Buffy v. Athena: Mythology Onscreen

18 07 2012

A couple of articles on the “mythology” of Prometheus, and the suggestion of a friend, have made me think maybe it’s time to consider the idea of mythology as it pertains to TV and movies.  Does such a thing exist?  Critics, bloggers, and fans talk about the mythologies of Lost, or Battlestar Galactica, or what have you.  The “artificial mythologies” section of Wikipedia lists detailed mythologies for the X-Files, Heroes, Carnivale, Lost, Babylon 5, Stargate, and Fringe.

The first thing you notice when looking into this subject is that there seems to be a focus on sci-fi in those entries; I suspect that’s because sci-fi tends to deal with the issues mythology does: where do we come from, where are we going, what makes us human, etc.  Shows like Law and Order, when they deal with larger social issues, are usually ones of more day-to-day politics, sex, or crime, as opposed to the meaning-of-life subjects of (some) sci-fi.  Because of this, it seems even shows that have a significant backstory and deal with larger elements of the human condition – The Wire, or even The Simpsons, are not, generally, referred to as having a mythology.  Keep in mind I don’t necessarily agree with that division, but it seems to exist nonetheless.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Should the cast of Lost be on this vase, rather than Poseidon, Athena, and Ares?

Anthropologically, none of these programs are a true mythology in the strictest sense.  Classical mythologies are not created by a team of talented writers sitting around a table; they evolve over centuries from bits and pieces of folklore, and emerge from the collective cultural imagination of a society.  Mythologies that are created by a single person or a group are more properly called “mythopoeia” (a term created by J.R.R. Tolkien, actually, who created a very extensive one).  When considering how real these mythologies are, however, it’s interesting to consider that many of these shows have an internal mythology that is authentic – that is, to the characters living in that world, the mythology of Prometheus or Star Wars is authentic (if perhaps a bit convoluted); but they don’t serve that function in the outside world.

Mythologies perform two functions in a society: 1)they explain how and why things are the way they are (why the sky is blue, where humans came from, etc.), and 2)they give us “culture heroes” – individuals or beings whose deeds and stories we can use for inspiration or to learn lessons.  The mythologies of TV and movies don’t generally fulfill the first function (unless you’re one of those people who puts down “Jedi” on forms asking for your religion), but they definitely fulfill the second.

It’s often argued that today’s comic book heroes are the equivalent of gods in modern society – super-powerful beings with who have abilities regular human beings don’t.  Generally speaking, however, most don’t have the same cultural ubiquity that gods did in ancient societies.  There are a few who do – Superman and Batman are probably the closest, maybe Wonder Woman or Spiderman.  But I’d suggest that many of the cultural heroes we get from TV and films aren’t superpowered at all: James Bond seems a good example; Ripley from the Aliens movies, Jack Bauer of 24.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Meet your modern culture heroes.
Indy, Ripley – say hi to the nice people.

They don’t even have to be necessarily heroic to be culture heroes; I’d argue that you could add Gregory House (of House) and Roseanne Conner (of Roseanne) to the list.  These are all characters who have embedded themselves in the public consciousness by faithfully appearing for years on our television and movie screens; they can bring excitement, entertainment, and maybe even hope into people’s lives.  It’s certainly reasonable to suggest that people today cheer for Indiana Jones or Buffy the Vampire Slayer the way people in ancient Greece thrilled to the stories of Herakles.  And that’s what really makes for a TV or movie mythology.

— Scott Frank

  • By the way, the ancient vase pictured above features Poseidon killing a giant by dropping the island of Nisyros on his head.  That’s right, he threw an island at a guy.
  • Another thing to consider when asking why the term “mythology” is applied to so many sci-fi productions is because some – like Stargate or Prometheus – genuinely deal with classical gods, or the creation of humanity; it’s no surprise that the word mythology gets used.
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How Many Actors are in L.A.?

5 07 2012

It’s one of the most asked questions about Los Angeles, and one of the hardest to answer: how many actors are there in Hollywood?  And it’s one that SAG-AFTRA could easily answer, but they famously keep mum about it.  A couple of years ago, writing a paper for the national anthropology conference, I came to a point where it would have been good to know. I spent hours and hours trying to figure this out, poring over different resources, and trying to get a handle on it.  I came up with a rough figure then; recently, working on the problem a little more, I think I’ve come up with a better one.  All in all, I’ve probably spent a solid 12-14 hours of research doing nothing but trying to figure this out.

The Anthropology of Hollywood

There’s a lot of comedy and a lot of tragedy in this town. The question is – how much?

There are a lot of problems with trying to arrive at a figure: first of all, how many actors are there in total?  How much work is done in L.A.?  What percentage of SAG-AFTRA members are/were actors, vs. broadcasters, musicians, etc.?  The two (now one) actors unions are notoriously reticent to give out figures, other than their total membership numbers.  Pre-merger, you at least knew that all SAG members were actors (in some way); but not all AFTRA members were, so the post-merger combined membership figures are tough to use.  Because of this, this estimate is based on the numbers reported pre-merger last March by the unions.

I’m going to be very candid: this is at best, a very educated guess as to the number.  That said, this is my best guess, and it’s certainly as good a figure as any of the rest I’ve seen out there (in fact, I haven’t really seen any, so as flawed as it is, it might be the best guess, period).

Here we go.  Based on the following figures:

Total SAG membership:                                                                                         122,000

Total AFTRA membership:                                                                                       70,000

Percentage of AFTRA members that are actors: 84%, so AFTRA adds…                    58,800

Minus the overlap between the guilds, generally considered to be …                  -45,000

  All together, this yields a figure of…                                                                                     135,800

Roughly 80% of the acting work is estimated to be conducted within Los Angeles, so that brings us to a final figure.  The number of actors in Los Angeles is…(drumroll, please):

108, 640

Now, smart people (i.e. all of you) will be able to easily pick up the holes in this number.  I’m almost embarrassed to put this figure up, but even though it’s flawed, it’s still the best figure out there (trust me, after all the years of anthropological methods training, I know exactly where the flaws are).  I did work as hard as possible to get the best numbers I could for this calculation.  Some of the figures are ones that are reported, some are estimates that I’ve drawn from as reliable a source (or usually sources) that I could find.  Some are almost entirely speculative, but that’s the best we can right now.

This 108,640 figure is based on actor union membership – and of course, that’s people who have ever acted, at a level that gets them into the union.  Many of them aren’t working now, but nonetheless, they are still actors, so it’s valid to include them in the figure.  How many working actors are there?  The number that’s usually (and casually – I can’t find anything to back this up) used for how many are actually employed is that 80% are out of work at any given time.  If we apply that to our previous figure, the number of working actors is:

21,728

This figure actually sounds pretty reasonable, though slightly on the low end (casting directors have told me of roles posted in L.A. that bring in 7,000 prospective actors for a single guest star gig, which would be a third of all the working actors?)  But then, what do we mean by “working?”  If you book one gig, you’ve worked.  You have to have worked at least a little to even get into the union.  So do we mean earning their entire income by acting?  Even people who work a lot often don’t do that.  The best way to measure “successful” actors is probably how many people qualify for the top tier of the SAG-AFTRA health plan; but once again, those numbers are unrevealed by the union.

So here it is, presented to you, warts and all.  I look forward to people adding their own, better numbers, or speculating as to how to tighten this up.  And of course, if anyone from SAG-AFTRA is out there reading this – hey, feel free to give me a call and tell me what your figure is.  I promise I’ll keep it a secret.

— Scott Frank

  • One big question is why does SAG-AFTRA keep these numbers secret?  They won’t even tell their own members.  I’ve heard many theories, most suggest that the figures are somehow embarrassing to the union or the profession.  One is that if people knew how many actors there are in Los Angeles, they’d get discouraged and not come out.  Or if they knew how small a percentage worked at any given time – same thing.  A more subtle argument is that wealthier actors don’t have to pay the 1.575% to the union on earnings over $500,000, so revealing how many of them there are versus barely-scraping-by actors might upset some of the lower-level membership, who pay the percentage on every dime they make.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep figures on the number of actors in California (though they list 7,450 in New York and 1,170 in Louisiana).
  • Per the USBLS, 1.77% of people in the L.A. metro area work in entertainment, the highest percentage in the country (in second place: New York City, where it’s 1.38%).