Into the Glow: Glossier’s Emily Weiss and Millennial Entrepreneurism
Elizabeth Affuso / Pitzer College


Mia Chae poses in mirror for selfie at Glossier store

Instagram influencer Mia Chae at the Glossier showroom [ (( @glossier. Instagram post. December 7, 2017. https://www.instagram.com/p/BcaCJdEB7dj/?taken-by=glossier. ))]

Since its launch in 2014, the Glossier makeup and skincare line has been synonymous with a particular type of millennial beauty ideal. With its millennial pink branding — connected to related trends such as #roseallday — Glossier embodies an effortless, dewy sort of beauty seeped in inclusive, commodity feminist logic. The direct-to-consumer brand has grown rapidly with its core millennial base thanks to an arsenal of well-established endorsers in social media spaces producing digital content such as #GetReadyWithMe videos on YouTube and #itgtopshelfie featurettes on Instagram. According to The Cut, “the Glossier aesthetic is sometimes described as makeup for people who are already pretty.” [ (( Amy Larocca. “The Magic Skin of Glossier’s Emily Weiss.” The Cut. January 9, 2018. https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/glossier-emily-weiss.html. ))] This ethos is very much in line with the discourse of flawless and #wokeuplikethis. Though these terms allude to an effortless beauty that just happens, they are also coded as terms that acknowledge work. Of flawless, Parul Seghal has written, “Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect.” [ (( Parul Sehgal, “How ‘Flawless’ Became a Feminist Declaration,” The New York Times, March 24, 2015. ))] Like flawless and #wokeuplikethis, the Glossier buyer is positioned as a young woman who looks dewy, radiant, and effortlessly beautiful, but who also has a deep knowledge of beauty brands and who puts in the work to maintain her face. As founder Emily Weiss explained in her brand intro, “Glossier begins with YOU, which is why our first products are all about letting your personality shine through…glowy, dewy skin.” [ (( Emily Weiss. “Introducing Glossier.” Into the Gloss. October 2014. https://intothegloss.com/2014/10/emily-weiss-glossier/. ))] The ideal Glossier consumer is thus constructed as a woman who is pretty and interesting.

Often this buyer is also an avid reader of Into the Gloss, Glossier’s sister blog, and has a working knowledge of the important brands and cult products of contemporary beauty culture. In its millennial pitch, Glossier attempts to reproduce at a lower cost an edited collection of products that riff on the cult products aspirationally shilled on Into the Gloss. For example, many celebrities and influencers featured on Into the Gloss tout the benefits of the Biologique Recherche P50 Lotion, an exfoliating product that retails for $67 for 5.1 ounces, while Glossier’s The Solution, a comparable facial toning product is $24 for 4.4 ounces, more than half the price per ounce cheaper. Of course, lower-end dupes are not new in the beauty industry, but what Glossier has successfully achieved is a model in which dupes feel special. From the pink bubble pouches to the phone stickers to the celebrity endorsements, Glossier products feel like the ones you want to have, not a substitution for something you can’t afford.

Instagram photo of sleek Glossier packaging

An example of a Glossier package unboxing from @glossier. The pink bubble pouches that come with every order have become a cult item with consumers repurposing them as makeup bags, pencil cases, and handbag organizers [ (( @glossier. Instagram post. January 5, 2015. https://www.instagram.com/p/xeYxQPvyUG/. ))]

If Into the Gloss provides the location for millennial consumers to learn what types of products they should be using for the most flawless skin—milky cleansers, plumping serums, exfoliating toners—than Glossier comes in to provide these types of products to consumers in a perfectly affordable, Instagram worthy package. The direct-to-consumer branding model thus creates a method whereby if you want to try a product you either have to chance it and order it or rely on your fellow consumers on social networking sites like YouTube or Instagram to review and report back. This structure embraces the crowdsourcing model so prevalent in digital culture, while also modeling a vibrant internet sales strategy for makeup and skincare that has also been pioneered by brands like Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics, moving further and further away from the department store makeup counter of yore.


A Glossier #GetReadyWithMe video featuring brand CEO Emily Weiss [ (( Glossier. “Get Ready With Me: Weekday Mornings feat. Emily Weiss + Glossier.” YouTube Video. January 28, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s4qlJLXDuc. ))]

The mastermind of the Glossier/Into the Gloss empire is 33-year-old CEO Emily Weiss. Weiss started Into the Gloss as a blog while working at Vogue in 2010 and quickly built up a cult following for features such as “The Top Shelf,” where celebrities and influencers are photographed in their homes—often their bathrooms—along with their products and a narrative of their beauty routines. Karlie Kloss, Liv Tyler, Naomi Watts, and Tavi Gevinson have been featured among many others since its inception. The routines are always couched in a logic of self-care ritual, and wellness is a big part of how they are imagined, not just by the subjects of “The Top Shelf,” but also by the robust community of commentators who provide suggestions and additional resources in the comments. Additionally, part of the appeal of Glossier is that it is a hugely successful direct-to-consumer internet brand borne out of a blog. This is the epitome of the postfeminist entrepreneurial desire that is so prevalent in contemporary culture, especially in a moment that fetishizes the side hustle for millennial workers.

Tavi Gevinson poses in her bathroom for Into the Gloss

An Into the Gloss “The Top Shelf” featuring actress and Rookie editor Tavi Gevinson [ (( “The Top Shelf: Tavi Gevinson.” Into the Gloss. April 2018. https://intothegloss.com/2018/04/tavi-gevinson-beauty-routine/. ))]

Weiss’s first exposure as an entrepreneurial celebrity came several years before her blog in a three-episode arc on season two of MTV’s The Hills in 2007. In her introduction in “One Big Interruption,” stars Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port are confronted with Weiss, a Vogue intern arrived from New York to embarrass Lauren Conrad with her superior knowledge of flowers and general air of sophistication. Weiss returned in two subsequent episodes, one to model Oscar dresses for a Vogue morning show segment (“Everybody Falls”) and the other to greet Whitney when she interviews for a permanent job at Teen Vogue in New York (“Goodbye for Now”). In all three of these episodes, Emily Weiss’s brunette hair, natural looking makeup, and air of East Coast sophistication stands in sharp contrast to the California blondeness of The Hills girls. She’s the effortless cool girl designed to make Whitney and Lauren seem authentically real in the narrative of reality TV, so that the audience knows that sometimes even reality TV stars feel inferior to their work colleagues. What’s striking about Weiss’s appearance now is how much she has already perfected the Glossier/Into the Gloss aesthetic even as an undergraduate at NYU and her ongoing success is very much in finding a way to package it into a relatable, achievable ideal for millennial women.

Emily Weiss and Lauren Conrad smile in a still from The Hills

Glossier CEO Emily Weiss (left) with Lauren Conrad on The Hills [ (( The Hills: The Complete Second Season. (2007; Hollywood, CA: MTV Networks, 2007), DVD. ))]

Glossier positions its natural, glowy, dewy beauty ideal as part of an empowerment logic for millennial consumers. This labor is part of a postfeminist discourse that Mary Celeste Kearney has noted, “may sound like the effects of straight-up patriarchy, the twist here is, within postfeminist logic, women are doing it for themselves rather than men. That is, we are agentically ‘choosing’ to participate and find pleasure for ourselves in the same consumer-driven, hyperfeminine, glamorized body projects long used to construct us as passive spectacles for the male gaze.” [ (( Mary Celeste Kearney, “Sparkle: luminosity and post-girl power media,” Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2 (2015), 265. ))] The vision of Emily Weiss, 30-something CEO, helps drive Glossier’s commodity feminist message, and its girls doing it for themselves entrepreneurial spirit is a core part of the brand’s ideology. Not just in the products, but also in the female influencers and entrepreneurs featured on Into the Gloss and in Glossier’s digital content. A key part of the brand’s success is in the way it embodies the new discourse of self-care as an essential part of success in a 21st Century, neoliberal, 24/7 environment. In the words of Weiss herself, “happy is cool” and Glossier’s success is built on the idea that the best way to project this is via dewy, glowing skin you can purchase. [ (( Weiss. “Introducing Glossier.” ))]

Image Credits:
1. @glossier (author’s screenshot)
2. @glossier (author’s screenshot)
3. Into the Gloss (author’s screenshot)
4. The Hills: The Complete Second Season (author’s screenshot)

Please feel free to comment.




The Labor of Transformation: Spaces of Feminine Imperfection in YouTube Makeup Tutorials
Elizabeth Affuso / Pitzer College

An “average” makeup tutorial on YouTube

With the proliferation of “how to” videos on YouTube, the make-up tutorial has sprung up as one of the most popular—and profitable—video forms. These videos provide detailed real-time instruction about how to create make-up looks that invite viewers to learn new skills via imitation. The mode of recording utilized by makeup tutorials creates an intimacy of space that is fostered not only by the intimacy of YouTube, but also by entering the domestic spaces of vloggers and sharing in the private act of putting on make-up. This exposure of private space via the digital serves as a exposé of the imperfect spaces of the domestic—both bodily and spatial—that is in contrast to the cultivated spaces of public perfection trafficked in places like Pinterest or on blogs like GOOP. In the tutorials, the exposé of labor on display serves to produce an expectation of labor by making perfection accessible to all by teaching viewers how to mask failure through makeup.

One of the central elements of YouTube’s online culture is the video blog or vlog. Of vlogs, Jean Burgess and Joshua Green have stated, “Not only is the vlog technically easy to produce, generally requiring little more than a webcam and basic editing skills, it is a form whose persistent direct address to the viewer inherently invites feedback.” [ (( Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, “The Entrepreneurial Vlogger: Participatory Culture Beyond the Professional-Amateur Divide,” in The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009) 89-107, 94. ))] This webcam—or increasingly mobile phone or digital camera—based mode of recording is inherently well suited for makeup tutorials as the frame provides a reflection akin to that of the mirror, creating a sort of screen mirror that allows viewers at home to easily follow along by setting their laptops or phones on their own vanities to mirror in their own mirrors what they see onscreen. The makeup tutorials invite viewers to learn new skills via imitation and privilege the peer-to-peer sharing that is a hallmark of the new media moment, where expertise has shifted from professional experts to amateurs.

Sam Chapman’s real-time makeup routine on YouTube

Makeup tutorials are typically longer than the average YouTube video unfolding in about 10 minutes or the real time it takes to complete a look on the assumption that viewers will be working along with the vlogger; pausing when more time is needed or playing back when they don’t catch something the first time. The structure of the videos also teaches viewers the appropriate order to apply make-up (base, eyes, cheeks, lip) and this consistency of structure allows for easy moving about the video for viewers who only want one part of the look. These videos cover a multitude of topics from how to perfect a smoky eye to how to solve “problems” such as acne or dark circles. Tutorial topics are often motivated by community feedback with viewers requesting tutorials from vloggers using the feedback functions that are built into YouTube, creating the intimacy that Burgess and Green point to. In the case of these videos, the intimacy is not only fostered by the intimacy of YouTube, but also the intimacy of the actions in question: entering the private space of the vloggers and sharing in the private act of putting on make-up. As Sam Chapman of vlog duo PixiWoo has stated, viewers “see the imperfections disappear as you go through the video.” [ (( Ella Bukhan, “’We’re Not exactly Gisele’: YouTube stars Pixiwoo on why anyone can be beautiful,” express.co.uk, 3 Feb 2014, http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/style/457260/UK-sbiggest-beauty-bloggers-Pixiwoo-on-Kim-Kardashian-Bella-Swann-and-drag-make-up. ))] This act of watching the imperfections disappear in seemingly real time is arguably one of the main pleasures of makeup tutorials. Rather then relishing in the shock and awe transformations of the before and after, as is characteristic of makeover television or stars without makeup features in tabloids and on gossip blogs, makeup tutorial videos use the act of transformation as their currency thus performing the hidden labor that produces aspirational beauty. In fact, with their long runtimes, they almost diminish the importance of the reveal, relishing instead the labor of transformation itself. It is this labor that becomes the spectacle.

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“Photoshop of Horrors” from jezebel.com featuring Faith Hill’s Redbook cover [ (( Moe, “Here’s Our Winner!, ‘Redbook’ Shatters Our ‘Faith’ in Well, Not Publishing, But Maybe God,” jezebel.com, 16 Jul 2007, http://jezebel.com/278919/heres-our-winner-redbookshatters-our-faith-in-well-not-publishing-but-maybe-god. ))]

Showcasing this hidden labor is not designed to be part of a feminist project of resistance as we see with things like “Photoshop of Horrors” on Jezebel, where the exposé of labor is designed to show the impossibility or the fallacy of the image on display as an act of resisting, but rather these videos show the hidden labor as inspirational. As if once you know how to do it, you have no more excuses for why you can’t. This is especially true for women who have historically been left out or been marginalized by the editorial content of mainstream beauty magazines. Vloggers come in all races, shapes, and sizes to instruct the masses of women about how to create the perfect cat eye regardless of your eye shape or complexion. Vlogging culture creates a kind of uber customization of the beauty industry, but this seeming diversity belies the truth that most of these videos are ultimately asking women to aspire to the same feminine beauty standards. As scholar Elizabeth Nathanson has noted, “By demonstrating how to create a range of makeup looks, they perform their expertise for the masses, promising to democratize glamour and style by teaching others, while simultaneously establishing strict standards for appropriate femininity.” [ (( Elizabeth Nathanson, “Dressed for Economic Distress: Blogging and the ‘New’ Pleasures of Fashion.” in Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in the Age of Austerity, ed. Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker (Duke: Duke University Press, 2014) 136-160, 150. ))] The makeup tutorials show off the imperfections and note them as a feminine norm, but enunciate that imperfection is not an excuse for not adhering to the beauty standards of postfeminist consumer culture.

Diverse approaches to feminine beauty standards

In their showcasing of the labor of beauty, these videos also serve a secondary purpose of showcasing the intimate spaces of domesticity. The videos are primarily set in the spaces where women put on makeup, namely bedrooms and bathrooms. These are not the powder rooms or living rooms that represent the public spaces of houses, but rather the private spaces that only intimates are typically granted access to. I would argue that one of the great pleasures of YouTube is the access it grants you to these spaces that become more and more off limits to adults. The settings of these videos then reflect the real-life domestic spaces of their makers. These are not the hyper-stylized spaces of lifestyle blogs and Pinterest inspiration boards, but rather real lived spaces with their own imperfections about them. Makeup tutorials relish the imperfection of the postfeminist experience—so you dropped some makeup on the white duvet, no problem; you messed up your eyeshadow, then take it off, rewind, and try again. These images are notably not edited out or re-shot by the makers, but rather left in to show off the imperfection inherent to both the labor of transformation and the labor of making.

Image Credits:
1. “Here’s Our Winner!, ‘Redbook’ Shatters Our ‘Faith’ in Well, Not Publishing, But Maybe God,” jezebel.com.

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I Am Woman, See Me Bleed: from Tampon Taboo to the Pro-Period Movement
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte

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Steph Gongora’s Instagram post regarding her ‘leak’ during her yoga class

People Magazine isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of feminist sub-culture. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.[ ((They, like many celebrity publications, often use the words “flaunt” and “showing off” when describing women who are simply in public. Running errands. Going to wok. Playing at the beach with their children. That language perpetuates the idea that women exist to be looked at — and dress as objects for other people rather than subjects in their own lives.))] However, on February 14, 2017 it ran this story online (“Yoga Instructor Practices in White Pants While Free-Bleeding to Make a Point About Period Shame”) and posted the image above. Perhaps more shocking than the image itself is that, according to the homepage, it was the third most popular story that day.

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People‘s website showing the ‘Free-Bleeding’ article among its most popular pieces

The story features Steph Gongora’s Instagram video of her yoga practice while having her period. However, contrary to People’s headline, Gongora claims that she wasn’t free-bleeding and that it was “just a leak.” [ ((You can see the full video and text here. ))]

Free-bleeding refers to women who don’t use any menstrual products during their periods. Gongora, on the other hand, seems to imply that her product leaked during yoga. For some women, free-bleeding is a choice while for others, it’s not. In her original Instagram post, she highlights how millions of women around the world lack access to (or can’t afford) menstrual products and the negative impact it has on their lives. She directly relates that to her decision to post the video and encourages women to break free from the shame and embarrassment they feel about their bodies during menstruation. For Gongora, she posted the video of herself in solidarity with women who free-bleed—not by choice but—by necessity.

To date, the post has over 520,000 views and (almost) 8,000 comments that, not surprisingly, are not all positive. They range from supportive and celebratory to callous and contemptible. To put it mildly, the comment section, like the history of the tampon itself (and its history in popular culture), is a bit… messy.

************

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The lead image in The Atlantic‘s article on the history of this particular menstrual product

In her article for The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters charts the history of the tampon from its origins in the late 18th and 19th century, and examines the various materials used over the years (like plants, paper, wool, gauze, and glycerin) to aid in absorption. [ ((https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-of-the-tampon/394334/))] Over the last several hundred years, companies have improved the basic design and are now offering eco-friendly alternatives like “period proof underwear” (Thinx) and various menstrual cups designed to catch the flow, [ ((It seems fitting to discuss this topic in a journal called Flow.))] but menstrual blood is still taboo to talk about and, even more so, to show or display on film or TV. For such an ordinary and daily occurrence, it’s largely and—more specifically—visibly absent within mainstream, American media. Or, when it is present, it’s traditionally seen as horrific, comical, or shameful. [ ((For a quick overview of film and TV shows from the last 25 years that feature menstruation, see this and this. And, for a great satirical sketch about men’s role during women’s menstruation, see Key & Peele’s Menstruation Orientation.))] According to Fetters, “the commercial tampon as we know it has been shaped and re-shaped by a myriad of invisible forces—like genuine concern for women’s wellness, certainly, but also sexism, panic, feminism, capitalism, and secrecy.” Part of what the pro-period movement attempts to do it remove that panic and secrecy. [ ((This pro-period movement, of course, isn’t new. This 2015 Bustle article explains the recent history of the movement which most people seem to date back to a 2004 blog post and then chart through 4chan’s 2014 “Operation freebleeding” hoax.))]

Over the last several years, all-things-menstruation have gained momentum and visibility outside of broadcast media. [ ((Some of the most popular hashtags related to this are: #padsagainstsexim #freebleeding #notaxontampons #justatampon #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult #realmensupportwomen. ))] People across the world have used social media to protest the “tampon tax” that categorizes menstrual products as luxury items. [ ((Larimer, Sarah. “The Tampon Tax, Explained.” Washington Post. January 8, 2016. ))] Some people (women and men) have used social media to de-stigmatize the natural phenomenon. [ (( See Jose Garcia, Instagram, 2015. ))] For example, artist Rupi Kaur posted a photo of herself during her period on Instagram.

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Artist Rupi Kaur’s interpretation of a woman’s monthly menstrual situation

It was part of a larger photography project her visual rhetoric college course. Instagram originally banned it but later reversed their decision after the outcry on social media. It was in 2015, however, when former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon without a tampon that the movement really gained legs. [ ((Here is her first-hand account of the experience. ))]

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Former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi and friends after they ran the London Marathon in 2015

She did it for several reasons—one of which was physical comfort and the second was to raise awareness about the relationship between economic oppression and period stigma. According to Gandhi, “My run was about using shock factor to create dialogue around menstrual health and comfort, so that women can start to own the narrative of their own bodies. Speaking about an issue is the only way to combat its silence, and dialogue is the only way for innovative solutions to occur.” [ (( Madame Gandhi Blog. Sisterhood, Blood, and Boobs at the London Marathon 2015. ))] And create dialogue, she did. This story was picked up and covered by Buzzfeed, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Mashable and more. In fact, it helped push the movement so far forward that National Public Radio called 2015 “the year of the period” [ ((Gharib, Malaka. NPR.org. December 31, 2015. According to this article, “But social media’s been awash with the p-word, and when we checked the number of times the word “menstruation” was mentioned in five national news outlets, it more than tripled from 2010 to 2015, from 47 to 167.”))] and Cosmopolitan referred to it as “the year the period went public.” [ ((The 8 Greatest Menstrual Moments of 2015. October 13, 2015.))]

Women, however, aren’t the only ones contributing to the movement. Two teenage girls created a video game called Tampon Run that also went viral and eventually landed them a book deal. In the game, the player has to “collect tampons, shoot them at your enemies, and don’t run out of them before your moon cycle is over.” [ (( Brownstone, Sydney. Fast Company. September 5, 2014. The game creators are not the only females to fling tampons or sanitary products as a form of protest. See A Brief History of Tampon Throwing and A Short History of Women Throwing Their Tampons at You for more information.))]

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A screenshot from the Tampon Run game

Of those whose bodies who are capable, roughly 25% of the female population are menstruating at any given time; that means approximately half the population are bleeding from their vaginas about a quarter of the time. Therefore, there is nothing inherently strange or weird about the biological process. Yet, culturally, it is shrouded in mystery, largely invisible in mainstream media, and remains taboo. This is exactly what Tampon Run is trying to resist. According to the developers, the goal of the game is to “normalize tampons in video games where guns would have been acceptable otherwise.” [ (( Brownstone, 2014. ))]

And this, to me, highlights the central problem; we live in an era where it is more acceptable to see dead victims of police brutality (on TV or in the news) than it is to see menstrual blood; the menses is more shocking than the murder—and the blood more shocking than the bodies. It is a striking example of how something so ordinary and mundane is actually shocking—and how something so shocking has become so ordinary. [ (( International artist Elone is also tackling this concept in her work. ))]

The pro-period movement, with its diverse members from across the world, is only working to solve one part of that problem and, more likely than not (similar to the debate about breast-feeding in public), it will never completely go away. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: whose blood, and in what circumstances, is the most difficult to look at? And, what does that reveal about us as a culture?

Image Credits:
1. Image for “Steph Gongora Free Bleeding Yoga,” People.com.
2. Author’s screenshot; People.com, February 14, 2017
3. Image for “The History of the Tampon,” The Atlantic, June 1, 2015, credited to “ SASIMOTO / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic.”
4. Rupi Kaur, Artist’s Website.
5. From Kiran’s “modern period piece” on Medium.com.
6. Screen shot from Tampon Run, Fast Company, September 5, 2014.

Please feel free to comment.




Laura Petrie and Performance as Wifely Duty
Annie Berke / Hollins University

petrie

We might as well start where so many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966) do: with our goofy hero, Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), tripping over the ottoman in his living room. In this incarnation of the show’s opening credits, the supporting cast—wife Laura and son Richie (played by Mary Tyler Moore and Larry Mathews) and co-workers Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie)—rushes to help a laughing Rob to his feet. This sequence encapsulates the premise of the show, namely the intertwining of work and home for a television writer not unlike the show’s creator, Carl Reiner. As David Marc notes in his book Comic Visions, the divide between home and work in The Dick Van Dyke Show is negotiable, not unlike its sitcom precursor, I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), in which Ricky might break into song in their New York apartment or where Lucy reveals her pregnancy during a show at the Tropicana. [ ((David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).))]

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A tidy domestic space littered with prat-falls.

Still, we spend more time at Rob’s place of work than at Ricky’s, where the Rob-Buddy-Sally bond establishes the “alternative” or “workplace” family sitcom further developed in later sitcoms including The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993), even The Office (NBC, 2005-2013) or 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-2013). But unlike many of these other shows and the workspaces they present, the Alan Brady writers’ room of Dick Van Dyke looks like a cozy upper-middle class home, with non-descript wall art, a communal coat hanger, and, in place of a round table, a coffee table around which Rob, Sally, and Buddy exchange zingers and unsolicited advice. While there is a typewriter, and Sally does use it, her desk is tucked away stage right, and the typewriter’s unprivileged place on a solo desk does not lend itself to collaborative work – unless we count performing for one another and for the viewers at home as labor.

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Writers Rob, Sally, and Buddy in their office/abode.

Rob connects the Petrie writers’ room and the Petrie home, and his primacy as a silly patriarch in both “homes” is never in doubt, but this essay is not about Rob, or, at least, not entirely. Instead, let us turn our attention to Laura, the queen of her Westchester castle and a character whose own transgressions of the work/home divide create comedy and conflict, establishing her as a sneakily subversive hybrid of the housewife and the performer, and troubling the distinction between those two roles.

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For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Carl Reiner recently said of Moore: “She was grace personified. She could never take a wrong step…. The fact that she started out as a dancer was indicative of everything she did after that. Her grace was unmistakable. I saw it the first time she walked into my office.” [ ((Cynthia Littleton, “Carl Reiner Remembers Mary Tyler Moore: ‘She Was Grace Personified,’” Variety 25 January 2017 .))] That Moore’s character, Laura, is a retired dancer factors into a series of storylines, including Season 1’s “To Tell Or Not To Tell.” In this episode, the Petries host a party at which, after comedy performances from Buddy, Sally, and Rob, the crowd clamors for Laura to dance. At first, she pretends to demur, saying “oh no…,” but before the people around her can respond, strikes a pose and launches into a boldly mod and seemingly improvised routine: apparently, Laura is no shrinking violet. She proceeds to fill in for a missing dancer at The Alan Brady Show, throwing her household into comparative—read: sitcom—chaos. Rob worries that, now that his wife has returned to her old stomping grounds (so to speak), she won’t want to return to being a wife and mother. The television gods swoop in and nullify this potential problem: while Laura is invited to stay on the show permanently, she is flattered but disinterested in returning to the stage full-time. Thus, the show has its cake and eats it too. Laura could be a dancer, but doesn’t want to, while the begrudgingly egalitarian Rob is rewarded with a contented stay-at-home wife. The Season 3 episode “My Part-Time Wife” has a similar plot, in which Laura serves as a typist in Rob’s writers’ room. Rob, threatened by her talents and seeming ability to balance her home and work responsibilities, is shocked to discover by episode’s end that Laura is exhausted and eager to return to the role of happy homemaker.

What do these plots reveal beside Laura’s competence in all things? The situation comedy is, in many ways, a conservative genre, and Laura’s return to the home is partially mitigated by the fact that it is always presented as her choice and that she understands her work in the home as a difficult and legitimate form of labor. Such plotlines as I have described above position the figure of Laura Petrie as an inverse of Friedan’s “feminine mystique”: rather than struggling with unarticulated disappointment, however, Laura speaks frequently and articulately on these issues without wanting any change in her situation. While we are not yet in “working woman” or Mary Richards territory, this public reckoning with the housewife’s dilemma is a decisive move in that direction.

But that’s not all. To return to the start of this essay, the fuzzy boundaries between home and work not only converts the writers’ room into a familial zone but also makes the home legible as a stage or performance space. Rob and Laura are not just husband and wife but scene partners to boot, finding romantic and creative fulfillment in one another and how they play together and off one another. In the Season 1 episode “Oh How We Met on the Night That We Danced,” we learn that Rob and Laura met while he was a Sergeant in the Army and she danced in the USO. It is love at first sight for Rob, aversion for Laura, so he bribes her dance partner to let him dance with her on-stage. The two perform a romantic duet, the humor stemming as much from Laura’s barely concealed snarl as from Rob’s gangly soft-shoe. Their anti-chemistry chemistry signals Rob and Laura’s compatibility: after all, they somehow know how to sing and dance together, in spite of her initial hostility and their never having rehearsed together. While Rob does step on her foot and break her toe at the end of the dance, this conclusion only serves as the (off-screen) pretext for him to show his caring nature and win her heart. Laura’s injury proves less important than our witnessing their meet-ness as a duo, their marital bliss signaled and performed through a musical number.

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For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Another example of the marriage-as-duet motif comes through in the Season 2 episode, “The Two Faces of Rob,” in which Rob, in researching the plausibility of a sketch for the show, disguises his voice on the phone with Laura to see if she recognizes him. A flirtatious energy passes between the two, leaving Rob worried and jealous of his own alter ego. The same Laura from “To Tell Or Not To Tell”—an unabashed and joyous performer—comes out to play in this episode, purring, cooing, and leaning into the archetype of the restless suburban wife. Could Laura have been duped by Rob’s charade and, in fact, be on the prowl for an extramarital affair?

No, of course not. Yet, again, we see how Laura the housewife incorporates performance and whimsy into her daily life, this example being fairly innocent foreplay; as Robert David Sullivan writes for The A.V. Club, this interaction “implie[s] that Laura likes a little role-playing to spice up the Petries’ sex life.” [ ((Robert David Sullivan, “Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s comedy in just 10 episodes,” A.V. Club 12 September 2012 .))] Stephen Bowie of Vulture points out the episode’s “big” reveal: Laura gets off the phone after a seductive conversation with the fairly forward “Dr. Bonnelli” and turns to visiting neighbor Millie. “Who was that?” Millie asks. “Rob,” Laura chirps, returning to the Girl-Next-Door we never really feared she wasn’t… did we? “It is one of Moore’s most delicious line readings,” Bowie justly declares. The episode ends with her accidentally propositioning a real wrong number, believing it to once again be Rob. When Laura discovers her mistake, she is suitably mortified, while Rob is amused and attracted, the scene ending on a long and suggestive smooch. Laura may not perform for pay anymore, but what her character and storylines reveal is the home as a site of play, fun, and style, and who better than Mary Tyler Moore to teach this lesson?

laura5

Laura is unafraid of a little make-believe between spouses.

Image Credits
1. Vulture
2. The Franklin Chronicles
3. Cleveland.com
4. ShareTV
5. Blogspot
6. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/PMCjQV4pXbY/hqdefault.jpg

Please feel free to comment.




Biden Memes and “Pussy Grabs Back”: Gendered Anger After the Election
Hollis Griffin / Denison University


Biden Meme Example

An example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden plots the planting of booby traps for President-elect Donald Trump.

Like a lot of self-avowed lefties, I have been collecting Biden memes to cheer myself up after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. These memes feature snippets of dialogue over pictures of Vice President Biden meeting with President Obama. In some, Biden plots to keep President-elect Trump out of the White House: hiding keys to the locks, laying booby traps. President Obama then talks Biden down as you would a friend who is getting ready to drunkenly punch someone in a bar, telling him “Stop it, Joe,” or “Joe, seriously.” In others, Biden hatches schemes to embarrass or frustrate the incoming President: changing the White House’s wifi password, calling attention to Trump’s (allegedly) tiny hands. President Obama then chides Biden like a weary parent, saying “We can’t do that Joe,” or “Joe, go sit down.” Although I find masculine bluster off-putting, I can’t help but feel affection for Vice President Biden. He’s the uncle who called you “the little shithead” when you were growing up but still snuck you beer on Thanksgiving. While I am wary of feeling too warmly about politicians, Vice President Biden is rough around the edges and appealing for that. After an election in which “shooting from the hip” meant little more than spouting misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, the Biden memes point to an adjacent form of masculine truth-telling, one rooted in an ethos of respect and integrity more than one that trades in divisiveness and shit-talking.

Memes provide good fodder for thinking about masculinity because their repetition works like gender does more generally. Gender becomes legible through its recurrence; it creates legible patterns through evermore citations that can also deviate and take new forms. [ (( Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge NY: 1990). ))] The permutations of text and image found in memes operate by way of that tension between variety and sameness seen in gender: new text is laid over familiar images or similar ideas are communicated through different pictures. Part of what makes the ideas about masculinity seen in the Biden memes so refreshing is the trouble they create with neat gender categories. With its white working-class evangelical base, the Republican Party is often characterized by a no-nonsense masculinity, as though its members and leaders are the true defenders of “freedom” and “liberty.” In contrast, Democrats are often painted as being more conventionally feminine; they are constructed as being accepting, sensitive, empathic. As a politician identified with the Left, Biden provides Democrats with a masculine archetype not often attributed to them. The caricature in these memes is assertive and confident—a tough guy who will bloody his nose in the interest of inclusiveness and care for the other. The Biden memes communicate the sentiments I hear again and again from lefties about the 2016 election—anger, indignation—and demonstrate just how facile gendered explanations for political identification can be.

U.S. culture often demonstrates deep contempt for traditionally feminine values. Respect for others and sensitivity to issues of difference were frequent rallying cries among Democratic politicians in the recent elections. These appeals to voters promise to transform the persistent, masculine values at the center of U.S. politics. In the value system most prevalent in those politics, striving for coalition is weak, seeking collaboration is lame, and aiming for cooperation is condemnable. In sum, Democratic candidates made appeals to voters that were rooted in vows to transform the masculine fabric of national identity. Unfortunately, the conventionally feminine values of care and reciprocity are not as laudable as the traditionally masculine associations made with freedom and individual responsibility. Needless to say, U.S. culture values the latter far more than the former. As such, Donald Trump’s particular breed of masculinity dovetails with longstanding ideas about what constitutes Americannness. That fact made his worldview seductive because it vowed to protect a set of beliefs that many people see as both deeply American and under attack. It also provided his appeals to voters with a distinctly macho tone that he was able to ride to a victory in the Electoral College.

Another Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden remarks about another popular meme, the size of Donald Trump’s hands.

True, Biden memes issue a rejoinder to the venom of the 2016 election season by offering a different idea of masculinity than the one offered by Donald Trump, but they recapitulate gendered dynamics of power more than they rewrite them. The Biden memes are funny because they are a sword fight between old white guys about what the U.S. should be and who should get to decide. In that way, the Biden memes participate in an ongoing call and response from right to left and back again. This back and forth rarely alters the shape of the political conversation in which it participates nor the gendered symbolic that helps keep it in motion. In their play with ideas about masculinity, memes display an ambivalence that both critiques and reveres. [ (( Linor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 76. ))] As seen in the Biden memes, the Vice-President is part alpha-male badass, part ill-behaved manbaby. As cultural forms, memes convey information humorously and in a timely manner; they multiply and travel because they are current and funny. The Biden memes are evidence of how gender mutates and how political energies circulate and, because of that, they are evidence of how difficult it can be to both reimagine political energies and rewrite gendered scripts. It is no accident that the memes featuring Biden are funny because they depict him wanting to start a fight. If the memes were to feature Biden wanting to discuss coalition-building or attempting to create a dialogue about care for the other, the caricature would not be terribly masculine or all that funny—or rather, not masculine or funny in a way that would resonate well in the contemporary moment.

Third Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes. Anger about the political climate is presented in humorous forms through Biden memes.

Yet, I am too depressed in the wake of the 2016 election to dismiss the Biden memes entirely. I have been trying to think of them as objects that might reveal useful ideas for leftist politics in the Trump era. In these memes, Biden’s anger is funny, yes, but it is also motivating. I think Biden memes are so popular because they involve both anger and humor. Affects become “sticky” on the internet because they travel quickly and are contagious; as forces, they gather more weight the faster they travel. [ (( See Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, and Michael Petit, eds., introduction to Networked Affect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 1-26. ))] Like all affects, anger and humor morph and change shape over time. So anger can become funny, at which point it bursts and then dissipates. [ (( Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003): 103. ))] When it does that, anger does not exist long beyond the moment in which it is felt. In fact, in precipitating laughter, anger cum humor encloses political energy in a feedback loop that feeds itself more than anything else. [ (( Jodi Dean, “Affect and Drive,” in Networked Affect, 89-100. ))] In contrast, anger that remains anger nags as it moves; it needles, annoys, and persists. As a result, this sort of anger retains a potency that hums on, like a sound with a shrillness that does not crest or ebb. And when anger morphs into fear, it grows in scope and magnitude, like a sound whose intensity is increasing so much that you cannot help but try to stop it. [ (( Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 103. ))] Anger as anger and anger cum fear are phenomena that move bodies and rewrite energies over time. They are powerful forces in politics precisely because they are experienced durably and intensely.

Because anger is more motivating than humor, I keep thinking: why cede anger to masculinity? Rage about the way the world is not the sole domain of Donald Trump, nor is it the exclusive territory of the angry white men who (in part) elected him. Truly, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people have plenty to rage about—and did so well before Donald Trump won the election. For the left, an important task is how to use anger in ways that generate new modes of organizing and activism. At this point in time, these activities must be reimagined to meet the demands of a decidedly different, newly challenging political environment. For that reason, the Biden memes are most useful when they can be seen as angry more than goofy, and not solely evidence of masculine bluster. After all, Biden himself has displayed more than a few feminist tendencies. That and, if gender is a “copy without original,” there is nothing all that masculine about anger or any feeling or activity associated with it in the first place. [ (( Butler, Gender Trouble. ))]

Pussy Grabs Back meme

The “Pussy Grabs Back” meme served as a feminist rallying cry before the November 8th election and references President-elect Trump’s history of attacking women.

While the gendering of anger is a cultural construction, it is also concrete. Like all affects, anger is corporeal and that is what makes it motivating. It is a bodily phenomenon that jolts frames and rearranges limbs. In the case of anger, people experience it as a quickened pace of the heart or a pain in the pit of the stomach. One of the angriest memes I have seen is related to the unique risks weathered by women at the hands of the particular breed of masculinity cultivated by Donald Trump. The meme features the phrase “Pussy Grabs Back” over the image of a snarling cat pouncing on its prey. As a feminist call to arms, the meme expresses anger about the President-elect’s cavalierness regarding his history of attacking women in order to rally voters ahead of the November 8th election. Although my experience of it can only be empathic, the meme showed up in my Instagram and Twitter feeds repeatedly in the days leading up to the election. The meme communicates a distinct rage embodied by women and, because it is so angry and explicitly sexed, I think it is a crucial reminder of what is at stake after the recent election. If the list of Trump’s appointees to various posts in his administration is any indication, there’s no time to giggle and titter about Joe Biden exiting the White House. I am hopeful that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme lingers beyond the Biden memes because it pries anger loose from its conventionally gendered trappings and places it squarely in the grip of people who must remain motivated no matter how depressing things seem right now. Joe Biden is leaving office and his memes will likely fall out of circulation shortly thereafter. I suspect that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme will stick around because it contains an energy that harasses and persists—and because it offers a crucial reminder: pussy must grab back until 2020, at the very least.

Image Credits:

1. Biden meme
2. Second Biden meme
3. Third Biden meme
4. Pussy Grabs Back

Please feel free to comment.




Miniskirts and Wigs: The Gender Politics of Cross-Dressing on Lip Sync Battle
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Channing Tatum breaks out his version of Beyoncé for his rendition of "Run the World (Girls)."

Channing Tatum breaks out his Beyoncé to perform “Run the World (Girls)” on Spike’s Lip Sync Battle.

On January 7, 2016, Channing Tatum blew up the internet. He strutted onto Lip Sync Battle’s stage wearing a voluminous blonde wig and a tight black mini-skirt to faux-sing “Run the World (Girls),” with Beyoncé herself joining in at the number’s end. The performance became a viral sensation, and the episode itself an all-time ratings high for Spike. (( Rick Kissell, “‘Lip Sync Battle’ Sets Spike Network Ratings Record,” Variety, January 12, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/lip-sync-battle-sets-spike-ratings-record-1201678032/ )) This overwhelming popularity was not because of the excellence of Tatum’s dancing, but because of its gender-bending presentation.

Tatum’s performance is only one of many times that Lip Sync Battle has blurred traditional gender roles; in fact, the majority of LSB’s episodes contain some form of gender-bending, and the performers who do so almost always win. Judith Butler taught us years ago that gender is inherently performative, and that drag in its many forms has a powerful subversive potential. (( See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990). Granted, Lip Sync Battle does not embrace drag culture, only allowing cross-dressing in a comical way, but I argue that even the mild form of cross-dressing LSB hosts is still potentially subversive. )) Yet LSB presents an intriguing paradox: while it hosts a plethora of non-normative performances, the show ultimately reifies gender binaries, and places its stars squarely back in their “original” gender. (( Notably, the show’s attitude mirrors what Chris Straayer identifies as the “temporary transvestite” genre, which depicts constant transgression while constantly reminding the audience of the character’s “original” gender. See Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 46-50. ))

The show’s structure is simple. Two stars (usually of TV-based fame, but sometimes musicians or film actors) lip sync to two songs each, with the winner decided by the in-studio audience’s applause. Because the music is always a prerecorded, familiar pop hit, the star’s responsibilities are limited to mouthing the words and, more importantly, presenting the most outlandish physical display possible.

The measure of this outlandishness is directly related to the subversion of the star’s image. The sweet, demure Anne Hathaway won her battle by clamoring onto a life-size wrecking ball in her underwear to perform Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Cross-dressing is treated as another method of going all the way for the competition. Justin Bieber, after performing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” while affecting femininity, including comically swaying his hips and even stroking competitor Deion Sanders’ chin, explained afterward that “I just totally committed! Full commitment.” Occasionally stars embrace the subversive nature of their performance: former NFL player Terry Crews, after dancing to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” half-naked accompanied by baton twirlers, said he found inspiration in his wife and four daughters: “sometimes you just need to access your feminine side,” he exclaimed to wild cheers from the audience.

Terry Crews accessing his "feminine side" during his performance of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles."

Terry Crews accessing his “feminine side” during his performance of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”

But LSB as a whole does not foster such open-mindedness: instead, the program carefully positions its performances as temporary aberrances in the stars’ lives. Stars must constantly reestablish their personas, as Richard Dyer explains, and LSB allows them to act out who they are, or are not. (( See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979), 20. )) So while the most popular performances involve macho men – professional athletes, rappers, action movie stars – wearing dresses and wigs, the show works hard to show that the stars’ costume and dance choices have no bearing on their “real life,” which means demonstrating that the stars are irrefutably heterosexual and cis-gendered.

LSB employs several strategies to corroborate its stars’ straightness. Most simply, host LL Cool J will ask the star to discuss how unusual this was for them, such as when comedian Gabriel Iglesias told Cool J that dressing as Donna Summer required him to shave for the first time in five years. Other times, the spouse of the performer also appears on the show, with their shocked reaction to their partner’s gender-bent performance serving as an external guarantee of heteronormativity. (( For example, when Iggy Azalea performed Silk’s “Freak Me,” complete with grabbing her crotch and miming sexual intercourse, her then-fiancé Nick Young stated adamantly that “She don’t do that…she don’t do that to me!” )) Throughout, Cool J and color commentator Chrissy Teigen model the acceptable reaction to these antics. Cool J, a rapper, is often quietly disapproving, while Teigen, a model, spends most of her time evaluating how sexy (or more often unsexy) the performers are in their adopted garb. (( And that garb itself is often intentionally ridiculous, with Deion Sanders’ wig for “Like a Virgin” more closely resembling Einstein than Madonna. The few occasions when such costumes are not ridiculous, as in Jim Rash’s form-fitting P!nk costume, often leave the hosts unsure how to react. )) These strategies taken together are meant to signal that these performances cannot possibly be taken seriously. (( While the length of this piece restricts me from discussing male versus female cross-dressers in detail, female cross-dressers on LSB often work even harder than the men to reestablish their gender identity, with their second, non-drag number usually being hyper-feminine: see Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s “Pony” and “Cold-Hearted” or Kaley Cuoco’s “Move Bitch” and “I’m a Slave 4 U.” ))

Jim Rash's "seduction" of Joel McHale to "Something He Can Feel."

Jim Rash’s “seduction” of Joel McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel.”

When a performance breaks these careful restrictions, the show is thrown into chaos. One of LSB’s lowest-rated episodes featured three total gender-bent performances by competitors Jim Rash and Joe McHale. The most notable of these was Rash’s self-described “seduction” of McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel,” during which he straddled McHale’s chair and proceeded to caress and shimmy all around him, while McHale grimaced horribly. Despite his scowling, McHale commented afterward that “someone is going to need to wipe off” his seat, and that this sort of thing happens “all the time” on Community, the show both men act in. Cool J and Teigen seemed flabbergasted. Teigen asked Rash if he had ever done “all of that” before, to which Rash replied, “don’t worry about it.” In this way, Rash, who has refused to comment publicly on his sexuality, indirectly linked himself to homoerotic practices in his own life, and McHale, who is heterosexual, indicated that his active participation not only in their on-stage interaction, but in similar events in their professional lives. Thus both performers actively embraced a subversive gender position, although McHale, after his own performance in drag, acknowledged that their actions were outside the norm: “thank you for letting me shorten my career in front of you,” he shouted to the audience.

Group Shot

Chrissy Teigen, Jim Rash, LL Cool J, and Joel McHale pose after Rash and McHale’s final, cross-dressing performances.

What then, is the ultimate effect of all this gender confusion? For the stars, very little. As long as they carefully delineate their performance from their star persona, this exercise merely signals to casting directors that the star is capable of playing many (gender) roles outside of their normal type. The most immediate benefit is to the network. LSB airs on Spike, a channel which has recently attempted to expand viewership from an exclusively macho-male demographic to one that includes female viewers and attracts co-viewing as well. (( See the original description of their brand when the channel relaunched under that name in 2003: “TNN network can call itself Spike TV,” USA Today, July 7, 2003, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/television/2003-07-07-spike_x.htm )) Network president Kevin Kay commented that LSB was picked up because “it felt like the perfect show to help launch that rebrand.” (( L.A. Ross, How Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Lip Sync Battle’ Launched SpikeTV’s Rebrand: ‘Right Swing at Right Moment’, TheWrap.com, April 16, 2015,
http://www.thewrap.com/how-jimmy-fallons-lip-sync-battle-launched-spiketvs-rebrand-right-swing-at-right-moment/ )) For the network, too, LSB is meant to be a step outside of its box, but not a complete leap.

David Greven argues that our “new queerly-inflected mainstream movie practices” have the potential to open up “safe zones of polyvalent pleasures.” (( David Greven, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 17. )) This is far too utopic a vision to extend to Lip Sync Battle. There is certainly potential for breaking the strict boundary between male and female in the show’s constant cross-dressing. But as we have seen, the show shuts down any subversive possibility as effectively as Tatum wore his wig.

Image Credits:
1. Promotional image for Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 1, originally aired January 7, 2016.
2. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 5, originally aired April 23, 2015.
3. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
4. Promotional image from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
Please feel free to comment.




Fight Like a Girl: Deconstruction of Shōjo in Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Madoka poster

Poster Art for Puella Magi Madoka Magica

At the beginning of my very first column, I introduced Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ayanami Rei. It is revealed at one point in the story that Rei is a cyborg that has “died” before, and the Rei that appears during most of the series is actually a clone of the original. She muses: “I am myself. This object is me, the figure which forms me. This is the me that is visible, though it feels as if this is not me. A strange feeling. My body seems as if it is melting. I cannot see myself. I am aware of someone else.” [ ((“Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Wikiquote. Accessed June 4, 2015.))]

What Rei seems to be contemplating here is the very formation of the “I” – or “Rei” as she knows it. She refers to herself as “object” and remarks upon the presence of “someone else,” suggesting that she is aware of being an object to another person’s gaze. This moment of self-reflexivity is significant. In the conventional mahou shōjo story, the heroine happily accepts the magic granted to her. Rarely does she interrogate her identity as mahou shōjo.

The 2011 animated series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (hereafter PMMM) presents a challenge to this paradigm. The series is notable precisely because it does not take the motif of becoming a Magical Girl for granted. It centres around the story of Kaname Madoka, a shy and naïve high school girl who spends the majority of the series exploring what it means to become a Magical Girl and deciding whether to be one. It is important to note that unlike stories in which the mahou shōjo willingly steps into her role, in PMMM the characters need to make a contract with an alien named Kyubey to exchange their souls for a wish, and oftentimes they are forced into becoming Magical Girls due to tragic circumstances. Becoming a mahou shōjo, then, is a burden and necessity rather than a source of empowerment.

Magical Girls have to defend society from evil, which takes the form of Witches in the universe of PMMM. Pitting the cute, innocent shōjo against the mature, witch-like woman is a trope that is recycled tirelessly not only by various forms of shōjo media but also by Western entertainment, such as the Disney princesses and their evil queen/fairy/stepmother counterparts. PMMM takes down this binary relation visually, linguistically, and thematically. Instead of the devious temptress with dark lipstick and purple eye shadow, Witches in PMMM do not even possess human form. They appear in abstract forms of collage, consisting of words, symbols and drawings, relying on cut-out animation styles to create surrealist imagery. [ ((Shen, Lien Fan. “The Dark, Twisted Magical Girls: Shōjo Heroines in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture (2014).))]

This aesthetic strategy starts to make sense when we learn the truth behind Witches. As Kyubey eloquently explains, after Madoka witnesses her friend Sayaka become a Witch, “in this country [Japan] you call women who have yet to become adults, shōjo. It makes sense then that since you’ll eventually become majo [literally, “magical women,” or Witches], you should be called mahou shōjo.” [ ((“Kyubey.” Puella Magi Wiki. Accessed June 4, 2015.)) ] In other words, the relationship between Magical Girls and Witches is betrayed by the linguistic construction of the two terms: shōjo inevitably become majo, and so Magical Girls, Witches.

witch pmmm

Collage-made witch in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

After Sayaka’s death, Madoka confronts Kyubey. In a chilling monologue, Kyubey explains that the alien race needs Magical Girls to destroy themselves by becoming Witches, stating that “the most effective source of energy” comes from this process. To this claim, Madoka helplessly responds, “are we disposable to you? Are we supposed to just die for you? That’s too cruel.” [ ((Puella Magi Wiki. Accessed June 4, 2015.)) ] What Kyubey has confessed to, which is essentially the exploitation of women’s bodies for the benefit of an elite group, may sound painfully familiar. In many ways, Kyubey is also the embodiment of the patriarchal system, taking control of the shōjo’s agency (her soul) upon granting her “power” and constantly trying to manipulate Madoka into becoming (mahou) shōjo, and therefore, an object of the male gaze.

How do Magical Girls react to this injustice? In Sayaka’s case, her Witch form is a monstrous mermaid (in reference to “The Little Mermaid”), symbolizing her sadness about her crush’s obliviousness to her sacrifice. But Sayaka’s “transformation” is also triggered by the rage she feels upon realizing that she has been manipulated into becoming a Magical Girl, and that the same system that grants her magic also seeks her destruction. Presented in abstract visual forms to highlight this emotional state, the metaphor of “Witches are Magical Girls in despair” could be interpreted as a response of the shōjo to her subject position, in which she finally acknowledges the powerlessness of her identity and seeks to destabilize her own representation, disrupting her form and undoing her own shōjo-ness.

In the end, Madoka never becomes a Magical Girl. When she finally makes a deal with Kyubey, she changes the rules of the universe so that all past and future Magical Girls and Witches are erased, giving up her own physical form in the process. Her magical power, instead of being employed against her own kind, is used to completely overthrow the existing order and violate the principles of the universe. Madoka, who constantly cries and mourns, never develops into a courageous heroine, and has all the qualities to be an object of the male desire, in the end chooses to directly challenge Kyubey, the embodiment of the male gaze. PMMM enacts the constitution of the shōjo subject, challenges binary representations of Magical Girls and Witches, and reveals “magical power” as a symbol of subjugation and consumption.

Being shōjo presents various possibilities of power for both men and women. But as long as the shōjo exists within the patriarchal order, male subjectivity will define and disembody her, instructing her to seek empowerment in being powerless and accept her own subordination. When the shōjo commits to an act of unbecoming, it is an indication that she has seen herself reflectively as an object of consumption and has chosen to counter that with undoing the bounds of identity which discipline her. Rather than relying on passive resistance, it is surely more promising to insist upon a new kind of magic, knowing that the meaning of one always depends upon the meaning of other, that unravels the self to bring about a transformation no short of revolutionary.

Image Credits:

1. Poster art for PMMM.
2. Witch from PMMM.

Please feel free to comment.




Shady is the New Black
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

The Shady Protagonists

The “Shady” Protagonists

In the Urban Dictionary, there are multiple definitions of the word “shady”— “sly,” “corrupt,” “sketchy,” and “underhanded.” Yet, despite the negative tenor of this popular parlance, in terms of protagonists in quality drama on television, shady is the new black—literally and figuratively.

Given that the televisual preeminence of the Super Negro—and, later, African American—has waned over the years, how does the new televisual visibility of Black women change the idealization paradigm, which used to assuage the misgivings of mainstream audiences? By reflecting on notions of taste and quality in television in relation to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How To Get Away With Murder (ABC 2014-present) and Cookie Lyon (Taranji P. Henson) in Empire (Fox 2015-present), this brief rumination offers thoughts on how and why those who would formerly have been Supers have become progressively more shady.

Pierre Bourdieu states, “[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given…social space… towards the practices or goods which befit occupants of [their] position.”[ ((Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984) 20.))] Thus, for Bourdieu, taste, the ability to make discriminating judgments about the aesthetic and the artistic, is inextricably tied to class. However, race and/or ethnicity and/or gender surely play a role as well. When thinking intersectionally about the ways in which a “sense of one’s place” is constructed and enforced, the word “discriminating” takes on a dual meaning. While Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood state that “Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges,” I can’t help wondering whether aesthetic and artistic “goods” (read: television) can ever be seen as neutral or separated from the social.[ ((Mary Douglas, Baron Isherwood. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. (New York: Basic Books: 1979) 12.))] In actuality, television—especially shows lauded as “quality”—are always both “fences and bridges.”

Quality and taste are highly subjective. However, what is considered quality is determined by taste, which, in turn, depends upon myriad elements. This brings me to an astute observation from Noah Berlatsky of The Guardian regarding #OscarSoWhite: “Prejudice is solidified, and enforced, through institutions. But it starts out as an aesthetic preference– a dream about who is good and who is bad, who matters and who doesn’t.”[ ((Noah Bertlansky, “#OscarsSoWhite: how questions of diversity are inextricably linked to taste.” The Guardian. 3 February 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/03/oscars-diversity-2016-favorite-movies-racism-prejudice-aesthetics-taste?CMP=fb_us Accessed 9 February 2016.))] In quality television, more traditional heroes have been replaced by decidedly darker fare, antiheroes such as the neurotic mobster and family man, Tony (James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos (HBO 1999-2007) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the science teacher turned meth kingpin on Breaking Bad (A&E 2008-2013). Clearly, Tony and Walter are shady but their reprehensible acts do prevent the audience from having moments of identification and even genuine empathy for them—a sort of narrative white male privilege. Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Cookie Lyon are in more precarious positions which require that something, besides the vestiges of Black exemplarism and questionable archetypes of Black womanhood, cut the shadiness: suffering seems to be required in order for them to be redeemable.

Three Shades of Shady

Three Shades of Shady

The powerful women leads of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire represent three shades of shady with a healthy side of suffering. Olivia Pope maintains the closest connection to the Supers of the past and is “elegantly shady.” Kerry Washington’s Olivia exudes exemplarism: the Prada-clad “gladiator in a suit” “handles” crises, wields power for the benefit of the elite and the underdog and embodies privilege as a product of her 1% upbringing. Yet, her “white hat” status is problematic: she stole a presidential election, covered up crimes, condoned torture (for a “good” cause), and had an affair with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn), which went legit before going wrong. Olivia’s elegantly shady is inflected by Sally Hemmings/Jezebel tropes even though, in the Shondaland spirit of colorblindness, her Blackness is served up more as narrative garnish than a culturally specific entrée. Yet, Olivia’s suffering is personal and public: from her “troubled” parental relations (her mom, believed dead, is actually a terrorist; her distant father leads a secret Black Ops organization and is her constant foe) to her relationship with Fitz, which leads to her being held hostage and in danger of being sold to the highest bidder on her way to becoming the de facto First Lady, a constricting role she is ultimately compelled to reject.

Viola Davis portrays the badass version of elegantly shady as Annalise Keating, a brilliant law professor and defense attorney, who inspires both fear and awe. Ethically-challenged and fiercely independent, the designer-clad and coiffed Annalise teaches a class on “How To Get Away With Murder.” She is driven to clear her clients, manipulate the legal system, and control her personal relationships, whether with her husband, Sam (Tom Verica), her cop lover, Nate (Billy Brown), or her elite student corps, particularly, Wes (Alfred Enoch), of whom she is uncharacteristically protective. Despite the colorblind ethos that informs the series (also a Shondaland product), Annalise, formerly Anna Mae, and her litany of traumas (including sexual abuse, the loss of a child and the violent and complicated death of a husband) resonates with painful aspects of Black womanhood. HTGAWM survives its outlandish narrative twists more because of what Davis brings to the screen than what is written on the page—as illustrated in the scene that set Black Twitter aflame, when Davis made the choice to remove her wig in a particularly dramatic moment of frustration and vulnerability.

Then, there is Cookie Lyon, played by Taranji P. Henson, the breakout star of Empire. From her first scene, clad in a skintight leopard dress and a fur, when released from a 17-year stint in prison for drug trafficking, Cookie is clearly a force of nature. While arguably, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s series is essentially Dynasty meets Love and Hip Hop, Cookie is a noble diva: a Black woman who is down with those she loves no matter what, through it all, the good and the bad, she is “ride or die” shady. Cookie is a fierce matriarch, who, having been separated from her children, seeks to win back their love and to protect them from any threat—including their father, and the love of her life, hip hop mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terence Howard), her charming and deadly ex who used her drug money to fund his music career before divorcing her. While Cookie’s sassy, sexualized and street construction can be seen as problematic in that it plays into various stereotypes of urban Black femininity, her suffering is taken as matter of fact—it is what it is, which is disheartening for other reasons. Empire’s Cookie is not as complex or conflicted as either Scandal’s Olivia or HTWAWM’s Annalise. Yet, of the three, she is the least damaged and damaging to those around her despite the trauma she has endured (poverty, incarceration, abandonment), and because of her unwavering sense of self. She is also unapologetically Black.

Viola Davis' Emmy Acceptance Speech

Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance, 2015

Olivia, Annalise and Cookie may signal more expansiveness in televisual representations of Black women. The passionate assertion about opportunity made by Viola Davis after her historic Emmy win (above) speaks to the continued need for more roles for Black actors and varied representations of Blackness. Nevertheless, these three shades of shady are still in uncomfortable conversation with the always contingent space occupied by Black womanhood on American television.

Image Credits:
1. The Shady Protagonists
2. Three Shades of Shady
3. Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance Speech

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Investing in Girl Play: Kickstarting a New Era of STEM Toys?
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Inspiring Play

Roominate’s success is positioned as both forward thinking and familiar

In my prveious Flow post I argued that MGA Entertainment’s transmedia product(ion), Project MC2, was marketing STEM as a lifestyle for tween girls. I also argued that MGA’s motivations for entering this market were likely less about wanting to shift the tide in girls pursuing engineering degrees and more about competition from emerging toy companies specifically claiming this demographic of girls, tweens, and parents concerned about the mainstream toy industry’s seemingly archaic adherence to reductionist gender binaries.

This post takes a closer look at a few of these so-called industry outsiders who are leading the charge to change girls’ play culture and guide them toward future STEM fields. More specifically, I analyze the ways these companies have positioned themselves to ‘consumer-investors’ on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While my objective is not to deter from the likely genuine desires of these companies and their founders to make positive interventions into girls play culture, I do seek to demonstrate how they strategically construct both the scope of their interventions and their own legitimacy as interventionists.

The examples I draw upon are from the Kickstarter campaigns for Goldieblox, Roominate, and i-Besties: Middle School Moguls and the Indiegogo campaign for Miss Possible. The first two originate as construction toys (though Goldieblox has since introduced an action figure line) while the other two brands are dolls accompanied by multimedia extensions that offer varying degrees of interactivity (GoldieBlox and Roominate have also recently ventured into app-enabled enhancements for their physical toys). All four companies launched their crowdfunding campaigns between May 2012 and June 2015 and all four exceeded the dollar amounts they were seeking to raise.

Miss Possiblei-Besties
GoldieBlox

Miss Possible (top left), i-Besties (top right) and GoldieBlox (bottom) represent a new crop of girls STEM toys

All four companies were launched by women with advanced degrees in STEM or MBAs, which is notable considering the dearth of female executives in the toy industry (LEGO has 22 men and 2 women in leadership roles; Mattel employs 11 men and 1 woman on its Board of Directors). Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen (Roominate), Supriya Hobbs and Janna Eaves (Miss Possible), and Gina and Jenae Heitcamp (i-Besties) all looked to establish their credentials as engineers, scientists and business experts, but not as toy industry insiders, in building support for their cause. This positioned them as outsiders bringing new ideas to a stale male-dominated medium, but also as novices and idealists, which potentially undercut investor confidence in their ability to follow through on their initiatives. Unsurprisingly, Sterling was quick to point out that GoldieBlox was supported by the founders of Cranium and Klutz Press, two men with longstanding reputations as toy industry innovators who sold their startups to Hasbro and Scholastic. Likewise, Brooks and Chen noted that their product had been backed by entertainment and media mogul Mark Cuban after having been pitched on an episode of Shark Tank. In general, the founders foreground the relationships they had built with veteran toy manufacturers and distributors as assurance that their outsider status was more rhetorical than infrastructural.

Importantly, all 7 women used their college experiences as de facto origin stories for their products, reciting almost verbatim their shock at how few other girls were in their programs (MGA’s Isaac Larian also offered a ‘where are all the girls?’ epiphany for launching Project MC2 – albeit 35 years after he graduated from college – suggesting that this trope has quickly crossed over into mainstream efforts to sell STEM toy lines). They all then proceeded to make the spurious leap from low female enrollments to the lack of play options for girls, suggesting “you can’t be what you can’t see.” By spurious I don’t mean to suggest that they mischaracterized the state of girls toys, which is strongly entrenched in domestic, social, and appearance-based play scenarios, but rather, that their correlation selectively focuses on play objects rather than play environments. Brooks and Chen explain how their love for engineering stemmed from childhood experiences like Brooks’ father giving her a saw instead of the Barbie she requested and Chen growing up building LEGO creations with her older brothers and giving “no thought to gender differences in toys.” Though these disclosures are intended to justify the need for the products being ‘kickstarted,’ they also inadvertently undermine their effects-based arguments by revealing how parental interventions and gender-neutral household dynamics were ultimately the greater influencers on these women’s career paths. Here the rhetoric of parental intervention is transferred onto investing in the product lines being developed.

Also of significance is the way these campaigns go out of their way to reassure potential contributors that playing with STEM toys will not sap girls of their essential ‘girlyness.’ This message is conveyed on two fronts. First, the seven CEOs establish that they have not lost their femininity despite pursuing science and engineering careers. Sterling twice repeats that she enjoys pink princesses and playing dress-up while also advocating that girls are “so much more than that.” Her campaign video features her sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor in what is presumably her house rather than behind the desk at her office, which both juvenilizes and domesticates her ambitions. Hobbs and Eaves recount that they thought up Miss Possible in their dorm room while sharing “a pack of gummy worms (yummy!),” a rhetorical maneuver that ‘cutifies’ their business plan.

Engineering Toys for Girls

Screengrab of Debbie Sterling’s Kickstarter pitch video

Second, the products pitched fit comfortably within established tropes of girl play culture. Roominate offers girls the opportunity to build and design their own dollhouse: “Designing the room ties the experience back to common play patterns that we know girls love!” [ (( To Roominate’s credit, their second crowdfunding campaign openly celebrates the diverse creations girls have made with their product, which include cars, space ships, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge and other non-domestic designs. ))] i-Besties seeks to take advantage of girls “already established play patterns” with dolls and doll fashions to ‘edutain’ them about “modern concepts of entrepreneurship and technology.” Hobbs and Eaves brag that the Miss Possible doll with have a “vinyl body and brushable nylon hair (like Barbie).” GoldieBlox reminds parents that an essential difference between boys and girls is that while the former have innate spatial skills the latter have superior verbal ones (read, boys are naturally good at unstructured play while girls take instruction well), which is why GoldieBlox combines building with stories that guide girls through the process. While some of this might be interpreted as a set of backdoor strategies to get girls interested in STEM, it also normalizes the industry’s status quo when it comes to gendered tastes and segregated sensibilities, offering product differentiation within established toy and consumer categories rather than challenging the logics of retail toy shelf slotting.

Dollhouse

Dollhouses and interior decorating: backdoor strategies to excite girls?

The embrace by most of these entrepreneurs of the industry standard that kids want toys (or at least packaging) that somehow look like them is perhaps most apparent in their nod toward supporting diversity in their products. Miss Possible declares that “We want every girl to see powerful role models who look like her” accompanied by a promise that their second doll will be of African American aviator Bessie Coleman (the Kickstarter campaign is to prototype their Marie Curie doll), while i-Besties enthuses that the doll line is “as diverse as the girls who love them. Distinct in culture, personality and talents, they come from backgrounds that include blended, bi-racial, military and single-parent households.” Just like Miss Possible, however, their initial prototype doll, McKenna is Caucasian (she is also the self-identified ‘business boss’ of the group whereas the other non-white members have more discernibly exploitable high-end skills like coding and graphic design). In both instances, whiteness remains the default product that must succeed in order to get a complete racially-diverse set. [ (( Roominate again proves the exception with all of its packaging featuring non-white girls playing with the toy and its initial mini-figures based on childhood versions of the company’s founders, who are both Asian-American. ))] Diversity is also seemingly vinyl skin deep in the sense that there is virtually no address of diverse experiences or reasons why girls of color might either embrace or reject STEM. In this regard, the promise of diversity mimics the industry’s current reduction of race to a color dye rather than a socio-historical condition that influences and impacts everything from play possibilities to career opportunities.

Miss Possible

Miss Possible promises that diversity will follow if investors fund their Marie Curie doll

Finally, it is important to place efforts to inspire a love of STEM through play within the context of entrepreneurship. While it is a common refrain within these campaigns to suggest that more women becoming involved in STEM will make the world a ‘better place,’ there is a decidedly careerist bend to this notion. i-Besties bluntly states its goal to inspire girls to become CEOs, but all of the projects loosely connect improving the world with the success stories of their companies’ founders. Simply put, through the logic of crowdfunding, an investment in Roominate is both an investment in girls’ futures and in the present ambitions of the women who founded the company. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging more women to become scientists, engineers, and business-owners, there is some concern that tying this accomplishment to entrepreneurship’s investor model places the responsibility on consumers rather than public institutions. Entrepreneurship’s focus on market competition and executing sustainable business plans contributes to the conversion of young girls into customers rather than seeing them as a community with shared interests in STEM. Notably, none of the companies I’ve discussed share any of the proprietary science or engineering behind the products they are selling, nor do they acknowledge their own complicity in taking STEM jobs away from both girls and boys through their contracting of more cost-effective overseas manufacturers and product testers (granted these aren’t the sexy STEM jobs imagined as making the world a better place).

Roomminate in Wal-Mart

Roominate conflates sales success and being stocked at Wal-Mart with empowering girls

The arrival of STEM toys brings with it a lot of excitement for play’s potential to change the demographic makeup of the next generation of scientists and engineers. How that potential is refracted through the toy industry’s entrenched product and consumer categorization practices remains to be determined. Despite the celebration of crowdfunding’s ability to circumvent the established industrial etiquette by appealing directly to consumers as investors, the girl inventor promoted by all these initiatives still seems constrained by the need to embrace a market-friendly invention of girlhood.

Image Credits:
1. Roominate header
2. Miss Possible
3. i-Besties
4. GoldieBlox
5. Debbie Sterling’s kickstarter pitch video (author’s screen grab)
6. Dollhouse interior decorating
7. Miss Possible diversity
8. Roominate in Wal-Mart

Please feel free to comment.




“Smart is the New Cool”: Branding Project MC2’s S.T.E.M. Lifestyle
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Netflix original series Project MC<sup>2</sup>

Publicity Image for the Netflix original series Project MC2

At the 2015 New York City Toy Fair MGA Entertainment, makers of Bratz and Lalaloopsy, introduced its new initiative, Project MC2, which targets girls 6-13 and seeks to get them excited about S.T.E.M. through a branded toy line, app, interactive website, social media campaign and a Netflix series produced in conjunction with DreamWorks’ AwesomenessTV, all launching simultaneously in September 2015. MGA CEO Isaac Larian explained that he was troubled by the low enrollment of women in college engineering programs harkening back to his own undergraduate days when he majored in civil engineering at Cal Tech and had only one female classmate. Larian stated that his hope was that Project MC2 would contribute to a woman becoming the next CEO of Microsoft or Google (though tellingly not MGA). [ (( Stevens, Heidi. “Project Mc2 dolls intended to nudge girls toward STEM careers,” Chicago Tribune online. August 21, 2015. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-sun-0823-balancing-act-20150821-column.html Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

While Larian’s hopes for Project MC2 are likely genuine (at least in part), the timing of his renewed concerns needs to be understood not just in relation to the ongoing gender gap in S.T.E.M.-based careers, but also in relation to the inroads made by startup companies like GoldieBlox and Roominate in securing very limited shelf space in stores like Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart, not to mention the crowdfunding success that they, iBesties and Trobo the Storytelling Robot have found, indicating a growing market for toys that challenge gender norms and encourage girls to engage in S.T.E.M. activities. GoldieBlox had over 5500 backers on Kickstarter and in addition to raising $285,000 (exceeding their $150,000 goal in just 4 days), the company received pre-orders north of $1,000,000 when it launched in 2012. It is currently available in more than 6000 retail outlets worldwide. Perhaps most importantly for MGA, GoldieBlox’s latest products are girl engineer and programmer “action figures,” shifting its primary competition from construction-based toy companies like LEGO and Mego Blocks to doll lines like Mattell’s Barbie and MGA’s Bratz. [ (( For an insightful analysis of GoldieBlox’s troubling insistence on calling their toys “action figures” instead of “dolls,” which potentially reinforces gender hierarchies when it comes to toy culture, see Derek Johnson’s 2014 Flow column “CALLING “ACTION” IN THE GOLDIEBLOX FRANCHISE”  http://flowjournal.org/2014/11/calling-action-goldieblox-franchis/ Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

Goldie BloxRubie Rails
iBesties

Where S.T.E.M. toys for girls have up until now largely focused on construction sets, companion dolls/action figures like Goldie Blox, Rubie Rails and iBesties are now entering the market.

None of this is to say that Project MC2 isn’t a sincere attempt to capture girl consumers and ingratiate them into the wonders of S.T.E.M. The brand features four teenaged female friends from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and with diverse skills who work for a spy organization run by women called Nov8 (pronounced “innovate” but also the date for National S.T.E.M. Day). Though the premise lends itself to action and adventure, the Netflix series and website make clear that these girls use science and engineering to solve cases. The series stresses female friendship and the importance of girls working together and supporting one another. It also depicts the four protagonists as not only comfortable in their own skin but also fashionable and conformist (they are not depicted as outcasts for their interests nor are they made to “stand out” among other girls. They are smart, cool, and accepted).

Project MC2 has also tapped Danica McKellar, former star of The Wonder Years (1988-1993) noted for earning a degree in math and then publishing several books directed at girls about the topic as Nov8’s director, codename The Quail. McKellar bring “authenticity” to the project (all of the other characters are portrayed by actresses with no touted S.T.E.M. skills) and in many ways embodies MGA’s approach to feminizing S.T.E.M. Her bestselling book Math Doesn’t Suck relies on examples like learning how to properly create a shoe shopping budget and using ratios to determine whether or not to be into a guy in order to supposedly make math “relatable” to girls’ experiences. Likewise, Project MC2 positions S.T.E.M. as just another facet of (stereo)typical girlhood (though the Nov8 team is exceptional, the girls are presented as equally concerned with their appearance as with saving the day; as simultaneously capable of mooning over Prince Harry – the dimwitted celebrity they are assigned to protect – as they are the advanced tech that Nov8 uses).

With the Netflix series providing a playable storyline that can be acted out through product acquisition, Project MC2 utilizes immersion and extractability strategies to move consumers across product(ion) sites. The dolls are dressed in the exact same outfits as the characters on the series and come with experiments that kids can perform at home drawn directly from things shown in the series. For example, the Adrienne Attoms doll comes with an erupting volcano experiment that the character performs as part of her initiation into Nov8. Yet, it is telling that most of the “gear” extracted from the series focuses on benign rather than disruptive experimentation. While some of the tools the Nov8 team uses in the series might be difficult to recreate at home without exceeding MGA’s $14.99-$49.99 price-point, it is worth pointing out that Netflix’s Adrienne Attoms also demonstrates how to lift fingerprints using a quarter cup of flour and two dashes of cinnamon while the characters of Bryden Bandweth and Camryn Coyle are able to build a camera pen and a portable police scanner out of spare parts. Their dolls, however, come with experiments that demonstrate how to make a glow stick necklace (worn by Bryden) and how to assemble a mini plastic version of Cam’s customized skateboard. In other words, where the show features characters’ adept at creating surveillance technologies, the “gear” available for purchase focuses on items that are intended to be looked at. In other other words, the Project MC2 brand is geared toward encouraging girls to see S.T.E.M. as a lifestyle amplifier tied to traditional notions of girlhood rather than a way to push back against existing gender scripts.

Project MC<sup>2</sup> Dolls

Project MC2 dolls come with experiments and fashions drawn directly from the Netflix series. Note the beaker-shaped combs, which exemplify MGA’s efforts to combine Bratz’s fashion and beauty focus with a new emphasis on smarts.

Lab KitLab Kit

The Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit is another accessory used on the Netflix series that is intended to make S.T.E.M. stylish.

AwesomenessTV’s promotional materials for Project MC2 in some ways best reveals MGA’s approach to getting tween girls to invest in S.T.E.M. as a lifestyle brand. Awesomeness produced several short videos where the stars of the series are interviewed by Ashley Adams, host of the web series Foodie Face about topics like how to make homemade acne prevention cream and sunburn masks. These paratexts help bridge the brand’s interests in both science and style by focusing on how household concoctions could be used to keep a girl looking her best.


Mika Abdulla and Victoria Vida on Foodie Face discussing the science of homemade sunburn cures.

While this seems a far cry from the series’ “spies save the world with S.T.E.M.” premise, it isn’t really: the characters on Project MC2 are all about celebrating and documenting their awesomeness, regularly breaking out in “go us” chants and constantly uploading selfies to Instagram. While there is nothing wrong with girls expressing excitement about their accomplishments, the characters on Project MC2 verge on narcissistic. Mirroring this, AwesomenessTV also produced a series of unboxing videos featuring each actress squeeing over her doll. The spots focus on their palpable excitement over seeing their faces on the packaging and the ways their outfits have been carefully reconstructed for the dolls. Each girl talks about how the clothes worn by their character both captures their fictional and real personalities. There is nary a mention of whether the actresses have come to appreciate S.T.E.M. through their embodiment of these characters, but it is clear that they have come to appreciate the coolness of their characters’ geek chic looks. Not surprisingly, Larian recently announced MGA’s search for licensing partners to produce a line of Project MC2 inspired clothing and accessories. [ (( Sax, Barbara. “Evolving MGA,” Global Licence! October 1, 2015. http://www.licensemag.com/license-global/evolving-mga Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]


Mika Abdulla unboxing her doll. Note the focus on style over science (presented as easy and fun) and the slippages between herself and her character.


Another promotional paratext prepared by AwesomenessTV that drives home the significance of style in making “smart the new cool.”

Selling Project MC2 as a lifestyle brand that uses S.T.E.M. to express one’s individual style might actually entice some tween girls to buy in to the concept as much as the products, but lifestyle brands also typically privilege external expressions of personality over character or skill building tools, which risks promoting S.T.E.M. as cool without making it any more accessible to girls who are otherwise regularly told that they aren’t any good at math or science. Project MC2 offers to give S.T.E.M. a product makeover; I’m just not sure it is intended to actually excite girls about the process of experimentation, either with S.T.E.M. or gender norms.

MC2 Lifestyle

The Project MC2 lifestyle brand focuses on making the S.T.E.M. look trendy for tween girls without much focus on the need for actual S.T.E.M. knowhow.

Image Credits:
1. Project MC2 promotional image
2. GoldieBlox
3. Rubie Rails
4. iBesties
5. Project MC2 dolls
6. Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit (unopened)
7. Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit (opened)
8. Project MC2 lifestyle brand

Please feel free to comment.




Girl as Sign: Epistemology of the Shōjo
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Ayanami Rei

Ayanami Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion

The 1995 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (hereafter NGE) is probably the most heavily marketed and referenced production in the entire Japanese animation industry. The show documents the struggles of Ikari Shinji, who, despite being chosen to battle aliens, is a crybaby who constantly depends on his female colleagues to rescue him. This portrayal of masculinity is subversive in the context of the genre with which NGE is typically associated: shōnen (“young/adolescent boy”), a type of anime and manga (comic books) centered around male heroism.

Given NGE‘s cultural impact, Shinji’s story must have struck a chord with its intended audience: young men who are under immense pressure to achieve culturally-defined success. But there is another way in which NGE portrays this gendered anxiety. It is channeled through the character of Ayanami Rei, Shinji’s colleague. Despite not being the protagonist, Rei has become a character archetype in Japanese media in the wake of NGE‘s success, with many later works featuring female characters with her physical and emotional characteristics. If Shinji symbolizes a failure to perform idealized masculinity, or the anxiety about this failure, what does Rei’s cultural influence represent? There must be a name for that which codifies Rei – the projection of male anxiety through female subjectivity.

pop star in shōjo fashion

Pop star in shōjo fashion

The name is shōjo. Literally translated as “young/adolescent girl,” shōjo transcends genre and occupies a distinct space in Japanese visual culture. Characterized as “selfish, irresponsible, weak, and infantile,” the shōjo image has become pervasive to the point of defining the Japanese national character in the postmodern era, perhaps not coincidentally conflating with the colonial construction of Oriental passivity. But shōjo culture also functions in specific ways in Japanese contemporary society, enabling not only female identification but also, more significantly, male identification.

Originating in late nineteenth-century Japan, the modern concept of shōjo emerged in a period of rapid economic change as single-sex girls’ schools were established to fulfill a rising demand for labour. Books and magazines designated “for girls” became popular and helped to define an identity of shōjo during Japan’s modernization. [ (( Treat, John Whittier. “Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: Shōjo Culture and the Nostalgic Subject.” Society of Japanese Studies 19, no. 2 (1993). )) ] By the late twentieth-century, the concept of shōjo has been rearticulated as both a phenomenon of Japanese consumer culture and a model of Japan, which to some critics meant a state of passivity, commodification, and narcissism. Others have defined 1980s shōjo culture more ambiguously; their attitudes toward the shōjo image appear ambivalent, and they also remark on the ambiguity of that image: it is whimsical, elastic, and in a state of “floating.” [ (( Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. 201-27. )) ]

Shojo Beat

Shojo Beat magazine cover

The overall picture of shōjo-ness that thus emerges from these views is of a slightly troubled, dreamy, yet somehow seductive vulnerability, occupying a space of sexual inactivity and potential between childhood and adulthood. Because this tension is essentially what constitutes the shōjo subjectivity, scholars have argued that the shōjo is its own gender, “neither adult woman nor girl child, neither man nor woman.” [ (( Quoted in Orbaugh, 204.)) ] The non(re)productive space it represents could be seen as a potential site of resistance to the nuclear family as a function of industrial capitalism. The discourse of the shōjo, then, appears to be as rich and contradictory as the sign itself. The shōjo is passive, but also transformative; uncertain, but potentially liberatory. As a main form of girls’ entertainment, shōjo anime and manga have always been more than a reflection of societal concerns about young women’s sexualities. In marketing shōjo-ness to girls, producers of such entertainment encourage girls to consume images of themselves as commodities, identifying them as both consumers and the consumed. [ (( Prough, Jennifer S. “Material Gals: Girls’ Sexuality, Girls’ Culture, and Shōjo Manga.” Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shōjo Manga. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011. 110-34. )) ] In other words, shōjo media produces shōjo culture and young women’s desires rather than simply reflecting them. However, attempts to achieve shōjo-ness could also be argued to represent a desire to fulfill a constant lack—unreachable beauty, freedom from adult sexuality and family duty—which drives the consumption of shōjo-related fashion products, such as Hello Kitty goodies. [ (( Shen, Lien Fan. “The Dark, Twisted Magical Girls: Shōjo Heroines in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 177-88. )) ] Consuming these products is the easiest way for the female subject to embody shōjo and its non-reproductive, static yet promising qualities.

An important and popular stream of shōjo entertainment since the 1970s is the yaoi genre, which exclusively features male homosexual romance. This subgenre of anime and em>manga is predominantly produced by and circulated among women. Although the subjects of these comics are obviously not girls, it is possible to consider them as having shōjo qualities: many of the men are portrayed as beautiful and androgynous, and most importantly, they are young and non-reproductive. [ (( Nagaike, Kazumi. Fantasies of Cross-Dressing: Japanese Women Write Male-Male Erotica. Leiden, Neterlands: Brill Academic Publishing, 2012. )) ] Another aspect of shōjo-ness in yaoi is the communities of women that revolve around it and share these fantasies amongst each other. The creating and sharing of yaoi, more specifically, serves to enhance the shōjo community by staging a particular way for the shōjo to address one another and identify each other as shōjo, thus highlighting their shōjo characteristics and reaffirming their shōjo identities. [ (( Nagaike, 94. )) ]

description of image

Example of a yaio magazine

While a complex examination of yaoi is outside the scope of this discussion, I want to emphasize a few aspects about the phenomenon. One reason that women writers and artists may
have turned to the depiction of male homosexual relationships is the limitations around writing stories about sexually-active (and reproductive) women, such as pregnancy, which symbolizes a point in one’s life when one stops being shōjo. [ (( Orbaugh, 212. )) ] Focusing on young, non-reproductive men is a way to explore romantic and sexual relationships without having to engage with the realities of womanhood in Japan. In this sense, yaoi’s presence reflects the anxieties women have about their social situation. But another reason for its popularity may be its success in enabling women to project their own femininity onto the male characters. In the process of this projection, women not only come to identify with the characters but are also able to identify themselves. In other words, their shōjo status is validated through both objectifying the male characters and “entering” the body of the objectified.

If yaoi is a space for women to fantasize about the possibilities of being the Other (to their own “Other,” so to speak), does the same space exist for men? If shōjo is a screen for the projection of male anxieties about female adolescent sexuality, what are the mechanisms that allow men to take unto themselves the image of the shōjo and identify with it/her? A further examination is needed of the ways in which the cultural production of shōjo enables male identification. [ (( I’m aware that I have been talking predominantly in the gender binary. My intention is not to erase the experiences of those who see themselves in characters that aren’t necessarily of their own gender (assigned or otherwise). As it will hopefully become clear in my subsequent columns, I’m merely trying to demonstrate that this process of identification operates in a specific way in the context of shōjo media, as it is circumscribed within patriarchal hegemony. )) ] For now, we have established that shōjo is a phenomenon that has material implications on the ways in which subjects navigate the structures of patriarchy.

Image Credits:

1. Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion
2. Pop star embodying shōjo fashion
3. Cover of Shōjo Beat magazine
4. Cover of a yaoi magazine

Please feel free to comment.




Children Playing in Hollywood

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Little Children movie poster

Little Children movie poster

Todd Field’s Oscar nominated feature, Little Children, received rave reviews in 2006 for its careful depiction of the hopes and fears that nestle beneath the surface in suburban heterosexual America. In the film, a veneer of serene family life quickly gives way to reveal a shadow world replete with sexual menace and fascinating perversity. In fact, the promise of Little Children lies in its apparent commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban Christian morality. And, pedophilia serves, at the beginning of the film, as a marker for the witch-hunting propensities of white “neighborhood watch” societies and lets the viewer believe that the film’s narrative thrust involves a hard and long look at the inadequacies of heterosexual marriage and the lengths to which suburban heteros will go to find scapegoats for their own deep wells of loneliness.Little Children tells three interlocking stories: in the first, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslett) sits apart from the other suburban mums at the local playground and marks her distance from their parochial and repressive enforcement of social norms. Pierce, as her name implies, can see through the judgmental stance of the mothers and unlike them, she is not afraid to admit to her dissatisfaction with marriage and motherhood. When an attractive stay at home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) appears at the playground, her interest is piqued. Sarah is unhappily married to an older man, Richard (Greg Edelman), who spends his spare time absorbed in internet porn. Again, as his name implies, Richard is purely and simply a dick and we are at a loss to understand why Sarah has married him. Brad Adamson, on the other hand, also carrying an allegorical name implying some kind of oedipalized masculinity, is a law student married to a cold and driven wife, and he is struggling to hold on to some fragment of his youth before disappearing into the career she has fantasized for him. Finally, in this suburban Greek drama, enter Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), an odd looking and shy middle-aged man, newly released from jail for pedophilia. Ronnie (notice the childish name) lives with his mother in a dark house full of childhood dolls and miniatures and he is persecuted by a neighborhood cop who retired under suspicious circumstances and who now makes it his duty to spy on McGorvey and warn the neighborhood against him.

Critics like A.O. Scott in the NYT and Carina Chocano in the LA Times were wild about this film and praised it for the beautiful camera work, the melding of menace to coziness in its sunny settings and the subtle and intelligent dissection of suburban dysfunction. The film, however, is actually a strangely crude and ultimately hateful confirmation of the very same moral structures that it seems at first to be critiquing. To my mind this weird cycle by which the very conditions of unhappiness at the start of the film become the resolution at the end, the diagnosis becomes the cure, is representative of the narrative code of many liberal Hollywood films, like American Beauty for example, and it allows very conservative cultural texts about sexuality and domesticity to pose as radical and alternative ones.

Let’s see how Little Children manages to sneak normativity into the plot as resolution for the problem of the community enforcement of …normativity! The schema of the film works almost off a blueprint for psychoanalytic family structure: Sarah does not want to be a mother to her daughter and her husband does not want to be a husband to his wife. She fails to be mother, he fails to be father and in fact, in their first encounter in the film, she catches him masturbating in his study setting her up as the castrating mother to the naughty auto-erotic son. Brad does not want to be a father to his son but would rather remain a son (Adamson) and he watches teenage boys skateboarding in the evening when he should be studying, longing for the freedom implied by their flights through space and time. Ronnie cannot transition from being son to his mother to being a husband to an adult woman (as we witness in a painful date scene) and he regresses into boyhood as soon as he re-enters his mother’s house. Seemingly, the problem here is heterosexuality writ large with its imprisoning structures of normative gender and its suffocating modes of domesticity. People get married for all the wrong reasons, the film implies, and the society insists that they replace their parents by becoming them.

Brad and Sarah at the pool

Brad and Sarah at the pool

And the first half of the film does indeed begin to unravel the social compulsion to conform, externally enforced and internally incorporated, that produces judgment, anxiety, fear and desire as its monstrous byproducts. The scene at the neighborhood pool, where Sarah and Brad are bathing in the sunlight of their newly ignited desire and where poor Ronnie is pegged as a predatory pervert and treated like a shark in the water, dramatizes the collision between fear and normativity that produces both the pervert and the conditions of his desire. But all of the tension of that scene, all of the criticism that it directs at the moralistic parents who use the notion of protecting their children as an alibi for outrageous behavior, disappears instantly when the cautious sympathy that the viewer has developed for Ronnie is erased by the revelation that he is not a suspected pedophile who is being unfairly treated but a real pedophile who also hates adult women and deserves our contempt and the violence of his neighbors.

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie’s descent from wronged innocent to hideous pervert is matched in the film by the shift of sympathies away from the adulterous duo, Sarah and Brad, and towards the happy families that these infidels have disrupted. The porno obsessed Dick and the frigid Kathy suddenly seem like tragic victims of the selfishness and greed of their dysfunctional and adulterous spouses. While Sarah and Brad were the victims of their marriages when the film began, at its denouement the film refuses to make them the heroes of their adultery. So, if adultery is not the escape and the cure for a bad marriage, what is? Apparently, returning to the bad marriage is the only answer that the film can offer, oh and “grow up.”In the film’s crazed resolution, Sarah and Brad have decided to run away together. Sarah goes to wait for Brad in the playground and we see her willfully say goodbye to her daughter, choosing sex over family, desire over nurturing, her own happiness over the child’s. Brad leaves his home too but stops on the way to the playground to watch the skateboarders. In the meantime, who should enter the playground but our abject third, the perpetual outsider, the inhuman pervert against whose desires, Sarah and Brad and their spouses all seem pure, of course, Ronnie. Ronnie, we think, wants to hurt Sarah and a tragedy seems to be in the making. But no, goodness and truth, thank God, win out over perversity and evil and so while Brad hurts himself in the skateboard park trying a stunt for which he is too old, Sarah witnesses the self-castration of Ronnie. He looks up at her from the bench upon which he sits, lifts his hands from his crotch and reveals a bloody mess and a knife. Could anything be more blatantly Freudian than this diagnostic manual ending? The man who still thinks he is a boy falls off his skateboard and hits his head, when he comes to he realizes he loves his wife and in that moment he becomes a man. The woman who wants to be a daughter rather than a mother sees in Ronnie the disasterous results of poor parenting and rushes home to her child and her porno husband. The poor pervert who cannot become a man and wants to harm children serves as a warning to all who stray even a little way from the domestic lair in suburbia: if you cannot grow up and reproduce a replica of your parents’ home, his character implies, you will do horrible things to innocent people. And if you cannot control your impulses, you must be castrated.

Sarah and her child

Sarah and her child

The plot summary I have given here surely does not sound like the same film that critics hailed as “quietly devastating” (Peter Travers) and “intelligent” (A.O. Scott). And yet, I have not embellished the plot, its conceits or its imagined solutions to the problems introduced by each character. Why would critics see this sophomoric understanding of desire and domesticity as complex, intricate and subtle? And why raise the topic of pedophilia as a way of discussing suburban witch hunts only to transform it into a trope for what is wrong with suburban heteronormativity? In the end, we are asked to believe, there is nothing wrong with the family, nothing faulty about hetero marriage, the only problem in suburbia is indeed the lurking pervert who wants to harm you and your children. In a security age, perhaps, we cater to existing fears and we are complicit in creating new ones all so that, apparently, in the end all we can ask is that the state protect us from the very thing that it has manufactured as the cause of our alarm.

Image Credits:
1. Little Children movie poster
2. Brad and Sarah at the pool
3. Ronnie and his mother
4. Sarah and her child

Please feel free to comment.