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Media in Transition 4: Why Some Stories Replicate Across Media, Cultures, Historical Eras (MIT Communications Forum)

05/06/2005 1:30 PM Wong
William Uricchio, Professor of Comparative Media Studies; ; Thomas Pettitt, Associate Professor of English, University of Southern Denmark; Richard Howells, Senior Lecturer in Communications Arts and Postgraduate Research Tutor, Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds; Janet Staiger, William P. Hobby Centennial Professorship in Communication, University of Texas, Austin

Description: True stories and their fictional spin-offs -- especially bloody ones -- occupy an enduring spot in western culture. Thomas Pettitt's specialty, the "murdered sweetheart" tale, emerged from medieval times to seize hold of the public imagination in England and Scandinavia over several centuries. The story, involving a seduced girl, her murder by a lover, and the lover's death, stems from some long-lost actual case. Publishers cranked out ballads based on this story, with helpfully lurid woodcut illustrations. In this "highly successful genre," says Pettitt, "marketing strategies" distilled the "shocking and juicy story" down to the bare bones. "I sometimes wonder if the weapon of choice was a knife because it rhymes conveniently with wife," muses Pettitt.

The sinking of the Titanic sparked a media frenzy all too familiar these days: reporters rowed out to meet survivors, so they could wire their newspapers first. Richard Howells takes stock of this tragedy and its media manipulation over time. First the Edwardians "celebrated the heroism, triumph, Anglo-Saxon pluck and courage" of the voyagers, with newsreels (including one a month after the tragedy), postcards, sheet music and records. Later, fiction films exploited the story as a fable about the emerging middle class. In our own times, with the epic James Cameron film and assorted merchandise including Titanic software, and beer, Howells sees the Titanic as an "allegory for decline, disaster, decadence and doom 'and finally as kitsch-entertainment." As a modern myth, the Titanic has become "a multimedia narrative."

Janet Staiger finds lots of reasons for storytelling, from the anthropological to the psychoanalytical. But she emphasizes "economic explanations: the standardization of stories for a capitalist purpose." We know that a murdered sweetheart ballad "will be a seller," so it can be premarketed and mass-produced. Some stories get yoked to particular characters, and others can wander more freely across formulas. Staiger compares Barbie and Cinderella, stuck in their plot lines, to Batman, who can show up in detective, adventure, parody or melodrama form. The "ability to sell figures separate from a formula enhances their capacity for capitalization," says Staiger.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

Tape #: T19978

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