Who run this motha?

May 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

I watched Beyonce’s ‘Run the World (Girls)’ video yesterday, and it reminded me of Sucker Punch[i], for some reason. These are some scattered thoughts:

Girls who run the world must be ready to seduce men and / or perform for them.

[Interestingly enough, exactly like the girls in Sucker Punch who do not run the world – even the one they inhabit.]

The writhing spectacle of Female will temporarily blindside heterosexual men brandishing weapons.

Presumably, in that space between heterosexual men’s [desire for Female] and [inattention to the larger world] there is a moment for girls to run the world.

[Because it is men who run the world by default?]

But what if she were wearing sweatpants?

Between seduction and [in]attention. Precisely like how the pig-tailed, vacant-faced Babydoll (played by Emily Browning) in Sucker Punch gets men to stop for a few minutes. Stop raping. Stop controlling. Stop killing. Stop exerting power. She moves her body for them to stop. The performance is hypnotic and it stops heterosexual men in their tracks. Literally.

Yet in Sucker Punch the audience doesn’t see Babydoll move her body in a seduction spectacle, The Dance. Instead, we see her move her body in physical combat in fantasies of war and video game-inspired fights in an imaginative landscape as her actual, physical body moves in certain ways in her present life. How does she move her body? How does she dance? We don’t know. The film wants to tell you that it’s not important, the dance that stops men in their tracks. It is the imaginative body-in-motion that is more important. The dance is left to the audience’s imagination.

Precisely because of this, the dance becomes more powerful than what is actually in the imagination. The dreamscape is over-familiar because it works by rote and repetition. Each dance is accompanied by a dreamscape. Each time, the girls battle different monsters and humans. Yet is Babydoll’s dance repetitive? I was curious to know. Because men who have seen it before continue to be mesmerised by it over and over again.

This mirrors the audience slack-jawed gaze as it looks at the screen. Whether you’re enthralled or bored, you continue to look at the screen. Does the dance work in the same way?

In a short skirt and thigh-high stockings, there are displays of skin that continue to confuse me. Does skin need to be displayed when the girls of Sucker Punch kill, maim, and destruct? Skin is not consistently bare. It is tantalisingly bare. Because Baby must move, jump, and run, her skirt lifts up, and the camera pauses lovingly between her bare, white thighs. Because Beyonce must move, jump, and dance, her yellow dress shifts and moves with her body, and the camera glides over cleavage and thighs.

Babydoll the baby dragon (aww) slayer

Thinking about what bell hooks writes in Outlaw Culture:

“You know, the function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – to imagine what is possible.”

Sucker Punch and ‘Run the World (Girls)’ imagine what is possible. But what if what is possible is only contained within a tired, rehashed narrative? It reveals the limits of collective imagination. Girls are sexy – if they have a certain body type, if they acquiesce to dressing a certain way. Wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, for example, is not the aesthetically-pleasing feminine path towards revolutionary upheaval. Neither will it help you slay dragons in your dreams. There are certain sartorial codes to be observed.

Who decides on these codes?

Sometimes I forget: in real cities around the world, women heed the revolutionary call wearing the clothes they’re most comfortable in.

bell hooks also writes:

There was a point in my life when I needed a therapist. I was involved in this horrible, bittersweet life with a black male artist/intellectual. There was no one I could go to and say, “This is what’s happening to me, and I have no apparatus for understanding it.” So I invented this figure: this therapist, this healer, and I could get up and do an improvisational performance on this persona. I realized you could invent something you need.

The trapped, abused, isolated girls in Sucker Punch are inventing the personas they need. So are Beyonce and her group of riot-girls. They’re women as girls presumably creating girl characters for the girls in the audience watching them through the eyes of prescribed femininity that needs girls and women to be a certain way when they’re doing things like exorcising psychic demons or running the world.

But maybe we’re all trapped by the limits of Capital. The vast and limitless personal imagination always trips up against its own borders; reduced to a few easily-understood visual codes. The collective imagination can visualise the conventionally-attractive girl and the conventionally-accepted body. Femininity can co-opt the codes of masculinity with guns and grunts and stares – as long as it reminds itself it is still femininity; that is, in opposition to masculinity, never quite meeting it.

Perhaps these images bother me because they suggest that the personal imagination is not limitless. It only goes so far as it has gone before. Or is the collective imagination that limits the personal imagination? Your imagination can only so far as the imagination of others.

The lion would rather hang with the girls, though

I found the first 50 seconds of Beyonce’s video to be the most visually-arresting. But that’s probably because I find the first 50 seconds of the song to be the most interesting, although I’m not sure if those 50 seconds of music were edited in for the video. The start of the song seems to promise a compelling aural landscape until the actual song begins – and turns out to be really mediocre.

The song’s failed imagination.

This is how the video works, as well. Towards the end when Beyonce and her posse of girls march towards the all-male soldiers, one almost holds out hope that the girls break the barrier and break through the invisible boundaries and infiltrate the all-male battalion. But it ends with a predictable confrontation involving a sexy Stare-Off, and then the Girls give the all-male soldiers the hand salute.

What does that salute mean in the context of the video? “We see you?” “We run the world and we salute you as a performance act meant to superficially acknowledge that you run the world when we know that we really run the world?”  “We acquiesce?”

We get what we want in both instances of movie and music video by getting slightly more than what we thought we want.

In heterosexual porn, it’s always the female body that is in the limelight, displayed, and counted upon to produce the desired effect.

So writes Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory. In movies and music videos that are Certainly Not Porn, (these are generally Approved By Society as Not Porn) (but it’s not like all porn is lacking imagination and is stereotypical) (it’s just that mainstream porn and mainstream film and music locate the source of entertainment, pleasure, and desire in the homogenously attractive female body) the viewer is ostensibly meant to identify with the girls of Sucker Punch and the girls of Beyonce’s video. But the girls see themselves through someone else’s eyes.

Who? The unidentified spectre of a viewer is dishearteningly familiar in its expectations. It demands danger insofar that it is imaginative. Kill, but not in real life. (Sucker Punch) Run the world, but not really.

Who are we? What do we want? These are all good questions we can't quite answer.

“My persuasion can build a nation,” sings Beyonce. It’s a nation that has been built before. I’m sure I’ve seen it somewhere else.

This goes out to all my girls
That’s in the club rocking the latest
Who will buy it for themselves and get more money later

I think I need a barber
None of these hoes can fade me
I’m so good with this,
I remind you I’m so hood with this

Boy I’m just playing, come here baby
Hope you still like me, If you hate me
My persuasion can build a nation
In this our, our love we can devour
You’ll do anything for me[ii]

Oh yeah, that fake nation! Boy I’m just playing.


[i] If you want to read some interesting reviews of the movie, there is one at Millicent and Carla Fran and one at What Tami Said (with some key points about race), and a divergent take at The Hathor Legacy. There is also this, which is hilarious.

[ii] Lyrics shamelessly copied from dodgy lyrics website.

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The uses of beauty

May 8, 2011 § 4 Comments

There are some major things going on in the world right now. Every minute is a breaking news-minute.

I’m going to post some quotes on beauty.

From Mimi Thi Nguyen’s brilliant essay, ‘The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror’:

Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999) aims to rescue beauty from its enemies on behalf of beauty’s mandate to love truth and pursue justice. Scarry proposes that the encounter with beauty stimulates the senses and provokes a desire to sustain the beautiful in order to prolong its presence. Our attachment to its presence, she claims, induces in us a “heightened attention” that “is voluntarily extended out to other persons or things. . . . Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care” (1999, 81). Scarry’s generalized, unlocatable “people,” in whom she invests the promise of beauty’s attachment, “seem to intuit that their own self-interest is served by distant peoples’ having the benefit of beauty” (123). This is how beauty exerts a distributional power (with potentially geopolitical dimensions): extending life in all directions, traversing distances between the viewer and the object of her gaze, pressing the attention given to the beautiful thing into new forms toward other (if less beautiful) things, rescuing beauty from the past and preserving it for the future. For Scarry, an education in beauty that alerts us to the “aliveness” of all persons is necessarily an education in justice.

But Scarry’s concern for training individuals who are responsive to the beautiful, and for building imagined communities committed to its care, suggests for me how an attachment to beauty might recruit beauty as governmentality, as a mechanism of internal and external monitoring that replicates the form, and the norm, of beauty’s promise. The measure and the means through which beauty takes up the ability to “make live” by making beautiful enter into the realm of the biopolitical, from the level of the individual guided in the recognition and care of beauty to the establishment of an attachment to beauty that one emerges from to engage with the world (Foucault [1975–76] 2003, 241). Acknowledging with delicacy that “the surfaces of the world are aesthetically uneven,” Scarry imagines that the pressure beauty exerts toward the distributional, toward the reproductive act of aliveness, might remedy aesthetic inequality and social asymmetry (1999, 110). But as Rita Barnard observes, Scarry “sh[ies] away from the very possibility that one person might find another’s beautiful person or thing not simply ‘lack[ing] the perfect features that obligate us to stare,’ or ‘less endowed with those qualities of perfection which arrest our attention,’ but, quite simply, ugly” (2006, 106). In thus marginalizing those aesthetic judgments that might have fuelled racist disgust, for instance, as errors of imperfect vision, Scarry cannot account for how to judge, let alone redress, this aesthetic unevenness. Nor can Scarry explain how to parse the judgments that acted as alibis in so many colonial and imperial encounters from her (supposedly) more fair assessment. Diverting attention from those imbalances of power that are inevitably at stake in the business of measurement, care, and instruction, Scarry’s vantage point reveals how an education in beauty might dangerously contribute to the annihilation of its antithesis, ugliness, as a prerequisite.

That is, we can see how beauty as a measure of moral character and feeling, which has a clear geopolitical dimension, also functions to regulate moral character and feeling, especially as a geopolitical exercise addressed to the individual and the collective as power’s problem and beauty’s mandate. As a glimpse of a desirable future, beauty is imagined to inspire contemplation, to foster respect for aliveness, to jar a viewer into “unselving” (Scarry 1999) on behalf of the world. But these are not neutral mandates. When beauty is called upon to tell us something significant about the paths and places that the good and the moral might be found, the partisan nature of beauty’s perception becomes all too clear.

[I have not read Scarry’s book, but I did watch this.]

The quote above made me think about what Judith Thurman wrote about Galliano, and in a larger sense, the fashion industry, back in March:

That said, Galliano lives in the bubble of the high fashion world, a club restricted, almost without exception, to the comely, and the magazines that feature his work have been cleansed—if not ethnically, then aesthetically—of bodies that are not superhuman. Galliano, an anointed high priest of chic, has been accused of calling a bar patron—who, for the record, is not Jewish—a “dirty Jew face,” and, in the video, called a woman “ugly” and deplored her clothes and grooming. Their physical appearance, in other words, inspired his desire for their extermination. We should perhaps stop to consider to what degree, wittingly or not, the fashion world has the same fascination as the Nazis with eugenics.

This quote came to mind recently when I was reading Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, when Danticat writes about Haitian photojournalist Daniel Morel. Danticat recalls talking to Morel about photography, and death, and what happens to the subjects in the moment of photographic capture, and they recall parts of a Haitian poem, ‘Tourist, by Felix Morisseau Leroy:

Tourist, don’t take my picture

Don’t take my picture, tourist

I’m too ugly

Too dirty

Too skinny

Don’t take my picture, white man

Mr. Eastman won’t be happy

I’m too ugly

Your camera will break

I’m too dirty

Too black

But, of course, there is another refrain to the poem:

Jounalis la, please take my picture

Please take my picture, atis la

I’m needy

Desperate

Trapped

Please take my picture, jounalis

Screw Mr. Eastman

I’m not too ugly

Your camera will not break

I’m not too dirty

Not too black

Last week I went to get my hair cut. I always “forget” to bring a book even though I complain about having to read the trashy magazines they always have on-hand, and I suspect  I just really enjoy being able to read the trashy magazines without having to think about defending my reading material. I flipped through an older issue of Malaysia Tatler. I’m sure Malaysia Tatler considers itself the crème de la crème of the magazine world, just like the people it features consider themselves the crème de la crème of humanity, but it’s basically trash featuring unforgivably rich people throwing “wild” yet possibly boring parties. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been.

Casting bitterness aside, there was an interview with a socialite who is known for being beautiful and a socialite. I can’t remember her name; but she made a comment that has stuck with me. I paraphrase, largely, but it went something like this:

All my friends are beautiful. I think beauty is important. I don’t understand girls who don’t make an effort to look beautiful and expect to be accepted.

The emphasis is mine and the words may be different, but that was the gist of it. The idea that girls who don’t make an attempt to be beautiful somehow lack the fundamental human right to be “accepted” is quite powerful, I think, in a way that makes you want to slit your wrist.

Beauty is regularly desired, but it is also regularly a shock

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In which I review Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey

May 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

for PopMatters.

It starts like this:

Zachary Mason’s reimagining of The Odyssey in 44 vignettes is a fleet-footed and agile act of creation, much like wily Odysseus himself in Homer’s original epic. The premise of The Lost Books of the Odyssey hinges on this literary conceit: 44 variations of Homer’s The Odyssey have been found at an excavation site, written on “pre-Ptolemaic papyrus”. The result is this purported “lost books” of the Odyssey, translated and compiled into one book.

This mock-scholarly preface to the Lost Books already prefigures the sense of play that will imbue the narrative, but it’s a muted kind of play. If anything, Mason’s fragments subtly reveal what I found most affecting about Homer’s tale of Odysseus: the bleakness and loneliness that constantly shrouds this perpetual wanderer slash trickster. “I hope this translation reflects the haunted light of Homer’s older islands”, writes the unnamed writer of the preface, and the light that is cast on these fragments is indeed haunted by the unending play of memories.

And you can read it in full here if you want! Or not.

I started out feeling really ambivalent about the book. I dislike feeling ambivalent about a book. I know that sometimes ambivalence probably helps, in terms of writing an objective (as much as it can be) review, but the reading experience felt strangely… muted. And then somewhere in the middle it suddenly became an emotional experience, and then towards the end I cried a bit. I know. What on earth? you’re thinking. On the whole I admired Mason’s sense of structure and his ear for language. The bits that really got to me were the bits where Athena hovered about, wily and cunning like Odysseus, always looking out for him. I’m agnostic, I guess, but there is some residual Hindooism in me. My inner Hindoo likes to talk to Hanuman, thinking that he’s watching out for me. Hanuman, too, is a little bit wily, a little bit of a trickster. I felt something for the relationship between Odysseus and Athena – at least, in the way Mason portrayed it.

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