The Netflix Global Dossier: Role-playing for Unlearning U.S.-centrism
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Teaching “global media” at a higher education institution in the United States inevitably means contending with students’ previous assumptions about this country’s and its media industries’ place within the world. Some students may have already been exposed to worldviews outside the U.S., whether through personal travel, conversations with family members, participation in high school programs, or upon entry into higher education. Yet this is unlikely to be the case for all students, and even those domestic students who may consider themselves “well-traveled” may have never had to critically examine their privileges as U.S.-based subjects. While engaging international students in discussions about non-U.S. perspectives may lead to productive discoveries, such engagement requires being careful to avoid tokenizing the international student as a sole representative of “their” culture. Importantly, I have often found that ethnic and racial diversity within the student body does not always guarantee a more thoughtful understanding of transnational difference, particularly when evidence of such diversity remains uncritically understood under the celebratory notion of the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants,” an ideology that obscures the violence with which migrant subjects have been and continue to be treated by the United States.
For all these reasons, unlearning the vices of U.S.-centrism appears to me to be one of the most pressing objectives of a global media course. I understand this objective as fundamentally different from attempts to decenter the U.S. in the teaching of global media and cultures. Decentering requires offering complementary and competing perspectives that expand students’ points of reference, thus avoiding replicating the longstanding foremost position that U.S. media holds in the Western global imaginary. Unlearning U.S.-centrism requires tackling the problem head-on and devising teaching strategies that draw attention to, and promote critical self-reflection of, the implicit assumptions students may bring about the role of the United States and its media institutions in the world.
In my global media course, I have sought to foster this unlearning through an assignment called “The Netflix Global Dossier.” In this assignment, students pretend to write a dossier as if they were an industry executive for Netflix hoping to greenlight two original series within a particular country. The assignment guides students through this process with a series of three deliverables. First, students must select one country and watch the pilot episodes for at least five Netflix original series from that country. They choose two series to write about and turn in their first deliverable, a brief explanation of their selection, including mentions of any stylistic or narrative features that resonated with them based on their familiarity with U.S. television fare. Second, students perform a political economic analysis of the selected country by summarizing the state of its current television industries, including content regulations, available internet infrastructures, and popular types of programming. The final deliverable represents the bulk of the assignment. Based on their previous two sections, and drawing on the concepts and readings from the course, students must write a report that answers the question: “Why (or why not) do you think these local series would have global appeal?”
In essence, the assignment gets students to reverse engineer a real-world scenario by critically analyzing the already existing creative decisions of Netflix original programming. Students build on the lessons from the course to break down “the mind” of a Netflix executive in order to examine the cultural and economic logics that shape which media content gets made. My idea for this assignment was informed by research in education and other academic fields about the pedagogical value of role-playing in synthesizing and applying theoretical knowledge. Playing the role of the “top-down” global media executive allows students to work out and interrogate how U.S.-centrism implicitly shapes many of the decisions that impact media production and analysis. By specifically framing this as a roleplay of a Netflix executive, we can alert students to the assumptions they are making about a country and the audiences there, and then discuss how these biases also influence creative productions in media industries writ large.
The structure of the assignment also models an approach for how to begin learning about the media landscape of another country. The second deliverable asks students to understand how industries, infrastructures, and audience tastes inform top-level decisions about the appeal of specific media content. The goal is to avoid essentializing national differences into deterministic cultural forces by emphasizing the conjectural aspect of media development. In other words, it is not that South Koreans like a particular type of story or that Mexicans prefer certain genres, but that industry shifts, funding decisions, political changes, and audience tastes all have a part to play in media production and reception. For this section of the assignment, I allow students to rely on the dossiers created by members of the Global Internet TV Consortium, which break down Netflix’s entry into a national market by explaining that country’s media market and regulations, existing popular content, and internet availability, among other factors. These dossiers offer a quick summary of the kind of political economic research required for the assignment.
As a semester-long assignment, the learning goal of the Netflix Global Dossier is to progressively integrate and synthesize the course materials into a practice-based scenario. The course moves through a series of units intended to tackle “the global” from different points of entry: mapping, migration, translation, and adaptation/localization. The progression through these units reveals new questions for students to ask about the show they are analyzing throughout the term. Throughout the semester, I emphasize to students that the course will not teach them “about the world” but that it will teach them skills for making sense of global processes. Creating the dossier assignment offers yet another skill for making sense of these processes by inviting students to contend with their positionality as spectators and (fictional) creatives from the U.S. who make decisions about non-U.S. audiences and make interventions in the global media landscape.
Centering this role-playing assignment on a distinctly U.S.-based, 21st century global media corporation like Netflix reintroduces an age-old debate in theories of media and globalization: the top-down perspective of media imperialism versus the bottom-up perspective of local resistance. Instead of rehearsing this debate, my aim with this assignment is to embrace the top-down media imperialism perspective with the goal of breaking it apart in the process of students’ research and reflection. Netflix proves to be particularly appropriate for this goal because the speculative narrative sold by the streaming platform is that it intends to become a truly global content provider. As Ramon Lobato has argued, although Netflix’s international aspirations are hardly novel, the company’s rapid rise and reach offer a boundary object to analyze the industries, technologies, and cultural practices of 21st century media globalization. As students work through their project, they must critically examine the assumptions and limitations that come with positioning a U.S.-based corporation as global. I make this explicit from the start by introducing the assignment with a quote from a 2016 Wired profile on Netflix that claimed: “When Netflix does Bollywood, for instance, it will do whatever version of Bollywood it thinks has the best chances for success not just in India, but in Arizona.”
Questioning what “Bollywood for Arizona” might mean, and what this perspective implies for the production of global media, represents the key goal of the Netflix Global Dossier. Although the assignment explicitly asks students to make an argument for the two series’ global appeal, I am most interested in how they even begin to define “global appeal” — a notion that undoubtedly means something different to different stakeholders, including producers, audiences, students and scholars of media. Indeed, some of the best projects are those where students admit to being unable to reach a generalizable assumption, or where they identify and reflect on the limits of their perspective. These analyses allow them to begin to undo the frameworks that present the global as universal through a U.S.-centered lens. In the end, the Netflix Global Dossier is about self-reflection and self-critique of the biases about how students perceive global media. This objective will prove even more fruitful in the long term when paired with other curricular efforts to decenter the U.S. hegemony. Years of ideological reinforcement can hardly be undone in one college class, but that does not mean we cannot plant the seeds for students to use in the future.
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez’s research and teaching mobilize media theories to critically analyze social phenomena on a global scale. His areas of specialization include border studies, infrastructure studies, and Latin American film and television. He has published in the journals Feminist Media Histories, Television & New Media, Film Quarterly, Flow, Jump Cut, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, as well as several edited collections. He is the host of the Global Media Cultures podcast and a member of the Global Internet TV Consortium, a network of media scholars studying the implications of internet-distributed screen content around the world.
J. Howell, “Using Role-play as a Teaching Method,” Teaching Public Administration 12.1 (1991): 69–75. D. Rao and I. Stupans, “Exploring the Potential of Role-play in Higher Education: Development of a Typology and Teacher Guidelines,” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 49.4 (2012): 427–436. Andrew Schaap, “Learning Political Theory by Role Playing,” Politics 25.1 (2005): 46–52. ↑
Ramon Lobato, Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution (New York University Press, 2019): 26. ↑
Brian Barrett, “Netflix’s Grand, Daring, Maybe Crazy Plan to Conquer the World,” Wired, March 27, 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/03/netflixs-grand-maybe-crazy-plan-conquer-world/ ↑