By: Kendal Clark
In the dark of the night, huge waves crash against the deck of a ship as the crew desperately tries to pull in their crab pots. Amid sweeping shots of the mountains and ocean, and a generous number of close-ups of soaring bald eagles, brave crews battle the elements to harvest crab. Over these slow motion images we hear the narration: “October. Dutch Harbour, Alaska. Twenty-four hours before the start of the king crab season. Captains and crews brace for departure. Unusual weather, and larger quotas will test Captains’ resolve. For the next thirteen weeks the rush is on to claim the 70 million dollar bounty of the Bering Sea.” The start of the king crab season also signals the beginning of the twelfth season of Deadliest Catch.
Deadliest Catch, with its video games, merchandise and a number of spin-offs, is a widely recognizable reality television show. Its success has inspired a tidal wave of similar shows that focus on workers in the primary sector; arguably, resource-focused reality television is its own sub-genre. For my Master’s project I am systematically analyzing the way that nature and human-environment relations are represented in resource-focused reality tv, looking specifically at shows about commercial fishing, mining, or logging. When I describe my research the reaction I receive normally begins with intrigue or enthusiasm and ends with a blunt question: “why”? Well, the answer is that the constant flood of images people see in the media impact the way that they understand the world around them. In the case of resource-focused reality tv, what do images of primarily male crews battling the hostile wilderness say to audiences about society and the world around them?
In Summer 2016, I sampled and conducted discourse analysis on 100 different episodes across 15 different series that focused on primary sector activities. The first challenge was to determine which themes are integral to attracting audiences and telling stories about cast members, and, of these, which ones to focus deeper interpretive attention on. You have all these pieces, but how do they intersect? What is missing or isn’t being said, and why? Based on existing literature in political ecology, feminist geography, and media studies, I decided to focus on the themes of masculinity and nationalism, and examine/characterize the ways that they underlie human-environment relations in the shows. For example, while there is some variance across series and different resources, it is very common for story arcs to rest on the antics of and challenges faced by hyper-masculine cast members battling a feminized Mother Nature not willing to easily give up her bounty.
Now closer to finishing my project, I see discourse analysis as a learning process. As you immerse yourself in your data, which for me means watching and re-watching the episodes in my sample, you draw together different threads that can be interpreted in ways that tell about the possible societal meanings and implications of these shows. Coming to new understanding in this manner is a challenging but satisfying process.
Here group members (and sometimes colleagues and friends from our wider network!) write blog entries about interests, questions, and projects.