“Buckle up, bitches. Nothing is as it seems”: Gothic conventions in Pretty Little Liars
Andrea Braithwaite / University of Ontario Institute of Technology

Rosewood
 

Rosewood — the sleepy suburb with big secrets
The town of Rosewood is full of secrets. Its sleepy, bucolic streets and charming old homes hide scandal, treachery — and murderers. The setting for ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars (PLL; 2010-present), (( Pretty Little Liars. ABC Family, 2010-present. )) Rosewood is simultaneously peaceful and frightening; we are more likely to hear crows cawing than children playing. Here, four high school girls — Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer, known collectively as the Liars — try to figure out what happened to their friend Alison, presumed dead at the start of the series. Their efforts are hampered by a mysterious figure called “A,” who seems to know their every move and deepest secrets. The Liars are thus caught between searching for answers about Alison, uncovering A’s identity, and keeping their school, family, and love lives on track.

PLL is indebted to the dramatics of teen TV and the melodramatics of the Gothic. Emerging in the late eighteenth century with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto(1794), and typified in works like Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), the Gothic is a flexible and adaptable genre, “provid[ing] authors with imaginative ways to address on Grademiners.com contemporary fears”. (( Buzwell, Greg. “Gothic Fiction in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Mutating Bodies and Disturbed Minds.” British Library, n.d. <http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-fiction-inthe-victorian-fin-de-siecle> )) It’s also often regarded as a way to explore women’s anxieties and vulnerabilities. As Anne Williams explains, “gender is crucial in the Gothic”. (( Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of the Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. P.100 )) (( see also: Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. London: The Women’s Press, 1976. ))

Surveillance and paranoia, doppelgängers, and high levels of emotional intensity are mainstays of both the Gothic and PLL. Throughout the series, the Liars’ every move is carefully monitored by A — the cryptic letter used to sign the threatening notes, texts messages, videos, and creepy packages they receive. From the very first message (“I’m still here bitches, and I know everything”), A is set up as a malevolent and omniscient figure.

A’s messages to the Liars fall into two categories: critique and instruction. The former are pointed reminders of A’s ongoing surveillance, as they tend to pick apart the Liars’ actions throughout the day: “Now I know TWO secrets. Hanna got dissed…and Emily got KISSED!” (“Reality Bites Me”); “Look at you, all alone in a crowd. I win!” (“The Goodbye Look”); “Hey Em, some cream with your coffee?” (“Save the Date”); “Cut Mona off? Big mistake. You’re not the only one who can slice and dice” (“Mona – Mania”); “I buried your mom the same way I watched her bury you” (“Run, Ali, Run”). The feeling that someone is always watching is characteristically Gothic, echoing classics like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which a heroine is trapped under the watchful eye of a powerful, often capricious, figure.

A also exercises power over the Liars’ behaviour through instructional messages — commands to be obeyed out of anxiety and fear. In “Know Your Frenemies,” for instance, A preys on Hanna’s insecurities about her weight by directing her to a local restaurant to pick up an order for “Hefty Hanna,” and to eat the entire thing in full view of anyone passing by. From dictating nerdy dance partners (“Careful What U Wish 4”) to forcing Emily to come out to friends and family (“Keep Your Friends Close”), to just “Act normal, bitches” (“No One Here Can Love or Understand Me”), A monitors and manipulates the Liars’ behaviour. Like other Gothic stories, PLL is “full of constraint, entrapment and forced actions. Scenes of extreme threat and isolation — either physical or psychological — are always happening or about to happen”. (( Bowen, John. “Gothic Motifs.” British Library, n.d. <http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-motifs> ))

test from A
 

A typically unnerving text from A
A message
 

A’s messages even appear in private spaces, such as bedrooms
The paranoia and suspicion generated by A’s constant surveillance reminds us that in Rosewood, no one is who they claim to be: “people and events that initially seem innocent and straightforward become dark and sinister when viewed more closely”. (( Buzwell, Greg. “Man is not truly one, but truly two’: Duality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” British Library, n.d. )) True selves and real motivations are hidden behind facades of doting boyfriends, caring parents, and do-good cops — a typically Gothic theme of doubles or doppelgängers that further complicates the messy threads of identity and guilt the Liars are trying to unravel. Their dawning realization that A isn’t an individual person, but rather a host of unknowns working together is one of the show’s most significant doublings. It amplifies the level of menace: A is no longer a singular threat, but multiple ones, and none of A’s potential identities are clear. Doubling exacerbates the show’s larger climate of fear and distrust, for if A isn’t one but many, then the potential for betrayal increases as well.

This is exactly what happens when parts of A’s identities are exposed. The first A to be unmasked is Mona Vanderwaal, one of Hanna’s closest friends, who is determined to exact revenge for feeling she has lost Hanna to the Liars. In another classic Gothic move, Mona is committed to Radley Sanitarium – an dark, imposing building crawling with ivy and surrounded by intricate wrought-iron fences. Toby, Spencer’s boyfriend, is next A to be identified, although his motives differ from Mona’s. Toby’s behaviour is itself a deceit, a strategy to protect Spencer from A’s more nefarious machinations. Even deception is doubled in PLL: Toby’s betrayal of Spencer is actually a betrayal of A.

Radley sanitarium
 

Radley Sanitarium, where Mona is committed after being unmasked as A
The most recent A to be uncovered is Ezra, the high school’s English teacher and Aria’s on-again off-again boyfriend. However, Ezra’s true purpose in Rosewood was to get to the bottom of Alison’s apparent death for a true-crime novel he’s writing. Seducing Aria was premeditated, part of Ezra’s plot to worm his way into the heart of Alison’s story. Yet even this isn’t the end of A. Ezra is shot by a shadowy figure in a dark hoodie, indicating that A’s identity has once again doubled. The Liars are far from safe – each time one A is revealed, another steps up to take over. The broader atmosphere of surveillance and suspicion is relentless; the Liars, it seems, will never truly be free, and never fully know whom to trust.

Another A
 

The shadowy figure, presumably A, taking aim at Ezra
These elements help tie the show’s strong Gothic underpinnings to its teen TV setting. Part of what makes A so chillingly effective is how A and the Liars — like so many other characters on contemporary teen TV shows — are always plugged in. The technologies of https://grademiners.com/dissertation-help that mediate relationships and identities are key to the series’ deceptive and manipulative practices. An incoming text message may be the show’s most ominous sound effect, as we never know if the message will be helpful or hurtful. These devices create “a distinct sense of paranoia, where women feel that their behaviour is being continually observed and subsequently judged”. (( Johnson, Tracy. “The Fear Industry: Women, Gothic and Contemporary Crime Narrative.” Gothic Studies 4.1 (2002): 44-62. ))

Yet the Liars have an unshakable faith in one another, if not in themselves. While teen TV is usually known for its dramatically shifting allegiances, Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer stand by each other throughout all of A’s attacks and the not-unreasonable idea that any one of them could be A. Their resolve challenges early Gothic tropes of female passivity and victimization. (( see, e.g., Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender From Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998. )) ; although they may always be a step behind, they never stop trying to write essays out of A’s labyrinthine schemes — even after years of terror and abuse. Part of “a long and shifting generic mode able to articulate female fears at different historical moments,” PLL’s Gothic elements are central to the show’s depictions of growing up female in the age of smartphones and social media. (( Hanson, Helen. “From Suspicion (1941) to Deceived (1991): Gothic Continuities, Feminism and Postfeminism in the Neo-Gothic Film.” Gothic Studies 9.2 (2007): 20-32. )) Because, as Alison tells her friends, “Sometimes lies are more interesting than the truth.”

Image Credits:
1. Rosewood — the sleepy suburb with big secrets
2. A typically unnerving text from A
3. A’s messages even appear in private spaces, such as bedrooms
4. Radley Sanitarium, where Mona is committed after being unmasked as A
5. The shadowy figure, presumably A, taking aim at Ezra

Please feel free to comment.




Knowledge, Agency, and the “Strong Female Lead” in Serialized Television
Kathleen Battles / Oakland University

Alias
Strong female lead Jennifer Garner in Alias
If there is one thing that links my viewing habits, according to Netflix, it is television shows that feature a “Strong Female Lead,” which generally seems to refer to women leads in genres traditionally associated with male characters and/or audiences. While 70s and 80 series flirted with the idea of women in men’s roles, a key progenitor of the contemporary “strong female lead” is Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), one half of the supernatural, extraterrestrial crime fighting duo that helmed the 90s cult classic, The X-Files. The show made such a lasting impression on fans that recent speculation of a reboot led to intense fan response. (( Robinson, Joanna. “Believe! That X-Files Reboot Is Actually Happening.” Vanity Fair. Conde Nast, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/01/x-files-reboot-anderson-duchovny-on-board )) While the wide ranging sci-fi procedural offered any number of entry points for fan engagement, no doubt a set of them were thrilled at the return of the intelligent, tough, logical, take-no-prisoners Scully and the romantic relationship of equals between her and her conspiracy cracking partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny).

Despite my early love for the show, I find myself less optimistic about the prospect of its return. By the end of the series, Scully suffered the fate of so many “strong female leads” in that her knowledge and agency were fundamentally undermined. In this post I’d like to tentatively explore the relationship between women, knowledge, and agency in long arc sci-fi, spy, and political series, including The X-Files, Chuck, Alias, and Scandal. Each series was premised on some level female knowledge and agency. Scully begins her career in The X-Files after being sent to investigate Mulder, and a great deal of the early narrative is framed through what she sees. Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) comes into the life of the titular Chuck (Zachary Levi) as a tough-as-nails, super spy CIA handler. Alias begins with Sidney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) realization that she is working for a terrorist ring rather than a black-op CIA group and her choice to work as a double agent. Scandal starts as the story of can-do Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a Washington fixer with extraordinarily close ties to the White House. These are “strong female lead” characters who exude confidence, competence, and importantly the knowledge that allows them full agency in determining their actions. However, over the course of each of these series, each “strong female lead” becomes not the agent of her own story, but increasingly a pawn in service of broader plot development, or in favor of the development of other characters. Each remains “strong” in terms of her abilities, but her access to knowledge and subsequent ability to act becomes extremely limited.

Balancing humor with pathos, juvenile shenanigans with characters who mature emotionally, and classic spy movie tropes with comic book culture, Chuck was a show that survived five seasons on NBC thanks to intense efforts by its fans. Though centered on Chuck, the show’s other central character was CIA agent, Sarah Walker. Starting as Chuck’s handler after he accidently downloads a top secret military computer program into his head, over the course of the series, romance blooms between Chuck and Sarah, and we witness her ability to become emotionally vulnerable without ever losing her talents as a super spy. Indeed, Chuck was a show that allowed such growth not only for its main characters to write a essay, but for its secondary ones as well. As its fifth season progressed, Chuck allowed each of its characters moments of closure befitting their growth as the team chased its final arch villain together. All is going well until Sarah, through one of the comic book style devices that populated the show, loses her memory of her entire time with Chuck.

On the one hand, Sarah’s amnesia served as a convenient device to travel down memory lane, including the recreation of a number of scenarios that rewarded loyal viewers. The device also allowed for viewers to reconnect with the journey of Chuck and Sarah through these retellings. It also suggested that even without her memory, Sarah was still changed in some fundamental way by Chuck.

Chuck tries to jog Sarah’s memory
On the other hand, this move had the effect of denying Sarah, a character whose story arc had been so central to the narrative, full engagement with the overall sense of closure and forward momentum allowed the rest of the ensemble. As the show came to a close, we got to see all of the various characters move on in new directions. As each character experienced the emotional payoff from the experience of their journey, Sarah was left to merely witness hers. Instead of moving forward, the character was propelled backward, and everyone else knows what has happened; the other characters and the audience all saw what Sarah could not. Even the final moments failed to bring full closure for Sarah, as viewers are left wondering whether or not listening to stories of her life and sharing a kiss with Chuck would be enough to bring back her memories. None of this is to say that final closure was necessary, but it is to say that it is significant that Sarah is the character denied this.

Sarah can only watch her past
Is this closure?
Amnesia also featured in the “strong female lead” spy thriller, Alias. Super spy Sidney Bristow spent the first two seasons working to bring down the agency she had worked for, SD-6, believing it to be a black op CIA group. When she learns it is a terrorist cell she balances life as a double agent in pursuit of bringing SD-6 down. However, at the end of season two, Sidney learned that she had been robbed of two years of her life due to amnesia. While in this case, Sidney and the audience were left equally in the dark, it is still a significant that, once again, the “strong female lead” was asked to reconstruct her own experiences. More than this, as the convoluted series progresses, Sidney was increasingly reduced to a pawn in a series of moves between her ply parents and former boss. As characters continually acted without Sidney’s full knowledge, her agency was reduced not to completing her own work, but to responding to the actions of other characters.

Scandal Olivia Pope
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal
More recently we have witnessed a similar shift in access to knowledge and action for television’s most recent “strong female lead”, Olivia Pope. Olivia began the series as the one who holding secret knowledge regarding the election of US president in addition to any variety of state secrets look here https://grademiners.com/personal-statement. As the series has progressed, rather than being the “in charge” fixer of scandals, she has become the pawn in a series of machinations set in motion by her powerful father Rowan Pope (Joe Morton) and his racially charged relationship with the men in Olivia’s life, President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and Naval intelligence officer, Jake Ballard (Scott Foley). Olivia is no longer the one who uses her knowledge to competently solve political problems, but increasingly a pawn in a testosterone fueled battle between these men. Her knowledge and ability to act moved from being at the core of her subjectivity as a character to an object of currency between these men and other characters.

Rowan and Fitz square off over Olivia
Which brings me back to The X-Files and the fate of Dana Scully. Despite having helmed the series for its final two seasons, in which Fox Mulder appeared only sporadically, the program’s two part finale ended up making the story exclusively about Mulder’s quest, which had originally centered the series, but in which and through which Scully had developed her own history, story, and set of commitments. Mulder returned with secret knowledge about an alien plot, allowed those around him to try to rescue him, only to finally reveal to Scully the nature of that plot. In other words, Scully was reduced to mere supporting player at research paper service in the series story arc, and denied any final closure that specifically referenced her journey. Will a reboot just offer more of the same?

The X-Files
Gillian Anderson in The X-Files
Over and over again in these serialized narratives, the “strong female lead” somehow loses access to knowledge, and is left a pawn in other people’s games to which she can now only ever react rather than act on her own behalf. Of course, modes of narration generally play with regimes of knowledge in order to build dramatic tension and highlight certain relationships that are figured in the interplay between what audiences know and what various characters know. But what all these dissertation writing seem to share is an in inability to maintain the agency of their female characters. They are either occluded from knowing things the men around them and the audience knows, and/or increasingly reacting to situations set in place by the men around them. In each case, these once strong and vital characters are denied any sense of agency in their own lives.

Image Credits:
1. Strong female lead Jennifer Garner in Alias
2. Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal
3. Gillian Anderson in The X-Files

Please feel free to comment.




Orientalized Masculinities in Contemporary Australian Cinema
Jane Park / The University of Sydney


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Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.

On my final night in the U.S. before moving to Sydney last year, I finally got around to watching Romper Stomper. While Geoffrey Wright’s film about Aussie skinheads didn’t provide the most cheerful picture of my soon-to-be new country, I was struck by its viscerally engaging style and its representation of Asian characters. As many critics noted upon its release in 1992, Romper Stomper sucks viewers in with its active camera and pumping soundtrack, positioning us, albeit ambivalently, alongside the skinhead youth whose story is clearly foregrounded. Unsurprisingly, few critics had much to say about the role of the peripheral Asian figures that frame the movie: the Vietnamese immigrants in the opening who are beaten up by the white supremacist gang and soon avenged by angry members of their own community and the impersonal Japanese tourists in the end who snap pictures of the gang leader as he is being murdered on the beach by his best mate.

These framing scenes provide iconic images of two forms of Asian presence in contemporary Australian cinema. The first is that of the Asian tourist (usually Japanese) who is welcome as long as she or he ultimately returns home. As Asian Australian film scholar Olivia Khoo convincingly argues, this figure must die if she or he stays in Oz, functioning ideologically as a necessary sacrifice used to further the inner development of the white protagonists. ((Khoo, Olivia. “Telling Stories: The Sacrificial Asian in Australian Cinema.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 27 (1-2): 45-63.)) The second image is that of the Asian immigrant (usually Vietnamese, Chinese or Lebanese) who, depending on the context, embodies either an economic and cultural threat to the (implicitly white) Australian nation or reaffirms its tolerant multiculturalism. Much like the dialectical binary of the model minority/gook articulated by Asian American historian Robert Lee, both positions render the racialized immigrant a conditionally white citizen who is expelled or otherwise punished as a foreign contagion as soon as she or he threatens to usurp the privilege of those in power. ((Lee, Robert. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 180-204. ))

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How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?

What really surprised me is the central role that these iconic figures play as love interests to Anglo-Australian women in two fairly recent commercially successful and critically acclaimed Australian films. In Sue Brook’s Japanese Story (2003) Hiromitsu, a Japanese businessman enthralled by the outback has a (literally) short-lived affair with Sandy, an urban professional forced to be his chauffeur who herself is out of place in the harsh and stunning landscape. And in Rowan Wood’s Little Fish (2005) Vietnamese Australian drug dealer Johnny returns to Australia, ostensibly gone straight after a few years in Canada, hoping to resume his relationship with ex-junkie Tracy, who is trying unsuccessfully to start her own business in Cabramatta, the “Little Saigon” of Sydney.

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Tracy in Cabramatta

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Asian men rarely appear as romantic partners for anyone, and especially white women, in Hollywood cinema due to still prevalent stereotypes of the feminized, desexualized or otherwise emasculated Asian male in the U.S.–stereotypes rooted in the history of Chinese male immigrants who were systematically ghettoized, forced to take feminized domestic jobs, and prevented from forming families thanks to anti-Asian exclusion laws. ((Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2010.)) For this reason, I was interested to see how a romantic relationship between an Asian man and a white woman would play out on the big screen in Australia, a Western nation in the Pacific that draws culturally on Britain and the U.S. and economically on its Asian neighbors.

Sadly, both films fell short of my perhaps unrealistically high hopes. Outside the radical acknowledgment that Asian men might actually be desirable to white women, Japanese Story and Little Fish use the same tired tropes and techniques to represent sympathetic Asian characters as selfless “caregivers of color” to borrow Cynthia Sau-ling Wong’s phrase and thus unwittingly reveal the power hierarchies that continue to structure white fantasies of the exoticized and eroticized Asian “other.” ((Wong, Cynthia Sau-ling. “Diverted Mothering: Representations of Caregivers of Color in the Age of ‘Multiculturalism” in Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grace Chang and Linda Rennie Forcey, eds. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. New York: Routledge, 1994. 70.))

The new twist on an old formula is the clever way in which these films successfully masquerade as anti-racist, colorblind narratives. Japanese Story appeals to white liberal audiences by showcasing the development of a taboo interracial relationship between a white woman and an Asian man, which can only happen in the liminal space of the road and the indigenous wilderness. While the film is beautifully shot and there are some funny and poignant moments of connection between the characters, it is difficult, as a Korean American female viewer, not to notice the blatant ways in which Hiro is orientalized, functioning as the compliant male Lotus Blossom for the ambiguously butchy Sandy, who seems to see in his smooth skin, lean physique, and poor English an alternative, more manageable masculinity to that of the big, loud, and dismissive Australian men who ignore her throughout the film. No surprise then that she dominates her submissive Asian lover in bed, literally putting on his pants before she mounts him in their first sexual encounter. Hiro takes the traditional position of the woman in the scene: he remains absolutely still as the camera follows her gaze to look down at him. Tellingly, when he finally takes sexual initiative, kissing her rather than being kissed, he unexpectedly and inexplicably dies after following her playful instructions to jump into a lake.

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Addictions and contagions.

In contrast Little Fish plays down Johnny’s racial difference even as it consistently plays up his cultural difference as a hybridized Vietnamese Australian. None of the Australian reviews I read of the film discuss the interracial aspect of the romance between Tracy and Johnny, and while most comment on its “authentic” setting, the implicit connections between the Vietnamese immigrant community and its association with drugs and gang violence is not discussed because, as my Australian colleagues informed me, this is already a given for the target audience of the film–most of whom would never venture into Cabramatta except for the occasional food tour. Likewise, the racial and cultural difference that Johnny embodies and that constitute the backdrop of Tracy’s working life is coded implicitly as a contagion, much like the drugs that form the central motif of the film. Tracy is still, it seems, addicted to the dangerous drug that is Johnny. Her family warns her to stay away from him yet she compulsively calls him (and he always comes running) only to flee from him for no discernible reason. On a more positive note, Johnny unlike Hiro, takes a more equal role in lovemaking and amazingly lives to see the end of the movie. I suppose that is something to celebrate. Yet I can’t help but feel a bit sad and perplexed that at a time when so many Asian countries have entered First World status, a mixed-race man is president of the United States, and the Australian prime minister speaks Mandarin, this is what we can claim as progress for representations of Asian people on the big screen.

Image Credits:

1. Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.
2. How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?
3. Tracy in Cabramatta.
4. Addictions and contagions.

Please feel free to comment.




Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss: (not) responding to the Richard Gere-Shipla Shetty controversy in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Shilpa Shetty, it appears, cannot stay out of controversy and news headlines these days. Shetty, a well-known Bollywood actress in India, shot to international prominence after appearing as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K. in January 2007. The British reality TV show was engulfed in a major controversy when Shetty became the target of racist remarks and bullying by some of her housemates led by the now infamous Jade Goody. When Shetty went on to win the show, she not only became a household name in Britain, but was also the focus of attention in many newspapers, television channels and online sites around the world.

Shetty was back in the global news headlines in April 2007, when she was embroiled in another controversy, this time in India. At an AIDS awareness campaign organized in Delhi to benefit truck drivers, the American actor Richard Gere planted a series of kisses on Shetty. Although taken aback by Gere’s actions, Shetty reportedly laughed it off with a comment directed to the truckers, “yeh thoda zyaada ho gaya” (“This is a bit much.”)

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Condemning the kiss, Prakash Javadekar, the spokesman for Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) proclaimed, “Such a public display is not part of Indian tradition.” In Mumbai, members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena stormed onto a set where Shetty was shooting a film, set fire to her photographs and burned effigies of Gere. Poonal Chandra Bhandari, an advocate in the city of Jaipur, filed public interest litigation accusing Gere and Shetty of committing “an obscene act” in a public place. Conceding that the kiss at the public event was “highly sexually erotic,” Dinesh Gupta, Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate in the Jaipur Court, issued an arrest warrant against Gere and summoned Shetty for appearance on May 5, 2007.

Sensing trouble due to the growing controversy, Gere tried to set the record straight with an apology. In a statement addressed to “My dear Indian friends,” and released to the media, Gere wrote, “What we thought was a very successful HIV/AIDS event has taken a sad turn. The evening and event in question was intended to celebrate courageous people and partnerships in the supremely important fight against HIV/AIDS, a worldwide pandemic which has afflicted over 5 million Indians and is still increasing.” Applauding Shetty for taking a leadership role in the fight against AIDS, Gere said, “I assure you, I have utmost respect for her, and she knows this. Of course, I’ve felt terrible that she should carry a burden that is no fault of hers. The burden is mine and no one else’s.”

Shetty, on her part, strongly defended Gere saying, “He is such a gentleman. He is incapable of indecent behaviour.” Lashing out against her critics, Shetty argued, “It was just a kiss on my cheek! What’s the big hue and cry about?” She explained the reason for the kiss as follows: “Earlier during the day during lunch we were teasing him about a dance step in Shall We Dance? When he suddenly bent me down on stage he was doing that whole step from Shall We Dance? I was as taken aback as the people who saw it. It was nothing but a joke and not pre-planned at all.”

But some critics of the kiss seemed unwilling to accept either Gere’s apology or Shetty’s explanation. “The indecency might have been purposefully done as a publicity stunt,” argued Lily Agarwal, a BJP member of the Bhopal City Corporation. Supporting the protests, Agarwal said, “An Indian woman’s greatest asset is her modesty, her reputation and dignity. Shilpa’s lack of any protest only confirms that we are still slaves of the ‘White.’ We will tolerate all humiliation just because we feel the ‘White’ is our master.”

In many postcolonial nations like India, the myth of a homogenous and homogenizing (white) Western culture is a convenient reference point for many political parties and ideological blocs struggling to establish their hegemony in the very diverse terrain of culture. As the noted postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy argues, the myth of “the West” has engendered (and has in turn been engendered by) three responses in colonial and postcolonial India; or more precisely, two responses and one non-response.

The first response, writes Nandy, is to model Indian culture on the idealized myth of Western culture. However, there is more than mere imitation or mimicry involved in this process: It involves “capturing, within one’s own self and one’s own culture, the traits one sees as reasons for the West’s success on the world stage.” This process is seen as a liberal synthesis of “Indian” and “Western” cultures, and justified in terms of universal principles such as “democracy” and “civilization.” In the Gere-Shetty controversy, for instance, some in the Bollywood fraternity embraced this view in their defense of Shetty. Noted Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt declared, “When the mother of civilisation gets obsessed with trivia, you can be sure doom is around the corner.” Actress Celina Jaitley asked, “If she [Shetty] does not have an objection, why should others be bothered? She is above 18, is grown up and knows what she is doing. I really wonder what has happened to the world’s biggest democracy where every citizen has the right to expression and this reaction from fundamentalists groups is really uncalled for.” Shetty also seemed to endorse this view when she said, “I don’t want the Indian media and Indians to look foolish to the outside world.”

In a similar vein, former attorney general, Soli J Sorabjee criticized Judge Gupta for behaving like the “Taliban moral police,” and opined that “the order is unsustainable and makes us look ridiculous.”

The second response to the so-called clash between “Indian” and “Western” cultures is that of the fundamentalist zealot whose sole aim is somehow to defeat Western culture at in its own game. Examples of this type of response abound in India; the over-zealous moral policing of the Gere-Shetty episode by Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like the Shiv Sena in the city of Mumbai, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level being only the most recent. The strategy of the Hindu fundamentalist groups is all too evident. As Nandy puts it, the goal of the Hindu fundamentalists is to:

[D]econtaminate Hinduism of its folk elements … then give it additional teeth with the help of Western technology and secular statecraft, so that Hindus can take on, and ultimately defeat, all their external and internal enemies, if necessary, by liquidating all forms of ethnic plurality — first within Hinduism and then within India, to equal Western Man as a new ubermenschen.

Many liberal-minded Indians who are embarrassed by the political manipulation of religion by fundamentalists tend to classify the response of the Hindu right wing groups as “a retrogression into primitivism and as a pathology of traditions.” But look closely, argues Nandy, and there is nothing “fundamental” about the “fundamentalists.” The almost complete lack of tolerance of the fundamental principles of religion, and the inability to accept the diversity of cultural traditions demonstrate how Hindu right has morphed into a highly modern political machinery that seeks to create an “Indian” culture which not only equals but ultimately surpasses Western culture.

The third response of postcolonial Indians to the myth of a Western culture, writes Nandy, is a non-response. This (non)response emerges from a pragmatic recognition of the cultural and historical continuities and tensions between the “colonial” and the “postcolonial,” “Indian” and the “Western” or the “traditional” and the “modern.” This non-response, according to Nandy, is voiced by a majority in postcolonial India and is based on the belief that diverse cultures in India have known how to live with each other for centuries. This belief emerges from a cultural consensus that religion is not a tool for political manipulation but is a way of life with its own principles of tolerance.

The three responses outlined above are inextricably linked in the political, religious and cultural realms of everyday life in India. But, paradoxically enough, both the enthusiastic admirers of the “West” and their over-zealous opponents in the Hindu right wing would like to believe that the third response is merely a minority view. However, the non-response is clearly in evidence as a majority of Indians ignored the controversy over the Gere-Shetty kiss and the protests organized by Hindu right wing groups fizzled out with a whimper – notwithstanding the excessive media coverage in India and abroad. But the perhaps the most powerful impact of the non-response by a majority of Indians to the Gere-Shetty controversy has been that Judge Gupta (who issued the warrants against Shetty and Gere) was quietly transferred from his post in Jaipur to the small town of Kishangarh several hours away. A spokesman for the Court claimed that the transfer was “routine,” but he also said that Judge Gupta acted on a “frivolous” public interest litigation, and noted that the transfer order came from the state’s Chief Justice. Although it is not clear what effect the transfer will have on the Gere-Shetty case, one can only surmise that the judiciary has recognized that the non-response to the controversy is indeed a majority opinion in Indian public culture.

Endnotes
Effigies of Richard Gere burn in India
My dear Indian friends, I’m surprised: Gere
Richard Gere cannot do anything obscene
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Nandy, Ashis. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” Alternatives, XIII (1988): 186.
Ibid.
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Indian judge who ordered Richard Gere’s arrest transferred: report
Nandy, 187.
Ibid.
Ibid., 188.

Image Credits:
1. Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Please feel free to comment.




Queering Justin

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Just type in “Justin” and “Ugly Betty” into a search engine and you will find hundreds of digital spaces where this secondary character is being discussed by a range of communities that include general fans of the show, Latinos, the press, and queer communities. Although America Ferrara is the unquestioned star of the show, Mark Indelicato’s performance as Justin has become a point of conversation and a growing reason to watch the show, establishing the possibility for fandom across communities. If Ugly Betty bet its success on the possibility of ethnic and racial crossovers (Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and Anglos are all invited and represented), Justin’s character is also delivering a sexual crossover. He is special. And he is visible.

How many secondary characters are the central focus of newspaper articles in the LA Times (Jan. 31, 2007), USA Today (Feb. 8, 2007) and Chicago Tribune (Nov. 16, 2006)?

Justin is perhaps the most radical Latino representation in television today. He is a young brown boy, growing up working-class in Queens, NY, who performs his gender in a disruptive, excessive, intertextual fashion. Take this scene from Season 1, Episode 5

The Halloween episode begins with Justin coming down from his room, dressed as a sailor and quite ready to perform as Gene Kelly in On the Town (1949, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly). Justin’s exuberant rendition of Kelly’s tap dance is gender bending at its best. Not surprisingly, the debates on the blogsphere are about whether he is queer, gay, or simply happy to love fashion, musicals, and the theatre. Considering the narrow ways in which Latino masculinity is constructed in America-if I hear the term Latino and macho in the same sentence again I shall faint-Justin’s disruption of gender norms is a refreshing reminder of the possibility to narrativize Latino males in both entertaining and complex ways. I am a fan.

As a scholar, one thing fascinates me: most of the discussions that are going on about Justin, which include declarations by producer Silvio Horta, chatter in television and queer communities, interviews with Indelicato himself, point to the careful way in which Justin’s sexuality is being managed. The problem is this: Justin is twelve, and at that age he would be the youngest gay character in television. In addition, because gayness has been discursively constructed as a sexual identity that implies sexual activity, if gay, Justin would have to be one of the youngest sexual actors in television (outside of narratives of abuse). The issue of Justin’s sexual identity is tricky. How to manage it?

Justin

Justin

Horta, the Cuban-American-gay executive producer, is careful to point out that Justin, at twelve, is a pre-pubescent boy whose behavior should be interpreted as gender, not sexual, performance . Thus, Justin’s infatuation with musicals and fashion should not be read as sexual behavior, which, Horta proposes, should be linked to hormones. Absent hormones, viewers ought to see Justin’s behavior as evidence of gender bending. Although this approach by the producer should not be surprising, given the potential risks for flack associated with portraying an openly gay 12-year old boy, similar explanations of Justin’s behavior can be found in the blogsphere, where fans have debated whether Justin should be call gay or simply “different.” Some side with Horta, and believe that he is not gay because he is too young. Others think that Justin is gay, thus crossing the line between gender and sex. Even in these cases, Horta’s style of biologically defining gayness is part of the discourse around Justin. Fans may acknowledge that Justin is gay, but they recognize that this ascription is at the moment based on gender, not sex. However, it remains a matter of time. These fans tend to see Justin’s biological homosexuality as practically inevitable. Many are discussing when the coming-out story will happen, taking for granted Justin’s evolution as a sexual being attracted to other boys.

What fascinates me is how through both the official explanation of Justin’s behavior and taste (exemplified in Horta’s position) and the queering of his future, Justin’s present is understood as asexualized because of biology. He is either not gay because he is not pubescent (Horta), or he is not yet gay because we are yet to witness his sexual attraction toward other boys (most fans’ position). In these instances, sexuality is understood narrowly as sexual behavior directed toward others, or sexuality is understood as behavior regulated by reproductive biology, with biology circumscribed to the pubescent hormonal rush. These ways of thinking about sexuality can serve dangerous purposes. One, they deny children’s sexuality, a position contrary to knowledge coming from medicine, biology, and developmental psychology. Most famously, the work of Freud and Kinsey sustain that sexuality and desire are normal elements of childhood. Second, by linking sexual behavior to pubescent gland activity, they vindicate the notion that heterosexuality and homosexuality should be understood in relationship to procreation. This in turn reproduces the notion that desire is hormones, a boorish position that belies the important insight that desire is always socially constructed. Lastly, the many commentators on Justin’s development err on assuming a person his age is pre-pubescent, most research placing it between ten and eleven.

Betty and Justin

Betty and Justin

All of these little errors of fact are not coincidental. They are culturally constructed and do their part at reconstituting our current system of sex and gender. They are part of the mental schemas that we use to think sexuality and gender and are clearly limited. These schemas tell us that masculinity and femininity are the product of biological determinants. As many researchers of sexuality have pointed out, this has led to the common assumption that because sexuality is linked to biology, it is thus not cultural. Accordingly, male behavior, including violence, rape, competitiveness, and promiscuity, are often explained in relationship to testosterone, thus exonerating patriarchy. This same hormonal schema informs the supposition that most children in television are heterosexual, although we never see them acting as sexual beings. All we see, or want to see, is gendered behavior. This is the same schema used by fans who think that Justin is not yet gay, but will become gay. Curiously, this assumption rests on Justin having exhibited cultural stereotypes about queerness. At this point, the schema shows its ugliest head, for sex and gender become interlinked only through rigid stereotypes, and whatever fluidity gender and sex may have as culture and as biology (which is also culturally constructed) is lost.

Works Cited:
. Ryan, Silvio Horta on “Ugly Betty”: Write what you Know, Chicago Tribune

Image Credits:
1. Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty
2. Justin
3. Betty and Justin

Please feel free to comment.




“Big Man on Campus Ladies”

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

I once had a wonderful conversation with my introduction to feminism class. The mostly nineteen-year-olds in attendance seemed pretty content to validate women staying at home and raising families. I thought I could cause trouble by arguing that it was their moral imperative to find work that they found rewarding and engage in it. Given the historical banishment of women from working in the public space, it rested on their shoulders, I argued, to not let neo-conservatism decimate the profound social effects of the feminist movement. Whether or not they chose to have children in addition to that was external to the discussion.

Now a year later, I am not at all sure whether I did more good than harm. I of course see it as my central mission to encourage women students to excel, and allow them to see the sociological evidence for the continuing oppression of women in patriarchal culture. And, I certainly want to model for my students that my life — a world of reading books, watching movies, and writing about them — is exemplary of how being happy and productive is more deeply rewarding than the status quo messages they often receive from parents, churches, and other apparatuses of conformity. However, a recent episode of the Oxygen cable network’s sit-com, Campus Ladies, has me thinking about that day in my feminism class in particular, and more generally about the pitiful status of university pedagogy in this very sick culture of ours.

Campus Ladies is a wonderful — politically smart and often quite hilarious — improvisational comedy created by Christen Sussin and Carrie Aizley about two middle-aged women, Joan and Barri, who decide to enroll in college. The show is executive produced by Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry David’s beleaguered wife on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show is important for a number of reasons, one of which is the way in which it attests to the spread of HBO techniques to other television outlets, in this case a women-centered basic cable network.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a groundbreaking show, constructing hilarious comedy out of misanthropic behavior. For its New Year’s Eve programming, HBO offered a “cringe-athon,” airing all of the last season’s episodes back-to-back. When an emotional affect, the cringe, becomes the basis of an advertising scheme, we can be pretty confident a new narrative domain has been defined. However, Curb Your Enthusiasm is very much Larry David’s vanity show, building an axial narrative around his bad behavior. The women who surround him either suffer in a state of confusion (Cheryl) or are shrill and mean (Susie, his agent’s wife). The innovation of Campus Ladies is to apply the cringe-com method to female experience. What would the female equivalents of Larry David look like? What would they do?

The show gleans its social critique from outrageous gender reversals. In the series’ boldest episode, “No Means No,” Barri gives a Vicodin to the university’s star quarterback, Malcolm Rice. In a drug-induced state of freedom, Malcolm takes Barri into his fraternity house bedroom and confesses that he always wanted to be a star of musical theatre. He sings, in falsetto, “I can sing so high like Mandy Patinkin,” which creeps out even Barri. The scene resumes with them lying in bed, Barri in post-coital bliss, Malcolm in a state of confusion. Malcolm stumbles out of his room, screaming so all at the crowded party can hear him: “Barri Martin date raped me!” Barri and Joan suffer through the second act of the show, scorned by the entire campus community as the “raper” and her friend. However, things end happily when the Dean explains to Barri that she was Malcolm’s “moped,” “a woman whom a man wants to ride, but doesn’t want anyone to see riding.” Barri returns to the frat house with football-shaped cupcakes, hoping to apologize. When everyone continues to scorn her, Malcolm intervenes and announces to everyone that Barri did not rape him. Barri offers a hilarious counter-apology: “If mounting you saddle-style made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry too.” The show thus takes a very serious, and taboo, campus social problem, and renders it subject to comedic treatment by reversing the gender roles of the participants. Like all great comedy, the show sides with the outcasts — the Iranian Abdul; the overweight R.A., Guy; and Joan and Barri, the middle-aged women constantly harassed by perky teenage girls who make them feel as if they do not belong at college.

the cast of Campus Ladies

the cast of Campus Ladies

The episode that has me all aflutter, however, is entitled “All Nighter,” and features Joan and Barri immediately getting themselves into a cringe-worthy situation. They arrive late at the first meeting of their class, “Women in American History.” In a series of comic interruptions, they completely disrupt Prof. Fabre’s class. She finally kicks them out. However, it is Prof. Fabre’s outright discriminatory behavior that is remarkable. When Fabre refuses to believe that Joan and Barri are students, she quips, “Perhaps if you leave in time, you might get home and see a new episode of Oprah.” The students chuckle behind their backs, thus linking Fabre’s behavior to the perky blonde twins who torment Joan and Barri throughout the series. Later, when Joan and Barri go to Prof. Fabre’s office to try to apologize, Fabre again heaps on the feminist vitriol: “If the two of you have come to swap recipes, I’m not really in the mood.”

The show works to establish Joan and Barri’s victory over Fabre in the oddest political terms. Fabre demands that the women deliver an oral presentation on an important figure in feminism. Joan and Barri pull an all-nighter trying to decide on their topic. They finally choose Fabre herself. Joan and Barri out Prof. Fabre before the students, reporting on how she and her lover lived in Chile. After the presentation, they cross paths with Fabre and her lover, Ming, on the campus quad. While Fabre is outraged and humiliated, Ming is quite grateful: “You guys did us a favor.” Ming forces Fabre to apologize to our heroes, which she does. The episode ends as the twins walk by, trying again to terrorize Joan and Barri. However, Barri gets the last laugh, sticking a sign on one twin’s back that reads, “I’m farting.”

Of course, from Animal House (John Landis, 1978) onward, most American popular culture has been ignorant and insulting toward academic life. College is represented as a place where students party with wild abandon, and professors and deans are stuffed-shirts who try to ruin all of the fun. But the political contradictions in the “All-Nighter” episode of Campus Ladies are particularly confusing. Why would a show that wants to defend the marginalized (overweight, middle-aged women, and lesbians) equate vacuous, normative-obsessed teeny boppers with a feminism professor?

I worry that there is a particular vitriol reserved at this moment of American culture for professors. In very different circumstances, two films this past fall have demonstrated that professorial abuse is the new domestic violence. In The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), Jeff Daniels plays a professor father who pelts his family with tennis balls as the film opens, and it only gets worse from there. In Bee Season (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2005), Richard Gere plays a Jewish studies professor who so pressures his daughter into winning the national spelling bee that she judiciously chooses to lose the tournament on purpose rather than feed his megalomania. I wonder if in a culture where authority has so demeaned us (from Bush’s illegal wiretapping to Michael Brown’s mishandling of the New Orleans debacle to the Enron leadership’s thievery), these texts use academics as authority figures as the easiest target available to channel our rightful anger.

While I know plenty of arrogant professors — both men and women — who behave like Fabre, I also know many others who deserve more than caricature. I would love to believe that I am one of the latter, but I worry now that my rhetorical flourish in front of the feminism students was more Fabre than Rose Morgan, Barbara Streisand’s ebullient professor in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Is it possible to critique a culture of housewifery without abusing housewives?

In the very same class, I took an equally critical — and again, rhetorical — position concerning having children. When I was explaining why I was a bit late for class, because my son was ill and I had to swap him with my wife on the way to class, a student rolled her eyes and told me to stop complaining because I “chose” to have children. I tried to calmly explain that “choice” is actually quite complicated: did my wife’s passionate desire to have kids leave me a “choice?” We proceeded to have a conversation about mixing the raising of children with an academic career. Again to be controversial, I asserted that it might be better to have professors with children dealing with college students.

Of course, immediately afterwards, I backtracked from this position: many of the single women professors I know are my role models for excellence in the professoriate, and gay men and lesbian professors do not have the same access to having children that I did. The contradiction between these two positions, advocating careerism and parenthood, indicates to me the value of, not radicalism, but instead centrism. Professors need to take reasoned positions that account for complexity. In our representations, we are going to find many mean, terrible professors like Fabre, and a few glorious ones like Streisand, but what we need, and what I would like to present in front of my students, is the real one, flawed yet functional, well-meaning yet sometimes wrong.

Links:
Campus Ladies
IMDB: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Image Credits:

1. Rosie the Riveter

2. the cast of Campus Ladies

Please feel free to comment.




Comedy is a Woman in Trouble

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur

Jerry Lewis famously stated that comedy is a man in trouble. Any fan of Jerry — not to mention Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey, or even Gromit, in “The Wrong Trousers” would be hard-pressed to disagree. Many of the funniest comic performances center around men losing their pants, falling down staircases, and lacking control of their excretory functions. Unfortunately, if that’s what constitutes the best comedy, it doesn’t leave much room for women, who have (with some exceptions) found more success not in physical comedy but in sophisticated screwball comedies or dialogue-driven sit-coms like Roseanne. Roseanne shows us that women can succeed when they use their comedy deliberately to offend, but the general perception remains that clean humor is the most appropriate venue for women.

Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock meant the title of their famous book on female artists, Old Mistresses, to be a saucy retort to traditional art historians’ focus on the “old masters.” The title was meant to disturb and offend by showing how completely women had been marginalized from the history of art: there was no proper language available even to describe them. Comedy is a woman in trouble may likewise sound strange to many. Jerry Lewis himself has stated that women can’t really be funny since they symbolize maternity so centrally: to laugh at a woman would, somehow, be to laugh at motherhood itself. For Lewis, a man in trouble may have slipped on a banana peel, but a woman in trouble is, well, knocked up.

Outside of the domestic sitcom, what role might there be for women in trouble on TV? Would female viewers be drawn to such comedy? And can programmers even conceive of female viewers as having a sense of humor that is not satisfied by reruns of Designing Women on Lifetime? In hopes of scratching at the surface of these big questions, I’d like devote the rest of this column to discussing Comedy Central and the channel’s operating premise that its demographic is male. I’m specifically interested not in what men and women actually find to be funny on TV but in industrial perceptions of what kind of humor is for men and what kind of humor is for women. If Comedy Central is really for men, does that mean that the smart political commentary of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (and sometimes South Park) offers nothing to female viewers? And since much Comedy Central humor is of the gross-out variety, is it possible that the channel’s programming is not so much “for men” as it is not for ladies? Women may vary somewhat in their tastes, but ladies are ostensibly immune to the appeal of a good fart joke.

It is common, of course, for TV to acknowledge openly its gendered address. In a Thanksgiving episode of The Gilmore Girls, Sookie allows her husband Jackson to take charge of making the turkey. He procures an enormous deep-fryer, and by the end of the night he and his drunken buddies have fried to a crisp not only a turkey but also everything else they can get their hands on. As the men-folk cheer, and Jackson drops shoes into the cooker, Sookie drowns her sorrows in margaritas, moaning that Jackson is shamelessly catering to his demographic. The Gilmore Girls is relentlessly character-driven and organized around romance and family melodramas. It is itself, in other words, a program that caters shamelessly to its own female demographic. The program is often quite funny, mostly when the caffeinated dialogue spins out of control. (The machine-gun banter often recalls Preston Sturges. Think of Mary Astor in The Palm Beach Story chirping, “What’s knittin’, kittens?”) What strikes me in particular about the deep-fryer scene is the open acknowledgment that stupid drunk guys don’t really belong on this show. For that stuff, go to Spike TV or Comedy Central.

There’s no doubt that Spike TV is all-male, all-the-time. Comedy Central’s contention that it serves a male demographic is more problematic, though not wholly untrue. Certainly, Too Late with Adam Carolla is designed exclusively for men-or, to be more accurate, for anyone who hates women. It is also one of the least funny shows ever on television, and it has the ratings to prove it. This hardly means, though, that Comedy Channel viewers don’t like anti-woman humor. Indeed, Carolla only has a career because of the success of The Man Show, which embodied what I like to call the new misogyny: it’s OK to be a misogynist, as long as you are simultaneously ironic, with your sexism always in quotation marks, as if to ask, Aren’t I a terrible jerk? Do you think I really mean it? On his own show, Carolla’s smarminess is unfettered by irony; given his pitiful performance thus far, one can only assume that his cancellation is imminent.

Of course, the hottest show on Comedy Central right now — since Dave Chappelle has left his program floating in limbo — is The Daily Show, which features the smartest political commentary on TV. Nobody socks it to Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Pat Robertson, or the war (Mess-o-potamia) like The Daily Show. How disturbing it is, though, to watch Lewis Black mercilessly skewer the Christian Right, and then to cut to a commercial for Girls Gone Wild: Spring Break. It is galling to hear repeatedly that Comedy Central’s primary demographic is young men-and to often see the ads confirm this — when the Channel’s single most popular program largely lacks machismo.

Though The Daily Show avoids the sexism one commonly finds on Comedy Central, all of its writers and producers are male, and its only female correspondent, Samantha Bee, has taken some time to grow into her role. (She may have finally arrived, with her hilarious story on attempts to pass laws against truck drivers tossing bottles full of urine out their windows.) Still, pretty much everyone with power in America is a rich white guy, and these are the corrupt bastards that the show attacks. The Daily Show is eager to lampoon anyone in American politics who is a stupid jerk. Can they help it if three-out-of-four such people happen to be male? Though this hardly makes the show feminist, per se, feminists cannot help but applaud the program’s assault on America’s power elite.

While other shows for men on Comedy Central take sex as their focus, The Daily Show is relatively sex-free. (Notwithstanding the undisputable fact that correspondent Stephen Colbert is hot. Oops, the cat’s out of the bag: I’m a geek.1) Disturbingly, Comedy Central has started to refer to the programming block of The Daily Show and its Colbert Report spin-off as a network within the network.” These shows, which do not quite match the channel’s masculinist profile, are thus marked as different, and perhaps more high-class than the rest of the schedule. To recognize that women enjoy some Comedy Central programming as much as men would imperil the network’s whole identity, thus imperiling its advertising profile. Instead, Comedy Central simply pretends that its highest rated shows somehow stand above the low-brow fray of programs like South Park. That way, they can sell ads for a few high-end products, but still hang on to the Girls Gone Wild account.

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

Comedy Central first made its reputation on South Park, and the show does seem to wallow in its own boy humor. The episode in which little Jimmy takes a fat, slobby hooker to a Ho-Tel to fix his persistent boner problem represents the show at its most immature and grotesque extreme. But if South Park is sometimes misogynist, it is more often simply misanthropic. And despite its frequent retreat to stupid and nihilistic cynicism, when the show is smart, it is on a par with The Daily Show, its address not exclusively male. To say that the show’s address is purely masculine is insulting to women, as if they could not appreciate the program’s satirical insights because of a natural aversion to poo jokes. Is there a TV show that did a better job attacking The Passion of the Christ? And what about its send up of Paris Hilton, who comes to South Park to open a new store, Stupid Spoiled Whore, for 8-year-old girls who want to look like tramps? South Park not only attacks the trend of little girls dressing like porn stars but also puts Paris Hilton in her place, because compared to Mr. Slave, she is not really much of a whore at all. There is no reason to believe that only a male audience could properly appreciate this satirical attack on Hilton and the “whorification” of girl culture.

Of course, the very use of the word whore might make the episode seem geared to male viewers. Women are supposed to be offended by dirty words, which is probably why female comedians are less likely to use them. Since comedy is at its best when it challenges cultural taboos, this puts female comedians at a clear disadvantage, though clearly not all are intimidated. In The Aristocrats (Jillette and Provenza, 2005), raunchy stand-up comedian Lisa Lampanelli explains that, if comedy is a guy thing, fine, I’ll strap it on. To be really funny, Lampanelli’s statement would seem to imply, is to be like a man, since women are inherently unfunny. (How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? ONE and that’s not funny!) If Sarah Silverman is any indication, women who work blue are not only as funny as men, they are often funnier. But there is only one Sarah Silverman, and even her presence was not enough to counter-balance the creepy tone of Comedy Central’s Pamela Anderson Roast, one of their highest rated shows ever. Most jokes centered on how huge and stretched out Pam’s vagina was, which was not only dispiriting but also rather dull.

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Oddly enough, hearing Pam Anderson witlessly called a slut over andover and over again, I could not help but recall an episode of the Gilmore Girls in which Lorelei and Rory make fun of Donna Reed for being an impossibly perfect housewife. Rory’s boyfriend Dean, whose mom is a housewife, takes offense at the girls attack on Donna Reed, which prompts Rory (who is much too smart to be in love with this dull boy) to do some research. It turns out that Reed was actually producer of her own show; she was an astute and accomplished businesswoman. For better or for worse, Pam Anderson is the Donna Reed of our time, as much the stereotypical bimbo as Donna was the stereotypical mom. Pam’s great at playing her top-heavy, dumb-blonde role, but she owns and produces her own programs and is the undisputed mistress of syndication. This dumb blonde is no dummy.

The Comedy Central boys had a good time making cheap jokes about Pam’s sex video with Tommy Lee, confirming that, notwithstanding The Daily Show, boy humor is Comedy Central’s home-base. It’s tough for female viewers; even gals who like crude jokes can only take so many feeble attacks on the female anatomy. Thank god the Roast included a break from the testosterone when Bea Arthur gave an interpretive reading of selected passages about anal sex from Pam’s roman a clef. Right on, Maude! In any case, if you’ve seen Pam’s new Fox sitcom, Stacked, you probably agree with me that Pam is not much of a comedienne. But she does know how to cater shamelessly to her demographic, and she’s got the global syndication rights to prove it. This woman in trouble is laughing all the way to the bank.

Note
But as The Man himself notes on the premiere of The Colbert Report, “The geeks will inherit the earth!”

See Also:
Henry Jenkins – “Awkward Conversations about Uncomfortable Laughter”

Image Credits:

1. Bea Arthur

2. Jon Stewart

3. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.




When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Boy: Transgeneration‘s Meditation on the “Real”

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TransGeneration

TransGeneration

I was sitting on a 42nd street window ledge at the end of a hot New York August afternoon when I looked up and discovered I’d hit the big time. I was on the phone, and my conversation stopped short when I saw the words “Sex Change” on the side of an MTA bus. The ad was in three parts. The middle section was dominated by a simulated sheet of notebook paper featuring a list with three items, “sex change” was accompanied by “financial aid” and “buy books.” A to do list. I looked left, and in bold collegiate type I saw the word TRANS, with the much smaller “generation” below, followed by the tagline: “This fall four students are switching more than their majors.” When I looked to the right, it all came together. The Sundance Channel, in partnership with Logo, MTV’s and Viacom’s new gay-themed cable network, were premiering a documentary series about people (sort-of) like me. The big time.

In the past decade or so, television has slowly embraced a few things gay and, to a much lesser extent, lesbian. By now we are familiar with the rise of Will and Grace, the requisite gay boy and occasional queer girl on The Real World, the fall of Ellen, the pay-cable men and women of Queer as Folk and the L-Word, and the ubiquitous Carson, the blond fashion maven from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I raise this short and somewhat narrow legacy of queers on television in order to highlight a looming claim: that being on TV — being represented as a character, fictional or otherwise — brings marginalized people into the mainstream and can be a pathway to some larger, non-TVland, “acceptance.” Was Transgeneration indicative of an extension of this to things transgender?

Transgeneration follows four college students in the United States over the course of a school year: Raci and Gabbie identify as male to female transsexuals, and T.J. and Lucas were born into female bodies and identify as male. They come from different places and socio-economic backgrounds, a fact of which we are reminded each episode, and attend different colleges — Cal State Los Angeles, University of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan State, and Smith College — but according to the show’s opening sequence, they share “one life-changing transition.” This transition — the focal story of Transgeneration — is rendered a matter of genes and hormones, bodies and minds, the movement from one place on a gender binary to the other, opposite place. The series promo features close-ups of one young person after another addressing the viewer: “When I grow up I want to be a (insert profession),” until the last two — a white person who appears to be male ends the sentence “a girl,” and a white person who appears female and wants to be “a boy.” This is presented as both the show’s captivating oddity, and its primary conceit — that being transgender is no more and no less than being anything else, a doctor, a lawyer, a man, a woman.

Characters from TransGeneration

Characters from TransGeneration

This, of course, presumes that “man” and “woman” are relatively stable categories, even within the expansive picture of who-counts-as-what that is central to Transgeneration’s theme. It also presumes that viewers will know how to identify what is male and female when they see it, thereby allowing them to see the man in Lucas and T.J., or the woman in Raci and Gabbie. This stability of already understood and accepted gender categories may be in part a strategy for making the characters’ movement between them normalized and OK. In the show’s opening episode, Lucas is featured early on in his messy on-campus apartment. The camera scans piles of clothes, scattered papers, and copies of Hustler and Penthouse — twice. Perhaps this is intended to demonstrate the ways in which Lucas is constituting his masculinity. Perhaps it is meant to convey his maleness to a larger, likely non-trans, audience. Maybe it’s a little of both. But it all goes without saying — straight guy porn is, for whatever it’s worth, a sure sign of manhood.

Lucas’ maleness as demonstrated through his mainstream straight porn consumption — and other moments of gendered “realness” established through recognizable gestures, behaviors, and codes — should raise some basic questions: why, how, and for whom do these signs operate? If the four people at the core of Transgeneration are made real in their identities — for themselves, but maybe more strikingly for the show’s cable-TV audience — through acceptable, and thereby legible, gender cues, is it because that’s what it takes for Raci, Gabbie, Lucas, and T.J. themselves to be “accepted,” to be understood as some kind of normal? And how is it that the very power structures which define gender expression, gender roles, and gender policing escape notice almost entirely in the episode by episode establishment of these empathetic and representative trans personalities?

In the spirit of the gay-TV revolution, it seems Transgeneration — backed by the alterna-commercial interests of Sundance and Logo — aims to bring the lives of transgender people to a mainstream public, both queer and straight, in an effort to humanize and make real not only its four main players, but some larger affected community. And while there is no question that many trans-identified people experience exactly the kind of linear narrative proposed by Transgeneration — being born into the wrong body and seeking out a transition that will allow them to live their rest of their lives in the sex or gender with which they identify — many of us do not. In light of this, at least two questions remain (on this topic). If Transgeneration and its promoters are seeking to use television representation in its already questionable role as a means to construct a queerness that is straight-friendly, highly consumable, and a path to social approval, what might that cost trans people, like me, whose realities are not represented in the quest to create a viable “normal” transgender person? What might it take away from other possibilities for change — ones that rely not on normalization and acceptance, but on an expansion of ideas of gender and sexuality beyond the framework of, let’s say, Will and Grace — or Happy Days?

Links:
Transgeneration
The Sundance Channel
LOGO

Image Credits:

1. TransGeneration

2. Characters from TransGeneration

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