March 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body.[i]
The younger of the two, who is happy to tell people “I’m the IT guy”, taught me how to download YouTube videos on my overpriced, overvalued smartphone, and now the gadget puts me to sleep, too. Over the last week I’ve been downloading Jem and the Holograms episodes and watching them before bed. I haven’t watched the cartoon in years, probably decades, but I was obsessed with it when I was younger, and while I used to want to be Jerica/Jem mainly because of her access to Synergy (by way of really funky star earrings), now I watch Jerica/Jem being perfect and I want to vomit. I see The Misfits driving tractors through mansions and I feel a true fellow-feeling of solidarity. The Misfits “are allergic to work” say one of the members of the Holograms, and they all smirk, because the Misfts are mean and they’re lazy, but I can relate. All I want to do these days is have big hair, sing shit songs with my shit-sounding nasally voice, drive tractors through mansions, refuse work, and scream.
Jem and her friends are so earnest. I want to ask them why they abide by the rules that were made by someone else. Do they think they will be granted a space in hologram heaven? And if so, what does it mean to them to be good girls in the here and now? Do they get the boyfriends? The record contracts? The cool earrings? The mansion? The legacy from dead daddy?
(All of the above.)
Just when I want to write a Marxist reclamation of the Misfits, I remember that the “leader” of the group, Pizzazz, is basically a rich twat. This complicates matters, because her group-mates all come from a poor(er) backgrounds. The Misfits are made to appear “tacky”—loud, brash, uncivilised and unladylike in comparison to the docile, polite, and pastel-attired Jem and friends, who speak proper English, not slang, in modulated voices. Jem and the Holograms are a band of Kate Middletons. Even if they are not well-off, or orphans, they come from good stock. They have a claim to a legacy of good breeding. But the Misfits are always destroying things, even property.
Property is the problem. Even for Tom Branson, the sexy Irish chauffeur-revolutionary turned sexy Downton Abbey husband. Downton domesticates; it wants to tame Branson’s wild side. Alas, Branson was found to be present during a protest at a Dublin castle, a protest that involved burning the said castle. The Earl of Grantham, hitherto utterly nice and utterly useless, has now found his raison d’être, or rather the raison d’être of his entire class: to be really really really angry about the destruction of property. He’s really angry, the Earl. I mean, he was almost resigned to losing his property but now it is saved, and so he knows about real tragedy, the Earl, and it is with this full force of the pain of an almost-lost Downton Abbey that he takes it out on Branson. He is really angry. ALSO, HE IS AGAINST VIOLENCE AND WANTS TO KNOW IF BRANSON IS AGAINST IT, TOO? Branson capitulates; half-revolutionary, half-son in law. Yes, Branson was at the meetings where the planned this attack, but no, Branson does not condone the burning of property and violence against harmless aristocrats. Really, Branson? THEN WHY WERE YOU AT THE MEETINGS?
The writers of Downton Abbey can’t come up with anything so nuanced or sensitive as such an answer might require, so they leave us with silence and the face of Allen Leech, hoping that his sad, beautiful eyes will distract us.
It does, but only for a bit.
Branson is also uncomfortable being in Downton Abbey—first as tragedy servant, then as farce family. He wants to hightail it out of there.
Then why marry the Earl’s daughter? Don’t you know that the Earl’s daughter comes with the Earl’s family and however many centuries of dead ancestors? How did you think you were going to outrun that, foxy Branson? One look at this family, Branson, should have reminded you of Marx’s words: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Luckily, Branson’s wife dies, leaving behind a young daughter. Branson gets to live out the life that his wife would have wanted for him. He knows this is the life she would have wanted for him because everyone else tells him this. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes—not a fan of the rich, as such, but like all the servants in Downton, committed to and invested in class difference—tells Branson not to be embarrassed that he’s a rich fuck now, and part of a rich fuck family. She uses different words, but the message is the same. Mrs.Hughes tells him that he has “come so far”, and it’s a good thing.
This is a relief, as the formerly Marxist Branson is now co-manager of the vast estate Downton estate. He can forget about the people, think about profits, raise his baby, enjoy stately bedrooms, be waited on hand and foot.
He has come quite far.
I’ve been thinking about witches and spinsters and property. Once I started reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner I realised it spoke to my unmarried spinster witch self in a way that so many books by women don’t, anymore, because: 1) now it’s important to show how women are a hot mess in a sexy way (i.e. you must be a mess but sexually available to men, and not that those stories are wrong and shouldn’t be told, but the underlying premise is that you must be sexually available to men and you must perform your femininity in this socially idealised ways and above all, please be pretty, try to be pretty); and 2) “modern” stories also remove the extended family from the equation. The assumption is that all single women the world over live lives like those of American or European women in big cities—where they’re single in a way like Charlize Theron’s character is single in Young Adult. It’s interesting to me that the character of Lolly Willowes is given a brother as patriarchal gatekeeper after her father’s death. I quoted this bit out of Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Regime of the Brother on Tumblr while I was reading it and I’m quoting it again because it’s relevant:
What then does this son enjoy in replacing his father? Well, he gets to act as if, without having to take any action. A father-figure, he mimes, selectively, the father’s features. But he also gets to imitate and mock up relations to all other family members, too: not only is he the “father” (but only metaphorically) he is the mother’s lover (the object of her love, but only in her dreams) and he is his brother’s lover (but only rhetorically—the brotherhood of man). But most of all he is his sister’s boss, and really so. It seems that what he “enjoys” is the power to distort and center all familial relations on himself alone, warping the world into a fiction of fraternity, the dream of a universal, which becomes the nightmare lie of the family of man. Agent and sole heir of patriarchy’s most negative features, he creates as many false leads and artificial ties as he needs to cover his destruction of his real familial roots and relations. And he thus absolves himself of any obligation toward them. He does not have to fill the father’s role any more responsibly and positively than the tyrant had: he is only acting, after all. It is he who is a pro forma father, without a communal or global species-saving goal, a despot, a mute sovereign, the (only) one who really enjoys.
If there’s one thing you learn about being an unmarried woman in a Tamil family is that Tamil culture really needs the sister to be bossed around; if not her father who is sadly now dead, if not her potential husband who is sadly nowhere in sight, then a brother or an uncle will do in a pinch.
What relatives don’t want to talk about when they’re exhorting you to get married and “start a family” is that you’re out of place, overstaying your welcome in your original family, because inevitably it’s about property. You must belong to a father or a husband but not exist in a liminal state of belonging to no one, especially if you’re doing it on family property. (How about belonging to yourself, you might ask, and others will laugh—we all belong to someone, if not a husband for life, then maybe a corporation.) So Lolly Willowes, in the world of 1920s Britain, is shunted about from one brother’s home to another brother’s home because as a genteel woman she is not meant to work for a living.
The thing about being a witch woman like Lolly is that there is a still a male presence in the form of the Devil. Clearly the Devil is interchangeable with capitalist patriarchy. There’s no escaping the male power. When I see the Misfits driving a tractor through the property of a rich man I feel satisfaction even while I recognise that their brand of liberal feminism is thoroughly self-serving: they are not even there for each other. Their manager is the one rubbing his hands together in glee, thinking of publicity and future sales. Behind every so-called misfit is a male manager/disciplinarian waiting to make a profit. Sometimes it’s money; sometimes it’s an investment in souls.
More from The Regime of the Brother:
The way it works in traditional Oedipus is that the woman is the living embodiment of a deficient male identity: wanting physically and emotionally. The girl-child is supposed to assume an identification with the father and then be left with/as nothing—unless or until she becomes a mother, her only acknowledged relation to sexual difference. But the mother is precisely what Oedipus rejects and is designed to reject, so the cycle begins anew.
The girl under patriarchy is faced with an inhuman choice: to do without an identity, or to identify with what she is not (it amounts to the same thing).
she can demand no special love—except according to a male agenda, set by a father, a husband, or a son.
This mother desires only a phallus (a baby, a son, power) and forgoes other options for her desire.
Under the modernized Regime of the Brother, however, the father/son relation ceases to have centrality. Woman potentially comes into her own.
the “patriarchy” in modernity is less a symbolic than an imaginary identification of the son with the father he has completely eliminated even from memory. He has thrown off the one—God, the king, the father—to replace it with the grammatical and legal and emotionally empty fiction of an I who stands alone and on its own: “his majesty the ego.” Self-created, however, he is only a figment of his own and not the father’s desire. This is the dilemma he simply refuses to acknowledge: he makes the law.
The brother denies his sister her identity, affirming his own. This is not just in the abstract, no mere question of repressed instinctual desire. Because the brother cannot recognize his absolute reliance on her for his identity, her place and her desire are “not there.” While the mother of Oedipus might want her son and the phallus, the post-Oedipal sister is permitted to want nothing. To regulate woman’s desire—and thereby her identity—was always the way of the patriarchy; to outlaw it and do away with her identity is a cardinal feature of the Regime of the Brother.
In volume one of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the brother permits his sister to want nothing. It becomes quite clear how patriarchy nurtures (produces?) the regime of the brother with its careful disciplining of women’s bodies. Clarissa is kept to her room for not performing her duties as daughter and sister and marrying the man the family has decided upon. The brother is an engineer of both her punishments—the potential marriage to a man she finds repulsive, and the current punishment where she is kept mainly to her room and ostracised by her family who won’t see her directly or talk to her. Clarissa seems content to see her problems as her own, which is perhaps not her fault—surrounded by her odious family members on all side and increasing lack of agency/independence, she can hardly be faulted for not seeing some commonalities between the personal and the political. Her friend, Anna, to whom she writes, is clearly the only feminist killjoy of the story we can hope for, thus far. Anna zeroes in on the mother’s role in Clarissa’s predicament:
Your mother tells you, ‘That you will have great trials: that you are under your father’s discipline.’-The word is enough for me to despite them who give occasion for its use.-‘That it is out of her power to help you!’ And again: ‘That if you have any favour to hope for, it must be by the mediation of your uncles.’ I suppose you will write to the oddities, since you are forbid to see them. But can it be, that such a lady, such a sister, such a wife, such a mother, has no influence in her own family? Who, indeed, as you say, if this be so, will marry, that can live single? My choler is again beginning to rise.
Why all the fuss about marriage if a mother can only subject her female child to the whims of the father, the brother, and the uncles? Who indeed , if this be so, will marry, that can live single?
How brothers (sons?) are inducted into the regime.
I’m not a mother, just as aunt, but I can see how boys grow into young men, and how the ideal of masculinity means that boys often have to suppress the part(s) of them that are sensitive, tender, loving, affectionate, in order to “become a man”. And when you notice how it becomes a requirement for boys to hurt others in order to achieve this ideal—then you truly realise how men are made. Hurting others is part of the deal; it is how men are defined as men. To put others in their place and to claim their space as yours. And it hurts to watch young boys who have been taught not to hurt others struggle with the full force of societal expectations that makes it (implicitly or explicitly) known that they will have to hurt others in order to become men.
The eternal problem: We need to talk about sons/we’re always talking about sons.
There has been “unrest” in Sabah for the last few weeks. Property is the problem. Who “owns” Sulu?
The Malaysian twitterati, its bourgeois heart ever in its proper place, is grieving over the death of Malaysia’s policemen involved in the “clashes” with “armed militants”. Malaysian policemen have died while trying to take out these intruders/militants/insurgents (i.e. they were protecting the nation). What’s interesting about the nation that is protected is that we still don’t want to think about how some of us are more protected than others. Sabah, on the East Coast, is one of the poorest states in Malaysia; there is no protection, it seems, from economic impoverishment. But there are tweets from the West Malaysian public thanking the “security forces” for their service to this country. There are tweets praying for their souls in heaven or wherever they might be. Everywhere on Twitter people seem to be simultaneously praying and wishing violence upon the enemy. This ritual is meant to keep the good ones, we the citizens, safe.
The police. The soldiers. Law and order. There are self-proclaimed Progressive Activists ™ who bring the MILF into the picture and cry out “the militants are everywhere in Sabah!” with every tweet. The macho politicians and lovers of Malaysia who cheer on a “military offensive” with encouraging, optimistic tweets like, “Kill or be killed” or “Just gas and smoke ‘em”.
Malaysian Defence Minister, Zahid Hamidi, tweets about the military assault as a “clean-up operation”. (Tweet is in Malay.)
People might be of a land, but there are false borders now demarcating different nations and these borders may not be trespassed.
Meanwhile: “Kiram’s people are demanding Malaysia recognize the sultanate owns Sabah and share profits from economic development in the state.”
Profits. Economic development. Who “owns” Sulu and who profits? Malaysians don’t really care, but “we” are here now, and “they” are not; property is for those who claim it by any means possible. And perhaps the Sulu sultanate is also flexing its muscles. As for the people who are put to work on these lands?
“Filipinos living in the tension-gripped Sabah territory in Northern Borneo said they have been segregated according to tribe and that their movements have been limited and closely monitored by Malaysian authorities.”
“A farmer who tried to enter the tight security cordon surrounding the heavily armed men was turned back by the police early on Monday.
Police feared the food supplies he was carrying could fall into the hands of the gunmen.
The farmer, who wanted to be known only as Ghafur, said he was trying to get to his oil palm farm for his twice-a-month harvest.”
According to them, the violent encounters in Sabah villages have been displacing some of the 600,000 Filipinos quietly living and working there, forcing them to flee to ARMM or causing them to be deported. But the region may not have enough resources to feed and house them.
At the same time, the conflict has been affecting the people in ARMM by driving up the prices of commodities, usually sourced from nearby Sabah, they said.
The Malaysian twitterati is not impressed with how our government for its soft-handed approach. They have ideas, these Malaysians, and it involves Malaysia flexing its military might. We must let the intruders know that “they” are on “our” soil, and the military will convey this message. Men on Twitter berate our ineffectual Prime Minister, exhort him to “be a man” and protect this country, take action. I have no interest in defending our Prime Minister, and as much as I might want to write a separate 3,000 word essay on gender performance and construction, this is not the point (although it’s part of the point). But this demand of a Prime Minister to be a man, a father figure, to exercise force and violence if he must, to defend his property is so chilling precisely because these demands are not self-aware. Malaysians on Twitter—a good number of them of the upwardly mobile, “educated” and comfortable, their lives mediated by gadgets and social media, are okay with owning property and being property—tweet about the stupidity of feudalism and think capitalist democracies are the best thing, the ultimate manifestation of human progress. Yet, they want to be protected by a violent patriarch. They want a “man” in charge, not in form necessarily, but in spirit.
They have no time for history, or maybe it’s just an inconvenience in a time when we have to be militarily efficient. Improve border control. Prioritise domestic security. Stamp out terrorist activity. Enemies are everywhere. We must smoke ‘em out.
Be a man. This land is your land.
[i] Marshall McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” in Understanding Media
January 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I am sorry, once again and for always, for the absolutely crap blog post titles.
I have three reviews out in Pop Matters:
- Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
- Aman Sethi’s A Free Man—this one messed with my head a little, or a lot, and thus the review is an incoherent mess; it just seems difficult to rate a book about poverty, written by an educated journalist from a different class, as “good” or “bad” or profound or moving or well-done or whatever, without implicating oneself in the consumption of these narratives.
- Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff—this is the first book I’ve read by Lewitscharoff and she has such a great style, strengthened by the bleakly funny, whip-smart voice of the protagonist, and this book has about a billion frustrating and revelatory Eurocentric anxieties and neuroses to wade through, or drown in.
Is it in bad taste to link to one’s own reviews and then rant about someone else’s review? Probably; all the more reason to do it.
I was reading the review of Sheila Heti’s latest in the LRB and I was (am) so perplexed:
Much has been made of the fact that How Should a Person Be? passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man, invented by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), but its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt.
“that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves” – this is such a coy argument. Is the reviewer objecting to or applauding the narcissism of Sheila Heti’s character? Does the reviewer think that feminism—FEMINISM IN ITS ENTIRETY—only exists because feminists are supremely interested in themselves? Does being “supremely interested” in oneself preclude the desire/ability to be “supremely interested” in other things? Is this form of supreme self-interest only to be found in feminism and/or woman-centred narratives, although the reviewer seems to think these are interchangeable / mean the same thing? Is this state of supreme interest in oneself a problem or not a problem, reactionary or revolutionary? Why is Sheila Heti, or the Sheila Heti of the book, a stand-in for feminism? Whose feminism?
“Woman-centredness” = “feminism” = feminists “supremely interested” in themselves (“even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt”).
I think it’s interesting that this review takes the book’s “woman-centredness” and presents it as feminism’s “dirty little secret” without making an explicit value judgment, although much of its judgment, or what it thinks of “woman-centredness”, is contained within its use of the phrase “dirty little secret.” How nice to be able to mime at making an argument without making an argument. It’s such a useful way to say something provocative and yet distance oneself from the implications. In this way, it becomes nonsense. And the arrogance in the assumption that a broad movement like feminism, with its multiple global proliferations and histories, can be assessed and diagnosed by narrowing it down to how two (fictionalised) North American women, Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson, relate to each other.
Not just a secret, but dirty, too.
November 12, 2012 § 52 Comments
I’ve been reading sad books. Books about sad people. While I was reading Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (which I reviewed here), I was rereading Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, and at this point in my life I must have reread it five or six times. It’s always a bad idea for me to read this book—I’m always in a funk for a week after, sometimes longer, or perhaps but now it’s just lodged itself somewhere inside me and each time I reread it it’s like lighting a match. Two Girls is about two girls, but it’s also about gender war(s), heterosexuality as violence. Chris Kraus writes about wanting to solve heterosexuality before turning 40 in I Love Dick but I feel like every conversation with single straight women friends over beer is an attempt to solve heterosexuality, and after a few drinks the solution is simple: Drink some more or dance; failing that, overthrow the patriarchy and end heterosexuality (somehow).
But what do I know?
It’s just that when I walk around this city I wonder if it makes sense to talk of the Neoliberal Heterosexual Couple. Gym-toned bodies, “tasteful” dressing (“Keep it classy!”—I fucking hate this fucking ubiquitous phrase), identical cannot-be-arsed-about-anything-except-ourselves faces. The couple that won’t let go of each other’s hands even in a crowded walkway; not so much because they’re so In Love and cannot bear to let each other go, but because they have so much contempt for everyone around them who is not-them; contempt written on their faces. Handholding as a weapon, maybe, handholding as a contemptuous gesture. I mean, not being able to step aside, even for a second, for an elderly lady with her shopping bags. The Couple as a Fuck-You-to-the-World might have been a romantic idea at a certain point in time, or even a form of resistance against the status quo, maybe? But now just a part of the obnoxious status quo.
But what do I know? I am single and bitter. (Maggie Nelson, in Bluets: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”)
And no doubt dying to get married, as various members of the “older generation” have implied to me over the last year. Not even a question, “Do you want to get married?” No. They just know that you need to get married because if you do not you will rot and die. I bumped into an old acquaintance of my father’s a few days ago, while I was with my sister, and among the things he said to me after not having seen me for close to twenty years (I didn’t even recognise him!) was the ever-reliable, “You should get married and take care of your family.” It was the last bit that puzzled me, this idea that I could not be otherwise taking care of my family if I was not married. But it’s not a puzzle really; Tamil people everywhere are on autopilot when it comes to giving Life Advice to wayward young (and not-so-young) women doing horrible things with their lives like being unmarried, cutting their hair short, and wearing red lipstick. GET MARRIED> MAKE THE BABIES> TAKE CARE OF YOUR FAMILY BY MAKING MORE BABIES> YOUR MOTHER IS WORRIED
Overthrow the patriarchy. End matrimony. (I shouted, in my head, while smiling vaguely into the distance while this man gave me free life advice. Oh, the smile, how it makes you fucking complicit.)
Thinking about singleness and marriage, stewing over it, often means that I start thinking about beauty. Because it’s beauty that I’m struggling with at this point in time. That is, I lack it, but this is not news to me; when I say “this point in time”, I mean that at this point in life as I know it, it seems that everything is the exterior, that the image is you, and you are nothing but the image. (This day in Capitalism it was discovered there is no there, there.) Romance is a marketplace, and you are one of the many images on sale, and if you’re not the right image you are, essentially, shit. “Never before has society demanded as much proof of submission to an aesthetic ideal, or as much body modification, to achieve physical femininity,” says Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory and I’m suspicious of the phrases here—“never before”—“society demanded”—yet this sentence rings with truth, for me, and perhaps for other (cis, straight) women who are single and wanting (yearning? dying for?) a connection with someone else that isn’t predicated on aesthetic ideals, all of us who identify as “normal-looking” or “not beautiful” or whatever-
“What if the self-commodification of individuals is all-encompassing, as the analysis of the job market suggests? What if there is no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”
“Objectification implies that there is something left over in the subject that resists such a capture, that we might protest if we thought someone was trying to deny such interiority, but it’s not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life in the way that we might once have understood it.”
-Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman
What if the outside is all we have left?
When I talk about beauty I don’t know what I’m talking about, particularly if I’m also talking about desire, and I want to talk about beauty without talking about Plato or Kant (I just can’t with Kant), and I know for a fact that desire is a colonised space.
“We speak, act, think, behave, and micro-manage ourselves and others according to the “score” that is the general intellect—in short, the protocols or grammar of capital,” Jonathan Beller reminds us. Love in the Time of Capital. Yes, okay, I tell myself I know how to grasp this intellectually, but the bigger fear is that this is the only way I know how to love: according to the protocols of capital.
I watched Love of Siam a few weeks ago and cried all the way through it, and after it was over, cried some more, and felt like I couldn’t understand myself—why all these tears? And the movie is a “tear-jerker”, in a sense, in the vein of Asian family dramas that are a blend of realism and melodrama, and so it wasn’t unexpected that a person watching it would cry. But it’s also a film that’s unabashedly pro-love. And as soon as I write that I know it sounds silly—what does it even mean? But I guess it means what it is: it’s a film about love, and not just the “provocative” aspect of young gay love between two Thai adolescent boys that’s highlighted in all the promotional reviews of the film, but also about all the banal and taken-for-granted forms of love between friends and family, the kind that is familiar to me because the families and the communities in Love of Siam remind me a little of what I knew growing up in Malaysia, of how I came to understand the intersection of multiple identities. The differences between these (often conflicting) identities–of discovering one’s queerness, of being a son of an alcoholic, of being a brother, a friend, a grandson, a pop star, a boyfriend—aren’t reified; one identity doesn’t trump the other, and it makes no sense to speak of Love of Siam as a movie only about romantic love or gay love. I contain multitudes, said some American poet and everyone went ooooh, but come on, Asian people have known this forever.
But a big part of this movie is about love between these two boys, Mew and Tong, and it’s the genius of the movie (the result perhaps of the direction and the casting decision to go with two young, relatively inexperienced actors), that the love between these two boys feels so organic and unforced, an entirely surprising yet predictable outcome of shared moments and the pull of desire. Looks are not the currency, eroticism isn’t purchased or a choice[i]; love happens because two people like each other so much, and the question of attraction—sexual or otherwise—is not absent or glossed over so much as it is depicted whole. Mew and Tong are attracted to each other because they’re drawn to each other as people containing multitudes, not because they possess an alluring physicality; not once does anyone tell the other “You’re hot” or “You’re sexy” and I don’t know if I’m regressing or blossoming into full-blown prudedom, but it was so fucking refreshing I don’t even know how to talk about it. I recognise that a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenes are necessarily circumscribed by the cultural norms in which it was made—in this case, Thai society and Thai censors—but it’s astonishing how much is and was conveyed through looks and faces, and tenderness and understanding. So much of how we understand romance these days is mediated through this narrative of consumerism: “I’m worth it”, “You’re worth it”, “I deserve the best”, “You’re hot”, “I like a nice smile and nice tits”, “I need a man who’s all man, you know what I mean?” All these standards that we think arrive fully-formed in our heads without any external influence, all these principles of picking and choosing The Right One, of having control and autonomy—this movie sort of chips away at those assumptions very quietly and tenderly. The camera loves its subjects; the film loves its characters. The act of loving reveals the love.
But talking about how it’s not a choice doesn’t simply mean that love is something that chooses you. It’s a convenient poetic fiction, and poets and writers and artists talk about it this way all the time, and I fall for the force of that fiction: It wasn’t my choice, I can’t help who I fall in love with. In order for that to happen there has to be an “I” who stands outside of economic, political, social, and cultural influences. So maybe part of my love of Love of Siam is a desire to want to believe in that fiction again. I don’t know though: everything I just wrote down, I believe and don’t believe. Love is attachment, so maybe love is a kind of choice or decision to allow oneself to like/become attracted to a person who is close to you (literally, in the sense that the other person is physically present, as opposed to, say, an image on a dating site; also, figuratively in the sense of a mental and emotional connection based on shared moments, experiences, conversations, and silences that constitute shared time[ii]). Mew and Tong turned inward, toward each other, and it was love. But the movie didn’t require them to turn away from other people, or from life itself. (Although there were necessarily moments where they retreated from life, from people, pulled away and stood aside in order to stand beside each other. But it wasn’t a mode of being, this retreat from life. Their love isn’t about making an investment in coupledom as the only form of solace in a difficult world.)
Similar to the points Elaine Castillo makes about Senna, another movie that moved me in an almost forceful way, Love of Siam is in love with faces—long close-ups of faces dominate throughout. The camera lingers tenderly, lovingly, on faces. I watched it online where the sound and subtitles were off-time; characters would say things before the audio and subtitles kicked in, and although it’s one of the most agonising ways to watch a movie, I kept watching because once I watched the first ten minutes I was hooked. I had to closely watch and observe the faces to understand what was going on before the subtitles arrived to provide the language with which to make sense of these faces. The camera follows their faces slowly and closely, and because the two actors in the lead roles were so young, and almost naïve, watching their faces is a kind of heartbreak. The close-ups of Mew and Tong’s faces are also meant to reveal how much they want to look at each other. The frequency with which they simply look at each other is astonishing; astonishing in the sense that it’s unashamed and assertive. (Here I think about Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look, and what it means that two queer Asian boys claim this right so forcefully and tenderly.) I also think about Kelly Oliver’s “The Look of Love”:
“A loving look becomes the inauguration of “subjectivity” without subjects or objects. In Etre Deux, Irigaray suggests that the loving look involves all of the senses and refuses the separation between visible and invisible. A body in love cannot be fixed as an object. The look of love sees the invisible in the visible; both spiritual and carnal, the look of love is of “neither subject nor object”.
Irigaray’s suggestions about the possibility of loving looks turn Sartre’s or Lacan’s anti-social gaze into a look as the circulation of affective psychic energy. The gaze does not have to be a harsh or accusing stare. Rather, affective psychic energy circulates through loving looks. Loving looks nourish and sustain the psyche, the soul, as well as the body. Irigaray’s formulation of the loving look as an alternative to the objectifying look, and her reformulation of recognition beyond domination through love, suggest that the ethical and political power of love can be used to overcome oppression.
There is no happy ending in Love of Siam, though. Nothing is “resolved”. Life goes on and love adjusts its proportions to let life pass through. Love is the vessel and life rushes in to fill it. “If we can love someone so much, how will we be able to handle it one day when we are separated? And if being separated is a part of life, and you know about separation well, is it possible that we can love someone and never be afraid of losing them? Or is it possible that we can live our entire life without loving at all?” Mew asks Tong, and it’s a question that isn’t answered. “Now that we’re grown up, loneliness seems so much worse,” says Mew, and it’s true, and the movie doesn’t rush to fill the loneliness with love. Rather, it suggests that love doesn’t replace that fundamental sense of aloneness, much less transcend it. In the end, Mew and Tong don’t end up together as A Couple, and Tong tells Mew, “I can’t be with you as your boyfriend. But that does not mean I don’t love you.”
Maggie Nelson, in Bluets:
238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”
Like when Courtney Love sings in “Malibu”, “I can’t be near you, the light just radiates”.
No happy endings in sight.
When I think about Senna, too, I think it’s a film about love. It feels like it was made with so much love, and it’s also a movie that’s in love with its subject, a subject who’s not afraid to love his life’s work, the people who matter to him, God. I love that Masha Tupitsyn focuses on what is, for me, the most moving scene in Senna: that brief moment between Senna and his father, which she describes here:
In the scene where Senna wins the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991 (after he won the race, Senna actually passed out, so great was the anguish of his ecstasy. Victory.), he suffers unbearable shoulder pain from the tremendous stress of the race. He is literally pulled out of the race car and driven off the track. He can barely move. But when Senna sees his father, he calls over to him, “Dad, come here. Come here.” His father hesitates, but Senna insists. “Come here. Come here! Touch me gently,” he orders. His father, much taller, stands beside his son, as Senna rests his head against his father’s chest for a moment. When he starts to walk back, Senna tells everyone else (even before anyone actually touches him; even if no one is trying to touch him at all), “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” He commands everyone but his father to get away from him. This scene, which is the difference between touch me gently and don’t touch me at all, between everyone else and you, between a son and his father, beloved and not-beloved, can also be read as a love story.
If ever a moment could be charged with love, a love so rarely seen on screen in its rawness and vulnerability—the love between father and son—it was this. I think I scrunched my eyes a little when I watched that scene, I wanted to keep looking and then I looked away, mostly because I wanted to cry (tears! again!) because watching felt like I was looking right into a bright light.
Being a witness to love can often feel like an affirmation of something (of what? something you had but lost?), but more often it feels like a wound. Late-capitalist society doesn’t tend wounds; it just looks for ways to avoid it and move on.
[i] There is one scene that involves a kiss. The camera doesn’t intrude; it pulls back, and then goes a little closer, but maintains a respectful distance—this kiss isn’t for the benefit of an audience.
[ii] Which makes me think of this: http://likeafieldmouse.tumblr.com/post/33874562265/felix-gonzalez-torres-perfect-lovers-1987-91 What if lovers are not in-time? “We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space. We are a product of the time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time.” And yet—as if it can ever be that simple—“[A]s military time has become militarized time over the past few years, time itself, what is defined as ‘my’ time, has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. We are in the time of service.” How does militarised time shape how we love? What is the neoliberal couple in service of?
June 23, 2012 § 6 Comments
I disliked Prometheus intensely. I do think that having acrimonious feelings towards the film is the actual point—the film seems to be a stand-in for a certain segment of humanity and its imperialist, ruinous ambitions, though like most films coming out of Hollywood this seems to coexist with its appreciation of capital, technology, and involuntary/reproductive labour. That in itself doesn’t make it inherently unlikeable, not at all. But as Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view,” and perhaps it’s the nihilist technological determinism of Prometheus that is inherently unsettling. Perhaps it’s this utter lack of meaning in the movie that is its meaning, and consequently the source of my loathing. Maybe a part of me just wants machines and people to get along? I’m not sure.
I read Elaine Castillo on Prometheus and realised this is the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the movie. Besides, she addresses the questions/concerns I had with more thought and care than I could have ever managed. Still, I’ve apparently written a lengthy post on Prometheus because there are just some issues that I can’t stop thinking about, and Castillo’s post is the spark.
The stuff I can’t stop thinking about includes Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) auto-caesarean scene, for one. This scene, where Shaw basically has to perform a caesarean procedure on herself because, as Castillo points out, “the apparatus—medical, state, corporate—is literally not equipped for what she needs to do,” was, for me, the most unsettling scene in the entire movie. Primarily because it’s filmed in a way to expressly provoke horror and/or titillate. Seeing Shaw’s writhing, jerking slender female body clad only in underwear reminded me of Linda Williams’ essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”. In it, by way of Foucault, Williams talks about how “audiences of all sorts have received some of their most powerful sensations” through the “sexual saturation of the female body” and Shaw’s female body is textbook horror movie trope: a body that is saturated with sex and drenched in blood. And it’s a body that’s intruded upon: first by an unknown alien substance, then by the machinery that’s supposed to remove it out of her.
That Prometheus follows in the footsteps of Alien in blending the genres of both science fiction and body horror is obvious. But in the midst of trying to isolate my visceral horror (and empathy?) for Shaw’s distressed female body on display from thoughts about what was being shown I realised that what was being shown is pretty unusual: a female protagonist actively trying to get rid of her baby. (Castillo: “[T]he only American movie where I’ve ever been able to hear a woman saying, with absolutely no regrets or qualms—GET IT OUT GET IT OUT—hear a woman declare that she does not want a baby in her, and do what she needs to do to terminate the pregnancy.”) Of course, it’s not an actual abortion and it’s a monstrous alien baby, which somehow makes this a “safe” option to explore, perhaps. The more crucial point is that Shaw’s agency is limited in the face of technology—the machines aren’t equipped to do what she needs.
So technology fails her—women’s reproductive needs somehow never being important enough on this planet or any other planet, even in 2089—and Shaw, both the Good Scientist and the Good Woman, keeps the alien fetus alive presumably to learn more about it in service to science and for the benefit of human society at large. (What is this thing? What can we do with it?) Lurking in the background, much like the creeping aliens, is the fact that Shaw is Christian. There’s probably no room in the film’s imagination for Shaw to want the alien fetus dead; not only would she be a bad scientist for not wanting to keep this specimen alive but inevitably she would be seen as a hysterical, selfish woman making an irrational choice for wanting to kill this thing that was growing inside her body through no choice of her own. And we can’t have that. So this scene was an expedient way for the film to work around this issue: you can remove your alien fetus and keep it alive too. (Furthermore, in terms of a movie franchise, this decision to keep the alien alive conveniently segues into the world of Alien.)
After the procedure, Shaw stumbles about bloodied and disoriented and no one around her actually cares or even attempts to portray some semblance of human concern. It’s clear that she’s undergone some form of physical trauma because it’s written all over her body i.e. blood everywhere. It’s only David the android who hands her a robe, or maybe it was a towel, I don’t know. Granted, he is the only one who knows what she’s gone through because he basically engineered this non-immaculate evil conception by introducing alien goo into Shaw’s boyfriend’s system (thereby killing the boyfriend). In the larger scheme of the machinations of corporations and capital, Shaw’s body is used and discarded as a birthing device; the physical and emotional demands placed upon her female body are secondary. In fact, it’s barely an issue. The body must get back out there and perform.
These messy, inconveniently frail and bloody human bodies are foregrounded against the supremely immaculate interior of the spaceship; gleaming metal, shiny objects, pristine surroundings. The year 2089 gives us some pretty amazing technology in terms of what capital needs and dictates, but where the human body is concerned, it’s still going to bleed and fuck and become impregnated against its will. Nowhere is the disparity between body/space clearer than during the aforementioned scene; blood spurts out of Shaw’s body while outside of the surgical pod/chamber is glaringly monochrome, flawless, and unspoiled. The human (female) body and the grotesque alien-monster coming out from inside it are the contaminated bodies, ugly in its inefficiency.
This is in contrast to the ship’s physical interior in Alien. This movie was made in 1979 and clearly movie technology has “improved” since then, but that movie reflected a messier, chaotic, lived-in atmosphere of actual living, breathing humans. But the stark sterility of the ship in Prometheus is mirrored in the cool, inscrutable blondeness of Michael Fassbender’s David and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers. In fact, the moment Vickers steps out of the ship into the cosmos in the final scene where she’s trying to save her life, you know she’s going to die immediately because she’s in the wrong place. Her place is with capital and machinery; she’s practically powered by the forces of profits and technology. Accordingly, she is immediately crushed to death by alien technology. A silly, pointless death—cruel irony, perhaps, or maybe Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof were simply not too fond of Theron. In any case, this death-by-machinery is, back home on Planet Earth, a lived reality for the vast majority of the population working with wayward, hostile machinery in unsafe, unregulated conditions. Very rarely is this a concern for a Corporate King and his family members and fellow plutocrats. In Prometheus, “one of the ‘cheapest’ big-budget films of the year”, the white American 1% has to make a trip outside of Earth to learn that its lives are literally worthless.
Then, there’s Idris Elba. Castillo on Idris Elba’s character (and related, the Aryan-android):
I think there is also a comparison to be made here, too, between David and Captain Janek, played by Idris Elba. Janek’s pragmatism, his lived-in clothes, his race, his accent (somewhere between the American South and Hackney), his embodiment, his sexuality, his noble going-down-with-the-ship-to save-the-world death. The conversation he has with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), their flirting, the moment when he asks if she’s a robot, and she responds by telling him to come to her room in ten minutes (implying that the sexual act will prove whether or not she is truly “human” or not). Janek’s basically good humanity is never questioned. I wondered if this was another case of “people of color as containers of good old homespun wisdom and goodness, to be dispensed to the grateful white people who still dominate them, but a little more nicely in recent years, sort of.”
It strikes me of note that it’s the one black male character on this pristine white ship who gets to needle Meredith Vickers about her anger issues which, to his mind, stem from a presumed lack of sexual activity. Elba’s character also gets to joke about gay sex: When two of his ship’s crew are stuck in the alien cave during a sandstorm and can’t immediately return, he (strangely) seems to exhibit very little fear and concern and instead jokingly tells them not to “bugger each other”. We have to thank Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof for this macho posturing; we clearly don’t get enough of this in our lives and what’s more a science fiction slash horror film will be nothing without it. But it’s also important for the movie to give us the One Black Dude. In an impressive display of moviemaking imagination, the movie’s creators cast Idris Elba to give us a spot of colour and to be the resident homophobic/sexist douche. To be sure, none of the human characters in the movie perform against heterosexist conventions, but Elba’s character is the one who gets to explicitly make homophobic/misogynist jokes. So in a really creative display of characterisation we have this black male character who is one part goodness and one part macho hypersexuality. He left his station to have sex with Vickers! And didn’t even get anyone else to cover for him! During this very crucial time in alien land with strange happenings! Because sex!
(And since we’re talking about spots of colour, let us now devote one sentence in this blog post to Benedict Wong who plays the requisite Asian-everyman with a few clever quips. He gets a few sentences in the film.)
After the predictable and expected deaths of practically everyone, Shaw and Vickers are the last two people alive if you don’t count David who, after an unfortunate encounter with the nasty “Engineer”, is reduced to a talking android head. (“Off with his head, man!”) The movie brings us to the almost-end with both women still alive! (“Feminism!” writes Ridley Scott in the margins of Damon Lindelof’s script). This is also a great way to remind the audience of Alien. (Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley! Didn’t you guys love her? Love this movie, too!) But this brings us to the standard trope of body-horror movies: the good girl vs bad girl trope premised on the whore/virgin dichotomy. Or, as Linda Williams puts it:
The sadomasochistic teen horror films kill off the sexually active “bad” girls, allowing only the non-sexual “good” girls to survive. But these good girls become, as if in compensation, remarkably active, to the point of appropriating phallic power to themselves. It is as if this phallic power is granted so long as it is rigorously separated from phallic or any other sort of pleasure. For these pleasures spell sure death in this genre.
A twist to this trope in this sadomasochistic adult horror film: Vickers is the bad girl because she cares only for profits and power (to usurp her father’s place) while Shaw is the good girl because she’s a believer and has faith, both in the religion in which she was raised (she still has her father’s gold cross), but also because she “believed” in the idea of the existence of these alien-man engineers who made us. The latter fact flies in the face of her religious belief, naturally, but Shaw’s beliefs are framed as both irrational and “right”, and the movie rewards her by letting her stay alive. I’m not sure if Shaw appropriated phallic power—unlike Ripley in Alien there’s nothing about her battling hostile alien beings on her own. In fact, perhaps we can read the talking android head David as her source of phallic power. (Maybe that’s stretching it. But I do enjoy the idea of phallic power = android head.)
Still, as expected in a horror film that’s also a sci-fi film, redemption lies in technological knowledge and expertise. And Shaw, along with David, heads back out into the unknown in search for our makers and why they hate us. “We” human beings apparently want nothing more than to be in search of hostile gods who will be the leaders of our technocracy. And if “human agency, like capital, is a technological body, is something made,” as Timothy Mitchell points out in Rule of Experts, then it seems to me that the android is the clearest example of human agency in this film and also the means by which phallic power is exercised. This is really interesting in light of Castillo’s question: “If we think the cyborg body as techno-human hybrid and metaphor for raced gendered bodies, how do we think the android commodity body, especially David’s blond Aryan android commodity?”
Fassbender’s David inhabits his android body with soft, gentle, yet very precise actions—not a gesture is wasted. He is, on the surface, an ideal disciplined subject. This particular manner of inhabiting the male body is often read as effeminate (particularly in discourse on racialised/colonised subjects). And in this movie, his presence is in contrast to the wayward, raucous, contemptuous masculinity of the human men. Yet there is the bare fact of David’s physical presence: queer android, perhaps, but in a masculine-presenting Aryan body.* Far from a paranoid android, he is a supremely confident one.
(*Or maybe it’s just hard for me to separate this notion of phallic power from the kind of power that Fassbender himself seems to command among movie audiences and critics. I think about Shame and how the widespread acclaim for his performance seems to have been conflated with praise and acclaim for the bold presence of his actual penis. It was collective swooning over an appendage that overshadowed what his performance was about or, indeed, what the movie was about. But then, maybe that’s what the movie was all about. I think it’s a movie about man tears and a capricious penis that, on the surface, wants to be understood as being in tension with or against the phallocracy, but deep down inside is just totally enamoured with phallocracy. But that’s another movie for another overlong blog post discussion.)
June 14, 2012 § 12 Comments
Movies like Snow White and the Huntsman prop up and reinforce conservative ideologies while pretending to “subvert” conventional narratives through the guise of liberal feminism. On the surface is Empowered Young Women Kicking Butt; underneath the gloss it’s all Business As Usual. Everything about Snow White and the Huntsman is about the purity of BLOOD AND ANCESTRY. I mean, we know the story from the fairy tale and nothing’s changed. It’s about the rightful princess taking her place on the throne as queen because she is of “pure blood” and supposedly “pure at heart”; this is evident through her pure beauty (white skin, red lips, black hair). She even stops a troll in his tracks, for fairy’s sake, so it must be right. One scene in particular made me feel ill: Right after she escapes from her holding cell, Snow White rides a mysterious white horse (a gift from the universe! fairy tale magic!) through a village of dirty, poor folk – the unwashed, raggedy masses; the universe doesn’t give them white horses, nope! – and they stare at her meanly like they’re going to chop her up and make a stew of her. That’s what poor people do, amirite? So Snow White looks all afraid. And she’s white and luminous even though she’s been rolling around in grime while the villagers are all grimy and dirty because SNOW WHITE, GET IT? I mean, if you don’t get it or forget which movie you’re watching then HERE IS AN IMAGE TO REMIND YOU.
Dwarves who have the second sight say things like, “She is the one. She is destined.” Or, “She will heal the land.” Or variations of, “She is pure”; “She is the rightful heir”; “She will save the goddamn world and I will follow where she leads because once upon a time I was a man/dwarf with no pride and then SHE came along and my pride is restored, so let us save, support, and secretly want to fuck this beautiful woman who will be queen because yeah.” Chris Hemsworth is made to say things like, “You will be a queen in heaven and you will take your place among the angels” or some such shit while Snow White is (sort of) dead; how he said it without spitting into the camera will remain one of moviemaking’s greatest mysteries. So it’s not just that humanity needs a white person to rule the world; she will also save the world because SHE IS THE ONE and if you’re not buying the white horse then wait for it, a white deer appears and bows to her and gives her his blessing and it is WHITE so it is PURE and therefore it is GOOD and IT IS ALL AS IT SHOULD BE and why they didn’t go all the way and make her god, is the bigger question.
Fuck me, I’ve been trying to figure out if the movie has subverted any of the conventional narratives but now all I want to do is rinse out my brain. Moreover, I’m just angry because I watch movies like this. But what happens if you don’t watch movies like this – do they stop making it if we all don’t show up at the cinema? LET’S ALL NOT SHOW UP AT THE CINEMA. (Charlize Theron* as the “evil” queen tells us that we get the queen we deserve. Presumably we also get the movies we deserve.)
I was rooting for the evil queen, simply because she has known what it’s like to be at the mercy of powers larger than herself, powers that altered/ruined her life as she knew it for the sake of nationalism/ancestry/culture and cheap thrills. It’s a bummer that she then became, you know, wholly bad and appropriated all the power in the world for herself while sucking out the youth/souls of younger people in order to stay alive forever, but yeah. The world will do that to you, apparently. The world will corrupt and ruin you UNLESS YOU’RE SNOW FUCKING WHITE AND PURE OF HEART THANKS TO YOUR PURE BLOOD AND NOBLE FUCKING ANCESTRY.
The evil queen is evil because she is operating in a man’s world, as her mother taught her, and in a man’s world a woman must have beauty or she has nothing. Beauty = power. This is neither new nor shocking, just depressing as fuck, because the thing about totalising ideas like “this is a man’s world” is that it prevents us from seeing how we continue to remake it as a man’s world, it prevents us from seeing how to undo its structures. And we’re left talking to mirrors.
Ideas of beauty in Snow White and the Huntsman are predictable: beauty is pure and good if it is moderated and neutralised, usually with the help of patriarchal structures like monarchy and actual men-protectors like huntsmen and dwarves; beauty is really bad if left to the devices of women who hate men but want what men have (i.e. power). Beware the beautiful woman who spurs you on to such heights of lust that you marry her the next day! Where possible, shape and modulate youthful female beauty by locking her up in a tower (bonus points if the evil queen does it for you, you benefit from the effects of disciplined subjects without having to do the dirty work yourself!). Then, set her free BUT of course, not totally free; keep her well within the proper boundaries of patriarchal structures that also operate subtly as fascist supremacy (bonus points again!) and pretend that she has a choice. And so the movie tries to sell itself as rah-rah feminist because Empowered Young Woman Kicks Butt but by the way, Old and Not-So-Beautiful Anymore Evil Hags Who Hate Men Should Die a Slow and Painful Death. It’s Good Beauty vs. Bad Beauty, the former who simpers when the still-a-stranger-to-her huntsman cuts off her skirt (for easy mobility, one reckons?) while the latter stabs men and kings while they’re making out with her.
Meanwhile, here is what the movie wants you to know: Goodness is written on your face but ideally it should be a face that adheres to hegemonic standards of beauty. Plus, you must have the right skin colour! If so, then the world is yours! Take it! Otherwise, your beauty is suspect or you’re most likely ugly; therefore, shut up and be subjugated. Furthermore, if goodness is written in your face, you don’t really have to do anything beyond stare soulfully into the eyes of a troll, which is enough to convince Chris Hemsworth that you’re something special so that one minute his job was to kill you and the next minute he looks you into your eyes and thinks NOPE! TOO BEAUTIFUL TO KILL! and this will make him forget his dead wife just like THAT although he’s only been grieving for her ALL THIS TIME so it will all work out in the end, because he will kiss you while you’re almost-dead and you will wake up and you will claim your rightful place and you will live happily ever after.
(*Much of the film appears dark, grey, and gloomy, and Charlize Theron’s exaggerated performance admirably matches the artifice of the movie’s aesthetics, like the fluttering dark feathers of ravens and the melting mirrors. Her performance and the movie itself almost veers towards camp but fails because there is not a shred of humour to be found anywhere — except, of course, in the predictable sequences involving the dwarves. Forced laughs, etc. Maybe it would have been better if this movie was lesbian camp, with the Queen and Snow White finding love, or just great sexual gratification, with each other. But no. This movie is serious. Theron’s performance is all about excess: this queen cannot be contained. Still it’s a relief to watch her shriek and moan and gesticulate wildly compared to the blank-eyed expressions of the ChrisStew, as I call them. The ChrisStew performance is flattened affect in a movie that’s filled with intensely trite and sentimental dialogue; it’s dialogue that strains for Meaning. Maybe the vacant, one-note expression thing would have worked against the shittiness of the dialogue somehow, but no, because this movie is serious. There’s one great but fleeting moment where you catch Stewart’s expression before she jumps into the water: it’s a mix of dread, fear, and exhilaration. You never see it again. As for Hemsworth, he’s drunken, distant, and loutish until he falls in love over the course of two minutes and becomes silent and wistful. And presumably because this is love as pure as the driven snow, there is no sexual heat or tension, just unending blah.)
March 25, 2012 § 7 Comments
Another way in which the 70s influence is felt in the film is in the striking strand of second-wave feminism that runs through it (well, I thought it was striking, but I spent the day prior to watching the film reading the feminist genealogy in Janet Halley’s Split Decisions, so maybe I was just primed to look at things in these terms). We see this at the beginning of the film, when Katniss is instructed to wear a dress for the ceremony which precedes the Hunger Games, in the fact that one of the biopolitical indignities she suffers in preparation for the Games is having her legs waxed, and in her unwillingness to perform a pleasing femininity in order to win supporters in the Games; all places, that is, where the film emphasizes the social construction of the feminine. I write “social construction of the feminine” rather than “social construction of gender” advisedly, because unfortunately the film also repeats a problematic gesture of some second-wave feminisms, which expressed a hostility to the imposition of compulsory femininity in a hostility to femininity as such, which can reinforce a traditional misogynistic trope in which women are criticized for inauthenticity and artifice. The evilness of Katniss’s main antagonists within the Games themselves, for instance, is demonstrated by their willingness to wear pretty dresses, which marks them as “mean girls.” More generally, the decedance of the Capitol (which runs the Games), as opposed to the virtue of the Districts from which Katniss comes, takes the visual form of feminization, in pink clothes and elaborate make-up. On the other hand, though, the film ends with Katniss, now a winner of the Hunger Games, wearing a pretty dress herself, and her greatest ally throughout the films is her stylist, who teaches her how to use dress and performance to her advantage, so perhaps we will see further dialectical developments of this theme in the subsequent films.
This is a significant passage from this post: “Hunger Games in austere times”. I’ve been thinking about this aspect of the film (and book, which I read the night before watching it). I haven’t read the sequels, so like Voyou I’m not how this theme develops throughout the series. But aside from this — the decadence of Capitol taking on the visual form of feminization, astutely described in the passage above — the added element of Katniss being taught “how to use dress and performance to her advantage” is linked closely to how both Katniss and Peeta are taught to use mannerisms and performance to their advantage in demonstrating a form of compulsory heterosexuality. The story of “star-crossed lovers”, as their mentor Haymitch is meant to “sell” it, is supposed to keep the two tributes from District 12 alive. The only thing that those bored, bloodlusty brutes of Capitol can apparently cheer on, besides death, is a boy and a girl in love with each other. (All roads from eros lead back to thanatos. Or vice versa. Or, you know, something like that.) Pretending to be in love will win Katniss and Peeta support, which translates to money (sponsorship, in the world of Hunger Games), and money translates to stuff that you can use to stay alive during the games.
Interestingly, Katniss the girl isn’t as good at affective labour as Peeta the boy, and increasingly all the attempts to teach her to use dress and performance to her advantage is to: 1) make her charming and feminine enough to be liked; and 2) make her charming and feminine enough to be desirable. (Which is Peeta’s “gift” to her at the start, when he confesses to his deep and abiding crush on Katniss during the early interview session before the Games. This was a move engineered by their “mentor” Haymitch, which as Haymitch later tells Katniss is a move can only help her, since Peeta helped her appear desirable – something Katniss wasn’t able to quite achieve on her own, as impressive as she looked in her stylist Cinna’s various looks.)
As it turns out, the reason why Peeta is so good at affecting this performance of romance is because it’s apparently not a performance; he has had a crush on Katniss all this while. Katniss, meanwhile, may or may not have faked it (what’s interesting in the book is the way it complicates the whole “fake it till you make it” scenario to render the question of “real feelings” meaningless: it doesn’t matter if Katniss faked it or not, her feelings for Peeta are there, and they’re “real” enough.)
“Inauthenticity and artifice” are the means by which Katniss comes to perform her femininity, but in the world of Capitol’s compulsory heterosexuality, it’s the only way to stay alive. The film suggests this, but it’s clearly expressed in the novel because it’s written from Katniss’ POV. After they’ve won the Games and Katniss hears from Haymitch about how the folks at Capitol are mad at her for trying to outsmart them with the nightlock berries trick, she is again advised to play up the girl-in-love role to save herself (and others, because Haymitch implies that this time, Capitol’s anger will be directed at her entire District if she doesn’t play it right.) And so, in the book, during the all-important interview, Katniss tells us this:
I sit so close to Peeta that I’m practically on his lap, but one look from Haymitch tells me it isn’t enough. Kicking off my sandals, I tuck my feet to the side and lean my head on Peeta’s shoulder. His arm goes around me automatically, and I feel like I’m back in the cave, curled up against him, trying to keep warm. His shirt is made of the same yellow material as my dress, but Portia’s put him in long black pants. No sandals, either, but a pair of sturdy black boots he keeps solidly planted on the stage. I wish Cinna had given me a similar outfit, I feel so vulnerable in this flimsy dress. But I guess that was the point.
A little later on we learn the reason for why Peeta had to wear pants and boots (an incident from the novel that the film adaptation left alone), but it still seems pretty troubling to me that it’s this required performance of lovestruck, vulnerable femininity that is needed, quite literally, to save Katniss’ life. And this too precisely because she has demonstrated what is apparently meant to be understood as an unfeminine lack of vulnerability throughout. It’s almost as if she must be punished for not being feminine enough or female in all the right ways (which is why comments to the effect that Katniss Everdeen is a “better” feminist role model than Bella Swan of the Twilight series seems to me rather strange, not least because comparing who’s more feminist is precisely why feminism is still needed, but more to the point because so many seem to miss how similar these two female characters have to be in order to be allowed to exist within the social order.)
Anyway, this seems to tie in to what Voyou pointed out: the decadence of the Capitol expressed through the “visual form of feminization”. This also somehow hints at the subtle underlying factor about what makes Katniss a “worthy” poor person – she is, ultimately a very pretty woman, even if it’s achieved through artifice (i.e. Boy, doesn’t she clean up nice! etc.). The markers of femininity, or what makes a girl worthy, still seem depressingly familiar: pretty, vulnerable, likeable, charming, and most of all, “desirable” (in general) and desired by a man (in particular).
February 3, 2012 § 12 Comments
When I read about the “Marie Calloway” thing, I wrote a series of tweets and didn’t post them. I saved them, though, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole thing. Also, because blogs are where tweets go to die:
- Depressingly predictable? (And wondering about ‘Adrien Brody’, writer “affiliated with The New Inquiry”.) http://www.observer.com/2011/12/meet-marie-calloway/?show=print
- http://muumuuhouse.com/mc.fiction1.html Read Calloway’s piece and liked it: “I was also curious to see how someone who seemed +
- + so dignified and cerebral would respond to a young girl sending sexy photos of herself to him over the internet.”
- “I was hoping he would say something to the effect of how my looks made it so he was already impressed by me,
- which would ease the immense pressure I felt to be interesting and witty, (which is what I always hope for from men) but he didn’t.”
- Regimented artifices underlies heterosexuality. Obligatory games, tricks, shenanigans. At last, it all makes sense. Actually no, it does not.
- It’s interesting to me how Calloway’s piece is constantly referring to her social manipulations (what we all do) & her reactions to it.
- What’s depressing to me, of course, is the way the Observer piece frames it. Also, maybe, how female Youth & Beauty is always
- pitted against male Braininess & Power, and one part of me really, really wishes for another kind of story.
- Smart, talented, ugly young girl and beautiful older man, for example. But who wants to listen to this story?
- “Dignified, cerebral” straight men respond to youthful female beauty in the vein of Sir Rushdie: “You look so gorgeous & hottt.”
- “I am intrigued by your proposal that we sleep with each other, as I have a girlfriend, by which I mean, yes, yes, yes, okay.” – Cerebral Man
- I’ve heard/read/seen this version of the story so often that I cannot help but feel a mixture of sadness and exhaustion.
There you have it. A series of emo-tweets, perhaps a little mean-spirited (that dig at Rushdie comes from the Observer piece). I couldn’t put this thing out of my mind because as I was reading numerous reactions to her piece, I felt unsettled. There was both a subtle and overt need to decide if what Calloway did was feminist or not. Which seemed to me beside the point – surely the point is to be able to look at a woman’s writing and consider it, engage with it, critique it, without first having to decide if her writing is an act of Feminism™ or not-Feminism™?
So I went back to Calloway’s story:
“It then seemed really strange and unfair to me that the possibility of sex relies on just the one thing, the man’s ability to get an erection.”
“I feel so vulnerable,” he said, his voice shaking.
I felt annoyed he was only focused on his own feelings, after he had just shot a load on my face.”
We talked more about Gramsci, and then our feelings.
My face felt tight as his cum started to dry on my face. I wondered how he could respect me, have this intelligent conversation with me, when I was laying there with his cum all over my face.
“I talked about how mean I felt I had been treated throughout my life for my looks. And how I felt like people judged me less now that I was attractive. How even though it’s not true, I can’t get the idea out of my head that I feel safer when I look pretty. How I felt like the defining theme of my life has always, always been the way I look.
“It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive. And even men who are attracted to me, I feel like they have all the power because they get less emotionally invested in me than I am in them. But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,” I said.”
I think these passages, consciously or not, explore sex and power play and heterosexual gender performance – and for that reason I find it hard to dismiss the story with an offhand comment like “we all like sex”. Do we all really like sex? Especially when we’re looking at heterosexual relations between strangers; or almost-strangers (Calloway and “Adrien Brody” were aware of each other’s digital existence, and perhaps obsessively so, in that way in which online crushes develop). Especially between partners with a significant age difference. Especially in the ways in which narrating a story about sex in such detail, with the interiority of the female protagonist as the thrust of the narrative, is so unsexy.
As such, these passages, consciously or not, attempt to articulate the power matrices that produce murky, messy heterosexual relations – all at once establishing the idea that beauty is a form of privilege, especially for a woman, especially for a young woman. But at the same time it destabilises and undermines that idea of beauty as privilege by demonstrating that the currency of female beauty circulates within the manufactured straight male gaze. If you have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze, and if you do not have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze.
I’m thinking of many women as I write this, and one of them is Janis Joplin, and this particularly line from Autumn’s piece screams out at me because I read it as true:
Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness.
The outrage over Marie Calloway’s story, the moralistic posturing of how she’s a bad girl or how fail-y her “values” are (because she still slept with the guy after finding out he had a girlfriend – “Think of the children and the future of all humankind, you harlot!”, etc.) are countered by some thoughtful responses, but it still seems important to emphasise that our capital-driven, heteronormative society prizes female beauty beyond all other female attributes or accomplishments. What? You mean like, after we decided that women are still human and whatever and feminism CHANGED THE WORLD, after all that… STILL? Yeah. In fact, I tentatively put forward this notion: shit is still fucked up and patriarchal.
Being young and comely is a privilege, and it’s an awareness that Marie Calloway herself seems to demonstrate – though, certainly she also embodies the insecurities that riddle a significant number of women: that she’s not pretty enough. “’But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,’ I said”, she writes. I don’t want to make the mistake of reading this piece of writing as a memoir, or a confessional, but certainly the fact that it blurs boundaries is what makes it messy, irregular, and compelling.
Kate Zambreno writes:
We’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl, and if she’s only an image, and never given a voice, even a flawed, imperfect, bad-faithed perspective, this is a huge fucking problem.
And this is true, we’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl who’s a blank slate, but this necessarily acknowledges the reverse: we’re not bombarded with images of a not-pretty young girl, ever. That is, a not-pretty smart girl who is not a freak, the boring sidekick, or the ugly duckling who must be transformed into some form of princess. The Hollywood-Disney industrial complex cannot bear an ugly young girl. Think of an ugly young girl wearing her ugliness with pride, like say, a female Sartre, pug-faced and fucking whomever she wants to fuck because she’s attracted to them, and enjoying it, and people swarming around her because she’s brilliant in ways that don’t involve her face and body; ways that don’t involve her glowing, iridescent skin and invisible pores and sun-kissed hair and smooth underarms and shaved pussy and stomach so flat you can eat sushi off it and naturally-bouncy-sticking-straight-out-and-up boobs. Think of this girl portrayed as just another somebody, no big deal, just another human living her life-
YOUR BRAIN JUST EXPLODED AMIRITE LIKE, OMG DO GIRLS LIKE THAT EVEN EXIST JESUS FUCK WHAT
And so young, intelligent, pretty girls like Marie Calloway will sleep with an older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody, but will the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody be attracted to an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty woman? And let us then stretch this further and imagine the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking (white) Cerebral Adrien Brody desiring an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty (not-at-all-white) girl? Is there room to imagine this story without sort of LOSING OUR SHIT?
A hostage is freed, and on the radio she says, “I have finally been able to have a wax, and wear perfume. I am getting my femininity back.” Or in any case that was the part they chose to broadcast. She doesn’t want to go into town, see her friends, read the papers. She wants to get a wax? Fine, that’s her business. Just don’t tell me I should think it’s normal. Monique Wittig says, “Here we are, back in the same trap, the familiar cul-de-sac of ‘it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman.’” Frequently uttered by men. And relayed by their personal assistants, always eager to defend the master’s interests. Men of a certain age love to tell us this. Neglecting to mention the specificity of their “it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman”: young, thin, and pleasing to men. Otherwise, there’s nothing wonderful about it. You’re just doubly alienated.
- Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory (emphasis mine)
The “power” that men love to bestow upon women – these must be of a certain sort, must rigidly adhere to certain codes. Young, thin, and pleasing to men. Again, I quote Marie Calloway, and this time with feeling: “It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive.”
Young or old, ugly or pretty, women who want to belong to the social order and earn its “rewards” must assent to what Despentes calls the “system of forced masquerade”. Can we read stories like “Adrien Brody” as attempts by women, who in the words of Joan Riviere in 1927, “wish for masculinity” and “put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men”? And not because masculinity is “better”, but because opportunities to transcend identity appear to be possible within the realm of masculinity?
Jacqueline Rose has this to say in the chapter “George Eliot and the Spectacle of Woman” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision:
We seem to sanitise the very concept of fantasy when allow to the woman who writes only two positions – subordination to the stereotype or release into the freedom of writing from its weight. Yet could it not also be – and at the risk of troubling the concept of an écriture feminine – that, suspending her relation to the very fact of sexual identity, the woman equally uses writing to masquerade?
This seems to be what is occurring in all the responses to the Marie Calloway story; there is a need to determine whether it’s a feminist piece or not, to allow the woman who writes only two positions. But the piece is compelling to many, I think, because it exists in the indeterminate space in-between. Even people who want to mock her writing or her style have to admit that they actually sat down and read the whole thing. Again, I turn to Rose, and her reminder that “the question of our own implication as readers in a structure and images which we challenge even as they bear down upon, and at moments seduce, us all.” We’re seduced by the Marie Calloway story, most especially, I think, when we’re denouncing it and everyone involved.
But it’s equally important that challenging (what seems to be largely spurious, a performance of outrage in defence of some idea of Moral Values) outrage/condemnation of Calloway’s story is not the equivalent of necessarily succumbing to the universal, trite adage that says, “It’s tough to be a woman”, and to leave it at that. It is tough to be a woman in a patriarchal society. It’s tougher – “doubly alienating” – to not be a certain kind of woman. Not-young, not-thin, not-pretty, not-straight, not-cis, not-white, not-pleasing to men? Well.
“Does woman exist if she isn’t desired?” might be the question to ask.
I return to Despentes: “I like myself as I am, more desiring than desirable.” Though it’s not so simple, as Nina Power reminds us in One Dimensional Woman: “What if there’s no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”
If the image is the reality then what happens to people who don’t fit the socially-constructed ideal image?
Towards the end of King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes asks, “How long do we have to wait, for male emancipation?” Cis, straight men like the “Adrien Brodys”[i] of the world, who no doubt consider themselves feminist or feminist allies, still can’t say no to the pleasures afforded and made possible by cis, straight (white) male privilege: when these men are awkward and dorky and not-so-attractive but in possession of internet “microfame” or some form of socially-acceptable talent/intelligence/whathaveyou, they can and they will have access to pretty girls to fuck even while having a girlfriend. And when everyone finds out about it (like, say, the pretty girl writes a story for Thought Catalog), the outrage will still largely be directed toward the pretty girl. And back to the pretty girl/woman – people seem happy to think about her reasons for sleeping with an older, more intellectually-authoritative figure because she wants the attention or has nursed a crush. But in wanting what “Adrien Brody” has, and in an attempt to master it and maintain the virtues of womanliness or feminine fuckability, Marie Calloway seems to demonstrate (to me, at least, in my reading) exactly what Riviere suggested: a wish for masculinity.
Meanwhile, what’s the male masquerade? There needn’t be any, amirite, not when you possess the phallus that is the yardstick for, well, everything. But what if sleeping with young, pretty girls when you’re an older man with a girlfriend is a form of masculine masquerade; what if, for the cis, straight man, heterosexual fucking is masquerade in an attempt to fulfill the codes of masculinity that so many cis, straight men seem reluctant to question, critique, demolish?
(JUST SAY NO TO MANLINESS)
It’s rarely ever “just sex”, when you’re an internet thinker/celebrity who writes about the self and social media and microfame, and one of you is an internet writer/celebrity who writes about the self and sex and microfame, and one of you is in a supposedly committed relationship, and one of you is prettier than the other, and one of you is an older man, and one of you is a young woman.
It’s rarely ever “just sex” when the conversation is largely about the young woman in question, and rarely about the man in question and how heterosexual sex is produced, used, performed.
Women are masquerading so hard all the time that they fall into fits of hysteria and take off their clothes and fuck anything that moves – yes, we’ve heard this story before.
I’d just rather spend some thinking about manliness as masquerade.
(*Art by Jason Stillman)
[i] Keeping in mind that “Adrien Brody” is as much fictional construct, if we read it this piece as fiction, as he is “real”, (if we read this as memoir/essay). How much of what is said and thought in this piece, how much of what is attributed to “Adrien Brody” and “Marie Calloway” real/authentic or imagined? Precisely the point, and also beside the point.
[ii] I’m hoping that inserting random comments into a blog post works on the subconscious of the Twitter generation the same way that Satanic chants inserted into all forms of rock music worked on the subconscious on the 80s generation.
August 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
An essay by Urvashi Butalia, one of India’s most prominent feminists, was making the rounds on Twitter awhile back. Written for Granta’s F-Word issue, it was about Butalia’s friendship with an Indian transwoman, Mona. It was an honest essay, and it deserves commendation for its willingness to engage with gender issues without pretension or obfuscation – indeed, one would hardly expect less from Butalia. But there were elements of Butalia’s essay that troubled me. This, despite my fervent wish to simply ignore the gnawing at the back of my mind and fall at Butalia’s intelligent and knowledgeable and formidably-feminist feet.
But alas, the gnawing must be stopped somehow.
I began reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl when I read the Butalia essay and the Granta interview. There needs to be more voices of feminism from the global South, and there are not nearly enough. Butalia’s is especially necessary, particularly when she says something like this:
The Indian women’s movement has a long history, although if you were to read some of the early books on the history of feminism published in the West, you would think feminist activism never existed in countries like ours. I find that infuriating – the lack of knowledge, or desire for it, and the assumption that the West is the centre of the world and the rest of us just poor cousins. The Indian women’s movement is rooted in our political realities, in the history of colonialism and social reform, in the coming-into-its-own of an independent democracy with all sorts of guarantees for women and in the state’s failure to deliver on many of these. Our activism arose out of that. Because of where we are located and the history of India, there is no way the feminist movement can divorce itself, say, from issues of poverty, development, women’s health, education, religious identity … and this is where our specificity lies.
But feminism in its various incarnations has also had trouble with the marginalised of the marginalised – and sex workers and transwomen and transmen are the ones who fall between the cracks and relegated to a space of absence, trotted out when feminism wants to display its progressive, liberal tendencies, and forgotten when it comes to the actual fight for ‘rights’. (I’ve been thinking a lot about the language of ‘rights’ recently but haven’t read enough to actually articulate an argument or even understand what my own discomfort indicates – hence the quotation marks.) As Kathy Newnam writes in ‘Fighting for an inclusive feminist movement’,
Jeffreys and her “radical feminist” supporters cry foul about their increasing isolation within the feminist movement. But the reality is that they are not socially isolated; in fact it is their anti-trans* and anti-sex worker campaigns that get them the most coverage. It is very difficult to argue that Jeffreys – a tenured professor and published author – is hard done by. It’s not hard to get a hearing when you are backing the exclusion of the already oppressed and marginalised.
Similar strains of discomfort are felt when Butalia explains her reasons for writing Mona’s story:
It’s raised many questions for me. I speak about some of them in the essay. I’m fascinated by her desire for motherhood for example. As a feminist, I have grown up convinced that motherhood is not only biological; but to think of a man (and Mona was a man when she knew she wanted to be a mother) wanting to be a mother was still an education for me. My identity as a woman has always been something very precious, very enabling, very empowering – despite the fact that women have to face violence and discrimination – but I have never thought of travel between identities, of switching from one to the other. And yes, gender too, for of course as a feminist, I know gender is not about biology but about socialization, but again, I had never thought of the kinds of issues Mona raises for me. Is she a man or a woman? She assumes both roles; is this exciting or manipulative? Some years ago we had a women’s conference in Kolkata, and at these conferences, which are unfunded and organised by activists within the movement, everyone sleeps in the same place. One of the big questions was whether we should have hijras sleep in the same place as the women, for were they really women or men?
This sentiment is reflected in Butalia’s essay:
What was it with all these men wanting to be women, I wondered. Here I was, a woman who thinks of herself as empathetic and quite open, surrounded by men who were doing their best to switch over to ‘my’ side, and I felt out of place, as if I did not belong. I was reminded of a conversation I’d once had with an Australian friend of mine, a lesbian and a feminist, as she and I stood and watched some hijras dance at a women’s conference. ‘I hate all this,’ she’d said to me. ‘We’ve fought so long and hard to carve out a little space for ourselves in society, to be able to make our voices heard, and here are these men pretending to be women, and they’ve come and taken it over.’ Until she said it in so many words, I hadn’t actually thought of it like that. Instead, I’d been wondering about what the experience of maleness and femaleness meant for the Monas of this world and how someone like me could understand it. Typically, Mona had the answer. ‘Arrey,’ she said, ‘why do you worry so much about this? What is there to think? I’m human, you’re human, I’m a woman but sometimes I can be a man – I don’t like being one, but sometimes it’s useful. And anyway, we have something more in common and that is that both you and I, we’re bachelors.’
In framing Mona’s response as a sort of breezy devil-may-care attitude (and perhaps it was, but we will not know beyond what Butalia chose to tell us), transgenderism and transsexualism can almost be seen as something freeing, something light and pure and unburdened, the ease with which male-to-female transsexuals can switch from being men to being women in order to co-opt this gender-switching as a form of privilege and power, as a right to exist in a dual gender-space and claim the benefits of both. Supposedly, that’s what Butalia is trying to convey, or that’s what I read when I read that paragraph. Butalia’s reference to her feminist friend’s words, “men pretending to be women” strikes me as all sorts of wrong even with the barest hint of awareness of trans issues. If men only want to pretend to be women, and women want to pretend to be men, then transgender and transsexual people don’t even have to be considered real. And the extreme repugnance that I feel when feminists, who should know better than anyone how invocations of sexuality and gender can be used as a weapon to discount and or elevate a person’s status as human, do the same to others who don’t immediately appear “female”. The very subject of “man-pretending-to-be-woman” is produced through this cognitive framing.
This framing, as Serano explains in Whipping Girl, arises out of “oppositional sexism”. I feel the need to quote Serano at length because it seems to speak directly to the kind of feminism displayed by Butalia, in her piece:
While often different in practice, cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all rooted in oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.
Examining the society-wide disdain for trans women also brings to light an important yet often overlooked aspect of traditional sexism: that it targets people not only for their femaleness, but also for their expressions of femininity.
This also speaks of a feminism that is innately suspicious of external claims to femininity; where the idea of enjoying the “feminine experience” (say, for example, in sartorial style and beauty labour) and enjoying the attention that comes with it (whether the gaze is male or female) is seen as somehow weakening the position of feminism.
But of course, when expressions of femininity are taken into consideration, transwomen are made to permanently reside in the realm of awkward, which in Mona’s case Butalia eloquently describes:
‘From the moment I became conscious of myself as a person,’ she says, ‘I felt I was a misfit. I was convinced I had been born in the wrong body. I really wanted to be a girl.’ It wasn’t only the physical fact of her maleness that made her uncomfortable, but also the cultural baggage that accompanied it. She liked dolls and ‘feminine’ things, preferred girls as friends. This made her the butt of many jokes at school, as well as a source of anxiety for her parents. She was a lonely child, an outcast among boys who saw her as effeminate yet unable to join the girls because the society in which she lived was conservative: there was no space for girls and boys to play together. Often, she would leave home for school but instead spend the day sitting in the park, alone. It was not until much later in life that she would find what she believed was a place for herself.
This is a tangible sense of displacement born out of feeling “a misfit”, the kind that comes from knowing you’re out of sync with the supposedly normal manifestations of individuals in society. Serano takes this further, in talking about her experience as a transwomen, to explain how misogyny operates intricately with transphobia to render the male-to-female trans person in a double bind: “If they act feminine they are perceived as being a parody, but if they act masculine it is seen as a sign of their true male identity,” she writes, which is certainly true of a wider strain of feminism that implicitly distrusts transwomen because of their inner male-ness, as though any minute the “man inside” will break out and ruin the rah-rah coven of sisterhood. Which flies in the face of feminism, which is that gender/sex shouldn’t really matter.
It’s impossible to read Serano without thinking about your relationship to sex and gender, and small ways in which we give ourselves away – like when we look at transwomen and say “They are prettier than some of my prettiest female friends!” or some such bullshit. The underlying assumption that seems almost imprinted in the subconscious is that transgender people are always merely performing or playing at their chosen gender, and never actually being their chosen gender. Serano refers to this as gender entitlement, which she says often
leads to gender anxiety, the act of becoming irrationally upset by or being made uncomfortable by the existence of those people who challenge or bring into question one’s gender entitlement.
Butalia’s essay proves that a significant portion of feminism – even radical feminism – is still extricated in what she terms cisgenderism – that all women should display some form of femininity and all men some form of masculinity. Otherwise, there is something suspect about them. This is not the case, of course, if people are cisgendered, in which case ‘proving’ their gender is never a burden, even if they may deal with the consequences and societal pressures/condemnation of not living up to their gender in normative, prescribed ways.
I don’t mean to pick on Butalia as an example of trans-unfriendly feminism, but it reflected a lot of the questions and concerns that Serano assiduously excavates through her analysis of transphobic culture. This also brings to mind the recent profile of Bradley Manning in New York magazine by Steve Fishman, which seemed to encourage its readers to draw obvious parallels between’s Manning’s turbulent inner landscape and his gender identity with Manning’s subsequent actions in leaking the documents. The first time I read Fishman’s profile I was disturbed, but what bothered me more was the speed in which the profile was retweeted and passed around as an example of a ‘searing portrait of a troubled soul’ or whatever, and no one none the wiser about the troubling context in which the profile was situated. Not many seemed to find it a problem that Manning’s sexual identity was posited as a relevant source or root of his subsequent ‘aberrant’ behaviour to leak the documents, the subtext which seemed to say, “Of course he’s fucked up, he’s trans, and yeah, poor thing, and so yeah, he did that crazy thing, that poor thing.” I realise I’m not being fair to Fishman’s profile, which essentially evoked a sympathetic tone in relation to Manning’s “troubled past” and family history. I realise I’m not being fair to Fishman’s no doubt noble and good intentions or whatever, intentions that effectively rendered Manning a troubled soul with “gender identity issues” and individual problems, gently guiding the reader to think that Manning couldn’t handle life in the army because he was trans, not the fact that life in the army has to break every single person before it can absorb it into its war-making apparatus. A sharp, clear-eyed response to this comes from Emily Manuel, who cites also Glen Greenwald’s essential piece on ‘The motives of Bradley Manning’.
If Bradley Manning was a straight white male would there have been an equal amount of time spent cataloguing his sexual anxieties or “gender confusion”? Or do we merely assume that heterosexual, cisgender people never experience these anxieties and confusion, particularly a straight white man in a straight white man’s world?
Closer to home, the recent death of a Malaysian transwoman, Aleesha Farhana, brings to light the severe repercussions of state-sanctioned discrimination of transpeople. Aleesha’s attempt to change her name and gender after undergoing transition surgery in Thailand was rejected by the Malaysian High Court. She died very suddenly on July 30 of reported heart failure. The coverage in the media was largely abysmal, referring to her as the ‘Sex-change man’ or by her birth name, bringing into sharp focus the ways in which we are all complicit in erasing the right to selfhood and self-identification among transpeople. Seen through the lens of law and biology, the issue of gender transformation is quite literally seen as an aberration, and a trivial one, at that. The media coverage seems to begin from the premise that Aleesha is legally male because she was born male, and thus her wish to be a woman is merely wishful thinking or a superficial desire, the equivalent perhaps of wanting to be thinner or prettier or taller. In the midst of their grief, her family chose to bury her “as a man”, because as her father put it:
He was born a male and, therefore, it is only right for us to bury him that way.
Even Shahrizat Jalil, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, referred to Aleesha by her birth name and maintained the male pronoun. This is a significant cause for concern – because issues of gender discrimination and transrights should ostensibly fall under this Ministry’s purview. But this is Malaysia, and so it’s no big shock – none of our Ministries are meant to do whatever they’re supposed to do. It’s just another life loss, grief expressed through a pretty sound-bite for the media, and life as normal.
The only media (that I know of) to refer to her by her chosen name and gender identity was Free Malaysia Today, who also did a good job including a valuable statement by the local trans community:
The community said they believe that Aleesha died from severe depression after her application was rejected and urged the court to give her the justice she sought.
“It is still not too late for the court to allow Aleesha to change her name and gender,” they said.
“Her rights and the court’s duty must not be held hostage by the sensitivites of those who are ignorant about trangenderism.
“By denying her right, the court is perpetuating an environment of discrimination within which she will never find the justice due her,” she* added.
The trans community also said that they held both the government and media responsible for the extreme levels of stigma and discrimination against them.
Among the abuses they faced include being barred from accessing health services, housing, education and employment opportunities.
“The discrimination is often perpetuated by biased, negative reporting from the media and endorsed by state mouthpieces,” they said.
“Unwillingness of the government to recognise trans people as equal before the law facilitate this ugly persistence in violating us,” the statement read.
“The sensitivities of those who are ignorant about transgenderism” is searing critique, and alarmingly it’s been with us throughout the formation of mainstream Western feminism, as Serano points out when she quotes Germaine Greer:
No one ever asked women if they recognised sex-change males as belonging to their sex or considered whether being obliged to accept MTF transsexuals as women was at all damaging to their identity or self-esteem.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the words of Butalia’s “Australian friend” (quoted above) echoes Greer’s.
Serano’s comments the Greer quote:
The immediate sense that one gets after reading this quote (besides nausea) is Greer’s severe sense of gender entitlement. Despite the fact that she knows that transsexual woman identify as female, Greer refers to us instead as “sex-change males”, demonstrating that she feels entitled to gender us in whatever way she feels is appropriate.
If the phrase “sex-change males” sounds familiar, it’s because “sex-change man” was the phrase used in The Star in its report on Aleesha’s death (linked to above).
There is plenty more to think about in Whipping Girl (particularly Serano’s critique of Foucault and Butler) and I’ve only scratched the surface in considering some of Serano’s words in light of some recent reading. I’m not sure I agree with everything she writes, although I’m also pretty certain that agreeing or disagreeing is not the point – it’s a matter of rethinking conceptions of gender and sexuality and unlearning what has been normalised and socialised and starting again from scratch. The significant problems feminism has with transgender issues, the fluidity with which it seems to incorporate transphobic perceptions in order to emphasise what is and is not dangerous for women, as outlined by some of the remarks made by Butalia and friend, as well as Greer’s comments, proves that feminism’s starting point – as Serano outlines it – needs to begin here:
At some point, all of us who identify as female have to come face-to-face with our own internalized misogyny.
*This appears to be an error in the news report.
(Image by Jillian Tamaki, via)
June 9, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I reviewed Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter for Pop Matters.
Reading Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture, one realises that Michelle Obama has sold herself and American society short by waging just the one war on obesity. My takeaway from reading Orenstein is that there are other more significant wars to be fought: The War on Pink; The War on Sparkle; The War on Disney; and perhaps most crucially of all, The War on Marketers and Market Forces that Make Parents Buy Pink and Sparkly Things from Disney For Their Daughters.
Orenstein, as the publicity material tells us, has garnered a reputation as a “girl expert” after the publication of an earlier book, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gap. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, her focus as girl expert is brought home by the fact that she’s now a mother of a young girl, and that all the expertise in the world doesn’t prepare a parent to face the vagaries of American culture that lays itself pink (it never goes away), shiny, and bejewelled at the feet of a young girl.
The review in full is here.
May 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
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?]
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.
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.
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.
“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.