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I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and fiction lately, or, I guess, how we combine the two. I mean, we seem to be obsessed with historical fiction whether we’re using it as the basis of science fiction, to imagine dystopias, or to escape into eras with frillier clothing (for both genders) and even more rules. But, oddly enough, I think our obsession with history sometimes makes us forget that it’s real–and I’m using present tense there for a reason. The whole thing reminds me of when people get so enmeshed in a debate over something like gay marriage that while they quote their policies, precedents, and other abstractions, they forget that they are essentially talking about real people who live real lives. Sometimes we start thinking about it too abstractly. Other times we forget that it actually happened.
I guess part of what brought this to the forefront was a fanfic I found when I was looking through a livejournal community called “badfic quotes” (don’t laugh–I like silly things too, okay?). Someone had written a fanfic for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, and so I’m going to refrain from judging it or even commenting on it. Nevertheless, I have to comment on this fanfic. As anyone who has dipped so much as a toe into the world of fandom knows that if an attractive actor appears in a big summer blockbuster, someone will write a fanfic with an original character, usually (loosely) based off the author, who enters a relationship with that character. It doesn’t matter if that character is sulky Snape or sadistic Rorschach; the original character will bring out his sensitive side. So I guess you could say I wasn’t surprised that a fanfic existed that centered around giving one of the Nazi characters a love interest.
Here’s what did surprise me: as a pretext for the relationship between the original character, Ada, and the Nazi, the author felt the need to make use of another common fanfic trope (in fact, my least favorite): the old “kidnap, rape, and torture the woman so that the man can comfort and heal her.” The surprise is that the torturers, in this case, were a group of Jews who somehow happened to survive, committing organized acts of violence, in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France. I’m going to pause here and let this entire concept sink in because I understand completely if it takes a moment.
My first reaction to reading this was anger–I could barely even make it through the review, which mocked the fanfic. The author’s “disclaimer” certainly didn’t help either: “If you are offended or angry, then I’ve done my job by provoking something.” I suppose she did provoke complete bewilderment. In any case, the anger soon stopped because I realized something about this fanfic author: the Holocaust was not real to her. I’m not saying that she’s a denier–I doubt that she’s even Anti-Semitic (her story though…). I think she wrote this fanfic as if she were writing about the 100 Years War or the Revolutionary War or even the Peloponnesian War. We all know that these wars happened, but we don’t think about what that means. We know people died during them, but it happened so long ago that the deaths mean nothing to us. Now, the allegory doesn’t quite work because the Holocaust was not a war between the Germans and the Jews (who were German. And French, and Polish, and…); it was an ethnic cleansing. But then, this writer doesn’t seem to be conscious of that either. (For the record, it is entirely possible to write a story from the perspective of the Nazis or Germans during WWII, but one of the major challenges in writing it is to keep it feeling real.)
This was a really jarring realization for me; the Holocaust may have been 70 years ago, but it’s still very real to most of the Jews I know (and many of the non-Jews I know.) I remember the moment when I first learned about it; I remember my dad being worried about whether reading Number the Stars would give me too many nightmares. It’s one thing if you’re reading about people who want to kill other people and another thing to realize that if your great-grandparents didn’t have the means to move when they did, you might not be sitting here, typing on a keyboard. I’m sure there were other moments in history when this could have happened, but 70 years is still too soon, too scary, and, actually, younger than my grandparents.
Apparently, seeing Inglorious Basterds apparently made the Holocaust even more fictional for this fanfic author, and that scares me. It pushed history farther into myth, into the past. Am I saying that it’s a terrible movie or evil because of this? No. I haven’t seen the movie, and I cannot judge it. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone is viewing the movie in the same way; my dad loved it because he saw it as a kind of revenge fantasy, a way of coping with history (and perhaps present fears of antisemitism, which considering the resent shooting at the Holocaust museum, is not paranoia.). At the same time, I do think that mythologizing certain parts of history or even, to invent a term, “historicizing” history, pretending that it no longer affects the way we live, does no one any favors. I’m not sure whether if we can assign blame in this case, but I know the effect is not good.
What I do know is this: writing historical fiction doesn’t have to turn history into myth. Toni Morrison wrote in her afterward to The Bluest Eye that she didn’t simply want to “touch people,” but she wanted to make sure that “they were moved.” I’m not sure if the wording is correct–I don’t have my copy with me, but this standard that Morrison strives for in all of her fiction has stayed with me whenever I think about political and historical fiction. What does it mean to touch someone and how is it different from moving them? For me, the answer . When you hear a touching story, the meaning stays within a story. You might feel sad for the characters and the situation they’re in, but it doesn’t change your understanding of the real world.
And a moving story?
In my senior seminar on Toni Morrison, during a discussion on Song of Solomon, we started discussing The Seven Days. In the novel, The Seven Days were a group of black men in the who killed a random white person for every senseless random act of violence committed against black people. The group was entirely fictional, but it launched quite a conversation. By the end of class, many of us were on the verge of tears, and the discussion had strayed into Morrison’s other novels, the Civil Rights Movement, and the then-current issue of the Jenna Six. We actually had a real, honest discussion about race. Amazing. It was not comfortable, but I think that’s a given considering that it was a good discussion about race relations. Song of Solomon is a story that moves.
This is one of the amazing thing to me about Toni Morrison: In her novels, the past is alive and well, still changing how we live, love, and treat others. She forces us to own it. Imagine how it would profoundly change US culture if we saw slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement as events that still actively influenced how Americans live.
Before I stop, I want to stick on one more example of this mythologizing phenomenon, a case in which a tv show historicized a current event. There’s a show my brother loves called “Deadliest Warrior.” For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a bit of a combination of a Street Fighter video game, the History Channel, and “Mythbusters.” The show takes two famous warriors from “history” and pits them against each other based on imputing data on the weapons they would have used into a computer: Viking vs. Samurai, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu, Pirate vs. Knight, etc. In these cases the contenders existed so far in the past that they have already become myth. However, the show’s season finale featured a showdown between the IRA and the Taliban. Yes, the IRA and the Taliban. I needed a moment to let this sink in, and so I’m giving you one too.
Now, I’m assuming the show specifies which incarnation of the IRA it’s talking about, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m actually more interested in the inclusion of the Taliban at all. Looking at warriors using fighting styles no longer practiced for war, and admiring their weapons is one thing. Now whether we should glorify war or violence at all is a very complicated question that I cannot answer and cannot even begin to address in a way that comes even close to being interesting in this post. But there seems to be something fundamentally different in looking at a gladiator or samurai, types of warriors who no longer practice, and looking people who right now are committing human rights atrocities. Abstracting a member of the Taliban and glorifying their fighting style historicizes them, places them in the past.
I’m not saying that the makers of the show think the Taliban are no longer a threat. I would argue, though, that to come up with this idea, on some level what the members of the Taliban do are not real to them. They know logically that the Taliban commit atrocities, but the reality of what that means hasn’t hit home to them. I’m not saying this makes them bad people; there are plenty of atrocious things in this world that are not 100% real to me, at least all the time. If I constantly thought about the reality of every single tragedy, murder, or human rights violation, I would not be able to get out of bed. This does not mean that it’s okay to examine these atrocities in the same way we might look at Spartan troops, the likes of which no longer exist.
Other than that particular episode of “The Deadliest Warrior,” I’m afraid I don’t have a strong moral pronouncement on any of this. When does it become okay for history to become myth? When it stops effecting us? How do we decide that? These are complicated questions. I’m not even saying that creating works of historical fiction that are not as life-changing as Toni Morrison’s novels is necessarily dangerous. As I noted before, sticking a dose of fiction into a horrible reality can be a coping mechanism. Also, if we taught history better, maybe seeing Inglorious Basterds would not have contributed to the mythologizing of the Holocaust or slavery would not just be “that thing that happened to the blacks a long time ago, but then they had exciting escape adventures, and Martin Luther King happened, and now Obama’s president–Post-Racial America Yayz!”
At the same time, we cannot do ourselves the disservice of pretending that an event’s consequences end when it does. That’s like saying that American culture in the 1960’s promptly changed on January 1st, 1970 at 12:00 AM. It’s like saying that we already know how Bush’s presidency will change our country or that 9/11 no longer affects us. History has a long half-life, it decays slowly, seeping into the landscape of culture. It’s too powerful and too dangerous to treat any other way.
Also, Toni Morrison is brilliant, but that’s another story.
(This post is dedicated to my flatmate, Taylor, because it was inspired by a conversation we had. Also, he brought up the example from our Toni Morrison seminar in conjunction with this issue.)
Just in case you haven’t noticed, I have a bit of a thing for mysteries and hardboiled noir. I’m by no means an expert on either genre, admittedly, but it’s a hobby interest of mine. I just really love the way gender plays out in them: in the “Golden Age” detective novels, sleuths like Poirot, or, to go far back to the grandfather, Sherlock Holmes, were supposed to use their “manly” reason to solve problems. When a woman would step in, such as Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, her detective work is, at least superficially, chalked up to her feminine intuition.
The American hardboiled genre takes this and turns it on its head; these sleuths think with their gut. The city landscapes of Noir are dark and corrupt—operating on logic within their irrational world would get you killed. And yet, we think of the hardboiled genre as being very “masculine.” Gendering genre still feels weird to me, because, of course, there’s nothing intrinsically male about any of the aspects I’ve listed and am about to list, but within the culture, these films (like many others of their time and now, admittedly) came from a distinctly male perspective. The cynical, money-hungry sleuths of the genre looked upon their cities as embodiments of the fallen American dream, and encountered villans who either didn’t play by the rules of the dream, or were amongst the groups not even allowed to play the game: women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. There’s a lot to say about the later two (and I’ll touch on a little bit of race later on in the post,) but I’m going to focus on women for now.
To hurry to the point, I’m going to simplify this a lot: In hardboiled fiction and film noir, writers portrayed women either as helpless and virginal, or scheming, sexy, and ambitious. The latter, of course, is the famous femme fatale, who would kiss and then kill to move up in the world, if need be. In films she is usually cold and selfish: sensuality without feeling. The former, well, her character usually seemed an afterthought to the femme fatale, there more to act as a last-minute love interest or foil to the femme fatale (who sometimes was even her step mother! Holy Brother’s Grimm, Batman!) than as a character in herself. In her introduction to Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, Val McDermid puts the problem quite nicely:
“I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well. Here’s the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles he provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years, we’ve been stuck in this gruesome girlie groove because of one man’s screwed up sexuality.”
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame it all on Chandler; I think a lot of screwed-up relationships with women contributed to this genre, and social mores contributed to this and other genres. But the point is that Noir is a very strict, template-reliant genre. We know the story: “It was dark in the city that never sleeps. She stepped into my office with hips like…” We’ve seen it parodied dozens of times. Given the format, how can you break down these gender roles and still write Noir?
Well, unsurprisingly, many of the people who find Noir fascinating are women and/or ethnic minorities. As logically follows this, many of these writers have started to take Noir back. I was introduced to woman-centric noir soon after I got out of college and had more time to read for pleasure. For my birthday last year, a friend got me Megan Abbott’s Queenpin and the aforementioned short story anthology Hell of a Woman, which Abbott edited. I later picked up another of Abbott’s novels, The Song is You.
At first, I was unimpressed; I think I had been expecting the stories to feel completely different, or at least feel more self-aware of the genre they were working in. They didn’t—Queenpin, The Song is You, and all of the stories I’ve read so far in Hell of a Woman play Noir straight through. The femme fatale still uses her sexuality to get her way. Money is still power. For the most part, no one gets a lesson about racism, classism, or sexism. So what’s the difference?
The difference is that when Noir is written from a woman’s perspective, we understand why the femme fatale is the way she is. She’s no longer the embodiment of anxiety. Whereas in typical Noir, the femme fatale is evil because she is selfish and ambitious, overstepping her gender role, in female noir (to use Hell of a Woman’s phrase,) in female noir, she is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive, if she wants to make her mark, she’s got to play by the rules of the world. And, if the world doesn’t expect brains and beauty to match, well, her brains become a hidden trump card in the game.
These women live in worlds where performing as the femme fatale is sometimes the key to being taken seriously, as in Abbott’s Queenpin. Here, a young woman learns the ropes from mobstress Gloria Denton, the queen of the underworld. Instead of suffering through a boring secretarial job where she finds herself subjected to sexual harassment, she suddenly finds herself controlling her sexuality—and making more money at that. Also interesting is Abbott’s inclusion of an Homme Fatale, a man we all know from the start will betray her in the end, but whose beauty is such that she can’t resist. Silly? Yes, but no more than the idea that a beautiful woman can destroy a man’s judgment.
“The Chirashi Covenant” by Naomi Hirahara takes on the “Femme fatale has the hapless hero kill her husband trope, as well as the exoticizing of Asian women in one stroke. I find this one fascinating precisely because I can imagine how different the story would be if the white male antagonist, Bob Burkard, had been the protagonist instead. Instead of being an alluring exotic woman who seduces him and begs him to kill her husband, Helen Miura is an intelligent, lonely Japanese-American woman struggling with the insular nature of her life after the WWII internment camps who has an affair with Bob. (In this story, she takes no part in her husband’s murder; it’s Bob’s impulse.) As often happens in fiction, her identity conflict becomes summed up in romantic questions, as if dating outside your culture is the ultimate way to betray it. Of course, things become even more deadly as the story takes a further turn into the Noir, and Helen is no angel in the midst of all that happens (I’m not talking about sexually either.)
Although most female noir works that I’ve read so far have female protagonists, Abbott’s The Song is You doesn’t have the gender-reversal perspective. After a brief prologue from the point of view of a murder victim’s sister, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Gil Hopkins, a studio publicist in 1950’s Hollywood, who takes us through the rest of the story. Hop, as he’s called, has privilege problems and cannot seem to connect with the women in his life–not so different from a archetypical Hardboiled hero. But as he tries at once to solve a two-year-old murder and keep others from solving it, he finds his ideas about women challenged. He starts to understand the nature of the game. He questions whether he should really blame women who have ventured into dangerous situations to help keep afloat in the dark side of Hollywood and found themselves victims (I know that one’s a no-brainer to most of us, but, as I said, Hop has privilage problems.). In one of the most poignant moments, of the novel, he realizes the full extent of what it meant to have abandoned Iolene, a black woman, at a sleazy club with known sexual predators. With horror, he realizes that if the men he left her with treated white women so inhumanely, he could not imagine how they would treat a black woman. No, guilt is not enough, but it’s these moments where he begins to understand the privilege behind the typical Noir judgments that we really see the subtle ways that Abbot is playing with the formula even without a woman’s perspective to guide us through.
I suppose it would be easy to argue how much these stories help really feminism or find many ways in which they are problematic (but, as we’ve been discussing, so is much fiction.). After all, Noir is a genre which glamorizes the dark underbelly of the city, to borrow its own phrase. Ultimately, even if it’s fun to see women level the playing field or have the upper-hand, despite them having to use their “feminine wiles” to do so, it’s still unfortunate and uncomfortable that these are the options they have in this world to be assertive and independent. But I think that part of the point of female noir is exposing these problems; this is, from a Noir perspective, the result of asserting independence and ambition when society only sees you as your body. Also, well, ideal or not, I’ve got to admit that I find them a lot of fun despite the dark subject matter. If you’re a fan of thrillers, they’re worth checking out. They raise a lot of interesting questions about gender, genre, and how to re-imagine a story that’s been told one-too-many times.
NOTE- I apologize in advance for any incoherence. It’s been over 100 degrees F here, which I’m not used to, and I’ve not gotten much sleep because of it. Still, I didn’t want to waste my guest blogging week, and so here you go.
(Cross posted to Feministe.)
“I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars” — it’s a classic Tori Amos quote, and far be it from me to decipher any Tori Amos lyrics (oh don’t get me wrong; I love me some Tori.) but I find this quote to be particularly interesting and evocative. I looked up her own comments on the song, which added an interesting dimension to the lyric:
The line, I guess you go too far/when pianos try to be guitars is just about never being enough. I felt that with my instrument sometimes, wanting to be Jimmy Page. You can only be you. A lot of times it’s never enough for people.”
And I started thinking about gender. Now there’s nothing inherently gendered about playing guitar or piano: Joni Mitchell, Joan Jett, and Ani DiFranco all rock(ed) the guitar scene. Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and Billy Joel are piano men. Nevertheless, I think these instruments get gendered. For some reason I cannot fathom, all the indie rocker guys singing with intentionally rough/scratchy/stylized voices are don’t usually get dismissed as trying to be Dylan or a 60’s music throwback (or if they are, it’s considered a positive thing), and yet, you can’t be a woman with a piano without the Tori Amos/Sarah McLaughlin/your music is so 90’s comparison. I realize that there are exceptions to this (Regina Spektor seems to be doing pretty well for herself, thank god!), and so I’m going to full-out admit that I understand that there’s some generalizing involved. But that’s not the point…
Now, I love me some guys with guitars, but I also love some women with pianos. So I’m going to talk about two women with pianos who deserve your respect and your ears: Vienna Teng and Terami Hirsch. Are they trying to be “guitars”–make those kind of musical waves? I don’t know, but they do rock.
Vienna Teng is a Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter from the SF Bay Area (yay!). After graduating from Stanford, she went into computer engineering, only to give it all up to pursue her music. But before I get going on her music, let me get to the instance that inspired this post in the first place. Back in May, Vienna Teng launched her fourth album “Inland Territory.” I started searching for reviews of the album and came across this piece from Paste Magazine, which struck me as incredibly lazy. Not only did the author not bother to make sure he wrote down the track titles correctly (He called “White Light” “White Lie,”) but he also introduced the article with this rather telling statement:
With her nimble piano arpeggios and Lilith Fair balladry, Vienna Teng casts a backward glance during Inland Territory, a retro-minded release anchored in the legacy of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and other mainstays of the mid-‘90s female-songwriter boom.
It honestly felt to me as if Mr. Leahey heard the piano, thought “Lilith Fair,” assumed he knew what “Lilith Fair” meant, and shut his brain off. To be fair, Teng, in general, makes deceptively simple music. Upon first hearing it, you’ll probably think, “Well, this is pretty.” And it is. She creates lovely, stirring piano melodies. But just because something sounds pretty and has a woman singing it, does that mean we can assume what the content is and shut our brains off? Have we really reached the point where melody translates to shallow except when Sufjan Stevens sings “Chicago”*?
If he had bothered listening to the album, Leahey would have heard songs exploring people’s willingness to ignore world events, mistakenly believing that what happens in “3rd world countries” has nothing to do with them (“Radio”.) He would have heard a vignette from the point of view of a teenager in a hypothetical future in which Americans are sneaking over the border to Mexico, hunting for work (“No Gringo.”) He would have heard a song from the perspective of her Taiwanese grandmother, an attempt for her to understand her grandmother’s harsh criticism of her musical career while still portraying her grandmother as a brave, sympathetic individual who had to flee oppression in her homeland (“Grandmother Song.”) Throughout her songs, she puts on a variety of masks and personae to talk about contemporary issues, identity issues, and, yes, love. When she addresses political issues such as immigration (or gay marriage, as she did in her song “City Hall” off of “Dreaming Through the Noise,”) she focuses on the people these issues effects, forcing herself and others into the shoes of someone they may or may not find easy to relate to. I fail to see what’s so “retro-minded” about this kind of approach.
And that’s the thing about Vienna Teng: she seems so easy to dismiss, and this makes it all the more important that we don’t. Honestly, I think it’s because her music is irresistibly pretty that we allow it to succumb to our worst prejudices; at first even I was inclined to assumed that there was nothing behind the lovely, swirling piano. But pretty doesn’t have to mean hollow, and in Teng’s case, it certainly doesn’t. She’s a fantastic artist and performer, with remarkable empathy and sensitivity. I absolutely adore “Inland Territory,” but really, you can’t go wrong with any of her albums. I linked to her site above, which has some streaming music, and you can also check out her myspace.
As little-known as Vienna Teng is, singer-songwriter Terami Hirsch is one of the most obscure artists I listen to. That’s a fact, not
a bragging right–in fact, I wish she weren’t so obscure. Terami is a little difficult to classify. Though she’s piano-focused, she works with synths and keyboards to make highly textured, layered songs with mysterious lyrics. Her albums sometimes feel dark and heavy, but part of the heaviness simply comes from the digital layering.
I first fell in love with the song “Little Light,” off of Entropy 29. It felt like the theme song for an as-of-yet unwritten heroine of a dystopian tale. I know that is a terribly vague description; this is why I don’t describe music often on this blog–I simply don’t have the technical vocabulary to explain it. However, the rest of the album had such a specific mood to it that I found I could only listen to it when I had the energy to give it its deserved attention. A Broke Machine, her latest album, is no lighter, but perhaps more sophisticated and beautiful. Then again, I might be biased because it contains my favorite song of hers, “The Collector” (I’ll go back to that in a moment.)
I’m going to talk about “The Collector” in specific because I think it’s the closest I can come to encapsulating exactly why Terami fascinates me, despite it being more accoustic than her other songs. From the swirling piano intro, to the verse-chorus structure, there’s something instantly familiar about the song; it reminds you of a love ballad. And yet, something’s wrong. Maybe it’s the tone, the frightening lyrics, the sheer… obsessiveness of it.
Why can’t I let it go?
I’m tired of impossibilities
Chasing down a ghost
To pin it like a butterfly
And hang it on my wall for beauty
I was running through the noise
Playground photographs of me
Chasing down the boys
And tripping over shoelaces
I’ll hold them down to touch their beauty
Oh, I collect what I cannot hold
I collect what I ache for
I collect what I can’t let go…
I collect all I can!
It’s utterly creepy (and I do not condone unwanted touching of anyone, even if it’s children playing with each other,) but, ultimately, that’s what makes this song so interesting. It’s a broken love ballad, trying to contain beauty. And yet, there’s something so relate-able about this character, wanting to be closer to, to encompass what she finds beautiful/sexual. It’s disturbing, but thought-provoking, and utterly addictive to listen to. Some of her songs, of course, have a more of a sense of renewal: “A Hundred Flowers” has a sense of renewal; “There’s a Garden” is about remembering the happy person trapped within you during a bout of depression. But all of them twist your expectations. They are meticulously crafted little gems.
Unlike Teng, I think Terami is probably overlooked because she’s simply not commercial, despite the obvious care she takes in designing every aspect of her albums (down to the cover art!). And, you know, that’s not a criticism; plenty of people make music that’s difficult to get into. You can listen to Entropy 29 on her main site (linked above,) or check out her Myspace page for songs from A Broke Machine (yes, including “The Collector”.)
Sorry for the less-than-analytic post, but I’m tired and brain dead; I just wanted to post this before moss started growing on the mirror. I’m here, and I’m thinking, but I am but one woman, and occasionally susceptible to writer’s block. Hope everyone out there and reading is well!
*Disclaimer: I love Sufjan Stevens too.
There is a woman whom I have long considered my adopted younger sister–I use younger instead of little because she is taller than me and a Freshman in college, which hardly seems little anymore. Her older sister and I grew up together, making mud pies, pretending to be Smurfs, mermaids, Star Wars characters. Recently on facebook she posted a link to a really interesting slam poem by a Jewish woman. I will not post the link because the youtube comments (which delve into such non-topics as “Anti-Semitism no-longer exists” or “ISRAEL,” which has nothing to with the poem.) make me utterly nauseous, but I will quote from it (yes, I agree it’s problematic for a blogger to get so squicked out by youtube comments feeds. But I am.):
You’re Jewish? Wow, you don’t look Jewish, you don’t act Jewish.” And they say it in this tone that sounds like they’re complimenting me! Well this is what I say back: “What does Jewish look like to you? Should I fiddle on a fuckin’ roof for you? Should I humor you with ‘oy vays’ and refuse to pay!?” (Vanessa Hidary, “The Jewish Mamita”)
The poem made me smile, partially because of its content and because it’s always nice to see someone younger than you whom you care about so much find art that helps them be comfortable in their own skin and unapologetic. But it also gave me the courage to write this post, which I had hesitated writing because I thought it was too angry or too in my own head. It reminded me that these issues of identity are important to discuss or else we’ll keep rehashing them and comments like “You don’t look Jewish” will never get examined.
I recently saw a film called Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and starring Joaquin Phoenix. If you ask my flatmate (with all due respect to my flatmate who understands my point of view on the movie but is better able to distance himself from the subtext in it), it is a film about bipolar depression as it relates to a young man’s life and how he places these urges on two lovers. If you ask the majority of critics who reviewed the film, it is a struggle of a broken young man trying to decide whether to rebuild himself in the image of a safe bourgeois man or a fucked-up rebellious artist. I saw it as neither.
I had a very emotional reaction to the flick, which made me hesitate to write about it because I agree with my flatmate; the film works as an exploration of bipolarism (I disagree with the critics, who seem to be using bourgeois as an unconvincing synonym for “Jewish tradition.”). The problem is that the film uses a narrative that I’ve heard too many times: Do I marry the “nice Jewish girl” my mom adores, or the alluring non-Jewish woman as a rejection of all the tradition my parents raised me with? In this narrative, both women get shafted, portrayal-wise (and keep in mind as I discuss this narrative, I do not intend to imply that any of these stereotypes are true about either type of woman because, really, neither type “exists” in a real, generalizable sort of way. Nevertheless, people do it anyhow, and so I must debunk it using their language.)
Because everyone seems to like this movie besides me, writing this has been simultaneously cathartic and isolating. I think it’s important to discuss how these subtle messages work, even if they’re something that most people watching the movie wouldn’t even understand. I felt as if the film was producing Morse code blips that only I could hear, reminding me exactly of “who I’m supposed to be.” And no one else heard. Also, before I really begin analysis, I’d like to note that for me liking or disliking stories is such a complicated thing: I can admire the way something is filmed, but hate its plot. I can love a plot but hate an ideology. And, in this case, I can appreciate what a film is trying to be and feel that it can’t be that (at least for me) because I absolutely abhor its methods. Too often, I think, when someone says that they’re uncomfortable with the racial/gender/etc. subtext of a story, the response from people who don’t really want to listen is, “So you want to ban it?!” or “What about this other story which is worse!?” or the ever-popular, “Freedom of speech!?” We forget that sometimes there’s quiet outrage, gray areas of emotion, and confusion as to how something that does some things so well can make you feel so rotten.
Two Lovers is about a man in his early 30’s named Leonard Kraditor, recently moved back in with his parents after a suicide attempt and a bipolar flair-up. He works at his father’s dry-cleaning business, which is about to be merged with the family dry-cleaning business of the wealthier Cohen family. Both sets of parents entertain the idea of their children marrying to seal the deal, a move that Sandra, the Cohen’s daughter, whole-heartedly embraces (and seems to before she even meets him), and Leonard seems too broken and aimless to resist. Or, at least, he would be, if he did not run into Michelle, the free-spirited but emotionally-damaged non-Jewish woman.
And this is where the film lost me because it started to mock me.
Most people have heard of the stereotype of the JAP, or Jewish American Princess. Not many people think of her counterpart, the “nice Jewish girl” as being a true and damaging stereotype. I don’t think I even fully realized she existed until fairly recently. She’s subtler and difficult to explain because, at first, it seems to be a complimentary stereotype. Nevertheless there is a sense that this girl somehow is not a real woman. As I said, difficult to explain, but let me try.
When Michelle first walks into Leonard’s family’s apartment, she acts as if she’s walking into an alien world. “Look at all these pictures!” she exclaims of the flat, which is the very model of a Jewish immigrant home: full of photos of relatives and ancestors, dusty books, and a prominently displayed menorah (I don’t get it either. The Reader did this too, and I didn’t get it then either. I think it’s the universal movie symbol for “a Jew lives here”). “Oh! Is that Yiddish?” she asks, pointing to Hebrew writing. She doesn’t even know what a dreidel is. A dreidel. Yes, this woman lives in Brooklyn. Yes, this film takes place in 2008, though it really doesn’t feel like it, most of the time. This moment of othering is vital to setting up Michelle’s character as everything that Sandra is not. It sets the foundation for Michelle’s allure: by showing Leonard as being somewhat exotic (but not in a sexy way, because film rarely portrays stereotypical Jewish masculinity as such [CF- Woody Allen]) it emphasizes how exotic she is to him.
Michelle is blond. She invites Leonard to go clubbing with her. She has expensive tastes. She, herself, is damaged, and according to the narrative, seems to require a man to take care of her, to save her from her occasional drug binges: a manly man (more on this later). From the very moment she walked on screen, a song I hate started echoing in my head, an obnoxious song from Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway hit, The Last Five Years. The song is called “Shiksa Goddess” (On a side note, I hate Brown’s work. My dislike for it grows whenever I try and convince myself that so many intelligent fans can’t be wrong. But I’ve yet to be convinced that his lyrics truly speak to the human experience in the way all his fans insist to me that they do.) The song goes like so:
If you had a tattoo, that wouldn’t matter.
If you had a shaved head, that would be cool.
If you came from Spain or Japan
Or the back of a van–
Just as long as you’re not from Hebrew school–
I’d say “Now I’m getting somewhere!
I’m finally breaking through!”
I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”
Why yes, this is supposed to be a funny song. Why no, the lyrics don’t make sense. They raise many important questions such as: Why would coming from Japan and Spain be equated with the back of a van? What’s wrong with coming from Spain or Japan anyhow? Why do these lyrics scream “I wanted to rhyme something with ‘van’ so I chose ‘Japan’?” (This, aside from the other, more serious problems that I’ll get to in a second, is one of the primary reasons why I dislike Brown’s work.)? The shaved head, I admit, is not traditionally feminine, and considering that he’s listing a tattoo as being such a big deal, I suppose it makes sense that this would typically be a deal breaker for him.
But I digress. The bothersome gist of this song can be summed up in the phrase, “Now I’m getting somewhere.” The next verse goes on to list the boring girls he’s dated with nice Jewish last names who brought him to Shabbat dinner at their houses. These women are boring, attached to their families. Dating them is not “getting somewhere.” There is something so unsexy about it that at one point the singer portrays this string of “Nice Jewish Girls” to “wandering in the desert.” And in a line that I’m sure is supposed to feel at once kinky and oh-so-clever because it references Passover, he proclaims that he wants to be her, “Hebrew slave.” Nothing kinky about Shabbat dinner, I’m afraid.
I know the song seems to have nothing to do with the movie, but the two seem to have the exact same attitude; they believe in the same false dichotomy of their female dating options. The allure of the non-Jewish woman is so universal throughout Two Lovers that every single Jewish male in the film gives Michelle the once-over. Michelle is the mistress of a banker, revealed through subtle cues (his mother lives in the same neighborhood as Leonard’s parents, to the last name Blatt), to be Jewish, who uses her as a substitute for his (presumably) Jewish wife and family. When Leonard’s father first sees Michelle, his eyes bug out. Yes, the film also portrays Michelle as being troubled, slightly ditzy, and occasionally a drug addict, but she’s somehow the more authentic woman. She’s the embodiment of freedom.
Contrast this with Sandra. Sandra is an extension of her family. She first becomes interested in Leonard because she saw him dancing with his mother around the dry-cleaners and thought it was sweet. Almost every outing they plan together somehow involves her family. Although she invites him out for a drink once, she has to cancel because of her father’s birthday party. She instead invites him to the party and suggests that maybe afterward they can get a drink. While Michelle urges Leonard to be an artist, Sandra urges Leonard to be the “artsy” photographer for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah.
But the unattractiveness of Sandra goes beyond this: while Michelle needs a manly man to take care of her, Sandra’s kind of love promises to be maternal, stultifying, allowing him to continue to wallow in his childishness. When she buys him a gift for his birthday, she gets him gloves, because she noticed that he didn’t have any and didn’t want his hands to freeze. “I want to take care of you,” she tells him, “I feel like I understand you.” She feels like she understands him because Leonard, himself, is a stereotype of the emotionally stunted, childish, depressed Jewish man. She is willing to mother him and his children.
So in the context of these differences to me, which were so blatant, so obvious, and so painful to hear (One gets tired of hearing that she is a mere extension of her family and unsexy for it, you know?), I was flabbergasted that the only review I could find that hinted at the Jewish cultural subtext in the film was the The New York Times. I bristled when The Boston Globe remarked of Sandra, “The casting of Shaw renders Sandra, a mother-figure with need issues of her own, simply too attractive, too confidently sexy, to represent the bourgeois compromise Leonard is afraid he might have to make with his future.” While it seemed to recognize the stereotype (too sexy, indeed!), it didn’t seem to understand the real implications behind it. Bourgeois has nothing (or very little) to do with it.
But the NYT review didn’t help my restless mind at all. Critic A.O. Scott simply mentions that Leonard’s story follows the American Jewish male predicament: “He struggles with the conflicting demands of filial duty and the longing to strike out on his own. He wants to be a good son, but he also wants to live a life of danger, freedom and impulse. Does he stick with his own kind and risk suffocation, or does he risk rootlessness in pursuit of liberation?” Ignoring the fact that Scott misses that Jewish women face this question too, there is just something utterly problematic and hurtful in embodying this choice in two rather unflattering depictions of women.
Though critics feel that the characters are solid, and perhaps in the case of Michelle and Leonard, they are, but Sandra has nothing beyond her family and mothering instinct. At one point in the film, she mentions, “I understand if you don’t like me in that way. A lot of men don’t.” (a statement which is later contradicted by her father, who mentions, rather anachronistically, that she had many suitors. I almost wanted to break out into “Matchmaker!” I wonder why this bizarre marriage-exchange aspect of the film went largely unnoticed by critics because I certainly didn’t get it.) My heart was further broken by the post-coital conversation they had, Sandra offering to leave before Leonard’s parents come home and realize what was happening, and Leonard’s quip that they would probably be overjoyed (I think it was something about picking out baby names or wedding invitations, but I can’t remember so I don’t want to quote). Marrying the “Nice Jewish Girl” is part of your duty to your family. She is someone you settle for.
In some ways, the depiction is almost more angering than that of the JAP. To me, the JAP is at least vaguely ridiculous, but then again, I say this as someone who grew up without knowing what a JAP was until I was about 14 and panicked when I heard my east coast cousins ranting about them because I thought they were racist and hated Japanese people. The Nice Jewish Girl damages me more because she is believable and can eat my self-esteem. As I sat there in the theater, I wanted to scream, “I get it!” at the top of my lungs. As Leonard blew off Sandra to meet up with Michelle and her adulterous lover (awkward!) at a very fancy restaurant and walked by the Christmas tree not very subtly plopped in the background, I wanted to shout, “Okay! Okay! I get it!” You’re trying to tell me that I am not sexy; I am motherly. I am not exciting; I am safe. I am not an individual; I am an extension of my family.
This is where people will accuse me of overreacting, and so I will say, “No, I understand that the film did not literally mean that all Jewish women are like Sandra.” But when a narrative about Jewish family life and tradition gets played again and again, it’s easy to get tired of it. When no one “like you” is ever portrayed as the pretty, sexy woman, it’s easy to get tired of it. I wouldn’t say Two Lovers was obnoxious, over-the-top, or excessively offensive in its use of an old narrative, but it did make me wonder when filmmakers who want to talk about Jewish identity as a facet of their film will find a new way to talk about the dilema that does not reduce their people to ideologies, stereotypes, and not-women/men.
Can we excuse reducing people to theme? The NYT ignores this tired portrayal of Jewish femininity because it’s “a classic dilemma.” And yes, it is a classic dilemma for any minority to figure out how to balance individuality, tradition, and being a product of two cultures. I understand, believe me, that the “marry/date a nice Jewish (blank)” is a refrain that so many Jewish youth hear, and so it is so easy to place all your identity issues into the question of marriage, as ridiculous as it may seem when you step back and realize what you’re doing. But there are causalities in the process. Perhaps if I could be convinced that Sandra Cohen was ever meant to be a real character, I would change my mind with Two Lovers‘s handling of these problems.
So when my best friend’s little sister posted the video link, quoted it proudly, I felt a sense of relief. It was, in a sense, our own personal (by which I mean, my friend’s and my) equivalent of “This is want a feminist” looks like campaign. My friend’s little sister is what a Jewish woman looks like. My best friend is what a Jewish woman looks like. I am what a Jewish woman looks like. We are part of a tradition, but we are not merely extensions of it. We are complicated too, thank you very much.
When we talk about the possibility of blogs replacing newspapers, we tend to pay a lot of attention to the anxieties surrounding the anonymity of bloggers. They just don’t seem to have the credentials that someone being backed by the New York Times has. There’s a lot to discuss in this issue, but I want to draw attention to one point that I don’t often see brought up (though I’m sure someone’s talking about it.). The thing that worries me almost more about the transition from print to digital media is the ability for people to comment on whatever they read. Though blogs have long been considered a dialogue, newspapers and magazines have started attaching comments feeds to their articles, allowing for instant discussion. But comment feeds rarely actually encourage discussion that does not degenerate into flame wars, name-calling, and the other weapons called upon in net drama.
As any net veteran will tell you, you cannot win an argument on the internet. But can you even have a discussion on the internet?
In her article “Lowest Comment Denominator,” freelance writer Laura Nathan encouraged feminists to abandon using the comments feeds on blog and news article as discussion forums in favor of email or even in person discussion of the articles with friends. This seemingly Luddite response comes from her rather astute observation that “commenting has been around for a decade now, and it still hasn’t advanced the conversation about feminism—or anything else for that matter” (pg. 45, Bitch Magazine: Fall 2008: “Loud”). As much as I hate to say it, she has an excellent point. I really love getting comments here on FtCM, and I love reading other blogs, but, for the most part, reading comments pages gives me headaches of epic proportions.
Of course, this isn’t always the case, and I do feel a little guilty for making commenters who do think carefully about the comments they write out of this post for the most part. Don’t worry–I know they exist.
If you’re at all interested in the discussion of the future of journalism, I would recommend checking out Nathan’s article, which addresses, albeit briefly, some of the common ways comment feeds degrade journalism, such as the way internet culture thrives on provoking others and the ability of commenters or even the bloggers themselves to create sock puppet accounts (fake accounts) in an attempt to make it seem like more people agree with them. But I’ve got another reason why comment feeds, particularly on news articles, don’t seem to help discussion any: comment feeds completely eliminate context.
One of the first things any writer considers before beginning a piece is their audience (and if they will accept the fact that I like using 3rd-person plural pronouns as a gender-neutral 3rd-person singular). I know this sounds banal and obvious, but it’s so taken-for-granted that we almost forget about it. Thinking about whom you write for means that you consider your audience’s context: their education (Is it specialized? Do they expect you to use certain jargon?), their background, their concerns. It shows consideration and respect for them, not to metion that having a sense of what your audience expects changes everything about how you write from your tone to what you discuss. It’s essential.
But you can’t do this properly on the internet. Its vastness erases context. Even though I do have some sense of which sorts of people read my blog, I constantly find out that websites like Stumbleupon, or random Google searches for such random terms as “castration” or “what happened to the Nostalgia chick?” bring people outside of my predicted audience to my site. I’m not complaining (I mean, thinking hard enough about it, I realize that the writers of centuries past didn’t consider us as their audience either,) but it does mean that people read me out of the context I’ve created on FtCM, and sometimes without me predicting them as part of my audience.
In the end, this does not really affect the way I blog; like any other writer, I eventually just have to pick an audience and stick with it. Published writers go through a similar context-erasing ordeal (they can’t predict who will pick up their books!), unless they’ve been published by a specialty press. I do still consider audience when I write and make an effort to account for the fact that not everyone reading this blog comes from the same background that I do. I like to think that most bloggers do this, and I know that a good journalist does too, whether their article goes in a paper or on the net.
Though we tend to think of commenting as being intimately tied up with blogging, it actually works in a different way. A quality blog or a news blog worth reading will have articles that are written with care, or at least some effort. Comments, on the other hand, are often gut reactions, written without fully realizing the implications of their words nor with thought given to the types of people who may be reading the comment. When I comment on a feminist blog, I expect people to be familiar with certain concepts. If I go to a slightly larger blog, even one that considers itself progressive, I don’t know if its readers come from the same feminist context. I cannot expect them to be familiar with terms such as “rape culture” that are well-defined and easily understood within the context of the feminist community. If I write with the expectation that people already know the lingo or already accept certain precepts as true, I run the risk of alienating people who might otherwise be sympathetic to my ideas and causing others to make terrible assumptions about what I’m actually trying to say. Ignoring who my audience only serves to undermine my point and hinders discussion.
The other danger lies in the ability of commenters to erase their own context. This is less of an issue for bloggers because even if they are fairly tight-lipped with personal details, they create a context for themselves with their blogging history. Eventually, if a commenter comments at a blog long enough, they will gain a context of sorts, but in a vast sea of comments it’s difficult to keep track of an individual, unless they’re on a small blog that has created a community of regular commenters.
Writing outside of a context might mean that whatever you say can’t get traced back to you (which has been oft blamed for viciousness on the internet,) but it also means that readers do not have a context within which to judge your claims. Again, this is a simple point, but it can have a huge effect on the direction of discussion. For example, if I’m reading a book on physics, and the book tells me that its author works at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC,) I know that, at least in the realm of particle physics, she has some authority to speak on the subject. Therefore, if I am looking at the comments feed for a Scientific American blog article, and see a person make a claim that contradicts what I read in the book, I’m probably going to ignore the comment. It doesn’t matter if the comment I read was written by a physicist working within the same field who has found actual evidence to bring the theories of the author of the book into question. I don’t know that from a comments thread. And, beyond that, I have no reason to trust that information coming from a comments thread, even if the commenter were to reveal my identity.
Ultimately, everyone who writes on the internet now, bloggers and commenters alike, faces the obstacle of having internet culture as their context. Internet culture, as it stands, has an attitude rather similar to such characters as The Joker (ala The Dark Knight): Why so serious? (sorry, sorry. I couldn’t help it!) Anyone who has ever gotten upset over a comment made on the internet will probably have received a slew of responses to the effect of, “Why are you taking this so seriously! It’s just the internet!” or “Why do you care what people you don’t even know think?” (If you play with the logic of that third statement long enough, you start to wonder why anyone has a conversation on the internet ever, if it’s just a bunch of people they don’t know spouting opinions.) The internet has gained the reputation of being a land of informational anarchy, of communication via macro, and of people venting their anger. It is a land of verbal vigilantes who thrive on “educating” people that they consider to be stupid of their own stupidity. If this is the base-line context we write in on the internet, then I do not blame anyone dubious of its usefulness as an informational or, almost more importantly, discussion forum.
I’m not sure I want to pronounce a death sentence on the internet’s possibilities for discussion on issues. The internet is a useful organizing tool, an equalizing tool, and often offers a public stage for people whose voices are often ignored by mainstream publications for reasons of gender, race, class, and sexuality. And, again, I don’t want to forget the fact that there are people who comment thoughtfully, or at least make an effort to. I always hesitate to portray the internet as a wasteland, even if it sometimes feels that way. Nothing’s that simple.
But the fact remains that whenever we read, and particularly whenever we read anything on the internet, we cannot stop questioning. We cannot stop thinking critically about people’s motivations, backgrounds, and contexts for commenting.
And now, in a fit of paradoxical glee, I invite you to comment on this article. ;)
Aka- Not another Watchmen post!
Unsurprisingly, it seems like all the critics and blogs are talking about Watchmen. I have to admit that I was planning to refrain from comment because of this to avoid being repetitive, but, instead, I’m doing a slightly more brief post and focusing on slightly different issues. Watchmen, by nature of its cult following (meaning that the movie had a ton of hype), and the considerable violence and moral ambiguity present in its story line, inevitably has generated controversy and many questions. Is it still relevant? Is it filmable? Is it liberal? Is it conservative? Is it misogynistic? Is it homophobic? Should they have marketed it as a superhero movie (actually, I’m curious as to why people don’t talk about how movies are marketed, since this more-or-less helps us guess at whom they expect their target audience to be)? In a novel which chooses not to have a character acting as its moral center, preferring instead to imply judgment, there’s plenty of room for interpretation. Does this make it dangerous?
I’m actually not going to attempt to answer any of those questions, though all of them are interesting (What happens when you take a story by a most decidedly not homophobic writer and give it to a director who seems to have masculinity issues? Adrien Veidt has a folder marked “boys.”). Instead, I’m going to focus on one aspect of the media coverage. What boggles my mind almost as much as the fact that the director made scenes even more violent than they were in an already very gory graphic novel (and that does boggle my mind) is why everyone is so hyper-focused on the fact that in a few scenes you can see Dr. Manhattan’s penis. It’s not erect. It’s not even commented upon within the film. It’s just there, as if he were a male model in a figure drawing class.
It’s not even in the movie for shock value (unlike much of the amped-up violence)–it’s an important demonstration of how Dr. Manhattan has lost his humanity, and, along with that, shame in his nakedness (to be slightly Biblical about it). While, as the critical/public reaction to the penis has proved, we are incredibly uncomfortable with our “bits,” Dr. Manhattan sees the world on a molecular level, rendering such things fairly irrelevant. And while I can’t necessarily criticize individuals for being uncomfortable with seeing a penis, and possibly being made more uncomfortable by the fact that the film refuses to comment on it, I do have to wonder at why it’s getting so much attention considering the movie that it’s in.
In both the movie and the novel, Watchmen is a disturbing story of moral ambiguity, violence, rape, war, fear, and anger. It lacks a moral center amongst its main characters, which, by its nature, makes it difficult to read/watch. The movie had a brutal attempted rape scene (note- I understand that this was integral to the plot too–I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been in there.). It had a sex scene that was bizarrely pornified. In the midst of all of this, I cannot fathom why an exposed penis deserves the uproar it’s getting. Personal discomfort, sure, but public uproar?
Is it because there’s still a taboo about men looking at other men’s genitals? Is it because we have a difficult time detaching our bodies from sex? Is it because we portray sex as being at once glamorous and taboo, and this particular penis takes out that glamor? Is it because people are thinking of it as being Billy Crudup’s penis and not Dr. Manhattan’s? I’d do a cliché comparison with naked breasts in films, but, the fact is, I don’t think we’re even as comfortable with breasts when removed from sexual context as we claim to be (see: breastfeeding.)
Discuss: What’s with the ado over blue genitalia?
(For the record, I didn’t think it was a particularly good movie for various reasons that I’ve discussed ad-nausium all weekend, and therefore don’t feel like writing them up yet again. If you are brimming with curiosity over what I thought, email me about it. I do like the graphic novel, though. I’m not a rabid fan, but I like it.)
Last night, I headed up to PSU to to see Jennifer Pozner, founder of the Women in Media and News organization, speak as part of Bitch Magazine’s Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture lecture series. The title of her talk was “Project Brainwash: Why Reality TV is Bad For Women.” In a show of what some would call heroism and others masochism, Pozner has been watching reality TV shows over the past few years in order to record and expose their dark subtext.
Pozner’s talk focused on exposing reality shows as the marketing machines that they are and revealing how they work to perpetuate incredibly damaging stereotypes of, well, everyone. Considering that I don’t even watch “American Idol,” much less “The Bachelor” (frankly, I didn’t even realize it was still running.), most of the clips Pozner showed merely confirmed my worst fears instead of forcing me to look more deeply at something heretofore dismissed, which is how her talk was set up. I learned more about why networks continue to make reality shows, but the actual analysis of show content was the same sad story that anyone dealing with media literacy can recite by wrote: Women are unintelligent, shallow gold diggers. Money is the key to happiness. Being single makes you worthless. It was actually impressive how shows like “The Bachelor” so perfectly walked the tightrope between a straight male harem fantasy and a straight female fairytale romance. But it was nothing I hadn’t seen before.
And yet, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The story may be tired, but media outlets are still using it. Also, while most every feminist knows that reality shows are potentially terribly damaging, I don’t think many of us actually watch reality shows because we know them to be damaging. But anyone with a good journalistic instinct understands to actually make these claims, we have to be able to show they exist. To the very media literate, Pozner’s talk might have sounded like old news, but from a journalistic standpoint, it was very important work. I’ll be interested to read her book on the subject, Reality Bites Back: How Guilty Pleasure TV is Making Us Sexist, Shallow, and Socially Irresponsible, which comes out this October. As a friend said of the article Pozner wrote in the latest Bitch issue which covered many similar points as the talk, the lecture had the sense of trying to summarize a very complex longer work in an hour or so. I have nothing but sympathy for her on this point–it’s a near-impossible task.
I’ve never become immune to the energy that comes from being in a room of people who are, at least for the most part, passionate about a cause. I just love the sense of community it fosters. As we watched Pozner’s horrifying clips we gasped and groaned. It was cathartic to know I wasn’t the only one disgusted. Nevertheless, as much fun as I have being in a room full of like-minded people, understanding how dangerous and damaging these images are, I often wish there was a way to reach people who don’t understand. The fact is, probably no one who needed to hear this talk came to it. Why would they? There are still people, even commenters on feminist blogs, who don’t understand that the media we absorb affects us, even if our logical brains know to dismiss it. Until we can teach people media literacy, there will be those dismissing reality TV as “just a show.” I don’t have a good solution to this, but it’s always in the back of my mind.
On a personal level, I found Pozner’s talk to be rather inspiring. I’ve been reading obscene amounts of terrible fanfiction over the past few months in preparation for an article about the dumbing down and weakening of feminist-leaning female characters in fanfiction (It’s what privileged, unemployed feminist bloggers do when they’re not job hunting, volunteering, or blogging.).
There were some technical difficulties (the perils of new lecture series and using unfamiliar computers,) but overall I think it was a well-worthwhile night. I wish I could have stayed longer to talk to some other people about it–if any of you were there, please let me know your take on it. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to savor my spontaneous free cappuccino.
Nearly a week later, and I’m still recovering from Valentine’s Day, which apparently is also known as “the day when complete strangers can insinuate that you and whichever male friend you happen to be spending time with are a couple and then insult that male friend for not buying you a rose. ” I was unaware of this second name–this strange custom didn’t appear in college, where I’d usually either spend my Valentine’s Days buying student group fundraiser chocolates for boys that I had crushes on, so that I could make life awkward for the both of us or sneaking paper cranes into friends’ mailboxes. But one thing that’s a constant about Valentine’s Day whether in or out of the ivory tower is the way it tends to make single people feel guilty,bitter or inadequate. And then we run to dating sites (link to Sara Haskin’s “Target Women” video on the subject, which is hilarious).
Okay, I’ll stop with the snark (maybe). For one thing, the real reason why I waited nearly a week for this post is that I just figured out how to do screen captures yesterday (and wasted copious amounts of time saving all the internet ads I hate for future subtext juicing). For another, the point of this post is not the cultural phenomenon of dating sites, but the uncomfortable subtext lurking in one rather popular dating site: OK Cupid. Most people I know within my age group use OK Cupid to some capacity, myself included. As far as dating sites go, it’s generally thought to be the most “with it.” I’ve even seen it praised by commenters on Feministing for not marginalizing poly relationships and allowing for homosexuality and bisexuality (because apparently other sites have not gotten the message).
But behind its trendy facade, OK Cupid makes plenty of really uncomfortable statements and insinuations. You know, the sort of assertion that people like to pretend is edgy, but in closer examination is revealed to be the same sort of cultural messages we’ve been receiving for years. In many ways, OK Cupid is not nearly so friendly and savvy a site as it makes itself out to be.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Deciding to join a dating site is full of implications that make people feel uncomfortable and question themselves that have nothing to do with the site itself. Also, there are plenty of things about the site that make me feel uncomfortable, from features that “punish” you (aka- mark you with a red light, meaning that you rarely reply to other messages) for not replying to each and every message you get (ignoring the fact that most people receive some pretty invasive messages that they may not feel comfortable replying to) to the fact that it calls you a “dirty dog” if you turn off the automatic censor. Their “about us” page only includes one woman, which would bother me less if her photo was not of a pair of disembodied legs in fishnets and her label wasn’t “office chick,” whose primary duties were “making sure Sam doesn’t go insane, writing surveys, busting spammers and never, ever letting the programmers run out of Diet Pepsi.” But then, I have a sense that many dating sites probably think they can create a dating site for both men and women with only the input of one gender (Apparently, they’ve all read/seen He’s Just Not That Into You and therefore know that women have relationship IQs of 5.). The fact is, if I just systematically pointed out everything I’ve seen on the site with disturbing subtext, I’d get a headache; and this post would become a mere rant. So, as always, I’m going to focus on a few bits and pieces that I think illustrate larger issues.
(I <3 alliteration)
OK Cupid, like pretty much anything on the net or in print, has to choose images to represent a news bite. To avoid bombarding people with giant walls of text, they try and reduce people to images as much as possible. For example, every user, as they use the site, is awarded a series of personality trait images. For example, if someone is “more compassionate” than most users, their profile has a cartoon image of a cheerful female nurse (more ambitious, by the by, is a man in a business suit with a laptop). But what’s really irked me this week is their image for their weekly quiz contest, drama. The programmers at OK Cupid decided that they could best represent this contest with an image crying, screaming woman, playing into the stereotype that women just love making big deals out of nothing and causing excess drama. You’ve never heard of a drama king, right? They must not exist. The fact that the image isn’t even commented upon and is simply plastered up there beside the word drama without explanation only makes it worse: it turns the image into a symbol.
This is a particularly insidious use of semiotics, the science of signs. Basically, semiotics looks at how we make a connection between image and meaning. For example, the little image (or the little emoticon that I used above) that we tend to think of as a “heart,” does not look anything like a human heart. Yet, in our cultural imagination, the image is inextricably intertwined with this meaning. In this example, the OK Cupid design time created an arbitrary symbolic correlation between the crying woman and drama. This plays into the at least old as Greeks (if not time) idea that women are hysteric (a word which actually comes from the Greek word for womb.), irrational creatures and tend to make ludicrous complaints. It plays into the idea that we’re always looking for drama where there isn’t any, making mountains out of molehills. Do I think it’s going to brainwash anyone who didn’t already believe this to some degree? No. But it’s obnoxious, and propagates an image of women that we constantly have to fight against and discourages women from speaking up even when it matters.
The lifeblood of OK Cupid’s matching system is a series of multiple choice questions that you answer both for yourself and for your ideal match. The site’s matching algorithm then uses this information to stick you with a bunch of labels and calculate how well you will get along with other people.
Now, of course, everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, age, and relationship status has to answer the same questions, which, initially seems like a good idea. But, in my experience, this tends to lead to what can, if we use only diplomatic terms, be described as awkward situations.
My queer friends (especially those who live in neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut, and were not in California before the 2008 election) have a lot of fun answering questions about whether they wish to get married some day, and whether they believe homosexuality is a sin or not. My trans friends have dealt with similar questions. I suppose you could argue it’s not the duty of a dating site to condemn anyone’s moral judgment, no matter how bigoted, but I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with the site normalizing homophobia and transphobia like that. Pretty much, instead of alienating a socially conservative audience, the site has decided that they’d rather pretend that homosexuality and transgenderism are things that we can debate normally and dispassionately, like marijuana usage or gun control, as if it didn’t involve debating the legitimacy of actual people. The site acts as if it is simply taking itself out of the debate by allowing “both sides” on their site. Is this really okay? Is this behavior really conducive to a safe, fun website?
Another “fun” example is the question that I posted in the image above, an image which I have entitled “questionnotaboutbisexuality.gif” because I still don’t know what bisexuality has to do with anything. The question reads, “A bisexual person wants to date a man and a woman at the same time. In your opinion, is this person out of line? A) Yes, being bisexual does not excuse infidelity. B) No, dating both sexes best fulfills their needs. C) It depends on the situation.” The question may have an “out,” a none of the above, but I’m still bamboozled as to why a question which is essentially about open relationships has to become tied up in sexual orientation. I declined to answer this question because, to me, “it depends on the situation” does not translate to, “As long as everyone is open, honest, and consenting.” Gender has nothing to do with it. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. Bringing bisexuals into the mix just plays into the bisexuals are more likely to cheat stereotype.
And I’m not even going to start on the “slavery vs. holocaust” oppression Olympics question.
In a sense, by staying out of moral debates, OK Cupid has made itself a less safe place to be.
Oh, Baby, That’s Just the Way It Is
And last, and least, the text blurb that inspired this post in the first place:
You’re choosy, not wanting to get mixed up with just anyone. Girls can get away with this kind of selectiveness for some reason. Most guys have to take whatever’s lying around, passed out.
After taking their (heteronormative) “dating persona” personality test, I decided to check out some of the other possible personas a person can have. This one comes from the female persona “The Intern,” a woman who wants casual sex, but is inordinately picky. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to rape culture. (Oh yes, and stereotypes about how straight men just want sex and will take anything with boobs. Can’t forget those. The stereotypes, I mean, not the boobs. Though one should remember boobs too.)
This, combined with such questions in their matching algorithm which ask if no really means no are not innocent comments nor funny depictions of college party life. By including them so flippantly on their site, OK Cupid is normalizing this kind of behavior. How is this okay?
And that, my friends, is the crux of this post. Dating sites may not be designed to be moral regulators or political forces, but they are both a product of and a regulator of our culture. OK Cupid may be pretending to stay out of debates, but it’s really saying that it’s okay in our culture to discriminate based on gender and sexual orientation; it’s okay to have sex with someone without consent; it’s okay to be a person who ignores the word “no.” It’s saying that in our culture, it’s okay to chalk these things up to personal preference.
Sometimes I think I’m a bad feminist blogger because my gut reaction to any sort of rhetorical question like that is, “I don’t know.” I don’t claim to have all the answers. So I’m going to cheat and say, “I’m here to make you think,” because I feel like a hypocrite every time I declare moral superiority because I criticize conservatives for the same thing. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine how any of this is okay or even desirable in our culture.
Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to conclude that OK Cupid is not a safe dating site, not that I think there’s one out there that currently does any better. It’s pretty clear to me that no dating site, and certainly not OK Cupid is going to make me feel like a desirable straight woman for my feminist beliefs or make me feel particularly welcomed on their corner of the internet except as a sex object. But that’s all part and parcel of internet culture, which is, of course, tied up in our own culture. I think sometimes we separate the two too readily.
What’s more fun than Valentine’s chocolate? Femme fatales! Clearly.
I have a Noir-loving streak. Can’t help it–ever since I took a class in college on American Film Noir, I couldn’t help but gain a soft spot for the overly-gender-conscious, campy genre. And, of course, I love the concept of the femme fatale.
I suppose I could do a long, in-depth post about the femme fatale in the American cultural imagination and how she represents the anxieties (and dark fantasies) surrounding the sexually assertive woman. Maybe I will someday. But it’s Sunday, not someday, and I’m tired, so instead I’m going to leave you with some awesome videos to celebrate the archetype.
Rita Hayworth- Put the Blame on Mame (from Gilda)
People consider Gilda to be the quintessential femme fatale, which is kind of odd because she’s not actually a femme fatale at all. She gets blamed for promiscuity because of her overt sexuality, and in this number she intentionally plays on these fears. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, she’s not supposed to be singing at the nightclub at all, much less removing any articles of clothing. Also, I love the song to bits. Quinn Lemley also does a nice version of it. Just remember that most people can’t get away with referring to San Francisco as “Frisco.”
This next clip, though not a Noir video by any means, really gets to the heart of what a femme fatale is (at least, to me). The femme fatale can hold power over men precisely because of her sexual promiscuity.
I think this awesome Eartha Kitt video really sums it up. Note the direct link between promiscuity and other sorts of “evil.”
Eartha Kitt- I Want To Be Evil
Nostalgia™ (by Veidt)
(Don’t mind me. I’ve just been re-reading Watchmen to prep for the movie. Now on to the actual post.)
Back in August, Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic or “that guy with the glasses,” announced a contest to find the Nostalgia Chick. I was not watching the site at the time, so I have to admit I cannot quite gauge the actual fan reaction, but judging by the comments left behind, I think that, aside from a few, soundly mocked protestations that women were neither funny nor on the internet, it was met with enthusiasm.
For about a year, Doug had been producing videos of himself mocking the nostalgic movies and tv shows of the 80’s and early 90’s–Power Rangers, The Super Mario Brothers Movie, He-Man, etc.–launching himself to at least minor internet celebrity. He’d moved from Youtube to his own page, gained fans, added other reviewers to his site, and even ended up with his own Wikipedia page. But he realized that his approach to nostalgic media was missing all the trashy franchises that were marketed towards the women of his generation. There needed to be a “Nostalgia Chick” to go with the critic*.
Enter Lindsay Ellis, film student. She’s actually a friend of mine from a study abroad program a few years back, and so I’m afraid I can’t claim complete neutrality when writing this post (not to mention it was really easy to get her permission to write it. yay!). (On a side note, I’d feel like a really bad cultural critic if I were reporting an actual conflict instead of making a general observation.)
With her witty and sarcastic video (link goes to the TGWtG website. Video is also available on Youtube) making fun of Disney’s Pocahontas, Lindsay won over the fans and administrators of the “That Guy With the Glasses” site**. But even before accepting the position, she found herself embroiled in the dramatic, troll-filled wasteland that is the realm of internet comments. Believe it or not, the results were surprising.
Now, of course, if you put anything on the internet, you’re bound to get criticism, often very stupid criticism. It’s inevitable. Every reviewer (nay! every review!) on the TGWtG site receives its share of flames. I’m not here to debate whether that should happen or not. Really, what was surprising was not that Lindsay’s appearance on the internet scene had its detractors as well as fans; what’s interesting is the nature of the complaints surrounding Lindsay’s videos. From the very beginning, before she even won the contest, people called her out for the way she talked and the way she dressed. According to one particularly memorable (and frightening) commenter:
I have watched all the nostalgia critic’s videos, so yes, I understand he curses and makes sexual references, but, for every single one of the women applying, when they say the F-word, not only does it not seem fitting for them to cuss in that way, it seemed strained. Maybe it’s my personal preference, but I don’t think it sounds natural.
I know [the Nostalgia Critic] has said he would like to make love to himself, but that’s not selling sexuality, that is humor. He asked if the Disney execs wanted to f*** bunnies, yes, that’s also humor, but he sounds normal when he says it. Again, for all the women, it sounded strained. And yes, Speed Racer dresses up like a sperm, that’s again, humor. For every sexual reference in Lindsay’s video, I just didn’t understand why. It did not make sense to me why you would put that there, it was amusing, but she forced it to be, it really didn’t have much to do with a review of any kind.
In his call out for the Nostalgia Chick, yes he states he has testicles, and yes, part of my problem with Lindsay’s review is that her shirt is cut too low. The Nostalgia Critic can never, in any way, because he has testicles, use them as a tool to get anything for free in life. (Source)
(I’m going to let you make the bitter comments that last sentence merits because if I were to do so, it’d cramp my calm, rational tone. I’m sure you can do a good job with that.)
Unsurprisingly, no one ever really discusses how the Nostalgia Critic dresses. No one seems concerned that he swears or uses sexual humor. But, according to this commenter, by discussing sex, Lindsay automatically draws attention to herself sexually, and not to any of the sexual implications of the Disney movie. Essentially, per this logic, a woman saying, “sex,” is sexual. The Nostalgia Critic, on the other hand, can talk about not wanting to have sex with an anthropomorphized rabbit (see his Space Jam review) without people considering him to bringing his sexuality into the forefront.
The use of swearing, which is pretty much accepted as normal coming from the critic, is criticized as “not fitting” and “strained.” when coming from Lindsay and the other Nostalgia Chick finalists. I somehow find it difficult to believe that all five of the entries chosen happened to be by women who felt uncomfortable cussing and yet decided to swear anyhow. I’m inclined to believe the commenter just was uncomfortable with women saying, “fuck.” <–(Shiver in your boots, why don’t you–I typed it! Oh, and I’m a woman on the internet. Double the horror.) Judgmental of me? Perhaps, but less judgmental, I should think, than his assumption that a woman wearing a shirt that shows a bit of cleavage decided to do so in order to get a free ride.
This comment was a minority opinion (though comment battles raged well into the voting period)–I don’t want to give a misrepresentation of Nostalgia Critic fans. But I think this kind of exaggerated response helps explain the bizarre way many fans have received the Nostalgia Chick. Even though she has the same modus operandi as the critic, fans treat her very differently. Why? Because the same logic that triggered that extremist outrage is still embedded in our culture. Though people do have a genuine appreciation for her comedic talent, fans treat the Nostalgia Chick as a woman before considering her as an entertainer. That is to say that no matter what she says, no matter if the clips of her to clips of the film ratio were to be 1:25 (not an accurate ratio by any means,) by merely being a woman making a video of herself, people consider her to be drawing attention to her physical appearance. Fans have debates within the comment section about whether she’s hotter with or without glasses. They jokingly proposition her. You can argue that this is inevitable, and, for the most part, it’s pretty harmless. I’m not even suggesting finding someone hot is a sign of shallowness or moral weakness. But all the while there is something off about this kind of treatment: Lindsay is not making videos about herself. Her comedy takes center stage in all her videos, and yet many people treat her as if her purpose was to stand there and look pretty. Because, you know, that’s the most important priority in every woman’s life.
As Lindsay continued her reviews, fans began to speculate on the second-most important thing in every woman’s life: her relationship with men.*** When she asked a male friend of hers to appear in her “Top 10 Most Disturbing and Inescapable Christmas Songs,” fans asked her, “was that your brother or your boyfriend?” (source). Apparently straight women can’t have guy friends. More speculation as to Lindsay’s relationship status arose when she did a joint review of the movie Ferngully with the Nostalgia Critic. Although before commenters wondered if “That Guy With the Glasses [aka: Doug] is banging this chick,” using phrasing that makes me wonder if they meant to imply that Lindsay’s (non-existent) connection to Doug was involved in getting her a slot on the site (source,) rumors now reached a boiling point, with people suggesting that they were siblings, married, or dating. Included in this slew were people who were joking that they’d look cute together, and I feel a little uncomfortable accusing those particular comments as being signs of anything other than a tendency to match-make. On the other hand, many of the comments assumed that Lindsay had to have some connection with Doug (other than winning the contest) to have her role. It’d be enough to drive anyone insane.
Nevertheless, Lindsay continues to make videos and make people laugh. Yes, those people who don’t seem to understand that women are both on the internet and in comedy still make sickening comments such as “She’d be hot if she didn’t talk.” And, yes, fans still take the “you’re hot” commentary to disturbing levels and draw pictures of her in swimsuits. She’s learned to ignore it. But as a cultural critic, I can’t resist pointing out how weird this all is, especially in contrast to the kinds of comments that her male counterpart gets. What does it say about our culture that male audiences feel entitled to make this kind of commentary? What does it say about our culture that one of the first concerns voiced by fans when the contest was announced was “since the site is male dominated, any woman is going to be subject to a whole manner of abusive and sexual comments” (source)?
The internet’s a scary place for anyone creative. Add in gender bias, and things get scarier. I’m glad Lindsay’s risen to the challenge.
*I know that some people might object to the “critic/chick” dichotomy, but I’m going to give the website the benefit of the doubt and assume that it ended up this way because the Nostalgia Critic originally was just a solo deal.
**On a side note, the two runners-up ended up with their own segments on the site. I’m not familiar with them, so I’m afraid I can’t include them in this post. But if you have anything to add about them, feel free to share.
***At the risk of being a terrible writer by unnecessarily pointing out my own gag, that was sarcasm.
Whew, that took me longer than I thought it would. Now it’s time to dance around the kitchen do very important, diligent things. Until next time!