
contacts, then, I think we need to find new ways to discuss them. We might still
use the words television as though there was no difference between broadcast
television and Netflix, but I simply don’t think this is the case and that
streamed cultural texts present us with something of a new cultural form. This
doesn’t mean I’m gonna discuss every single Netflix Original to date, however,
it does mean that I think we need to take a broader look at what these texts
say when we put them together. In this series, then, I want to take a broad look
at multiple programs that Netflix is putting out because I don’t think in
this contemporary climate we can look at individual programs as we might have
done with broadcast television. It’s perhaps worth me underlining at this
point that I don’t believe Netflix to be an evil organization aiming to push some
particular ideology upon us. The work presented by the platform is certainly
diverse, it would be a very hard to argue that something such as the Mark Wahlberg
produced Shooter has a similar message (for want of a better word) as Judd Apatow
and Paul Rust’s Love. The concept of ideology is often misunderstood. The
casually taken view is often that, to discuss ideology and film is to suggest
that a director or screenwriter has sat down and decided that their work will
push a particular point of view upon the viewer. While this is undoubtedly
sometimes the case it is not what the critique of ideology sets out to argue.
In preparing for this series I rewatched Slavoj Žižek and Sophie Fiennes’
collaborations The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Perverts Guide to
Ideology both of which make ample use of the term ideology. However, as Žižek
himself states in the latter film, ideology is not simply imposed on
ourselves, ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world. How we
perceive its meaning and so on and so on. We, in a way, enjoy our
Ideology. To discuss ideology in film then is often to simply point out which
conceptions of society are carried over into a film uncritically. To take a
rather blunt example to unpack this a little further, to suggest that the film
American Sniper carried within it pro- war and pro-american interventionism
ideologies is not to also suggest that the makers of that film were setting out
to indoctrinate the masses into supporting the American war machine.
Instead, it’s simply to highlight that the film takes a less than critical
approach to discussions of the human and geopolitical impact of interventionism. In this series, however, I don’t plan on making a huge use of the term
ideology; I’m looking at multiple programs rather than one and I think to
suggest that Netflix overall has some broad ideology which runs between all
its programs would be reductive and naive. Instead, I’m far more interested in
what these programs taken as a whole suggest might be the questions at the
forefront of society today. What are the issues and themes that
Netflix Originals are engaging with and suggesting might be the questions that
society needs to find answers to. To do so is to use, rather than ideology,
another term from Raymond Williams ‘structures of feeling’, first used in his
book Preface to Film and regularly throughout his career. Williams was
interested not necessarily in the ideologies that individual cultural
texts seem to incorporate but instead what multiple texts produced by a given
society might suggest that the big questions that society was asking of
itself at a particular period in time and space were. So, let’s briefly take a
look at what that political context is. This is something which is going to be
quite broad sweeping in this video but we’ll go into a little bit more detail
depending on what’s relevant for each subsequent video. The West (for want of a
better term) is undeniably presided over by a system of neoliberal capitalism.
Since the 1980s, power has increasingly been ceded by democratically elected
politicians in favor of the free market. Although instigated by politicians on
the right notably Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, this trajectory has
been continued by those in what others called the political centre including Bill
Clinton, Tony Blair in the UK and indeed Barack Obama. Under these latter
administrations what neoliberalism gained was a supposed social conscience.
While continuing programs of privatization and deregulation, this more
recent period of neoliberalism has incorporated issues of social
marginalization along the lines of gender, sexuality and race into its very
fabric. While present administration’s might seem outwardly hostile to such
groups when we look at the marketing campaigns of large corporations we can
seen how capitalists have identified that forwarding the social emancipation
of such groups can be a good PR move. This, however, has its limits. Pepsi’s
Black Lives Matter inspired Superbowl advert is perhaps indicative of this.
While their marketing and PR may engage in very broad anti-racist discourses,
it’s unlikely that we will see them call for significant reform of the US
Police Service or for vast series of economic reforms that might have a
positive effect on working-class Americans across ethnicities. My
preconception is that it is in this gap where Netflix’s programming will sit: an
acknowledgment that there are major social inequalities in the world today
however a suggestion that these can be fixed within some of the larger
capitalist structures which exist around them and support them. Netflix is
certainly not the only way through which we absorb culture in 2018, it’s not even
the only way in which we watch television.
However it’s becoming increasingly clear that Netflix is having an increasing
role in deciding what we do and don’t watch. As such, I think it’s both
interesting to but also very important to put Netflix’s flagship output under
the microscope. I’m not just interested in where these programs agree but also where they disagree, where they contest one another and
contradict one another. I can’t promise a particularly regular posting schedule
(I’m usually pretty bad at that anyway) so that may occasionally be a few episodes
and a flurry and then a month without any at all. However, I hope you will stick
around to watch the rest of the episodes in this series. There will probably be
around five or maybe six episodes and at the end I’m really keen to provide a
kind of conclusion episode in which we kind of synthesize some of the things
that we’ve looked at throughout the particular episodes which will look at
particular programs, to provide some kind of broad synthesis in the same way that
I’ve dedicated an entire video to introducing this series. So, I hope you
will join me on this project and I look forward to finding out what we discover
together. Thank you very much for watching this video, I hope it’s provided
something of an insight into the series that is to come. I’m still going to be
putting together some other content as well, particularly where we looked at
neoliberalism a bit earlier in this video I’m keen to do a What the Theory
video on that just to really unpack that a little bit further which should sit
nicely alongside this series. If you would like to watch these videos, or any
of my other stuff as it comes out, then please do consider subscribing and,
if you have any thoughts then please do put those in the comments down below.
Thank you so much for watching and have a great week!

20 thoughts on “Politix: The Cultural Politics of Netflix

  1. Would love to hear your thoughts on this new series and what direction you might see it going in. Really excited to take some of the concepts we've been exploring in my What The Theory? series and putting them into practice!

  2. Ah, so is this basically a Frankfurt school/cultural Marxist look at Netflix shows, and possibly Netflix in general? It looks very interesting

  3. I'm really really looking forward to this, I love film theory and I love political analyses! Your channel is still so small but the quality is amazing and I'm confident you're going to blow up!

  4. Hey Tom – wondering if you have tips for remembering what you’ve read, particularly as it concerns books. Do you just take extensive notes? I think I sometimes get discouraged from reading because it ends up feeling like I’m not going to remember it anyway.

  5. 18:50 We will not reform the "US police service" because statistically it is the opposite it is portrayed in advertising and media. In 2015, a police officer was 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male was to be killed by a police officer. This statistic is everything. https://nypost.com/2017/09/26/all-that-kneeling-ignores-the-real-cause-of-soaring-black-homicides/

  6. Don't spend the first 5 mins of each describing what you are going to talk about in the video. Just do it! That's like a 1/4 of the video gone

  7. This is exactly the kind of content that I have been wanting from YouTube. Looking forward to listening. Cheers

  8. Netflix doesn't have a ideology through the whole program? Is there any show which doesn't endorse the ideology of equality as social justice, one world and more or less aggressive feminism?

  9. Hey Tom, I have some advice for you. Please watch a view videos from the YouTube channels "My Mechanics" or "Marcello Berenghi" or "Painting with Dusan". The first is an antique restoration channel and the latter two are art channels, none of which has anything to do with your topics, but the point in showing you them is to help you to understand the power of just diving right in without any commentary "foreplay". What you have to say in this video about Netflix's having a political agenda and being a propaganda machine is very important and right on the money, but you take what seems an eternity to get to it. Cut out all the fluff and just dive right in please. On behalf of the YouTube Universe, please!

  10. wow, ive just found this channel and i think your idea of analysing the content of netflix in our present content is a great idea. among several film students (and most professors) media made by streaming services are still a bit of a "guilty pleasure", a lower form of ~cinema~ that doesnt lend itself to much critical thought. im glad to see someone realize its potential as a tool of analysing what our current climate is saying through our entertainment.
    as an aside, ive seen snippets of the a series of unfortunate events series in your opening series montage, which as a (guilty) fan look very much forward to. the original books' fan community alone, revived by the news of the netflix show, has done some great analysis of what the series has to say about modern youth, but as the series has ended and has never enjoyed the popularity of shows like stranger things or house of cards, actual video essays about a series of unfortunate events are unfortunately scarce. i hope, despite its lack of success, you may still talk about what it did and how it chose to portray its heroes, its villains and the questions of what maturity and morality entails.

  11. In India Twitter trending with #bannetflixindia because it's all Indian original is Hinduphobic and anti India

    Rip Netflix 🙏🙏🙏🙏

  12. This is great – I find your method of analysis very interesting, so i have subscribed to your channel og plan to see the lot over the next few days. I may eventually use some of your ideas in my own work, may I do that? If so, how would you like me to credit you?

  13. Hey there mate

    Not throwing any shade here. Just wanted to add some constructive critisism.
    You mention this whole deal of being aware that you made a 21 minute vide and that you usually do your best to keep it short. Now that's all finde an dandy with me, i dont mind a twenty minute video aslong as it's wellmade. But now i'm 2:49 minutes into the video, and you are still going on about why you made this so long. That's a whole minute that could've been shaved off the video. By just starting after stating that you are aware of the length and hope we dont mind. Instead of making it even longer.

    I'll get back to watching the rest of the video now. 🙂

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