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GAME OF THRONES: THE QUEER SEASON by JACK HALBERSTAM (HOUSE OF NEMO)

8 Apr
Live by the sword and die by the sword

Live by the sword and die by the sword

Every couple of seasons, like warriors of an ancient cult or like the antagonists in Games of Thrones, scholars arm themselves for battle over the ownership of the term “queer.” These battles have pitted historians against literary critics, empiricism against abstract theory, those with investments in the normative against those with investments in resistance; Foucaultians against Deleuzians, boys against girls, gender queers against cis-genders, people who watch Project Runway versus people who watch women’s tennis, Broadway musical lovers against performance art fans, people who want the freedom to marry against people who want freedom from marriage, pet lovers versus pet haters and so on. It seems to be a queer rite, in addition, to claim that, queer is over! Or, no, it has just begun! We might also hear that: it has not yet arrived; it will never arrive; it would not be queer if it did arrive; it has not been queer and so never was here and cannot therefore be over; it will never be over; it cannot be over nor can it ever begin…to be over. You get the picture.

photo_17522_wide_largeJust last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a perennial warrior, Michael Warner (House of Queer Publics), took stock of the state of queer theory on the occasion of the ending of Duke’s famed Series Q and used Jasbir Puar’s work to signal “queer theory’s ambivalence about itself. ” While he accepted the ambivalence as part of a sign of the vibrancy of the field, Warner still took time to land a few well-placed jabs at a critical queer theory that had, according to his calculations, gone beyond ambivalence and that reveled in a “queerer-than-thou competitiveness” while investing in “postures of righteous purity.” Such a model of queer theory could be found, he claimed, in a special 2006 issue of Social Text titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” This special issue, edited by myself, fellow Bully Blogger José Esteban Muñoz, and David Eng, was itself an attempt to make a survey of the field, and its mission was to highlight new work in queer theory—by Martin Manalansan, Gayatri Gopinath, Jasbir Puar, Hiram Perez and others of the House of Poco Queers—that saw the intersections of race and sexuality to be axiomatic rather than marginal to another larger narrative centered on the sexual identity practices of white males. Such a project, for Warner, was evidence of a whiny competitiveness and perhaps indicated, as far as he was concerned, that queer studies might be over.

Game-of-Thrones-Infographic-Houses-OnlyAnd so it goes, like an episode of the fantasy HBO series Game of Thrones, there are more battles between more houses than the human brain can keep track of! This house sets up against that house, old feuds carry over into new feuds, battles are won and lost and, to quote a Game Of Thones saying, “what is dead can never die.” While Game of Thrones is a remarkable study of power, sovereignty, territoriality, terror, kinship, sex and violence, it also offers a close reading of fantasy and desire in a possibly medieval but at any rate distant historical time. While the action, the political machinations, the sexual intrigue and the multiple forms of perfidy might be transhistorical, the success of the series actually hinges upon its ability to render the past in all, or at least some, of its pastness. The question of what constitutes the past, what relation it has to the present and how it can be read from a historical remove is the subject of one of the most recent skirmishes between queer theory households and it merits a closer look if only so that we can get back to the queerness of Game of Thrones, having settled some thorny historical questions about anachronism, teleology, chronology and genealogy.

In January 2013 issue of PMLA, Valerie Traub, queen of the House of English Studies at Michigan in Game of Thrones speak, takes aim at the “new unhistoricism in Queer Studies.” Traub, who has not, in her earlier work, ever been mistaken to my knowledge for a Marxist (House of UMass Amherst), begins her polemic with a familiar phrase: “Since around 2005 a specter has haunted the field in which I work: the specter of teleology” (21). We all know of the mythical creatures in Game of Thrones that lie beyond the wall and scuttle in and out of the kingdoms creating fear and mischief. But Traub is not worrying about what lies beyond the walls of her kingdom; rather, she is casting her own brand of historical scholarship and that by her merry band of characters, many located in Michiganlandia, as the specter, that, like communism in the mid-nineteenth century, apparently haunts queer studies.

In a weird twist that places teleological thinking—or the belief that the past can be read as an inevitable drift towards a fixed endpoint in the present—in the position of the radical threat offered by communism, Traub raises her flag for genealogy, periodization, chronology and the work of David Halperin. traub-halperin_gay_shameShe dedicates her essay to Halperin and she defends his genealogical historical methodology from the hoards at the gate that come to “undo” his “history of homosexuality.” Along the way to mounting this defense, Traub also implicitly argues, as other queer houses have recently (the House of Anti-Anti-Normativity for example –see the bullyblogger account of their recent MLA panel), that we need to return to some key foundational texts by David Halperin but also by others such as George Chauncey, Steve Epstein and Janet Halley in order to counter this “unhistoricism” with empirical research, real, authentic scholarship, in other words, grounded in proper disciplinary locations with appropriate methodologies and canonical archives of evidence. Thus, using a neo-liberal logic by which the hegemonic (teleological historicism) characterizes itself as the marginalized and outlawed, Traub allows her enterprise of historicizing to be cast as an upstart methodology which uses radical methods to bring down the prevailing order. In fact, the historical methods she defends are far from either radical or Marxist (although Marxism does have a teleological spin to it), far from a specter that is haunting anything, her periodized historical narratives, with their investments in normative temporalities, disciplinary regulation, continuity and destinations, constitute a castle on the hill, the manor house, the oldest and most royal house of all. Traub pretends to be the rebel at the gate but in actuality she is sitting safely and warmly inside, on the throne, and at the very heart of power.

How Soon Is...

How Soon Is…

Traub, reasonably enough, wants in this article to undo some of the logics that have cast two houses of queer history at odds when she thinks that they may potentially share some projects: “My aim then,” she writes even as she lifts her crossbow, “is to advance a more precise collective dialogue on the unique affordances of different methods for negotiating the complex links among sexuality, temporality, and history making” (23). A noble aim, we might add, but one that nonetheless, for all of its tone of moderation, takes no prisoners. The main targets of Traub’s “aim” indeed are Carla Freccero (House of Mid Century Modern), Jonathan Goldberg (House of Sedgwick) and Madhavi Menon (House of Queers Off Color but also House of Edelman). Traub also throws Carolyn Dinshaw (House of Queer Medieval and House of NYU) under the bus charging that while all of these scholars do interesting work on temporality, “none of these scholars set themselves the task of writing a historical account that traversed large expanses of time” (26).

And this gets to the heart of Traub’s critique – the House of Unhistoricism, according to Traub, challenges periodization and genealogical history but itself remains bound to one, or in a few instances two, time frames making it impossible for this work to track either changes or continuities across time. Ultimately, Traub seems to be saying, the anti-teleological queer histories are too invested in deconstructive readings (“readings, however, are not the same thing as history” [30]), too quick to dismiss empirical research and periodization, wedded foolishly to “analogical thinking” and “associational reasoning” (which works through presumption, according to her, rather than argumentation), and too critical of the tools of the trade (chronology and periodization). Once they have offered their readings, undone teleologies, made the present strange and the past multiplicitous, rejected periodization and sequence in favor of “multitemporality, nonidentity and noncorrespondence of the early modern” (Traub’s characterization of Goldberg), Traub offers, these scholars are left with a murky understanding of history under a tarnished banner of queer critique that has become so “free-floating” and “mobile” as to mean everything and nothing. Traub clearly feels that the House of Unhistoricism has declared war on the House of History and she charges that they have “demeaned the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity,” charged historians with “normalization,” and disqualified “other ways of engaging with the past” (35).

In past skirmishes between queer houses as much as in this one, a name is used over and over to guarantee the honorable intent and rhetorical superiority of one house over another: that name, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is used here by Traub both to signify a critique of genealogy that she rejects and to indicate a “generative legacy” to which she paradigm-shift-cartoontethers her steed. Sedgwick, she tells us early on, had critiqued Lord Halperin (House of Homosexuality and House of Joan Crawford) for investing in a Foucaultian model of genealogical thinking that placed too much emphasis on the notion of the clean break, or the Great Paradigm Shift. Sedgwick, in her emphasis on the coexistence of different models of sexuality, obviously leans more to the house of Unhistoricism than that of Historicism. But because Sedgwick is such a powerful player in the Game of Thrones, she cannot so easily be ceded to the other side. And so, Traub both acknowledges the critique of Halperin in Sedgwick and yet claims that “Sedgwick did not endorse a particular form of historiography” (25) – in other words, she may have been opposed to the House of Halperin but she did not therefore stand with the House of Unhistoricism. And so the essay ends by folding Sedgwick back into the House of History and Geneaology by claiming her multiple legacies as part of this essay’s genealogical reach, and it also marries that legacy to the bounty that Lord Halperin has bestowed upon the field: “No less at stake is how this debate bears upon David Halperin’s evolving contributions to queer theory and queer history” (36). While the House of Unhistoricism is more interested in a haptic history made up of anonymous figures brushing up against emergent categories of being, the House of Traub would trace a line of kings and queens and find their true and authentic bloodlines in order to make sure that at any given moment, the right person is on the throne.

Jay-Z-Kanye-West-Watch-the-Throne-Behind-the-ScenesBut, as Jay Z and Kanye remind us in their joint album, you always have to “Watch the Throne” because no king/queen is safe, no house is secure, no wealth lasts, no love is past, no success is sure, no church in the wild and the wild things are always just outside the door. The House of Michigan can hold onto History with a capital H; it can have disciplinarity, chronology and sequence; it can misspell the names of its postcolonial critics (footnote #12) and still make a claim on accuracy; it can cast aside the analogical thinking of the queers who come to undo history, but it cannot police what lies beyond the walls and scuttles around the edges of the House of MLA – the creatures outside the walls are the real specters haunting the field and what is dead can never die.

Jack Halberstam (House of Nemo)movies-finding-nemo-3d-poster-gallery-8

That Oceanic Feeling

12 Jul 120417-frank-ocean-1_0

by Tavia Nyong’o

19- year-old Christopher Breaux fell hard for another straight boy who couldn’t love him back, confessing his love in a car parked in front of the girlfriend’s house. But the queerest song released so far by the artist now known at Frank Ocean isn’t an ode to boy-on-boy lust, but a corrosive satire of American marriage in the era of Kim Kardashian and Newt Gingrich.

“American Wedding” has attracted the pecuniary attentions of The Eagles, whose radio staple “Hotel California” the track is based on. But the real story isn’t about the sampling wars, but about a scapegoat generation struggling to make lives amidst the crumbling infrastructure of the American dream.

Now that marriage equality has become the shorthand for considering gays fellow human beings, the exploration of what the institution actually means has become more crucial than ever. On this score, Ocean’s take down of the idealised couple form:

She said, “I’ve had a hell of a summer, so baby, don’t take this hard
But maybe we should get an annulment, before this goes way to far.”

“American Wedding” is from Ocean’s internet mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. On Channel Orange, Ocean is rarely thinking about conventional marriage, gay or straight. But he is always “thinking bout forever,” as the title of the opening track has it, and peeling back the skin of those of us who aren’t. The ass-backwardness of the Eagles’s response to Ocean’s cultural stocktaking is best captured by NCWYS in the SoundCloud comments to “American Wedding”:

If you older people think that the younger generation is out of control and doing everything incorrectly then you should absolutely love this song, but you don’t.

Aptly enough, Frank Ocean often also composes lines that run on a breath that suddenly stops short. An unforgettable one comes in “Sweet Life,” a sharply observed reverie of black-picket-fence California dreaming, when Ocean asks “So why see the world, when you got the beach?” He elongates “world” to contrast with the punched out “beach” in a way that tells us everything we need to know about Ocean’s mournful acceptance of a sun-ripened cruel optimism. That single line makes the extended parody of decadence and parental neglect on “Super Rich Kids” almost superfluous, except for the self-conscious scene setting it adds:

We’ll both be high
The help don’t stare
They just walk by
They must don’t care.

This is the way Ocean inherits the past: not by respecting tradition, or Don Henley, but by staring down the foreshortened horizons and complacent inequality that the frantic pursuit of wealth or happiness brings.

Not that he is lecturing, mind you, although Sierra Leone, sex work, global warming, and the hijab all make appearances in his rapidly expanding oeuvre. He is singing over the soundtrack of history, blunting its force with tried and true teenage tactics of insult, grandiosity, and desperate need. At 24 he isn’t quite old enough to know that he shouldn’t care, which is why he can gloat over “expensive news” on a pricey widescreen one moment, insist “my TV aint HD thats too real” another. On Channel Orange television is his angel of history, a flickering window on the mounting wreckage of the past as he is blown into the future.

The future Ocean is helping shape includes but cannot be reduced to one of its key aspects: the prospect of a progressively expanded honesty about and acceptance of same sex desire. Despite his Tumblr post comparing the intensity of homolove to “being thrown for a plane,”  the theme of Channel Orange is less sexual orientation than chemical disorientation. Recreational substance abuse resurfaces in almost every song, often as a metaphor for a relationship gone wrong. Or is it the other way around? Is addiction now the core, common experience we are struggling to give sense to, turning to romantic clichés like “unrequited love” in a desperate search for a familiar language?

Frank’s oceanic feelings on Channel Orange crash in waves that obliterate distinctions between gay, bi, or straight. Some of the ostensibly straight songs, except for their pronouns, feel suspiciously same-sex. And when heterosexuality is foregrounded, it never resolves any confusions, it only produces new ones. The artistic showpiece of the album, the ten-minute long “Pyramids,” is an afrofabulation of ancient Egypt and postmodern Las Vegas, centered on a woman dressing for her job as a stripper, while her man looks on, waiting for her to “hit the strip … that keep my bills paid.” The song is drenched in delusions of the good life in a “top floor motel suite,” lateral cruising confused for the upward mobility that is now as rare as water in the American desert. Ocean has a heartfelt respect for his Afrocentric queen — “we’ll run to the future shining like diamonds in a rocky world” — but the feeling tone of “Pyramids” is closer to Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” than Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” Monáe and Ocean share premonitions of a near future where a multicultural one percent rests at the opulent social apex, with brown, black and some beige bodies at the botttom “working at the pyramid” just like the slaves who built the original ones.

Where CNN anchor Anderson Cooper justified his belated coming out in terms of the reporter’s obligation not to get in the way of the news, Ocean knows better. At 18 he fled Hurricane Katrina for Los Angeles. But as Fred Moten might say, “I ran from it, and was still in it” pretty much sums up the black experience in America. Channel Orange starts in a similarly fucked up atmosphere — “A tornado flew around my room” — and ends with “Forrest Gump” the most oddball portrait of same-sex love since “Johnny Are You Queer?” A campy three-legged race featuring Tom Hanks’ dimwit but fleet-footed hero, “Forrest Gump” boils Hollwood sap down to a lubricious bump and grind:

my fingertips & my lips
they burn from the cigarettes
forrest gump
you run my mind boy
running on my mind boy

This is dark camp, nostalgic kitsch repurposed by a generation whose thefts seemed premised on the canny awareness that anything original they create could be stolen. But don’t confuse Ocean’s approach for postmodern pastiche or retromania, despite his affection for old cars and the vocal stylings of Prince and Donnny Hathaway. On his first appearance on broadcast television, Ocean scaled the national media echo-chamber down to a backseat taxicab confessional, sharing his universal angst at a human level rarely captured by the contemporary celebrity coming out:

“Bad Religion” leaves it strictly unclear whether it his taxi-driver’s effusive Islam or his own devotion to the cult of true love that is more stunning. Confusing spirituality with a therapy designed to sand our sharp edges into shape for this world, he is awestruck in a way that has little to do, in the end, with either islamophobia or homophobia.

“Bad Religion” dances on the impossible “and” in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, the book where Freud psychoanalyzed the oceanic feeling of cosmic oneness felt by natural mystics as a form of prenatal regression. Thrown from his hometown by the unnatural calamity of antipoor and antiblack racism, Ocean is entitled to feel as bleakly about the human prospect as Freud did. That he doesn’t isn’t a sign of blinkered piety so much as a restless appetite for even the worst in himself and others. Even a curse, after all, probably couldn’t hurt him.

When Ocean greets us as “human beings spinning on blackness,” he invites us into that cab alongside him, sidling up in an undercommons of prayer and malediction, where the singular soul brushes up against the dark night of the universe. Maybe that’s why a conventional coming out, with its endless reiterations of the transparently obvious, seems beside the point. Frank Ocean isn’t like you or me; he isn’t even much like Christopher Breaux any longer.

Friends With Benefits + The Kids Are All Right = Friends With Kids

29 Apr

By Jack Halberstam

We all know that Hollywood movies emerge out of a, shall we say, limited gene pool of ideas; and when that pool runs dry, the stumped screenplay writers just shuffle the jigsaw puzzle pieces of accepted story lines around until they come up with apparently new narratives. This is clearly what happened with the recent Jennifer Westfeldt film Friends With Kids. Touted as an independent, edgy ‘ensemble comedy,’ this film actually shows what happens when very straight, very sheltered straight people get a hold of a few strands of rather radical queer ideas about love, intimacy and reproduction!

Touted by David Edelstein in a feature in the New York Magazine as “the best breeder movie in years” (we might also dub it the only breeder movie in years and hey, when did “breeder” become a part of the hetero lexicon?), Friends With Kids asks a question that queer people have asked often and with much more curiosity for years: namely, do people have to be married to have kids or are marriage and child rearing actually like oil and water, a recipe for a greasy mess with the capacity to neither lubricate nor hydrate!

 This film comes up with a solution to the separation of sex and reproduction problem by offering us Julie (played by Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), good friends who enjoy a wide-ranging and affectionate friendship with each other while dating others and watching their friendship circle drift off into marriage and child rearing. When neither Julie nor Jason falls in love with an appropriate partner at the designated time of life for such things, they watch with horror as their friends’ relationships fall apart and their sex lives wither on the vine under the pressure of child rearing.

 One night, after a particularly unpleasant dinner party with their coupled and bickering pals, Julie and Jason ask whether it could be possible to have babies together without the intimacy, marriage and bickering. An idea is born and since they have affirmed many times that while they love each other, they are not attracted to one another, what could possibly get in the way of this perfect arrangement? They will get to date promiscuously but still have some stability in their lives; they will get the baby and the chance at parenthood without dragging the diapers and the spit up into their sex lives; they will get to have their cake and eat it too.

While this idea strikes Julie and Jason and their rather humdrum friendship circle as wild, original, evil and impossible, in actual fact the notion of the companionate marriage is as old as the hills.  The reason it is on no one’s radar is because it is one of those many under-studied forms of lesbian sociality where we will find it under the heading of the Boston marriage.

The Boston marriage, which is essentially what Jason and Julie propose to have – was a term used in the late 19th century to describe households made up of women living together independently of men. Whether or not these relationships were sexual has been a topic of much debate, but they were certainly long lasting, amicable and they allowed women financial, emotional and practical independence at a time when middle class women were defined by their relationships to their husbands.

Because of the ways in which heteronormativity assigns credit for all things good to heterosexuality and blame for all things bad to the gays and lesbians and trannies, heterosexual marriage has been cast as unquestionably right and good, even when it lacks sex and includes physical violence, and lesbian companionate relations have been cast as unquestionably wrong even when they are sexual and stable. Also, as we saw in The Kids Are All Right, one of the formulaic films that provides plot pieces for this mash up of rom coms and social issues movies, when lesbian long term relationships lose their libidinal energy we talk of “lesbian bed death” (not just bed death notice, lesbian bed death), but when hetero couples run out of steam, as the Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig couple do in Friends With Kids, this is simply a failed marriage – leaving us with the impression that most marriages succeed!

Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig as Ben and Missy are actually the most convincing couple in the film – they enter the movie panting from mid-dinner coital exertions and they exit alone and bitter. Sounds like a Tennessee Williams play except that when queer relationships fail, even in dramas penned by queers, it affirms the essential corruption of the queers. When straight people fail, they are just not trying hard enough. And so, Ben and Missy, whose relationship falls apart with as many sparks as it initially came together (so to speak), are represented as a bad combination of the bitchy woman and the resentful male partner – that this combination is actually the foundation of most forms of domestic white heterosexuality is never confirmed by the film which wants to desperately hold on to the idea of a perfect union of man and woman, good and bad, black and white, domestic and wild.

And so, to that end, we are offered an ideal couple in this not so romantic and not so funny rom com: Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd). Leslie may be a tad bitchy and naggy but Alex absorbs all darts and arrows that she flings his way and does the manly thing – he fights fire with love and compassion. Because he yields and bends to her need to blame and nitpick, and because she accepts his limitations, ineptitudes and laziness, they are the perfect couple and they even have sex!

So, if Friends With Kids steals one set of narrative arcs from The Kids Are All Right – alternative domesticity, Boston marriage, the separation of child rearing from heterosexual domesticity—it steals another from Friends With Benefits. Another gay film masquerading as a straight film, Friends With Benefits asked whether two hot young things could have sex but not intimacy, a good time at night and beat a hasty retreat in the morning, blow jobs without blow backs…? The answer of course was…sure they can…for a while… and then guess what? Mother nature takes over and what man and woman has put asunder, nature will reunite – and so if Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis just want to roll around in their undies looking hot for and hour and 20 minutes, that is all well and good, but a rom com demands a marriage and so sex leads to intimacy leads to love leads to….

And so it goes in Friends With Kids – the couple with no chemistry, no interest in each other sexually, no grounds for love or marriage, the couple who were so cold on each other sexually that they knew they could raise a kid together without any complications…guess what…they fall in love! Despite having subjected the audience to one of the most awkward and therefore actually interesting sex scenes in cinema during their insemination romp, the couple who couldn’t suddenly become hot for one another, just like that! For the viewer who has suffered through long spans of dialogue offering up one watered down queer critique after another of domesticity, heterosexuality, long term relationships and nuclear parenthood, the resulting romance is offensive, insincere and totally unbelievable. And this, ultimately, is why straight people should leave the queer theory to the queers – once they have boarded the runaway train of alternative desire, they realize that they desperately want to go home and leave everything exactly the way it was.

Ok, so in a perfect world, where I had a sabbatical, time to spare, no deadlines, I would pen the perfect masterpieces: The Friends Are All Right and Kids With Benefits. In the first, a queer culture of friendship replaces domestic marriage and nuclear families and new experiments in social world-making pop up everywhere. Friends share space, homes, kids, resources, health care access and probably sex…And in the second, kids cease to be the precious and pampered pets that this society demands and produces and they fight for their independence from families! Or else we could just settle for Kids Are Ok, Friends Are All Right and Go Get Your Own Benefits, a rom com involving space aliens who settle on earth and try to date lesbians…actually that IS the plot of an awesome film I just saw titled Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same by Madeline Olnek…try coopting that Hollywood!! Watch this space for a quick take on lesbian space alien films…coming soon. Peace out.

Occupying Gender in the Singular Plural

21 Jan

By Tavia Nyong’o

Call me a sissy, but I’ve never particularly cared for being referred to as cisgender. Still, the work of transgendered activists within Occupy Wall Street has been one of things that keep me optimistic. At a November 13th teach-in at Zuccotti Park, just days before the brutal eviction,  trans activists took over the people’s mic for an hour-long lesson in occupying gender, educating their non-trans listeners on the unearned privileges we enjoy whenever we conform to ascribed gender; outlining the work that groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project have long been engaged in, against police violence and medical pathologization; and outlining pragmatic and principled tactics for an occupation open to trans and cis-gendered people alike.

The teach-in ended with a song by Justin Bond, who has charted a post-Kiki and Herb career as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Between releasing the 2009 EP Pink Slip and last year’s full length album Dendrophile, Bond has adopted the middle name Vivian, begun to transition, and chosen the pronoun V to represent this new stage of life. Bond’s OWS appearance took what a therapeutic and individualistic culture calls “finding one’s voice” and performed it against the affective grain.

Justin Vivian Bond performing “The New Economy” at Occupy Wall Street

The pronoun V, and accompanying honorific Mx., occupy a linguistic elsewhere to binary gender, an elsewhere that Bond’s memoir, Tango, makes clear V has resided in since childhood. Tango is not a narrative of being trapped in the wrong body, however, but only of being trapped in the wrong society, and Mx. and V are linguistic foils with which to parry that society’s imprecations.

Such singular departures from accepted usage antagonize those who assume that they represent instances of amour propre. But coming from a Quaker tradition that rejects the second person plural “you,” and holds onto the archaic singular forms of “thee” and “thou,” I understand the purpose such speech acts serve. Much like the Society of Friends verbally resist the hierarchical, royal we, Bond’s neologisms dispel the ease with which binary gender preoccupies the ordinary. These dissenting gestures trust that the lateral bonds of the common can sustain the twists and torsions they exact. They are a kind of sit-down in grammar, a linguistic and literary demand to be served as we are, not according to how we are seen, surveilled or counted. They disrupt common sense in order to find a commons.

The song Bond performed at OWS was “The New Economy,” with it’s pugnacious opening lines “They say it’s a new depression, so why am I filled with glee? Everybody coming down quickly, now they can all join me.” Glee is an affect that a certain television show has made ubiquitous in recent years, but it is not often associated with the style of OWS. Bond took glee and detached it from the ethos of aspirational participation and the compulsion to please, and restored its disaffective and disaffiliative charge. Bond was, by Vs own account, homeless at the time of the December performance, having lost an East Village apartment to gentrification’s wrecking ball. But the glee Mx. performed was not schadenfreude but an invitation to queer conviviality, a living and breathing together in conspiratorial difference, a new economy of bodies and affects pitched toward the ethic, as V sang, of “take what you need and give a little back.”

I think it matters that a trans person delivered this communist message, insofar as the grain of Vs voice reinflected the conventional rallying cry. Unison singing at rallies and marches, like pledges of allegiance, tend to be rites of assent: sentimental conflations of the one and the many. But the singular grain of Bond’s voice, echoed through an enthusiastic crowd serving, sometimes with duty and sometimes with joy, as the human amplification system of the people’s mic, defied the sincerity of singalong.

This ability to perform the singular plural, occupying gender without staking a representative claim of speaking as or for any particular position in or betwixt a binarism, leads me to the question I am dwelling with these days. The banal version of this is the journalistic question: if OWS is a new movement, where are its songs? The question betrays a nostalgia for the 60s that was initially helpful in getting people to take OWS seriously at all, but which now presents an obstacle to the emergence of what is new and different about this moment. I want to speculate just a little about what that emergent sound might be.

People are having a field day redescribing the occupation in the preferred jargon of their fields and professions. So why not me? Occupation is a performative: it doesn’t so much represent the 99% as it conjures that figure into being as a speculative object of public attachment. This feeling for numbers is non-majoritarian and post-democratic insofar as it expresses a anarchist and antinomian preference for consensus decision making over majoritarian and electoral process. Excluding the 1% certainly articulates a healthy and appropriate smash the rich mentality. But the Lacanian in me also sees the 1% as yet another stand in for object a, the irreducible antagonistic remainder around which the social composes, and which is forever decomposing it. After all, wouldn’t claiming to speak as or for the 100% be fascism?

99% is a multitude composed out of antagonism, not identity. Taking what they needed, and giving a little back, the transgender activists reminded those who would hear that cis privilege is not restricted to the 1%, but a necessary fractures within occupation just as other divisions of race, citizenship, and class are. Trans and queer glee become part of the affective work of occupation, not so that occupation can become more inclusive or safe, but in order to keep those minor feelings quilted into the banners and broadsides of the many, both as a formal reminders of precarious bonds that stitch us together, and as an audio analogue of those visible seams.

A version of this blog post was presented at the MLA 2012 roundtable, “Affecting Affect.” Thanks to Lauren Berlant for organizing that occasion.

The Summer of Raunch

16 Jul

By Jack Halberstam

Did anyone else notice how comedies, I hesitate to call them “romantic,” let’s say “sex comedies,” have become absolutely pornographic nowadays? And I don’t really mean pornographic in a good way, as in “no holds barred, sexy, fun, overturn a few taboos and have a good laugh” pornographic. I mean teenage boy, obsessive dick humor with fart jokes, erection jokes, shit jokes and period jokes thrown in for good measure. While critics and bloggers are celebrating the new “bra-mances,” the female equivalents to the bro-mances that received a boost this summer with Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher, the bra-mances are as low as the bromances when it comes to sexual humor. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not mounting a prudish objection to low, low-w-w-w, humor in general, I was as amused as the next dude by the penis sight gags in Austin Powers, the off-color jokes of Borat (“I want to have a car that attract a woman with shave down below”), even the hair-gel scene in Something about Mary tickled my fancy. But, in the genre of sex comedies, a little bit a raunch goes a long, long way. Nowadays, we have graduated from a few nudge nudge wink winks with a bit of how’s your father to a lot of fingering, blow jobs, cock rubbing and ball licking!

No doubt the Judd Apatow comedies are in part to blame for the new raunch and for the rise of the nerd as sex god. But there was something very sweet (if unbelievable) about 40 Year Old Virgin and at least in Superbad the adolescent humor belonged to adolescents rather than 40 year old men.  But Apatow is definitely to blame for opening the floodgates from subtle sexual innuendo to all out porno-comedy.

The new sex comedies are formulaic in every way (not in and of itself a bad thing) and they build on character archetypes, broad raunchy humor, bad guys and worse guys, bad girls and clueless girls, lots of drugs and alcohol and some kind of far-fetched scenario (guys wake up in Vegas with a tiger in the room; guys try to kill their bosses; girls try to engage in some female bonding; father in law inadvertently take a super-viagra drug etc. etc.) that allows everyone to engage in lots of extra-marital, perverse and often homo-sex before everything returns to normal again.

Every film in this genre has to build to a “laugh until you cry scene” that provides a payoff for the cycle of gross, porno jokes. These scenes have to be way over the top – they consist of envelope pushing scenarios in an extended play format, replete with bodily fluids and long gross-out sequences. Think of the nude wrestling scene from Borat as the quintessential “laugh until you cry” scene. And then look at its counterpart in Bridesmaids, which strove to be the mother of all gross-out scenes and but maybe went over the top at going over the top. In Bridesmaids, the gross-out scene played with the tropes of disordered female embodiment in general, and focused therefore on food, on binging and purging and with a kind of involuntary bulimia – following an ill-advised dinner for their hen night, the bridesmaids head for a dress fitting and in the pristine chamber of virginal white gowns, they, one by one, throw up and shit uncontrollably in the grips of mass food poisoning. While audiences busted a gut at these scenes of digestive mayhem, for me they were beyond grotesque and humiliating to boot. While there was lots to laugh at in Bridesmaids, this scene did not deliver for me on a comic level.

And of course, as some critics have already commented, the bra-mance is not exactly leveling the playing field of hetero-sex comedy. While the bromance is all about the bros being bros with their hos and not with their whiny wives, the bramance is also all about the bros – the ladies all talk about guys, whine about them, bitch about not getting laid, bitch about how they get laid and mostly, they bitch about each other. The bromance allows the guys to snuggle up together while figuring out how to get out of whatever dilemma confronts them. The bramance provides a stage for bride wars, for out and out girl hates girl battles with a few romantic interludes thrown in for good measure. Which is not to say that some of the bramances are not very, very funny; just that the humor continues to come at the expense of women and not men. And of course, as per usual, there is plenty of off-color humor in these films in the form of racial stereotyping (see the Jamie Foxx character in Horrible Bosses or the Asian gay hysteric in The Hangover) all of which adds to a kind of post-political correctness expression of gloves-off white male anger and disappointment.

So, in case you think I am being too easily shocked by the new raunch, here are a few lines from recent sex comedies:

Guy to friend: “you know what the best part about having gay dads is?

Friend: “What?”

Guy: “They are never gonna eat out my ex-girlfriends?”

Friend: “You and your dad are tunnel buddies, huh?”

Or…

Woman to Guy she is having sex with: “Your balls are so smooth…!”

Guy to Woman he is having sex with: “Cup my balls…oh yeah!”

Guy to Woman: “I made you this to help sooth your womb” – hands her a CD

Woman: “It’s a mix…Even Flow, Red Red Wine!”

Friend: “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

Woman: “You made me…a period mix?”

Friend: “That’s so romantic.”

Woman: “I am gonna suck your dick like I am mad at it!”

Guy: “I am gonna rock your vagina.”

Father in law to son in law: “Focker, there is no way I’m going into an ER room with this thing. Now you need to stick me and you need to stick me now! I’m having a dick attack! Stick me!” (Son in law sticks a needle into his father in law’s erect penis while watched by his 7 year old son who has come to see what is going on!)

It is not just that the material is crude and made for youporn, it is also that these new sex comedies imagine men as the victims of unwanted sexual attention from voracious women. And so, Jennifer Aniston recently played a sexual harasser in Horrible Bosses (“Come on, slap my face with your cock!”). Melissa McCarthy played a butch sexual harasser of men in Bridesmaids (“I’m glad he’s single because I am going to climb that like a tree.”) And when they are not playing sexual harassers, very hot women in sex comedies are begging for sex “with no strings attached” or playing “bad teachers” and begging for sex or being flattered into a quick hook up by guys who feed them outrageously flat lines like: “Are you a model?” It is as if we have gone through the looking glass here from a world where a wardrobe malfunction led to massive national paroxysms of outrage and horror to a world where a wardrobe malfunction will humorously lead to a lots of boob shots, a quick blow job followed by some anal and a few jokes about poop shoots.

These films raise a lot of questions for me: have we gone too far? Are they funny? Do heterosexual people really talk like this on a regular basis (“your balls are so smooth!” really? “I am gonna rock your vagina!” Vagina?? “I’ve made you a period mix…” Awesome)? Is Hollywood, in a last ditch effort to reach the much desired 15-25 year old males group, manning its script writing sessions with 15-25 year old males? While the gays are getting married, singing duets to each other on Glee and other mainstream TV shows, the straights are telling each other about how they want to “hit that,” and dumping marriage for some lost weekends with foul-mouthed sluts. It’s a topsy turvy world and while I am all for some raunch, for lots of raunch even, is it too much to ask something be left to the imagination?

EMP Pop 2011: Where were the Queers?

2 Mar

By Tavia Nyong’o (reblogged from Hear is Queer).

The 10th Annual EMP Pop conference wrapped up over the weekend and, against my fears, hosting it at a university didn’t alter the ‘secret recipe sauce’ of journalists, academics, and musicians. Is it me or did we actually gain a new and welcome constituency of students? I can’t think of another conference I go to in which people from 18 to 60+ are in the audience and at the podium, carrying on overlapping conversations about a single topic with such enthusiastic passion.

Others, notably Ned Raggett, have offered copious documentation of specific papers. And a couple conference reviews are coming online, including one by my co-panelist Oliver Wang. I am going to offer my own scattered thoughts on presentations that struck a chord in me but before I do, I have to give a “wag of the finger” as Stephen Colbert likes to say to myself and the EMP community for a group that, upon reflection, was seriously underrepresented this year: queers.

Where were the queers?

I don’t mean the queer presenters: because there were plenty of us. My question is not about a head count but about where, in the discussion of popular music today, queer and transgender topics figure. Homosexuality is apparently a big enough topic that Congress has recently passed legislation on it, people have fought and died for it at home and abroad, artists are singing about it, and sex columnists are making sentimental YouTube videos about it. Is it important to us too when we gather annually to talk about music?

It’s possible — even likely — that I missed some great conversation on queer music happening in some other room. (I missed the Idol panel. Did Adam Lambert come up in relation to queer performance or music there?) But here’s my evidence based on what I do know. In the printed program (which would have attracted or kept away potential attendees), only a single paper title (mine) including the words lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or queer. And that paper wasn’t even about a queer artist, exactly, although Gaga has, as my co-presenter Jack Halberstam pointed out in his talk, provocatively declined to disavow the transgender body imputed to her by some hostile fans. So while I don’t ordinarily do this kind of thing, I got out my rusty essentialist bean counter and looked for honest to goodness out musicians announced in paper titles (I started to go through abstracts too, but got tired. I’d never make it as a sociologist!).

The results (aside from my and Jack’s paper): Ann Powers’ creative use of the closet as a metaphor for thinking about genre; José Muñoz’s (sadly missed) paper on Darby Crash, and an interview with the man who signed The Smiths. I do have to throw in one attendee: Phranc showed up to the Work It! pre-conference (and asked, incidentally, are we going backwards or forwards? Is there any progress? Part of the trigger for this post.)

Gerrick Kennedy’s LA Times review of the pre-conference Work it! (organized through the prodigious energies of Karen Tongson) was appreciated. But it reproduced the annoying (to both feminists and queers) equation of “sexuality” and “female sexiness in some vicinity of the conventionally heteronormative.” (as the accompanying illustration of Beyoncé, Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga suggested). Homosexuality or bisexuality was not mentioned in the article.

I embrace the selfishness of my criticism: I want more people to talk to at EMP about stuff I care about! It’s why all of us keep coming. But me aside, its obviously not the case that sexuality is irrelevant to the theme of money and capitalism, or that we did it a couple years back and now we’re through. We need to talk about it every year, especially if the mainstream media and scholarship doesn’t, or does so in simplistic ways.

So here, in the spirit of productive suggestions, are some ideas for next year:

  • Queer as Format: Logo TV runs “gay themed” video shows. Virgin America has a “Pride” channel featuring a range of artists from Ricky Martin to Joan Armatrading. What’s that about? Do you have to be gay to be featured on Logo? What if you aren’t gay? Have artists ever objected to their videos being shown on a gay channel? I’m thinking perhaps about glass closeted artists. What’s the history of gay labels (including the one that the original “I Was Born This Way” was on: the amazingly titled Gaiee Label!)
  • After the Closet. Speaking of Ricky Martin: where is the reflection on the momentous change (is it a momentous change?) in the last year or two where established and up and coming artists coming out to increasing indifference? K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge broke through in the 1990s. Was it harder for male artists to come out? What about trans (does Antony (& the Johnsons) count)? Is indifference a non-story, ie: sexuality doesn’t matter now? Or are new things happening with queerness precisely in the space where, for instance, straight female fans feel free to adore gay male singers and male frat boys groove on Kaki Kings’ guitar stylistics (HT Tina M on that last one).
  • Boys who do Girls. Speaking of new things happening, someone (ID anyone?) did bring up one EMP conversation the start that Darren Criss got a start performing Disney Princess songs on YouTube. Learning that completely opened my eyes to the canny sexual orientation striptease Glee has going on now, in which an openly straight actor plays an openly gay character who is given all these songs of female empowerment (Bills Bills Bills, Teenage Dream) to sing. Isn’t there an emo genealogy to trace here (paging Dr. Tongson)?
  • It Gets Worse: But maybe this is just a bigger question: where was Glee at this year’s EMP? Isn’t its commercial revivification of the TV musical and its impact on the pop charts and digital downloads worth checking out from a C.R.E.A.M. perspective? How do we think about the clash that the show constantly stages between musical theatre and contemporary pop/hip hop, both in its plot and in its contemporary impact (and its problematic whiteness)? Glee has used music to put forth the powerful idea (connected to neoliberalism in ways I could spell out) that life after the closet isn’t necessarily easier. As the adults on Glee intimate: life often gets worse, so endurance is not about normative futurity but about a kind of indefinite, lateral childhood (which is why the bratty Sue Sylvester remains the heart and soul of the show). The braggadacio of pop and the pathos of musical theatre meet in uncanny and uncomfortable ways on Glee that seem to have a lot to do with accommodating the growing social visibility of queers.
    I shouldn’t be giving away all my ideas here because really I want to write a book on Glee and the unmaking of the American Dream. But really, it would be swell to have more stellar minds than mind helping me think these things through. I’m jealous of how much platonic love record collectors, eminent rock critics, and the term “authenticity” gets.

Or, as Darren Criss, channeling Princess Ariel, sings: “wish I could be part of your world.”

The Bully Awards, 2010

15 Feb

And the Bully Goes To…2nd Annual Bully Awards

by Jack Halberstam

Yes folks, it really is that time again. It is time for the second annual Bully Awards for the best and worst in motion pictures for the past year. I know there has been a lot happening in the world recently, what with so much commotion and upheaval, so many upsets and ousted leaders…and that was just at the Grammy’s. But now that Gaga is out of her egg, Mick Jagger is out of his retirement home and Justin Bieber is out of short pants, let’s turn to an adult level awards show…the Oscars. This year, as you know, the sacred ceremony is to be hosted by Ann Hathaway and that learned English PhD scholar, James Franco. Yup, all around the country, English departments are congratulating themselves for being cool, for finally being the right discipline at the right time and for providing a home for aspirational actor/academics.

While this time last year, we were bemoaning apocalyptic pics (2012), bromances (I Love You Man!), gay films masquerading as straight films (A Single Man and Up in the Air) and chipmunks (Alvin and the…) this year we witness a return to the quote unquote smart film, talky pictures with lots to say – smart films about fast talking guys at Harvard changing the world (The Social Network), slow talking kings in the British Monarchy saving the world (The King’s Speech), chatty hiking nerds (127 Hours), mouthy fighters (The Fighter), garrulous toys (Toy Story 3), expressive dancers (Black Swan), hell we even had a film about conversational bourgeois lesbians (The Kids Are Alright) and an animated film about super intelligent beings (Megamind). All in all, the films this year were smart, dark, darker, and downright depressing.

While last year the mood was goofy (Brüno), mock serious (Avatar), mock goofy and chirpy (aforementioned Chipmunks), this year, there was little humor to leaven the slide into bankruptcy, chaos and death. Last year’s animated winner was Up, which pretty much summed up the overly optimistic late-decade predictions about the economy, this year’s sure thing is Toy Story 3, a dark film about redundant toys put out to pasture, abused old toys, sad Big Baby toys abandoned at birth, bitter toys that try to crush each other. Last year, James Cameron created a 3-D world in Avatar in which blue indigenous peoples crushed white imperial forces, this year David Fincher in Social Network created a virtual world in which pricks from Harvard fought over millions of dollars while bonking stupid girls and showing not an ounce of social responsibility. Last year Brüno stuck his fist up various arschholen on screen, this year James Franco in 127 Hours stuck his fist in a rock and could not get it out again. And just in case you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Javier Bardem, who two years earlier had won an Oscar for the deadpan depiction of a Latino serial killer of white people, this year in Inarritu’s Biutiful, dies a slow painful death from cancer while his ex wife goes crazy and his kids look on in horror. Oh and never let it be said that the English don’t know how to do misery – Another Year by Mike Leigh brilliantly depicts the breakdown of human sociality facilitated by the imperial domination of the intimate form popularly known as “the couple.”

Yup, it’s cold out there and getting colder. Even the comedies were dark in 2010 – did anyone see Cyrus? Whaaaat? Mumblecore my ass – this was Oedipus wrecks, a wretchedly weird film in which Marisa Tomei is romanced by the singularly unappealing John C. Reilly only to be thwarted in her sexual escapades when her twenty-something son expresses his Oedipal objections to the match. In a romantic comedy with few jokes, little romance and a massive incestuous “ick” factor, so little was appealing that the reviewers tried to rescue it by inventing a new genre to explain this and other navel-gazing not very funny rom-com, sex-with-mom, ho-hum films – mumblecore? No, I don’t think so, try Dumbocore – dumb films pretending to be smart films, but what these films really do is provide a justification for a new form of parasitical masculinity.

The Mumblecore films by the Duplass Brothers (Cyrus), Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), but also inspired by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) give this Mumbler guy meaning – yes, he may be a loser, may lack a job, a purpose in life, ambition, charm, likeable qualities, this may all be true, but Mumblecore imagines beautiful women throwing themselves at these men not despite their shortcomings but because of them. If there weren’t plenty of evidence in the real world for this phenomenon of smart women/ slacker men couplings, Mumblecore would be truly offensive. As it is, the films are depressingly accurate and we can expect many more of the same.

Well forget mumblers then, what about stutterers? The King’s Speech has won the hearts and minds of many an anti-monarchist on account of its whimsy, its humanization of the sovereign and the arch acting skills of one queenly Helena Bonham Carter. But is this really the right film for our times? Do we really need to cathect now, at this moment in history, on to a story about a soon to be monarch who has lost the confidence of his people and who allegorizes the faltering of sovereign power and then its recuperation on the verge of World War 2? Right now, as dictators begin to fall in Tunisia and Egypt, we cleave to a narrative of good monarchy, kind and gentle, frail and vulnerable monarchy; we apparently want the story of the good king, the sweet king who finds his voice and leads his people out of the darkness…plus, there is not a little hint of mumblecore/stuttercore here in the tale of male incompetence propped up by female ambition…

And speaking of female ambition…How about those Black Swans? Darren Aronsky gives ballet the same treatment he applied to wrestling in The Wrestler a few years ago. In both films, the protagonist sacrifices his/her body to the call of the discipline but Black Swan has the added, horror element of the toxic mother-daughter bond. Barbara Hershey plays a creepy Tiger mother to Natalie Portman’s anxious over-achieving daughter and the two drag each other down into the muck of estrogen fuelled competitive destruction. In fact this was the year of bad parenting as The Kids Are Alright, Toy Story 3, Megamind, Biutiful, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone proved; but at least heterosexual films about bad parenting actually admit that the whole enterprise is fucked and wrong. The lesbian bad parenting film had to try to salvage something good and meaningful from the failing family unit. Even Toy Story 3 had the decency to toss the bad parent, Lotso Bear, into the incinerator at the end. And at least Black Swan, for all its mother-daughter drama, had a tremendous lesbian sex scene between Portman and Mila Kunis.

Oh well, onto the predictions such as they are for the 2011 Bullies/Oscars:

Best Actress: I predict that everyone will want Annette Bening to win best actress despite her cringe-inducing, potentially career-ending improvised Joni Mitchell number in the lesbo-phobic The Kids Are Alright. But in the end, the historionics of Natalie Portman in the creepily awesome Black Swan will and should win. The Bully goes to Portman for going over the top and reminding us that inside every good girl is a black swan.

Best Actor: And while Javier Bardem should add another gold man to his collection, for his harrowing depiction of a dying, desperate man, this year our academy voters will go for heartwarming over heart stopping and the stuttering king, played by Colin Firth, will win best actor. But the Bully goes to James Franco for giving the best castration performance of the year – the gruesome amputation of a vital body part with a small knife was a perfect metaphor for the process of getting a PhD in English at Yale and no doubt his experience there really helped him with this role…

Best Director: Probably will go to David Fincher, The Social Network or Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech but who cares.

Best Animated Film: Of course, the best animated film Oscar will and should go to Toy Story 3, a dark parable about the dangers of aging in a world committed to the young, the new and the expendable. But keep in mind the wondrous lessons of How To Train Your Dragon and Megamind: namely, dragons are pretty nice actually, as are blue men with big heads, not to mention Vikings, but beware of heroes in tights, especially if they sound like Brad Pitt.

Worst Film of the Year: And the Bully goes too…well, it is a toss up actually. I really hated Sophia Coppola’s continued and extended meditation on male boredom inSomewhere. I disliked the durational shots of male fatigue, the quick takes on male inertia, the lingering shots of Stephen Dorff falling asleep during sex, during conversations, during life. But I also really hated Cyrus, not sure if you got that from my comments on it above. Both of these films are actually Mumblecore, although Dorff mumbles more than anyone in Cyrus. Yogi Bear and Furry Vengeance are of course in contention for this coveted award but with no mumblecore elements anywhere to be found they cannot seriously compete. Plus I did not see them… This bully (did you ever doubt it?) goes to Cyrus.

Best Film:  The Oscar will continue its love fest with the royals and give the award to The King’s Speech, I think. I could be wrong and it could go to The Social Network, for making Americans look smart at a moment when the education system goes belly up. But the truth is—Hollywood, are you listening?—talking fast does not equal intelligence! The worn out trope of the nerdy white guy dropping everything to rush off to his computer to type away at high speed while chatting at an even higher speed needs to be retired after this film. And by the way, the representation of Harvard as a world where smart chatty guys date dumb silent women returns us to Mumblecore but makes me think again about how much I preferred watching Franco self-amputate over Jesse Eisenberg self-pleasuring by writing code frantically.

No matter, the Bully goes to Never Let Me Go – the other British film of the year, which, along with Mike Leigh’s Another Year, eschews royals and high society in favor of the dirty little secrets of a British post-empire, post-life, post-war landscape. In this deeply affecting, flatly melancholic film, the eugenic imperative of neo-imperialism finds its fullest expression in the children who, like the toys in Toy Story 3, realize that they are expendable, that their organs will be harvested and that their “completion” represents the darkest conclusion to the dark ages we have now entered.

Runners Up: Four Lions – under appreciated British comedy about terrorism without Mumblecore story line; I Am Love – under appreciated Operatic Italian drama with Tilda Swinton mumbling in Italian about Oedipal love (Mumblecore Italian style?); Mother – Korean mumblecore; Red – Helen Mirren with a machine gun, say no more – the right response to mumblecore…

Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi By Jack Halberstam

19 Oct

The front page of Harper’s October 2010 issue says it all: “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide” by Susan Faludi. http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/10/0083140

Apparently, according to Faludi, American feminism has a mother-daughter problem: daughters keep fighting with mothers, mothers keep undercutting daughters, and this, ladies and gentlemen and everyone else, is the real reason that feminism never quite gets its revolutionary interventions right! Trotting through some rather predictable and tame histories of feminism (first, second, third waves; sex wars; women’s suffrage; temperance movements; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch as founding mothers; the Miss American Beauty pageant of 1968 etc.), Susan Faludi remarkably, ends up somewhere in the vicinity of our contemporary moment and winds down to a drearily pessimistic conclusion—feminism is dead, we killed it—and punctuates this sad insight with a kind of amusing send up of yours truly, bullyblogger and professor, Jack Halberstam! Well, I have kept my weapon in its holster until now but upon receiving a few emails wondering what I thought of the Faludi piece, I thought I would respond with a bit of matricidal anger – actually, though, Faludi, though she may sound like your grandmother, is actually my age, so I guess this is sibling rivalry if one must stick to familiar metaphors…

How did I come to be the bad guy in “feminism’s ritual matricide”? Well, after drifting around various feminist venues like a NOW convention for example, Faludi ended up at a conference at the New School where both she and I were speaking. The conference, “No Longer In Exile” consisted of huge panels (sometimes with 8 or 9 speakers), a couple of on point presentations (by Ann Stoler, Nancy Fraser, Val Smith and others), and a lot of slightly random talks which failed to add up to any kind of state of the union event on feminism. Susan Faludi spoke on the mother-daughter dynamic and how it undermines feminism but I honestly cannot remember much of what she said other than that she seemed to have missed several generations of theoretical works by feminist theorists. She clearly felt no need to comment on the instability of gender norms, the precarious condition of the family itself nor upon the many challenges made to generational logics within a recent wave of queer theory on temporality. Instead, as I recall and as she does in this article, Faludi cast conflict in the mother-daughter bond as transhistorical, transcultural, universal and she situated its toxicity as the reason for internal rifts in the feminist project. She never once mentioned Freud or the Oedipal, she did not differentiate by class or race, she made no mention of queer challenges to the normativity of the family and of generational thinking. Faludi had clearly missed all the other big feminist conferences in the last few decades on the theme of generationality and she thought the mother-daughter thing was big news when in fact feminists have moved on and are more likely to speak of rhizomatic schemes of association, assemblages, ruptures, and performativity than about passing the torch of knowledge from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter on into perpetuity.

The event at which Faludi and I appeared seemed loosely organized around questions about generationality, institutionalization and activist and theoretical legacies and it celebrated some institutional milestones at the New School, many pioneered by Ann Snitow, the conference organizer, herself. Like many such events, there were good talks, bad talks, indifferent talks – there was the obvious, the painfully obvious, and that was just the social science stuff…and so when I had my turn to speak, on one of the last panels of the day, I tried to mix it up a little, try a bit of humor, try a bit of provocation, make some comments about what we had heard and make a bridge to the many young people who were in attendance but seemed bored out of their skulls.

While Faludi characterizes me as a glib twit who proposed Lady Gaga as the answer to what ails feminism, I actually had tried to show that Lady Gaga’s duet with Beyoncé in “Telephone” provides an exciting and infectious model of Sapphic sisterhood that moves beyond sentimental models of romantic friendship and references a different kind of feminism, one more in line with the imaginary bonds that animate violence in Set It Off and Thelma and Louise

While no one is proposing that there is some kind of clear feminist program for social change in the world of Gaga, activists of all stripes have looked to popular culture for inspiration and have refused facile distinctions between culture and reality. The Gaga piece of my talk was just a humorous ending to a lecture that covered changing notions of gender, evolving models of institutional relevance and argued for an improvisational feminism that kept up with the winds of political change.

Why is Faludi so insistent on beating the dead horse of Oedipal conflict? First, Faludi seems to be stuck in a pre-1990’s understanding of feminism and moreover her world is a resolutely white world of middle-class women who just want the recognition they deserve. While very few academic feminists would characterize NOW as the bastion of contemporary feminist action and definition, Faludi is committed to a reform model of feminism, to the idea of feminism as a politics built around stable definitions of (white) womanhood and as a ladies club of influence and moral dignity. The mother-daughter bond, which for her is exemplified in the dynamic between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet, allows for the gains of one age to be passed on to the next. But never does Faludi question whether the gains of white women in one era actually benefit women of color in the next, or whether the goals of white middle class women reflect anything beyond their class interests.

Faludi’s blindness to race is on display in the Harper’s article in the section where she reports on a shift in leadership at NOW while attending their annual conference. As she herself puts it, the leading candidate for president of NOW at the annual meeting she attends is a young Black woman, Latifa Lyles who is a “charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.” Lyles’ opponent is Terry O’Neill, a fifties something old style feminist who embodies the frustrations and fears of a group of older white women who see younger feminists as ungrateful, apolitical and unresponsive to the generation who came before them. While Faludi implies that this presidential contest may have something to do with race, ultimately she seems to think that racial struggles always give way to generational rifts and when the young woman loses the election and charges that O’Neill had “recruited older Hillary Clinton turned-Sarah Palin supporters to throw the vote at the last minute,” Faludi quickly shifts the blame back onto Lyles and her supporters and implies that their lack of insight and the callous indifference to the concerns of older women had led to Lyles’ defeat.

Even though the defeat of Lyles is a filicide and not a matricide, suggesting that if generational struggle is the real problem with feminism then it goes both ways, Faludi doggedly pursues her thesis that “a generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism.” Billing me, in the article’s final section, as the butch matricidal maniac who casually dismisses early models of feminism and then blithely offers up Lady Gaga in exchange, Faludi tidily but not very convincingly wraps up her vapid take on “ritual matricide” with an apocalyptic image of an older woman sitting in the emptied conference room wondering what happened to feminism. Depicting this woman as the last living feminist at the New School and characterizing her as “knowledgeable and enthusiastic about recent developments in critical feminist theory” (which is more than one can say for Faludi), but still rendered redundant by the recent moves against gender studies at The New School, Faludi gives the misleading impression that a) there are no gender studies professors at The New School and b) that the expulsion of this lone older woman was the main chapter in a story of institutional erasure. Anyone who has read Jacqui Alexander’s excellent chapter in Pedagogies of Crossing, however, about a coalition of faculty, staff, students and security guards who led a political protest at the New School in NYC in the mid 1990’s, knows that there have long been struggles at the New School about politics, practice and theory. Jacqui Alexander was at the heart of the mobilization to protest the contradictions between the New School’s rhetoric of diversity and its practice of creating and supporting structural inequalities. The decision made by the New School not to hire Alexander as permanent faculty after employing her as an adjunct professor sparked the creation of a protest movement and allowed the protesters to make structural and historical links between the New School’s employment practices in regards to service employees, its past history of radicalism and its current failed promises of diversity. These are precisely the connections that Faludi fails to investigate, probably does not know about, probably does not want to know about and with their omission, she is able to clear the ground of all distractions from the big event of the momma-daughter fight that bloodies the daughter, slays the mother and brings all of feminism down with it.

If I hadn’t taught work by Faludi in the past and found her insights into gender often illuminating, I wouldn’t be so annoyed by the complacency and myopia of this article in Harper’s. I did try to talk to Faludi at the end of the New School conference to explain why I thought the mother-daughter conflict was a red herring but she just takes one piece of this interaction (where we discuss rumors of Lady Gaga’s hermaphroditism) and leaves the rest (where we discuss the redundancy of familial metaphors, the chaos of all generational transmission and the need for better models of both change and consistency). Mainstream feminism deserves better spokespeople than it currently has  – the Camille Paglia’s and Susan Faludi’s, the over-paid, under-experienced phalanx of elite ladies to whom the press returns again and again. Honestly, if these are the contemporary “mothers” of feminism, then matricide might be justifiable.

What’s Paglia Got To Do With It?

14 Sep

By Jack Halberstam

Oh no! It was just as a new semester began, as the football season kicked off and right when Jersey Shore moved to Miami…right when Justin Bieber was adjusting his diaper for the VMA’s and the Jackass crew had figured out new ways to showcase male moronism in 3D…indeed just as Gaga chopped up her filet mignon to wear the next night at the VMAs, just then, someone let Camille Paglia out of her box: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/magazine/article389697.ece

Once a decade, Paglia, an acid tongued Susan Sontag wannabe, rents space in some national newspaper to tell us that we are all wrong about everything. Usually we are all wrong about a cultural icon we all love…or else we are all wrong about an entire movement of theory and philosophy, or we are simply wrong about our historical moment, the meaning of sex, the politics of gender, Madonna, Italians, John Donne, lesbians, drag queens, the economy, universities, cultural revolt…and now, we find out, **newsflash** we were all wrong about Lady Gaga. Yup, we were wrong. We all thought that Lady Gaga was actually doing something interesting, cultivating new combos of avant-garde innovation and popular recycling. We thought she sounded good, looked even better and straddled the divide between Warhol and whimsy while flashing her notoriously ambiguous meat purse. Many of us found her musically interesting, culturally thrilling and inordinately fabulous. We liked her in leather, in chains, in a wheelchair, in bed, in a sandwich, in a pussy wagon, on the phone, in jail, under meat, we liked her but then we found out that, well, we were wrong.

Lady Gaga, I learned from Camille Paglia, is just a copycat who latches onto a generation of glazed eyed internet clones and exploits its incapacity to think without an Iphone app at hand or to know anything without a twitter feed. She is a rich girl playing at being marginal, “a diva of déjà vu,” less sexy than a drag queen, less talented than Elton John, less charming than Lily Allen (is that possible??), and a “rootless” pretender who manipulates her fans, the “little monsters,” into pathetic displays of fanatical admiration. Gaga, for Paglia, represents the end of culture, the end of civilization, the end of truth, values and meaning, the end of sex, and the triumph of a kind of Baudrillardian age of the simulacra (only she wouldn’t cite Baudrillard because he is French and therefore…wrong).

In a kind of counter-Haraway move (think Haraway of “Cyborg Manifesto” rather than Haraway of “Companion Species Manifesto”), Paglia argues that we have lost touch with what is real, true and good in our mania for media manipulation, video games and cell phones. If Haraway recognized an interpenetration of humanity and technology in the digital age that was exciting and wondrous (even as it was also exploitative and dangerous), Paglia, sees, predictably, a manufactured public realm populated by media puppets and their passive and stupid fans. If Lady Gaga’s supporters have recognized in her a newish formula of femininity, phones and desire, Camille Paglia sees only same-old same-old or, in her words “the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.”

Like a bad drag queen imitation of Allan Bloom, the prophet who preached the end of culture just two decades ago in The Closing of the American Mind, Paglia worries that “the younger generation” is missing out on all the really important cultural texts that made up her own education. The Iphone generation take pleasure in cheap imitations when they could be thrilled by “real” culture, i.e. canonical English literature; they are literate in texting but hopeless at real expression and they are not even original in their forms of rebellion. Paglia has always seen it all before and she never tires of sending her readers back to school circa 1950 to bone up on their John Donne, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Like a manic T.S. Eliot guarding the “great tradition” and prowling around its archive with claws out, Paglia reminds one of the schoolmarm host of the British quiz show The Weakest Link. Ann Robinson became famous for dispatching her victims on the show with the immortal words: “you are the weakest link, good bye.” And it is this tradition of learning (rote memorization of the tried and true authors memorialized by new criticism) that Paglia returns to time and time again. Why the popular media returns to Paglia time and time again is another question! But probably the answer has something to do with a kind of media masochism, a desire to be spanked for not paying attention or for succumbing to banal mind candy. But at any rate, when Paglia does come out of her box, we get to watch a completely unselfconscious right-wing libertarian blurt out high-minded nonsense while thumbing her nose at all the other academic drones who believe in crazy shit like “the construction of gender,” the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction and the mediated nature of reality.

Paglia knows better. She knows that women are women, feminists are stupid, communication networks have replaced real intimacies and Madonna was ripped off. What she doesn’t seem to know is that all cultural production consists of wild combinations of the new and the old, the borrowed and the bold, the real and the fabricated. She also doesn’t seem to know that every generation must have its icons and the tired cycle of oedipal denunciations within which older people sneer at younger people’s tastes never does change anything. She also does not seem to know that Madonna was the queen of rip offs and that her cultural borrowings were almost never acknowledged and often fell within a long tradition of white absorptions of Black cultural innovations.

Many people have noted that Lady Gaga lives in the long shadow of Madonna but noting this is not the same as totally collapsing two performers from very different historical and cultural milieux. Weird then that Paglia condemns Lady Gaga for her “poker face” when she adored Madonna’s performance in 1990 in “Justify My Love” because it confirmed that “we are nothing but masks.” Strange that Paglia charges Gaga with “obsessively trafficking in twisted sexual scenarios” while casting Madonna’s Christian upbringing as inspiring because “without taboos, there can be no transgression.” Bizarre that Paglia is so taken with Bowie’s androgyny and Warhol’s relation to the marketplace but can find not a single shred of glamour or talent in Lady Gaga’s gender-blending and articulate performances.

Ultimately, what Paglia thinks about Gaga is about as interesting as what Sarah Palin thinks about feminism or what Glenn Beck thinks of Eminem. More important is the issue of what narratives about the popular, the avant-garde, innovation and cultural appropriation make it into the mainstream media. And somehow, Paglia always seems to find an open page ready to receive her rants, her crazed generalizations (“most of Gaga’s worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin”), her nutty projections about a generation, a culture, a movement. While Paglia is stuck in 1990, still spinning her narratives about atrophied affect, cultural decline and sexual inertia, we have actually entered new debates, developed new vocabularies and in creative interactions with new media, we have all of us become little monsters, chasing our own gaga urges and moving steadily further and further from the modernist splits between high and low, good and evil, sex and death.

The Girl Who Played With Queer Utopia

6 Aug

By Jack Halberstam

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

So, once the commotion about the lesbian non-event of the year – the release of The Kids Are All Right – blows over, and the dust settles, and those who want to defend it are now stuck with it, the rest of us can finally move on to something bigger and better. Indeed, those of us who were searching for something more in terms of representational drama, narrative excitement, queer fantasy and edgy cinema would do well to look to Sweden and to the rapidly unfolding global phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium series. For those of you who don’t know who Lisbeth Salander is, or anyone who has spent the summer in a cave, Salander is the awesomely queer, righteously violent and stunningly smart anti-heroine of a brilliantly plotted crime series by the late Stieg Larsson, now made into a series of films. Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, died in 2004 and he never knew just how mega-successful his mini crime franchise was to become. Larsson left a mess in his wake involving his estate and his long-time girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson, has been pitted against his brother and father in competing claims for the money that comes pouring in from the books. Larsson himself was an intriguing character: a part-time journalist, a socialist, a libertarian anarchist, a feminist and a writer, Larsson spent considerable time researching Sweden’s right-wing extremist groups and uncovering a longer tradition of Swedish Nazism. This research makes its way into the Millennium trilogy and ties contemporary corporate greed, sex trafficking and domestic violence, in really interesting ways, to the long aftermath of European fascism.

The crime novel and its contemporary cousin the techno-thriller tend not to be vehicles for lefty politics and more often, in the last few decades, these have been fairly conservative genres pitting good guys (Americans) against bad guys (Russians, terrorists, etc.). This is a vast simplification of these genres and yet conservative writers like Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton tend to dominate the field with conspiracy theories and leftover Cold War politics. And the movie-plexes are similarly full of action features pitting double or triple American agents against bad Russians or nefarious middle-easterners. In fact, in this summer’s dreadful Angelina Jolie blockbuster, Salt (byline: Who Is Salt? Answer: Who Cares?), the twists and turns of the crazy Russian brainwashing plot are laughable and Jolie’s anorexic frame and mono-syllabic acting made her seem less like a high-powered super agent and more like jet-lagged, starving and washed up super model …especially after seeing Noomi Rapace bring Lisbeth Salander to life in the first of the Millennium books to hit the big screen: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg Larsson’s heroine and her sidekick, the cool Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist), are not fighting imaginary commies or North Koreans, they actually have some real fish to fry. In the first novel in the series, Blomkvist goes after a fraudulent businessman and then he gets hired to investigate the murky past of a prominent Swedish family who have murder, incest and Nazism hidden in their family closets. In the second novel (and then film), Salander becomes more central and the scene shifts from international finance and domestic violence to international sex trafficking and patricide.

Mån Som Hatar Kvinnor

The original title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women (Män Som Hatar Kvinnor) and indeed this title, one to which Larsson was totally committed, could easily be the master title for the whole series. Salander, a slightly autistic hacker with a violent past, repeatedly goes after the individual men who have screwed her over in her own life but also the organizations and institutions that support them (psychiatry, banks, the law just to name a few). Indeed, these novels seem to thumb their noses at the ridiculously elaborate conspiracy theories of a Dan Brown novel and they seem to say that if you want a good conspiracy theory, just start with a radical feminist take on patriarchy! Critics have debated just how feminist the Millennium series actually is given how much rape and violence and incest is represented here but Larsson’s point in showing so much violence against women is to underscore how ubiquitous the violence really is. The feminist component to the trilogy rests partly with the character of Salander and partly with the complex plotting which repeatedly links family violence to larger systems of political and economic violence and which implies that any resolution to the plot has to seek social justice by connecting the intimate and personal politics of the home to the public and transnational politics of the economy. The Swedish films made from the novels retain all the complexities of the plot but apparently American versions of the films are in the works and who knows how that will go – maybe they will star Angelina Jolie and the corporate criminals will suddenly all be Russian double agents!

Anyway, while we have a moment to revel in the manic, caffeine induced mayhem of Millennium before the American versions appear, let’s celebrate Salander, a queer utopian and feminist vigilante. In Valerie Solanas style, Lisbeth Salander tries to take down the men who hate women one at a time and with a variety of tools and weapons. Noomi Rapace, who plays Salander in the Swedish films series, shares a very slender build with Angelina Jolie and like Jolie, she does a lot of scowling and pouting (although Jolie often tries to do both at the same time to hilarious effect in Salt). But Rapace as Salander brings a genuine sense of rage to her role and in The Girl Who Played With Fire, she channels her rage into a few well-executing scenes of punishment! Indeed, in the film version of The Girl Who Played With Fire, in addition to a truly feminist plot, we also see excellent lesbian sex between Salander and her hot femme girlfriend, kickboxer Miriam Wu. We also learn about the intricate connections between government, police forces and international sex traffickers, and there is some good old patricide thrown in for good measure. Like I said, The Kids Are All Right begins to look like an after school special in comparison!


The real appeal of both the Millennium books and the films made from the books is definitely the queerness of Salander. And while Salander has sex with men as well as with women, her demeanor, her politics and her attitude in the books and the films is determinedly queer. What’s more, she manages to hate men (as in the meaning of men in a male-dominated world) without losing the ability to have interesting friendships and occasional sex with men (as in individual people living in masculine gendered bodies). Salander is a perfect queer heroine in terms of the intensity of her commitments, the flexibility of her sexual orientation and her gender and her complete commitment to a world beyond the conventional family. In moody scenes of Salander staring out of her Stockholm apartment window, drinking coffee and kicking her boots up onto the window seat, Salander seems to be rooted in the real world of corporate crimes and domestic violence but always looking across the cold city towards some other realm of vigilante feminist violence, queer dark clubs and cyber worlds of misfits and loners. Like Neo in the Matrix, Salander knows that the line between the real and the virtual is fast disappearing; like Ripley in Alien, Salander imagines herself as the last line of defense between masculinist corporate greed and the little people; and like a queer comic book hero come at last to save the world, Salander reaches into her bag of tricks and always manages to pull out the right tool for the job. In his depiction of Salander and her struggles, Stieg Larsson has single-handedly redirected the techno-thriller away from conspiracy theories about incipient world socialism and away from narratives bashing the very idea of global warming, and he has pointed clearly to the true potential of the genre: the techno-thriller, after Larsson, can be and must be a vehicle for some weird customized combination of postmodern radical feminism, queer sociality, anti-fascist anti-capitalist neo-anarchist ass-kicking, and some “in your face” doses of what Jose E. Munoz in Cruising Utopia calls “critical idealism.” And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the last book in the trilogy…

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