- Transitional Eras
Friday afternoon—the worst part of the week. Identical Dell monitors sit on gray desks around me, each cluttered with photos and Post-its. By the end of the day, several of the desks will be clean and smooth, with no traces of their former occupants. Friday was firing day.
The year was 2004. The place? Google headquarters, Mountain View, California. After six months in San Francisco volunteering for independent filmmakers, chauffeuring a real estate agent, and editing video at a high-energy physics lab, I needed a real job with a real salary if I was going to make rent. An acquaintance posted on Friendster: Google is hiring. After completing several tests, an impromptu writing assignment, a phone interview, and three in-person interviews, I got [End Page 134] the job—as a temp. The pay was decent; the snacks were amazing. The downside: no health insurance, no paid sick leave, and no job security. I soon discovered that the company’s vaunted “Don’t be evil” motto did not apply to temps. Our job was to service the small-time buyers and sellers of online advertising as quickly as possible, without making any mistakes. All of us had to keep getting faster and more accurate every week, or else on Friday we were out.
If we managed to make it through the weekly firings for twelve months, Google had to hire or fire us (due to a 2000 lawsuit won by Microsoft “permatemps”). The chances of getting hired full-time were about 50 percent. For the few who made it, the joy of finally being able to go to all the parties and ski trips washed away the bad taste of the previous twelve months, which was called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Although I eventually got hired full-time, I never drank the Kool-Aid. While Google is undoubtedly a thrilling intellectual playground for engineers, for temps it is just another incarnation of the preunion Fordist factory. I learned recently that my old job was outsourced to workers in Hyderabad a year after I left, and it has since been automated.
I left Google in 2005 to begin a PhD in film and media studies at the University of California, Berkeley. From working with the newest of new media, I turned my sights to old media, or, more precisely, to the period when the now-old medium of film was new. I had already stumbled into film history as an undergraduate at Yale. Though I entered college as a physics major, I switched midway through to a double major in film studies and women’s and gender studies. At first, like many students interested in film, I wanted to be a director. I spent a semester at film school in Prague. But during senior year I got my first taste of archival research. Jonathan Ned Katz, author of The Invention of Heterosexuality, led a small seminar in which we researched the deviant gender and sexual practices of Yale students past.1 We read old diaries, letters, and yearbooks. It was amazing.
That same year I stumbled across a website that listed movies with transgender content, Jaye Kaye’s Transgender Movie Guide. (Sadly, the site was taken down in 2010.) To my surprise, there were thousands of examples, even back to the first years of film. Many of them weren’t available on VHS or DVD, so one of my advisers, Charlie Musser, encouraged me to go to the Library of Congress. Sitting in a dark room, threading 35mm reels onto a Steenbeck, I watched previously unimagined worlds unfold in front of me. It was there that I got hooked on film history.
What I try to do is theoretically informed film and cultural history. This consists of a curious, rigorous, and open-minded exploration of the way media, entertainment, and visual culture functions in particular times and places. I investigate the ways mass-produced media and popular entertainment shape modern cultures and, in particular, how they produce and transform genders, sexualities, and conceptions of nation and race. For example, my dissertation, “Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women and the Legitimation...