Sara Friedman- Watching Twin Bracelets in China

Friedman, S. (2006). “Watching Twin Bracelets in China: The role of spectatorship and identification in an ethnographic analysis of film reception.” Cultural Anthropology 21:4, 603-632.

603- This article asks what an ethnographic approach to media reception can teach us about the processes of identification and disavowal that take place when Chinese audiences consume popular culture images…I focus more narrowly on viewer responses to media production that is both fictional and ostensibly “about them.”

603-604- This work often seeks to show that audiences are neither simply passive recipients of mass culture messages nor exclusively fixed in predetermined modes of viewing. I examine viewers’ responses with a slightly different goal in mind: to probe more deeply into what audiences do with media texts at the moment of consumption, particularly when they experience those texts as representing their own lives and communities.

604- First, I examine how Chinese viewers’ responses to Twin Bracelets reveal a broader concern with how they are depicted in media images. Put another way, I address how their commentaries pose challenges to specific genres of representation. Second, I explore how their commentary takes the form of particular kinds of stories that both grant viewers agency and simultaneously reinforce key themes that viewers themselves criticize in media portrayals for being inaccurate and even offensive.

606– As Shanlin viewers used the film as a platform for asserting their own account of their lives, their stories mirrored and reinforced key features of the very genre they sought to contest.

607- Shanlin audiences engaged in an ongoing commentary about the scenes on-screen and the movie’s connection to their own lives and community history.

610- Furthermore, both the bus driver’s depiction of local customs and the photographer’s astonished response confirm that Twin Bracelets is part of a genre of films that portray Hui’an women as at once backward and oppressed and yet exotic in their difference. Here I use the concept of genre as more than a shared set of formal linguistic or stylistic elements.

611- By viewing Twin Bracelets in part as a realistic account of their community, Shanlin viewers refused the “submissive” spectatorial engagement demanded by a fiction film (Sobchack 1999:245) and actively engaged the film through stories that redefined it on their own terms.

618- In fact, we might say that Shanlin women treated Twin Bracelets itself as a performance of speaking bitterness that demanded the repetition of similar narratives from the audience. In using bitterness speech, older viewers turned suku away from its grounding in the goals of socialist liberation and national construction and made film watching into a pedagogical project of a different sort.

624- Shanlin viewers did not merely “talk back” to cinematic images by questioning their authenticity; they also reinterpreted scenes using personal tales and accounts of their own community history. They thus chal- lenged a dominant genre of representation that had reduced their lives and practices to stock figures (the Hui’an woman) and fixed explanations (such as that conveyed by the bus driver). Choosing to attack some dimensions of the film while remaining silent about others, viewers of different generations adopted spectatorial positions that also served pedagogical purposes by creatively deploying familiar narrative genres to lay claim to and at times to redefine both their past and present lives.

625- Processes of identification and disavowal play an important role in structuring viewers’ engagement with media and film and in revealing what is at stake in the circulation of specific genres and types of images.


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