dicks dicks dicks: Hardness and Flaccidity in (Virtual) Masculinity
Amanda Phillips / Georgetown University

The Tearoom

The Tearoom is a game that depicts dicks/firearms and blurs the lines between the two

We sit around a table laughing our asses off at a cell phone playing a video of a pug chowing down on a floppy green dildo. The dog snorts and slobbers, delighted by the springy texture of its new toy. The dick’s shaft expands and contracts whimsically, rubbery balls chasing curly tail. Nom nom nom nom nom. Snort. Bark. Growl. Fling. One friend, a gay man, looks up from the screen, catching his breath. “Why… would anyone have a soft dick like that?”

Why indeed.

I shift in my chair, the soft lump between my legs a secret marker of my gender expansion. At the time, I wasn’t ready to disclose the centrality of packing devices to my sense of personhood. My first floppy dick had been condom filled with hair gel; like transmen and other masculine of center women, I have used any number of improvised genital devices to suit the mood and occasion, from socks to overpriced strapons. Today, there are many options for those who want an all-purpose dick that can slide discreetly into your pants but is ready to spring into action when necessary. My tastes in everyday dickwear, however, are strictly squishy.

This is one of the many things about my body that fails to square up with expectations about my gender. Society wants masculinity to be hard, from its cock to its biceps to its steely, impenetrable self-assurance. The first thing one can think to do with a flaccid dick, in fact, is to make it hard again. The centrality of hardness is no different in the virtual world. Robert Yang’s The Tearoom, a game that critiques homophobia, toxic masculinity, and gun culture, features flaccid dicks in the shape of firearms that slowly lose their fleshiness to become fully erect metallic weapons before shooting off their loads (See Figure 1). This metaphor brilliantly captures the convergence of masculinity, hardness, and the digital, and it gestures toward the harm that these can cause. Yang’s game also, however, exhibits what was at the heart of my friend’s amusement with floppy dicks: even in queer cultures, and perhaps especially in gay male culture, a hard cock is the focal point of sexual activity and identity.

My first digital dick, of course, came from Second Life. The virtual world that launched a thousand webcam careers has a robust genitals market. Second Life avatars are like virtual Barbie dolls: choosing a “sex” grants one the secondary curves of a gendered body, but these avatars are nothing but smooth surfaces all the way down. The gendered sliders of the customization interface allow users to tweak these surfaces, adding a groin bulge here or a breast augmentation there, but if you want extra bits and bobs, you’ll have to wear them like the accessories they are.

Genital Jousting gif
Second Life offers a variety of body customization, but no option for “soft” dicks

Second Life body shops are a smorgasbord of gender. Dog cocks, dragon cocks, nipples, labia, clits, and dilating anuses can share virtual retail space with the vanilla human penises on offer. Each part comes with a fantastic set of controls, allowing the user to enlarge, shrink, change angles, and even change the type and volume of fluid coming out. Amongst all this variety and customization, however, Second Life dicks are never floppy. Even when “soft,” they arc rigidly downward (See Figure 2). There are pages upon pages of physics scripts for sale in the marketplace that add jiggle and bounce to breasts and buttocks, but a search for “male physics” turns up only a handful of options. .PictureMe.’s “Aesthetic Niramynth Avatar Physics” hosts unsurprising complaints: “TOO JIGGLY mens [sic] boobs don’t move like that…and if they do they need to get back to the gym… Hence the words HARD BODY?” [ (( Online commenter (2017). Re: Aesthetic Niramynth (Natural Physics). [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/3VhiiCEHqTo))] “The Aesthetic avatar has hard tight abs, which wouldn’t move at all on a toned muscular male body; but this product has them bouncing like Santa Claus on the run. Completely unrealsitic [sic] and, thereore unuseable [sic].” [ (( Online commenter (2017, April 5). Re: Aesthetic Niramynth Avatar Physics (Natural Version). [Product Review]. Retrieved from https://marketplace.secondlife.com/p/Aesthetic-NiramythAvatar-Physics-Natural-Version/11004691))] Too much jiggle spoils the man.

Our masculine bodies must remain firm and disciplined, ready to penetrate enemy ranks with bullets that rip through flesh. On the digital battlefield, they reach what Colin Milburn calls the “maximum hardness” of a pumped-up cyber warrior (181). [ ((Milburn, C. (2015). Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.))] Death in gaming is a loss of this illusory control: the entire body becomes as useless as a floppy dick. When digital soldiers twist into their final repose, they expose the instability of their ultrahard gamic masculinity. Unpredictable, accidental bodily positions confront them: face down, ass up; hips thrusting toward the sky; arms crossed over the head as if tied to the bedpost; in suggestive embrace with a fellow fallen soldier. Ragdoll bodies are always already erotic, even when they make us laugh. Why not, then, floppy dicks?

The ragdoll’s unmaking of the hard, controlled masculine body has given way to games that put uncontrollable bodily performance in the service of gender experimentation and masculine anxiety. Bo Ruberg has made a compelling account of how Octodad engages queer modes of embodiment by asking the player to perform rituals of passing. [ (( Ruberg, B. (2016). “Passing for Human: ‘Octodad’ and Queerness as a Video Game Mechanic.” Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Atlanta, GA.))] Ian Bryce Jones writes about the comedic potential in so-called dehiscent performance, where the disconnection between avatar and gamer bodies are central both to humor and to what he describes as an ecstatic experience of being out of one’s own body. [ (( Jones, I. (2016). “Do the Locomotion: Obstinate Avatars, Dehiscent Performances, and the Rise of the Comedic Video Games.” The Velvet Light Trap 77 (Spring): 86 99.))] For the sake of exploring the erotics of the floppy dick, it is important to push Jones’s use of the ecstatic into its sexual registers. Does a flailing phallus, with its inability (or outright refusal) to obey its handler’s iron will, offer us another way to think about the erotic potential of soft masculinities?

Mount Your Friends, for example, is a ragdoll game that challenges the gamer with constructing a tower of scantily-clad, beefy, customizable men. The tower’s base, to which the first avatar must attach, is a goat – that unsubtle symbol of climbing ability and voracious sexuality. The avatar’s dick helicopters freely as he struggles to mount his friends, an uncontrollable reminder of the fluid vitality pulsing through an otherwise stiff body and the trace of a physics engine aching to pull him back down to earth. While the ostensible goal is to fling the avatars higher and higher up the tower, the real star of the game is the dick itself, which concentrates the anxiety of the ragdoll all in one: a failure to remain super hard, an inability to control one’s body, the terror that a latent queerness will burst forth amongst your friends and betray you. Your friend’s dick flops all over you – face, body, hands – while he mounts you. You laugh. You love it. You go for another round.

Genital Jousting gif
An example of gameplay from Genital Jousting

The spirit of Mount Your Friends has been distilled in Genital Jousting, a multiplayer party game where the avatar is the uncontrollable phallus itself. The gamer controls a genital creature consisting of a penis, testicles, and anus, and scoots it around a playing field with other dicks, competing in various sporting events and accidentally-on-purpose fucking each other in the ass. Genital Jousting imagines sexual penetration beyond the realm of ultrahard raging cocks. It is phallus worship of a different order, allowing dicks and dildos to caress each other in flaccid abandon, twisting into wild orgiastic configurations and triumphantly squirting at the end of a good match (See Figure 3).

The fixation on hardness restricts masculine individuals to a limited range of emotional and physical responses. Anger and violence, with their obvious shows of strength and rejection of weakness, predominate. So does a toxic cocktail of oppressive behaviors: hardness must repudiate fatness, disability, femininity, transness, and, frequently, homosexuality in order to maintain its integrity. Yang’s bathroom simulator explores these contradictions well. On the other hand, games like Mount Your Friends and Genital Jousting, in asking us to laugh at, play with, and celebrate the floppy dick, relax our expectations of hard masculinity and help us to imagine a world through the lens of what Vincent Del Casino, Jr., calls “flaccid theory,” which challenges accepted truths about normative sexual and gender practices. [ (( Del Casino, Jr., V (2007). “Flaccid theory and the geographies of sexual health in the age of Viagra ™.” Health & Place 13.4 (Dec): 904-11.))] This thinking begins with the phallus itself but allows us, in the manner of other queer theories, to think about other totalizing cultural expectations that move us further from a just society. By cultivating rather than ridiculing or avoiding flaccid masculinities, from the queer packy to the homoerotic digital jouster, we can find an alternative to the strong men and hard bodies that compose our current nightmare of toxic masculinities.

In my own life, I take the absurdity of my detachable, stretchy, floppy dick as a reminder that everyone bears the burdens of masculinity in different ways. The world would be a better place if we would give our dicks a little twirl now and then and fling them across the room, just for fun. Splat.

Just… watch out for the dog.

Image Credits:

1. The Tearoom image of gameplay (author’s screen grab)
2. An example of dick depiction in Second Life (author’s screen grab)
3. An example of gameplay from Genital Jousting (author’s screen grab)

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.




There Has Been Blood: Horror-Comic Masculinity in The Walking Dead
David Greven / University of South Carolina

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Shocking Season 7 premier of The Walking Dead

The sense of grief and bewilderment many Americans have been feeling in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election and Donald Trump’s emergence as President-Elect was oddly prefigured by reactions to the premiere episode of The Walking Dead’s (AMC, 2010-present) (TWD) current and seventh season, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” The sixth season ended with a cliffhanger: the protagonists led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) are terrorized by Neegan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the leader of the nefarious Saviors, who wields a barbed-wire-covered baseball bat named “Lucille.” Prone to fanciful speech evocative of the elementary schoolyard (“pee-pee pants”), Neegan plays a game of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” to decide which head of his kneeling captives to bash in. Knowledge of Neegan’s victim was withheld for the premiere, much to the vocal ire of fans. Neegan’s victim turns out to be the red-headed former military man Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). Known for his colorful cussing, Abraham spits out a defiant “Suck my nuts” after Neegan’s first blow. Killing off Abraham seemed like something of a safe choice, since he was not one of the original cast members. But then, after the renegade biker-tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold Darryl (Norman Reedus) attempts to strike back at the enemy, Neegan kills the beloved Glenn (Steven Yeun), an expectant father and one of the original cast members, as his wife Maggie (Lauren Cohan) looks on in indescribable horror. Glenn’s horrific death in the premiere — taken directly from the comic book series that inspired the television show — shocked and enraged both longtime viewers and commentators alike.

Cliff-hanger season finale of The Walking Dead Season 6

What was it about this episode that drew such fire, given the depressing, grim, and often graphically violent nature of this series, surely one of the most downbeat ever to air on television? Many complained about the graphic violence here as evidence that the series had finally gone too far, that television itself had gone too far. Other intensely violent scenes in the series’ history did not attract ire — for example, the nearly murderous fight scene between Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the main season three villain The Governor (David Morrissey), involving head-smashings and Michonne’s blinding of the Governor; the season four finale in which Rick, Michonne, Daryl, and Rick’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs) dispatch a gang holding them hostage, one of whom attempts to rape Carl, a brawl that climaxes in Rick biting into the neck of one of the gang members; the mass-killing in the Alexandria Safe Zone, led by the former Ohio congresswoman Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh), when the psychotic Wolves descend on Rick’s group and its allies.

An excellent critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, who has always been somewhat critical of the series, condemned the premiere’s “empty violence.” Comparing it unfavorably to the HBO medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding” episode, Seitz faulted TWD’s premiere for focusing on the preening and taunting Neegan and his sadism; he also likened the show’s methods to “a bat to the head. Whunk! Whunk! Whunk! Splat! Goooosh!” Brandon Katz, writing in Forbes, offers a similar critique couched in an analysis of the show’s declining ratings.

If the sixth season left one’s faith in the series a bit shaken, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” provided ample evidence of the show’s enduring relevance. This relevance once again proves to be the series’ depiction of American masculinity as a series of performance styles, a knowing and shifting masquerade. This is not to say that strong women characters have not been a crucial part of the series’ success — I would cite Carol (the great Melissa McBride), Michonne, and the too-short-lived congresswoman Deanna Monroe as stand-out examples. But TWD has been most significant as a critique of American masculinity that eerily evokes historical images and constructions of American manhood while offering insights into masculinity’s contemporary crisis-mode — what could be more relevant? “The Day Will Come,” for all of its obvious machinery, continues this pattern of incisive critique.

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American masculinity and queer subtext in The Walking Dead‘s Neegan

Neither of Neegan’s victims in “The Day Will Come” is typed as gay; indeed, Glenn is expecting a child with his wife Maggie, Abraham has moved from an affair with Rosita (Christian Serratos) to one with Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). Yet there is ample queer subtext here in Neegan’s scary-funny characterization and his obsession with Rick, whom he seeks to humiliate, subjugate, and possess. Neegan, I argue, is the fulfillment of several years of over-the-top masculinity originating in the outrageous, transgressive teen gross-out comedies that peppered the late 1990s, most notably the American Pie films and their ilk, and extending to horror. Neegan recalls the anarchic, foul-mouthed, sexually provocative Stifler (Seann William Scott) in American Pie (Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz, 1999) and its sequels. Just as Stiffler torments the upstanding and reserved members of the male group that maintain an uneasy relationship with him, so, too, does Neegan harass Rick. This rivalry draws on the comic archetype of The Yankee versus the Backwoodsman, the effete intellectual versus the gleefully uncouth mountain man. The historical precedent for these male relationships is the cheerfully sadistic Brom Bones’ persecution of the solitary pedagogue Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s famous 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

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90s teen comedies and Apatow-style Beta Male humor embodied in American Pie‘s Stifler and Knocked Up‘s Seth Rogan

The scatological aspects of the late-90s teen comedies echo in Neegan’s language and antics, often both sophomore and sadistic at once. The 90s teen comedies ceded to the Beta Male comedies of the Judd Apatow school, which skewed older; the focus shifted to hapless twenty- and thirty-somethings who seemed left out by society yet, in their own sluggish and slapdash way, remained heroic. Neegan fuses these millennial and post-millennial modes of wayward masculinity—the arrested development of the teen comedies, the amusing anomie of the Beta Male—with the emergent, aggressive image of the white working-class male associated at present with the alt-right movement. Neegan’s grandiose narcissism, desire to intimidate, and especially his explicit misogyny align him with constructions of alt-right white males whose descriptions of the kind of woman they despise is best summed up in the phrase “basic bitch.”

Another aspect of TWD this season that resonates with trends extending from the 90s teen comedy to the Beta Male comedy and the bromance is a relentless gay-baiting. Homoerotic homophobia informs Neegan’s persecution and humbling of Rick, threats to and taunts about Rick’s manhood. For example, in the seventh season episode “Service,” Neegan and his crew arrive at the Alexandria Safe Zone earlier than planned, demanding the goods owed them and perusing the compound, taking what they please and intimidating the residents at will. Neegan stands so physically close to Rick that each man must have intimate knowledge of the other’s olfactory nature, and he informs Rick that he has “slipped my dick down your throat and you thanked me for it.” Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s devilishly comic performance intensifies the threatening homoeroticism in Neegan’s persona.

geventooclose

Neegan and Rick: Too close for comfort?

In my previous Flow essay on the series, “The Walking Straight,” published at the start of the series’ second season, I critiqued the show for failing to include or imagine a gay/lesbian/queer presence on the series. TWD has certainly delivered on that front, now boasting several queer characters, including regular cast member Aaron (the wonderful Ross Marquand), part of a gay male couple in Alexandria, and Tara (Alanna Masterson), whose girlfriend Denise (Merritt Wever), a nervous physician slowly coming into her own, was controversially killed last season, joining several other prematurely killed-off TV lesbian characters. (No trans character has yet been introduced, however.) While a discrete study of the series’ queer characters, their treatment and what they bring to the narrative, is needed, I believe that TWD is to be commended for including a visible queer element. And characters such as Daryl, Morgan, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and others, including Carol (who specifically refutes one character’s assumption that she’s a lesbian), remain suggestively ambiguous in terms of their sexuality.


gevenqueer

The Walking Dead‘s Queer Characters: Aaron and Tara

With the inclusion of the scary-funny Neegan, TWD continues its exploration of the styles of masculine performance, the inability to sustain a coherent performance of masculinity. The allegory of our current political situation in the seventh season premiere episode is unmistakable. The horror clown Neegan pulverizes two characters who represent the stakes of Trump-era politics, the angry white working class male (Abraham) and, among the gentlest of the group, the non-white male (Glenn). Neegan later stages a faux-Abraham and Isaac tableau by making Rick chop off his son Carl’s arm, only to stay the distraught father’s hand at the last possible moment. This is masculinity as a horror comedy, with Neegan as Lacan’s obscene father, toying with his minions and keeping the spoils for himself. TWD has not yet lost its relevance.

Image Credits:
1. Walking Dead Premier
2. Neegan
3. Stifler and Apatow Men
4. Queer Representation: Aaron and Tara

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.




The Madness of Angeleno Freeways: Auto Mobility, Futurism, and Masculine Desire
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

Don Draper Driving

Don Draper Driving in his Cadillac

Beginning with the Italian Futurists’ first 1909 Manifesto, modernist design discourse championed the utopian potential promised by the speed and mobility of automobile transit. Cars represented, more than any other modernist creation, the male desire to dominate a landscape using a particular visual form. Filippo Marinetti, the founder of Futurism and the author of the 1909 Manifesto, also proposed deeply misogynistic and vocally anti-feminist ideas that expressed the desire to dominate and suppress women while liberating men through automobile transit. Marinetti later revised his comments about women, championing the kind of feminist who was “a new kind of unromantic woman,” but his first claims strike at the heart of modernism’s failures to make room for female let alone feminist voices. [ (( “Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 1967), 103.” )) ] The Futurist Manifesto focuses solely on cars’ symbolic potentials rather than on any sort of formal tenets and defines the Futurist masculine movement by reconceptualizing time rather than space, stressing the significance of transience. The driving, solo man, street racing in the exurbs of Milan, comes to embody the empowered technological individual.

Don Draper is always driving on an Angeleno freeway of the mind. Matthew Weiner cites the preserved modernist fabric of Los Angeles as a primary inspiration for the series, but the modernist thrall of Los Angeles comes, in the assessment of modernist historians, from its almost hyperreal car culture. Mad Men is nothing if not a blend of the decades surrounding its 1960s setting, and its sets reflect a continued preoccupation with Populuxe 1950s car aesthetics, especially in roadside architectures like Howard Johnson’s, Burger Chef, and a string of motels that feature as prominently in the show’s narrative arc as the elite modernist office spaces they inhabit. The 1950s represented the decade when corporate consumer architecture — big box stores, malls, grocery stores, fast food chains, and more — began proliferating in many American cities and spreading along highways into suburbs and even exurbs. This kind of sprawl had characterized Los Angeles since the 1880s; however, it became the national American urban image in the postwar period. The ad people of Mad Men are actively trying to advertise to this new, automobile-dependent national landscape.

While Mad Men’s sets and filming locations were intended to represent largely confining and dense New York locations, the entire series, excepting the pilot, was actually shot within the Los Angeles metro area and on sound studios at Los Angeles Center Studios. The modernist tower of the studios, near downtown LA, was designed by the same architects behind CBS Television City and, before the 1990s, had been an oil company’s corporate headquarters, imbricating Mad Men’s Manhattan corporate with the fuel that drives the auto industry.

Whitten Case Study House

Los Angeles Case Study House

Mad Men’s modernist Angeleno preservation impulse is perhaps most evident with Don and Megan Draper’s Upper East Side apartment whose interior is said to be based upon the LA Case Study Houses from the late 1940s and early 1950s and also upon popular California and national design magazines. On DVD commentary, Matthew Weiner claims the season two episode “The Jet Set” was filmed at one of these houses, but the kind of new multimedia affluent suburban ranch home brimming with equally new corporate technologies ironically receives its clearest re-articulation–as the nightmare setting of a failed second marriage–in Manhattan. Homes with built-in televisions and commissioned and promoted by a magazine, the Case Study houses represent the mass media’s attempt to shape the architectural tastes of the general public, to instate a Design for Dreaming.

From its historical perspective, Mad Men focuses on how mundane these spaces ultimately were and rejects the mythologies of the good life and glamour that are embedded in our collective memory of such spaces. As the aforementioned 1956 General Motors promotional video Design for Dreaming insists, the success of new, Second Machine age techno-utopia homes depended upon automobility. The good life was afforded by a hardworking husband, always in the driver seat coming to and from work, who affords his wife the newest technologies to ease her housework and childrearing. Driving in the car came to represent the acquisition and accumulation of capital, the engine affording the proliferation of mechanical consumer goods in the postwar home. But, then there’s one of Mad Men’s responses to this mythology in season seven’s “Time Zones,” which soundtracks Vanilla Fudge’s “Keep Me Hangin’ On” to a montage of sobbing, compromised, variously inebriated and forlorn characters in Case Study landscapes, unable to live up to or within the iconic poses these spaces insist upon their inhabitants taking.

Yet the dominant Angeleno car mythologies of Mad Men stem from Futurism and architectural history. Indeed, two architectural histories by Reyner Banham reflect the masculine thrall of automobile transit during the 1960s and that era’s historical desire to render the driving suburban everyman as possessing a kind of Futurist power. In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960, first edition), Banham admits the sexism of the Futurists but does not fully explore the hypocrisies undergirding said sexism. Instead, he glorifies their idealism. His book proposes that cars define the ability of technological modernity to progress and, implicitly, that only men have developed theories or publicly worthwhile opinions on cars.

Joan Holloway doll and lithograph

“Joan Holloway doll and lithograph”

The season five episode “The Other Woman” could be read as an overt Futurist allegory that meditates upon how masculine car culture progresses at the cost of women who are not unromantic. In the episode, Joan Holloway, who was commodified as a sexy Barbie doll during an early season, must sleep with a Jaguar executive (masculinist car culture!) in order to gain partner status. Those truly benefiting from the agreement are Joan’s male colleagues who have a far larger financial stake in winning the business. While this narrative could read like a woman (Joan) overcoming, or accepting, the car industry’s embodied oppression to achieve something long deserved, Joan’s victory is temporary and it’s made explicit that the sorts of oppressions she experienced are continuous in every professional arena.

In the third to final episode, “Lost Horizon,” Joan is sexually propositioned and harassed after a recent merger. She confronts her new boss about the situation and the scene escalates to Joan proclaiming she is going to enlist Betty Friedan, the ACLU, and the 1970 Ladies’ Home Journal protesters and him demanding she leave and accept a liquidated partnership. Joan’s brief attempt to intervene in masculinist corporate politics with overt feminism is depicted and punished in the modernist idiom of the show. Joan must start anew from her kitchen. This trajectory runs counter to Don’s: in the final episodes, he takes the open road to California where he attains spiritual capitalist enlightenment, privileged, unlike Joan, with the ability to abandon responsibilities and to adopt the kinds of new spatial identities afforded by carefree automobile transit.

In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), Banham paeans the LA freeways as the modern American equivalent of ancient Roman monuments — without admitting the extremely embodied and not always positive experience of, well, actually driving in LA. Banham provides a narcissistic universalizing (read: only his own straight white male) perspective on Los Angeles that doesn’t account for the different ways that Angelenos experience the freeways. Rather, this is Don’s fantasia: driving alone in a car on a scenic empty highway on the road towards the everyman’s enlightenment, or, towards “California Dreamin.” Somehow, Banham’s photos of the LA freeways, included in the book, are all empty or, at most, contain one other car, rescripting the actuality of the place to reflect a modernist privileging of the automobile and its infrastructure as design objects autonomous from their congested context. These are the same empty roadways as those Don’s always taking.

whitten howard johnson

Mad Men visits a Howard Johnson

In fifth season Mad Men episode “Far Away Places,” the Futurist myths concerning automobility are harnessed to express what Matthew Weiner describes as the “desire to go away.” [ (( “ http://www.amc.com/shows/mad-men/video-extras/inside-episode-506-mad-men-far-away-places” )) ] The entire show could be based upon this premise, with the weekly pitches to clients functioning as the idealized capitalist automobile dreamworlds that its characters peddle but never inhabit. In the episode, Don turns aimless driving — a Futurist mobility for the sake of mobility — into a tool to attempt to control his second wife, Megan. They decide to take an impromptu trip to a Plattsburgh, New York where there’s a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and Motor Lodge. There, inside the restaurant, Megan tells Don that she is sick of Don dominating their shared life. The image of their marriage is one of driving, of escape, of a road as open as the American landscape, and it’s also one of commercial capitalist roadside architecture, a love affair born of Disneyland motels, but also one in which Don is always in the driver’s seat. Their marriage fails because, following a Futurist myth, these Mad adventures only prove enlightening, or generate progress, when a man sets out on his own.

Image Credits

1. Don Draper Driving
2. Case Study House
3. Joan Holloway
4. Howard Johnson

Please feel free to comment.




Miss Representations: No Room for Blackness or Feminism on Mad Men’s Sets
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

As some have noted but few have probed, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s critically-lauded, recently departed, dolled up soap opera about white masculine decline and white female ascent in the 1960s New York ad agency Sterling Cooper, has a racial and feminist representation problem. The Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights and Black Power movements were fermenting during the 1960 to 1970 time period covered by the show, but, save for two peripheral African-American female secretarial figures, Mad Men problematically asserts the dominance of the white, straight, affluent male gaze within both its historical period and its viewing present. While this male gaze, especially as enacted by the show’s anti-hero protagonist, Don Draper, dominates the spaces of the agency’s white and black female workers, this series of three columns tackles a broad representational issue: first, against common claims that Mad Men is feminist, I argue that its corporate modernist sets reveal the show to be a perpetuator of white patriarchal domination of the American workplace and, secondly, how Mad Men’s refusal to explore how spaces of disenfranchised and segregated black characters echoes broader discriminatory practices within architectural and televisual creative cultures. Mad Men’s modernist office sets facilitate the show’s systemic perpetuation of the American masculinist creative culture as well as the racial and gendered divides between black and white, male and female American citizens.

As I see every year in the designs of my first year architecture students, architectural history, theory, and design cultures continue to be dominated by the modernist aesthetic found in the Sterling Cooper office sets. Mad Men’s season four promotional poster expresses the overt whiteness and maleness of this aesthetic, with Don standing in a crisp, empty, ready-to-be-dominated corner office staring out onto a sea of other skyscrapers. In design but also American popular culture, the skyscraper is, to be blunt, conceived to be symbolic of a giant penis and thus bespeaks the masculine domination of space. In the immediate postwar period, the modernist Manhattan skyscraper represents corporate restructuring and the concomitant solidification of binary American gender politics, with women only occupying low-level positions or, worse yet and as Betty Friedan decried in 1963, The Organization Man’s homemaking other.[ (( See Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963) and William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956). ))]

The final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Mies van der Rohe and his Seagram Building are the premiere postwar articulation of this skyscraper, PR-friendly patriarchal design culture. In its 2014 Venice Biennale show Elements, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture called Seagram a “monument,” and especially noted its use of the new partition wall to enable its interior spatial flexibility. The offices of Mad Men’s ad agency in seasons four through seven have partition walls and reflect not only the rapid growth of corporate America but also the spatial politics by which its male partners dictate the contents and borders of their office’s partition walls. Moreover, Mies’ most famous dictum, “less is more,” echoes the hard, universalizing, catchphrase-centered culture of midcentury masculine advertising. But the most striking correlation between Mies and Mad Men comes in the opening credit’s final shot. The animated ad mad is pictured from behind, smoking a cigarette, while Mies is usually photographed smoking a cigar. Both are upper middle class, professionalized white males iconized by the leisurely intake of tobacco in private offices while women toil away in undivided, exposed office spaces. If, as Marxist spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre claims, Mies is the leading architect of “a space characteristic of capitalism,” then Don Draper and other ad men are those spaces’ premier tenants.[ (( Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholslon-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 126. ))]

It is thus within the public and private spaces of the skyscraper office that Mad Men’s white, straight males make the final creative decisions that dictate their agency’s future. Echoing this fictional spatial narrative, the creative culture of twentieth and twenty-first century architecture has been almost entirely white and male, in part explaining how that demographics’ most popular corporate architectural style continues to dominate design culture—like, normative, homogenous bodies producing like, normative, homogenous spaces. Corporate modernism’s history is one long Great Man Theory and, despite Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, which has a black male architect protagonist, in 2007 only 1% of registered architects were black and, in 2004, only 20% were women. Architecture school enrollment statistics reported in 2012 reveal a slightly different story, with only 5% black but 43% female. [ (( See (1) Craig Wilkins, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and (2) Jenna M. McKnight, “Why the Lack of Black Students?,” Architecture Record (November 2012), available online at http://archrecord.construction.com/features/Americas_Best_Architecture_Schools/2012/Architecture-Education-Now/Diversity.asp. ))] The 2014 employment numbers at ad agencies are even more depressing: only 5% of employees were black, while only 4% of women were creative directors.

Modernism first emerged in Europe in the early twentieth century but made its American splash with MoMA’s 1932 International Style architecture exhibition. The show’s curators, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, selected primarily domestic architectures that represented a terse, clean, and simple emphasis on a formalist geometric purity—rectilinearity—executed, in part, through open floor plans and windows with streaming sunlight. Johnson is perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century American architecture and his public persona demonstrates the convergence of the three of the most significant midcentury mass media (television, advertising, and modernist architecture): as an openly gay man, he was an interloper in a heteronormative straight professional culture; as an architect, he collaborated with Mies on the Seagram Building, for which he designed some of its key interiors; as a curator at MoMA, in 1947 he put on the first Mies van der Rohe solo exhibition anywhere and, in 1988, he dubbed a group of “deconstructivist architects” the stylistic innovators succeeding his International Style modernists; and, as architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina argues, Johnson, despite his avowed rejection of television and other mass visual media because “[only] architecture is how you enclose space,” [ (( This Philip Johnson quote comes from his three part, 1976 Camera Three television interview, which aired on CBS. ))] was “like a TV personality…a TV program, a reality TV show that ran longer than anyone could have imagined.” [ (( Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 191. ))] Johnson was also like an ad man for elite architectural taste in America, coronating successive waves of architects like television producers created stars and ad men created verbal and visual slogans. Postwar American architecture was thus largely the product of a white, male advertising campaign that only once over its eighty-year span included women in its canon.

Spearheaded by Johnson, who turned high architectural culture into a mass consumable commodity expounded in clear, simple, marketable characteristics, the integration of television, advertising , and corporate modernism constitute what I consider to be the postwar period’s actual military-industrial complex. All three ‘creative’ professions were giant corporate ventures by Mad Men’s 1960 start, and they all— ironically, given their overlapping production of solely mass media—relied upon the elite patriarchal associations of architectural modernism’s history. While introduced in 1932, modernism did not become the dominant architectural style in America until the immediate postwar period when, as American architect Kenneth Reid wrote in 1942, the national design culture was looking for “leaders of undeniable maleness who are bold and forthright and stoutly aggressive” to articulate the booming corporate interests represented by Madison Avenue ad agencies. [ (( Quote taken from Andrew Shanken, 194x: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 5. The quote is from Kenneth Reid, “New Beginnings,” Pencil Points 24 (January 1943), 242. ))]

It was not just ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that used corporate modernism as tools of advertising and patriarchal domination. The Big Three and their local affiliates built new modernist television production facilities and corporate headquarters in New York and Los Angeles, and, like advertising, their corporate hierarchy and creative output was generated by almost exclusively white men producing content for audiences with a white, heterosexual, middle class demographic. Television historian Lynn Spigel chronicles the design through the opening of CBS’s first 1953 Los Angeles production facility Television City, which she claims “communicates the experience of television as a design concept.” [ (( Lynn Spigel, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 128, but see pages 110-143. ))] By using the elite design aesthetic of modernism as a public branding technique, television made an early argument that its mass mediated cultural productions were like an art form. CBS’s 1964 Midtown Manhattan corporate headquarters, a skyscraper located adjacent to Rockefeller Center, creates a far stronger correlation between Mad Men and corporate modernism, illustrating how by the mid-1960s the large, multitenant office building, primarily funded by a named corporation, became the definitively white, male emblem of creative professional work. Despite the multiple transitions in the production and distribution of new television content—the recent insurgence of especially black female televisual representation, a move that would seem to necessitate a reconsideration of corporate televisual modernism—the television industry continues to house itself in modernist corporate environments with similar managerial and creative identity-based inequalities. Mad Men’s corporate modernism thus doesn’t just tell the history of 1960s advertising; it provides a look into contemporary corporate creative culture.

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

As many have pointed out, and unlike much of what historian Merrill Schleier has called “skyscraper cinema,” Mad Men almost never shows the exterior of the office buildings in which its characters spend the majority of their time. [ (( See Merrill Schleier, Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). ))] Instead, the camera meditates mainly on Don alone and with colleagues in his office. This focus on white straight masculine interiority corresponds to the dynamics of gender and sexuality as embodied by the midcentury skyscraper. The authoritative lines of corporate modernism are matched by the solidification of the male patriarchal domination of workspace—their position in corner offices with curtain-walled windows—and the ancillary roles, and interior, window-less spaces that women were relegated to. Indeed, for the majority of Mad Men’s run, only one woman, Don’s protégé Peggy Olson, receives her own windowed office, the rest of the female secretarial pool confined to fully open then partitioned interiors to be easily observed by their male bosses.

I’d like to make an admission: like many of Mad Men’s commentators, I spent my first run viewing of the show considering it something of a feminist masterpiece. I even, as shown below, posted a paean to its female protagonist Peggy Olson on my Facebook page. The bitter irony of making semi-public my misinterpretation of a sudsy but perhaps too championed show now resounds, as I complete my second full viewing of it, as my attempt to rationalize my pleasured enjoyment of an aesthetically and ideologically conservative soap opera. It would seem that, in having sat through and partially taught architectural history survey courses for eight years and counting, I’d accustomed myself to the very corporate architectural modernism, and its violent symbolic assault on female and black persons, that I encourage my students to critique and disengage from. The most telling part of my Facebook post is, however, the sole comment, left by a former yoga teacher, that Peggy’s “becoming Don.” I’d like to propose that, in addition to slavishly recreating corporate America’s patriarchal heyday, Mad Men recreates the patriarchal politics of the 1960s iterations of its primary generic category, the soap opera. Published in 1970, the same year as Mad Men’s conclusion, the intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful contains an essay that critiques the architecture-advertising-television complex illustrated by Mad Men’s narrative spatial emplacements. In her essay “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” Alice Embree claims that television is the primary nationally disseminated media controlled by the ad agencies of Madison Avenue. Significantly, Embree cites the soap opera as the televisual programming genre that most clearly exhibits and bolsters “the image of male-dominated women,” and she especially singles out the depiction of the white, middle class, corporate professional man (that’s you, Don Draper) as the corporeal and spatial soap opera figure making this assertion. [ (( Alice Embree, “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), pages 175-191. ))]

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

Over the course of the show, as Peggy Olson ascends the corporate ladder, she is, as my yoga teacher’s comment suggests, increasingly masculinized as an embodiment of liberal individualism. Popular and academic commentators on the show have called it “TV’s most feminist show,” but, in reality, it’s a show about men dominating women and women acquiescing to its male characters’ demands in order to achieve personal and/or professional success. Perhaps Peggy’s navigation of corporate modernism is a second wave feminist tale of liberal individualism, but she’s largely unhappy, unliberated, and depressed over the show’s run. Indeed, liberal individualist ideology was promoted by early, white, middle class second wave feminists, and this movement’s contrast with the collective working culture of feminized office culture—and black feminism—renders it a patriarchal American spatial myth: a pursuit of an office of one’s own that was considered out of reach by and for most women. [ (( For a discussion of the relationship between the American ideologies of liberal individual (and its 1960s white, middle class, bourgeois feminist associations) and its contrast with collective black feminism, see bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), pages 1-15. ))]

Peggy Olson in her office

Peggy Olson in her office

Indeed, all accounts of white and black authors who write about working in corporate America in the 1970 intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful state that, based upon their lived experiences, women never rose above the level of glorified secretary and never moved from open, interior, and public workspaces into private, windowed offices.[ (( For a comparative discussion of female workplaces in the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan in the 1960s, see Judith Ann, “The Secretarial Proletariat,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 86-101. For a discussion of a black female proletariat working in mass media, see Shelia Smith Hobson, “Women and Television,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 70-76. ))] It would thus seem that Peggy’s corporate spatial ascent is an unlikely fictional conceit provided by white male apologists-cum-television creative to furnish a point of identification for contemporary female viewers and to lull male viewers into thinking the show was advancing a progressive (historical) agenda. Moreover, the aesthetics of Peggy’s office—warm wood paneling in stark contrast to Don’s clean whites—directly echo those of Seagram’s initial luxurious wood modernism, and her feminine domination of such a space corresponds to her narrative assumption of masculinist, unwavering, unsympathetic assertiveness. As importantly, Peggy’s refusal to collaborate with or advocate for her female co-workers demonstrates her ideological assumption of patriarchal corporate spatial divides. Audre Lorde’s 1979 black lesbian feminist manifesto “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” should ring in the ears of Mad Men viewers. Not only does Peggy use patriarchal professional and social tools to enable her spatial ascent, but she also doesn’t embrace Lorde’s claim that “for women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”[ (( Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Gender, Space, and Architecture, edited by Iain Borden, Barbara Penner, and Jane Rendell (New York: Routledge, 2000), 54, but see pages 53-55 for the full text. ))]

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

In the series’ second episode, “Ladies’ Room,” Peggy is met with iciness by her new coworkers, initiating her corporate experience with inter-female hostility in Sterling Cooper’s only fully female space. But Peggy doesn’t have a desire to change this flawed social-political system. Instead, she engages in a largely competitive corporate jockeying, a political battle, with Sterling Cooper’s other ascendant white female employee, Joan Holloway. They’re most frequently shown riding the elevator up and down to the Sterling Cooper offices, and, in their tense final ride, Joan informs Peggy, after being sexually harassed by men at a competing firm, “I want to burn this place down.” Peggy doesn’t join Joan in her attempt to overthrow corporate sexual discrimination. Instead, she gets off the elevator and goes to her office, concluding the series by integrating herself, more than ever, into the male-dominated spaces of corporate America.

Further defying Lorde’s 1979 call to arms, Peggy several times displaces black female coworkers by making racist assumptions about black working class women who belong to the same spatially exposed secretarial pool she starts the series within. First, after discovering Don’s new secretary Dawn sleeping in his office and inviting Dawn to her apartment, Peggy thinks Dawn has stolen from her and Dawn, depicted in narrative shorthand as an abject, spatially unmoored black woman, leaves the supposed white feminist domestic sphere feeling the opposite of sisterhood and spatial togetherness. In effect, Peggy stereotypes Dawn as a poor, black thief, a domestic interloper, demonstrating how stereotypes are “a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening.” [ (( bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 170. ))] Instead of truly opening her space to intersectionality, making the emotionally risky decision to trust a black woman and thus truly making her home a place of feminist togetherness, Peggy makes the comfortable, “less threatening” social and political decision to racially police her personal space. Second, Peggy falsely presumes that flowers sent to her black secretary Shirley were intended for her, as if the Sterling Cooper offices, in their resounding modernist whiteness, has no space for black women to be given any attention. (This incident serves as a partial excuse for Peggy to request Shirley be re-assigned, making it overt that black women’s place within the Sterling Cooper office is subject to white overseers’ whims.) My emphasis on ‘modernist whiteness’ is intentional: Madison Avenue is literally, spatially. Moreover, when the historical spatial evolution of this advertising world is turned into a narrative with equally historical soap opera conventions, Mad Men crystallizes into a show conceived of, executed by, and representative of male patriarchy’s domination of American corporate space.


“On the Next Mad Men

Discussion to be continued in Flow 22.04.

Image Credits:

1. The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster
2. Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits (author’s screen grab)
3. Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar
4. Sea of skyscrapers (author’s screen grab)
5. Facebook post (author’s screen grab)
6. Peggy Olson in her office (author’s screen grab)
7. Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room” (author’s screen grab)
8. Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices (author’s screen grab)
9. “On the Next Mad Men

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.




Redefining Indecency

Rolling Stones half-time show

Rolling Stones half-time show

Once again the organizers of the Super Bowl half-time show called upon British knighthood to rescue America’s premier global media event from the breast-baring moral depravities of half-time past. However, the transition from last year’s cautious Sir Paul McCartney pop to this year’s hip-swaggering Rolling Stones rock required a series of preemptive measures to ensure a “decent” performance. The Rolling Stones agreed to the NFL’s request that the half-time producers dampen the sound when Sir Mick uttered the lyrics “You make a dead man come” and “Am I just one of your cocks?,” though the censoring of these sexual connotations were a bit nullified when Jagger stripped down to his signature skin-tight t-shirt and mod pants as a gigantic stage tongue retracted during the performance. ABC, the network that broadcast the game, denied any involvement in censoring the lyrics, perhaps to distance themselves from validating the Federal Communication Commission’s recent crackdown on indecency and tenfold increase in fines for violations since breast-gate two years earlier. Nonetheless, ABC, perhaps jittery from the FCC’s retroactive fines against a fellow network’s stations for yet another rock star’s indiscrimination at a live event, instituted a five second broadcast delay as a failsafe to prevent naughtiness from traveling the airwaves, a standard industry practice for live shows since the infamous exposure and a way to show the FCC that self-regulation rather than government intervention could address the issue. As if to remind us of the legacies of rock-n-roll TV censorship of yore, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards impressed reporters with an Ed Sullivan impersonation in a pre-game press conference. And when the FCC and Congress turned its attention away from a broader critique of media conglomeration during the controversial biennial review of media ownership rules in 2002 to focus on dirty words and bare skin, we are yet reminded of the regulatory legacies that find lawmakers making loud public moral postures against distasteful graphic indecencies in lieu of finding structural solutions to the more broadly defined indecencies of race, gender, sexuality and class discriminations that commercial media propagate.

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

While the NFL and ABC’s layered precautions preempted any verbal or wardrobe malfunctions, other more heinous indecencies were certainly on display. Most egregious of these was the NFL’s decision to include Detroit’s legendary Motown artists in the event only after Bowl organizers received a barrage of complaints from Motown fans and artists for dissing the host city’s musical heritage. After dismissing a proposal made a year earlier to include the music from Detroit’s past and present (from Aretha Franklin and Bob Seger to Kid Rock and Eminem), the NFL hastily added a 12-minute pre-game show that included Stevie Wonder leading a medley of Motown classics and invited Aretha Franklin, New Orleans singer Aaron Neville, keyboardist Dr. John and a 150-member Detroit-based gospel choir to perform the national anthem. For those who missed the pre-game performance (that is, the 65 million viewers who saw Mick’s midriff at half-time but missed the pre-game Motown tribute), Wonder called for a coming together before “we annihilate each other,” stating that the global threat was not about our “religion” but rather about our “relationship.” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy defended this marginalization of Detroit’s musical legacies in stating that the “Super Bowl transcends the host city and even the country,” as if Motown music, and the global hip-hop it inspired, had little relevance outside the city limits. Even within this city’s borders which has experienced a history of marginalizing African American life and culture (most tragically evident in the race riots of July 1967), the historic Motown Center building which gave birth to this famous record label was torn down to create more parking for the big game. The building had been abandoned for 30 years, leaving precious documents that archived the careers of Smoky Robinson, Marvin Gay and Stevie Wonder for waste. Local amateur historians scrambled to collect documents before and after the demolition while the Detroit Metro Host Committee spent $10 million to insure that the Super Bowl fans, media and corporate sponsors enjoyed their stay. These abandoned cityscapes also remind us of the global dynamics that have put downward pressures on the wage and pension benefits of local autoworkers.

Motown Center demolished

Motown Center demolished

This marginalization of America’s African-American music heritage resonated as US citizens mourned the passing of civil rights activist Coretta Scott King just days before. Just as the NFL and ABC prevented Stevie Wonder’s anti-war plea from airing on the half-time center stage, the television coverage of King’s funeral three days after the Super Bowl dampened the anti-war messages that resonated in the eulogies. The Rev. Joseph Lowry received negative media attention when he stated that, “We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there” [followed by a 23 second standing ovation], “but Coretta knew, and we knew, there were weapons of misdirection right here.” Much of the news coverage focused on whether this was “tasteful” or “appropriate” for a funeral, especially because George W. was in attendance – CNN even edited out 18 seconds of Lowry’s standing ovation in its coverage. Even fewer news reports repeated Lowry’s comments that linked the costs of the war to class discriminations at home: “Millions without health insurance, poverty abound. For war billions more, but no more for the poor.”

While the news media dwelled on the indecencies of breaking funeral decorum with political protests rather than honoring the work of civil rights leaders who fought to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination, the Marketing to Moms Coalition, a market research firm, conducted a recent survey revealing that 80% of America’s mothers feel snubbed by Super Bowl advertisers even though women make up nearly half of the audience. Confirming the history of this marketing bias was the special attention given to the commercial for Dove’s “campaign for real beauty” as the first Super Bowl commercial pitched specifically to women. But the ongoing assumption among advertisers that men are harder to reach than women continues to ensure that advertising pitches, especially in sports programming, will consider their male viewers first, as was evident in the nine Anheuser-Busch ads that played during the game. Typical of the masculinity on display was their “magic fridge” ad which won a USA Today poll for best ad featuring a man hiding his Bud Light from friends in a fridge that disappeared behind a revolving wall, only to reappear in the adjacent apartment to the gleeful worship of a room full of 20 something guys. Yet, while Anheuser-Busch and other advertisers reinforced this all-about-sports-and-beer construct of masculinity to pitch their wares, Shonda Rimes exploited this masculine discourse to promote her hit hospital TV drama Grey’s Anatomy which immediately followed the game. Though the series offers a reprieve from the shock-and-awe spectacles of Michael Crichton’s ER by focusing on the relationship dynamics of its racially diverse cast, Rimes tapped into the testosterone-charged environment with promotions promising an ER-esque emergency “code black” and opening the episode with a male fantasy scene depicting three women cast members sudsing-up in the shower.

Fortunately for ABC no breasts or nasty words were exposed in the scene, but there may be signs that the FCC has cooled its policing of indecency because after awarding a record $7,928,080 in fines in 2004, no fines were proposed in 2005. Perhaps they are satisfied that the networks have curbed live TV spontaneity with broadcast delays, that viewers will be shielded from the indecencies of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps they are just eager to distance themselves from the image of the sexually repressed (crazed?) old white male regulators that the internet domain registry Go Daddy parodies in their ad campaigns. For many of us who think that this narrow focus on censoring indecencies of the flesh and tongue does not address the broader injustices of racial, class, gender and sex discriminations that the structures of commercial media propagate, perhaps we can spark debate and activism by redefining the indecencies of this year’s Super Bowl, including:

1. As the live events that bring the nation together for collective viewing become less common in a fragmented digital media environment, we should care more about what the legacies of civil rights activism can tell us about ongoing racial discrimination (as evidenced by the war’s accentuation of racial and class injustices at home, the global outsourcing dynamics that impact access to living wages, the racial and class politics of the Katrina disaster, and the dismissing of America’s musical heritage steeped in these struggles) than protecting the young against foul mouths and bare skin. Let’s inoculate our youth through engaged discussion about what they might find on TV and the internet, as well as what they will not find, rather than censoring our collective viewing spaces on their behalf.
2. Address the gender discriminations in advertising-sponsored television sports that not only privilege male viewers during coverage of male-only sporting events but also limit financial support for women’s sporting events. Also, in witnessing Shonda Rime’s counter narratives to those of Michael Crichton, Paul Tagliabue and August Busch III, we should reinforce our commitment to equal opportunity rules for those who labor before and behind the cameras.
3. As more broadcast programming migrates away from over-the-air broadcasting to cable/satellite subscription services (such as Monday Night Football’s migration to ESPN), broadcast radio’s migration to pay-radio, and audio-visual migrations to the internet (which has seen threats to network neutrality principles as service providers offer faster broadband access for premium subscribers), issues of equitable access to a broad array of content should matter more than censoring what remains of our most accessible broadcast programming.


Willard D. Rowland, Jr. “The Television Violence Debates (The V-Chip). The Television History Book. Ed. Michele Hilmes. London: BFI Publishing, 2003. 132-6.
Anna McCarthy. “Media Effects (CBS and Stanley Milgram)” Television Studies. Ed. Toby Miller. London: BFI Publishing, 2002. 74-78.

Image Credits:

1. Rolling Stones half-time show

2. Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

3. Motown Center demolished

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.




Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

What’s old is new again on television, as prime-time boy soap operas like Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Life As We Know It, Summerland, The Mountain, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and The OC have come to replace girl-centered teen dramas like My So-Called Life, Popular, and Buffy. The new boy-centered soap employs “feminine” generic serial elements to explore male adolescence and relationships between males, often focusing around brothers or fathers & sons. Like their female counterparts, these programs offer more character-based drama than most current network television. The combination of seriality and an adolescent focus make for intense storylines which revolve around self discovery, the development of non-familial relationships, sexual exploration, and life lessons, especially liberal “awakenings”. Indeed, the male creators of these programs are among the most liberal on network television — some are even openly gay. The boy soap is as pleasurable a text for female viewers as television offers today. Yet at the same time, these programs consistently give short shrift to female characters and points of view, putting female viewers in the difficult position of cheering on the sidelines in the one generic field where they had dominated.

The reasons for this shift are multiple, but would certainly include the rise to prominence of gay television producers in the 1990s, most prominently Alan Ball of HBO’s Six Feet Under and Kevin Williamson of the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, who were given their first highly publicized opportunities to create television series after they had penned hit movies. Although a welcome change, this development also reflects continuing male industrial dominance, even on smaller networks and subscription channels (straight female and lesbian producers have remained rare, especially as the creators of programs). The consuming power of a white, liberal, educated audience (what television scholar Ron Becker has referred to as “SLUMPIES”) has also helped ensure a loyal gay and gay-friendly viewing community, which is perhaps most evident in the broad popularity of homoerotic “slash” readings of television texts by very vocal and influential internet television communities. At the same time, the general political and industrial shift to the right has resulted in less explicitly feminist or lesbian television texts like Buffy getting the green light; instead, risky behavior and moral heroism have become almost exclusively (white) boy territory, which is more socially acceptable.

Some key characteristics of the genre:

Boy/Boy Focus: Male relationships form the core of these programs and are privileged within the text: father/son on Everwood; brother/brother on The OC, Jack and Bobby, One Tree Hill, Summerland, and The Mountain; and male friendship on Life As We Know It and Smallville, the latter of which focuses on future enemies Clark Kent and Lex Luther, both of whom also have difficult relationships with their daddies. There is very little consistent female solidarity anywhere on these programs, and when it does it exist it is generally constructed as a support or reaction to the central male characters and relationships, i.e. Lana and Mrs. Kent worry about Clark on Smallville.

Gendered Character Growth: While men can be feminine on these programs, women cannot be masculine. Boys are scholars and weepers, leaders and followers. A women who exhibits more masculine qualities is invariably regarded as shrill, cold and dysfunctional. Christine Lahti’s professor mom Grace McCallister on Jack and Bobby is a self-identified feminist, and, as Entertainment Weekly recently noted, the most unlikeable character on the program who “embarrasses herself” with her didacticism and must be taught “lessons in tolerance and motherhood”–in other words, how to be feminine. Such lessons are only necessary for older women, as none of the younger girls seem to have a problem being feminine. They do, however, seem to have a problem being anything else and are often criminally underwritten. Because boys are allowed such a broad range of emotions and girls are not, the girls seem stunted, stuck in an adolescence in which they don’t seem to learn or develop. On-line viewers have complained about the vapidity of Smallville‘s Lana Lang for years, but producers decided that they were simply jealous of Lana’s beauty.

Homoeroticism: The traditional female-targeted soap promotes men as objects for female consumption, but the teen boy soap takes such objectification up a notch. The WB’s stable of gorgeous former male models offer a degree of youthful beauty and athleticism that is unsurpassed; combined with melodramatic adolescent yearning, the homoerotic content is hardly subtle. Indeed, these programs are “slash-friendly” texts in which producers often deliberately insert gay innuendo to reward viewers (reaching its apotheosis in the first season of Smallville). Most prominent among “slashed” relationships are Seth/Ryan on The OC, Jack and anyone on Jack and Bobby, Dr. Brown and Dr. Abbott on The OC, and, of course, Clark/Lex. Because female relationships are not as developed or given as much screen-time, girl-slash is much less possible, and the characters’ feminine passivity, lack of sexual desire (see below) and narrow emotional range also make erotic “sparkage” much less likely. In addition, the girls are rarely presented as the models of desirability the boys are: Amy’s best friend on Everwood, the starry-eyed and childlike Hannah, is mousy and wears glasses — the nadir of television sexuality and a definite slash-killer.

Gay Inclusiveness: These boy soapers frequently include “out” gay characters or references. Both The OC and Jack and Bobby have featured recurring gay characters and episodes devoted to “outing” and its consequences. Gay identity and gay relationships are taken very seriously: when a boy develops a crush on Jack in Jack and Bobby and tells him about it (“I love you”), the show makes clear that the boy has “outed” himself as gay. The boy, in fact, is so depressed and frustrated by the realization of his homosexuality that he commits suicide. The portrayal of gay identity assumes a fixed gay/straight binary where men don’t experiment, making the show safe for straight boys to watch without feeling anxious. Lesbianism, however, is not taken nearly as seriously; when girls kiss other girls on these soaps, they’re dabbling, experimenting, or “acting out.” Marissa on The OC kissed a girl because she’s rebelling against her mother (the same reason she had an affair with the gardener) — the fact that the kiss occurred during February sweeps also says much about the cynicism at work here. Long-term lesbianism doesn’t exist, and girls don’t struggle with their feelings for other girls the way boys do.

Sexual Desire and Practice: Refreshingly, teens do have sex on these shows, which generally has kept them out of the Parents Television Council’s good graces. However, the treatment reaffirms essentialist traditions, at least for girls: Boys want sex (and sometimes relationships), girls want relationships. These girls seem to have almost no sexual desire for anyone; they view sex as simply a stepping stone in cementing a relationship. And once they have sex, like Amy and Ephram do on Everwood, they don’t seem to need to ever do it again. When women do feel sexual desire, they’re pathologized (unless, of course, they’re married). Inevitably, these desiring unmarried women are past a certain age and, as we know, they’re “desperate,” leading them to make unhealthy sexual choices that lead to personal and professional chaos. Indeed, desire often directly undermines their professional well being: high school teacher Monica Young sleeps with her student on Life As We Know It; Grace McCallister has an affair with her graduate student. Former political radical Rebecca (Kim Delaney) threatens Sandy and Kirsten’s perfect marriage on The OC because apparently, in her 20 years of being “on the run”, she hasn’t had one relationship and is, therefore, desperate.

Reproduction: While the characters do have sex, it inevitably causes more trouble than it seems to be worth. Even though condoms are faithfully used, a pregnancy almost always occurs (although surprisingly, no one ever seems to get an STD). While the dramatic value of an accidental pregnancy is a soap opera standard, the frequency with which pregnancy seems to occur on these programs suggests that the Bush Administration may be right and condoms shouldn’t be trusted. The message seems to be either don’t have sex or don’t have sex with girls (given these boys, the latter seems a much more likely outcome). Pregnancy is viewed here through the eyes of the male heroes, and it clearly has the potential to ruin their entire lives: The OC‘s Ryan moves back to Chino to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Everwood‘s Ephram (spoiler ahead!) misses his Julliard audition once he learns he fathered a child. The women’s reactions to pregnancy are marginalized, since most are supporting characters who leave the show after their wombs have served their dramatic purpose. Abortion is bravely presented by producers as an option, but it is portrayed very negatively, usually in a “closed” episode where it can be dealt with quickly, the offending girl banished, and the ensuing male trauma resolved. Pregnancy, after all, is a man’s crisis.

The scenarios I sketched above are not unusual; indeed, the whole basis for the development of slash fiction writing by women stemmed, in large part, from the lack of strong female characters and relationships on television. It is this very familiarity which makes the boy soap seem to me like a step back (or perhaps “sideways”?), even when producer intentions towards women are clearly honorable.

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Watching Westerns in Old Europe

by: Patrick J. Walsh / Universität Passau

Americans are rich and they use the Western to explain why. So said one of my students in a class on the Western at the University of Passau in southern Germany. Inspired by Jane Tompkins’ wonderful book, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, I had planned to guide my students toward a consideration of American manhood. And to some extent, that happened. But at the very first meeting of the class, someone linked the word “cowboy” with President Bush and from then on the idea of American self-sanctioned violence never seemed far from the surface of our conversations.

Perhaps my students’ overwhelming dislike for the current president, and the fact that I asked them to think about what these movies suggested about the US, influenced their take on the films we watched. They seemed displeased by the Manichean logic of screen heroes like Shane and the Ringo Kid, men who were willing to kill without remorse, their vengeful, hateful violence cloaked in moral rectitude, courtesy to women and, a show of religious feeling. Both reminded my students of American politicians claiming the moral high ground as they allowed the killing of innocents in the name of “freedom.” There was also little appeal in the anti-heroes of films such as Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969). These men simply used violence to attain their goals, like a “classic” cowboy, but without the varnish of justification. (Watch clip: Fistful of Dollars [real player])

By far the two most popular films with my students were Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952). Saddles appealed, I think, because in between fart jokes it looked directly at the destructive myths of the Western. High Noon was popular because its violence was truly in self-defense and, I think, because of its rejection of religion as a simple way of making moral choices. It is also a great flick: one student wrote movingly about how the tension in the film plays across Gary Cooper’s face, his body, even his hands. (Watch clip: High Noon [avi])

Despite the fact that I pleaded with them to find John Wayne cool, even replaying his walk through a herd of cattle in Red River (1948) for them so they could appreciate his amazing physical presence, I think it was the thoughtful Cooper (and, in Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little) who really appealed to them. Given the timing of my students’ upbringing, at the end of forty-five years of national division and during the wrenching process of reintegrating the economically devastated East after 1989, it doesn’t surprise me that most prefer a variety of manhood and manly heroism quite different from those in Westerns.

Solving problems with a sanctifying burst of violence — although they have seen enough American movies to be more than familiar with the pattern — just doesn’t seem to be in my students’ cultural vocabulary. My wife and I are amused by the amount of dialogue on cop shows (and all programs) here and how rarely the detective draws his gun. A wonderful example of this is Der Kommisario, a German production based on the novels of an American, Donna Leon, who now lives in Italy. Long on conversation and short on action, Der Kommisario is, in the words of a friend, in the “firm German tradition of uneventful and relatively boring crime series.” Such deliberate shows seem more interested in the interaction and development of the characters than in the inevitable triumph of the criminal justice system.

westerns.jpg

Westerns are not about people so much as about a people. For a century, Americans have used them as ways of explaining to themselves who they are. But, one student objected, Westerns turn history upside down, claiming that Americans had to defend themselves from hostile Indians and other forces arrayed against their innate goodness. Thus, seemingly every hero is beaten or loses his family, anything that will rationalize the coming bloodbath. (This is not limited to Westerns: think Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Die Hard, Patriot Games, and so on.)

In a surprising way, many Germans are more forward-looking than Americans. Are there such German myths? No, say my students. As an observer, it seems to me, that without national myths like the classic Western or stories of 1776, Germans have reason to see the past, present, and future in a much more whiggish manner than do Americans. The story of the Western, whether it be Stagecoach or The Wild Bunch, often looks at “American progress” with a jaundiced eye: the coming of civilization means the end of heroism, these legends tell us. The future belongs to merchants, ministers, and women. Americans must be reassured: in the debates last fall, both Bush and Kerry passionately stated their belief that America’s best days are ahead. One of our great national myths suggests otherwise, however, and my students thought it telling that the heroes of so many Westerns — like Shane, Ringo, Ethan Edwards (played by Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers of 1956) — end up alone.

Is George Bush a cowboy, I asked? Many were convinced he carefully uses the dress and speech of this icon to his advantage. If he is the sheriff and bin Laden is the outlaw, then, given the logic of the classical Western, any violence is justified to bring the “bad guy” in. Then a student said something very interesting: to Germans, “the term ‘cowboy’ has a neutral meaning.” So does “Indian.” Germans are not invested in the historical need to valorize one and damn the other. Either can be a hero or a bloodthirsty killer. Bush tries to swing the image one way, but, despite recent fence mending, most Germans interpret his use of the rhetoric as that of the kind of cowboy who will let nothing stand between him and his goal, more like the maniacal Ethan Edwards of The Searchers than High Noon‘s sheriff Will Kane.

Most Germans are critical of the present administration as well as many aspects of American culture–what they perceive as needless violence, materialism, and environmental carelessness–in a fashion that is known here as “Amerikakritik,” a word carefully separate from anti-Americanism (“Anti-amerikanismus”). Germans are able to differentiate between a people and its government. My students did so regularly. And they are able to admire the United States even as they are critical of some of its dominant ideals. After watching a semester’s worth of Westerns, one student wrote that, “I regard the American society as a ‘Hau-drauf-Gesellschaft’ [a get-out-of-my-way society, in which] use your power, strength, elbows and violence to get what you want. In the end success will justify just about everything.” Even so, my students told me that they love American culture, like Americans, and do not define themselves in opposition to the US. Yet in times like these many Germans feel it’s clear that the American Dream “needs more than elbows.”

Image Credits:

Western Films

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Overhaulin’ TV and Government (Thoughts on the Political Campaign to Pimp Your Ride)

by: James Hay / University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

Pimp My Ride

Pimp My Ride on MTV

These days, the expression “overhauling” is in the air (and “on the air.”) Among journalists’ and politicians’ accounts of what the United States can expect from George W. Bush’s second term as president, “overhauling” has become the term du jour for his and fellow Republicans’ plans to achieve a broad array of reforms that will reinvent the role of government (and the role of citizens) under the banners of various slogans: Ownership Society, the Conservative New Deal, or the New New Deal. Some of the most prominent programs targeted for overhauling–for cultivating an Ownership Society — include Social Security, federal taxes, and federal and corporate-sponsored health insurance. This particular vision of reinventing government and citizenship is not necessarily new, having developed out of the “supply-side economics” or “trickle-down economics” of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution,” and the “welfare reform” of the Clinton administration’s second term — all of which considered decades-old national programs of social welfare to be impediments to localizing, privatizing, or personalizing the administration of social welfare in the U.S.

“Overhaul,” however, has become the operative program and plan — the key word for making sense of the circular reasoning of W’s claim in his recent inaugural speech that “in America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character [and that] self government relies on the governing of the self.” Indeed overhaul, make-over, radical surgery, and the reinvention of government all involve not only our primarily cutting back on services previously administered through federal programs, but redefining the responsibilities of government as well as the responsibilities of citizens — and (following Bush’s mantra over the last four years) “advancing freedom” in this way. In the U.S., particularly in these times, the advancement of individual rights and liberties is predicated upon the advancement of personal responsibilities — upon refining the techniques of independence, as a means to overcoming states of dependence.

Today, what exactly are, and where do we find, the techniques, technologies, and guidelines of self-government and of freedom as a private (or personal) responsibility, as a measure of good citizenship to which we are expected to “own up” in an Ownership Society? In the past weeks, several contributors to Flow have offered thoughtful accounts of the recent array of make-over programs on television. In this article, I suggest that the various political programs promising to reinvent government have had something to do with the reinvention of television (and the reivention of the “TV program”) as techniques, regimens, and technologies for self-government — for looking after and taking care of oneself, for maximizing personal responsibility, for becoming as self-directed as possible, and thus for becoming a good citizen within the current reasoning about government.

Make-over TV (the television make-over and TV’s own reinvention) is not simply about the idea of freedom, citizenship, and self-governance, it is about demonstrating the specific techniques and technologies for acting and behaving as independent, self-governing citizens, about the performance of citizenship by applying these techniques in daily life, about recognizing our entrepreneurial skills and resources, and about empowering citizens in these ways. Granted, there are significant differences between series such as The Swan, America’s Next Top Model, Nanny 911, Extreme Makeover (and its Home Edition), Queer Eye For the Straight Guy (and Girl), Renovate My Family, Judge Joe Brown, Curb Appeal or Mission Organization, Fit TV (a channel for physical fitness), Suzie Orman’s financial advice, the Food Channel’s Molto Mario, and things learned on the Learning Channel. But that is the point. We have a lot to work on, a lot to be responsible for in these times. We are asked to maximize our flexibility as workers, citizens, and viewers of TV. TV, meanwhile, has been reinvented to demonstrate the multiplicity of little challenges, the little techniques for taking care of ourselves, and the big results of making ourselves over — and in this way, to make the televisual programs of self-help relevant and matter within the political programs for reinventing government.

Providing for and taking care of ourselves (preparing citizens to be managers of their own security, welfare, health, and happiness, “freeing ourselves” from a “cycle of dependency” associated with older and purportedly broken vehicles of state-sponsored welfare) requires regimens, programs, and technologies designed for the body, personal finance, work habits, home organization and improvement, and entire towns (as in Town Haul) — endless retraining to enable us to lead fulfilling lives within the new reasoning about work, leisure, and self-management. The car-overhaul is one of the most important of these programs because the automobile has long been the technology, the vehicle, that liberal democracy in the U.S. has valued most–automobility as the self-reliant, self-directed, fully transported (free) self, and the fully transportable TV viewer. Tele-vision, after all, has developed through technologies of transport, portability, and automobility.

For the population that Bush’s overhaul of Social Security is most supposed to empower, Pimp My Ride has become over the last year one of the most successful programs on MTV, and has become a template for car and motorcycle make-over programs on other networks (including The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin.) In the MTV series, a young man or woman wins a competition to have a Los Angeles-based custom body shop not just rehabilitate her or his car but address her or his personal requirements for becoming self-sufficient and self-directed by enhancing the synergy between driver and her/his mode of self-transport (i.e., by having her or his “ride pimped.”) In many cases, the cars’ owners justify their need for an overhaul in terms not only of how their social mobility (their ability to find a job or to work effectively, their ability to perform routine tasks for themselves, friends or family, their ability to socialize or date), but also of how their ability to help themselves, have been impaired by the pathetic condition of their car. A primary objective of car enhancement, therefore, is providing a set of technologies for managing the everyday tasks associated with professional and social mobility in an environment that requires young workers, revelers, consumers, and citizens (viewers of MTV) to have and display the means of self-sufficiency as automobility.

In an episode from the spring of 2004 and regularly repeated, Logan, a young, African-American man, wins an opportunity to have his 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme overhauled. The first part of the episode tracks various problems with the car’s appearance (its lack of paint, its dents, its having become a trash can for wrappers, soiled clothes, and uneaten food) and its functioning (a malfunctioning radio and an inoperable driver’s-side window that forces him to retrieve fast-food from drive-throughs by stepping out of his car). Not only is the condition of his car preventing him from achieving his goal of becoming a business man and of starting his own company, but he fears that travelers on L.A.’s freeways wrongly will perceive him as dangerous, “as up to no good — a drug-dealer or a gangster.” The Cutlass, he surmises, is the model of and for a 1980’s generation of entrepreneurs, and its restoration would bring him closer to that path of taking control of many facets of his life: “Back in 1986, Hugh Hefner and all the pimps were rollin in this car; it’s an American legend.” A young African-American man’s valorizing (and rehabilitating) the successful White entrepreneur as pimp is now no more strange or contradictory than the largely White consumers of MTV being instructed on the arts of self-help and social mobility by the predominantly African-American customizers and body-experts of Pimp My Ride.

Although Pimp My Ride involves an identity transformation (of driver and car), the refashioning of the car involves not simply designing but customizing and personalizing the technological vehicle for self-realization. Logan’s life may require the intervention of experts, but the TV experts’ design respects and encourages Logan’s individual requirements for self-actualization.

Of all the make-over programs, the car overhaul as a televisual program for self-realization (auto-mobility as the technology of the fully mobile self) recognizes the current technological link between driver and TV viewer/listener, between car, communication technology, and TV. Having one’s ride pimped — technologically reassembled or reconditioned — acknowledges the current requirements of video and audio in and from the car. Logan’s car is outfitted with a new CD-player/radio, dual video monitors in the backseat for video-gaming and DVDs, a karaoke system (and pop-up video screen) in the trunk, and a speaker-system that, after the car in Knight Rider (a TV series from the same era as his Cutlass), allows the driver to speak to pedestrians. And Pimp My Ride regularly features even more elaborate (though always personalized) video and audio accoutrements than Logan apparently required. Pimp My Ride puts on display and demonstrates that the practice of freedom and that the road to self-actualization (taking control of and more effectively directing one’s life) is not simply about watching TV anymore, but about applying oneself through a synergy between communication and transportation technologies, through the transformation of the car and audio-video systems into a more mobile and flexible vehicle of self-realization and self-government. Fashioning a “smart car” (a well-designed and pleasing car, as well as an assemblage of intelligent media/communication technologies) becomes a multi-media vehicle for getting where you want to go.

While The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin is more cautious (demure perhaps) about representing car-makeover as “pimping,” the two titles collectively underscore one of the important strategies of instruction and demonstration in the current reasoning about government and citizenship — a lesson not lost on Logan when he invokes a Cutlass-driving Hugh Hefner as a vital model of entrepreneurial citizenship. As I write this article while Bush delivers his State of the Union speech, I wonder whether my students are watching the speech, Pimp My Ride, or Overhaulin, whether (or how) one program matters more than the other, and whether (or how) it matters where they are watching or listening to it — in their car or their apartment. Bush concludes the State of the Union speech referring to the uncertainties and risks along “the road of providence” that leads (where else?) “to freedom”. The current State of the Union affirms predictably that overhauling is tantamount to mobilizing (or auto-mobilizing) a TV citizenry, tantamount to social mobility in a Society of (Auto-)Ownership (of citizen-drivers rather than passengers), and tantamount to “advancing liberty” along the “free”-way of televisual citizenship, even as the president’s cocky smile, and the glint in his eye, suggest that he wants to pimp my ride.

(Thanks in particular to Laurie Ouellette and Jeremy Packer for our on-going conversations about these matters.)

Further Reading

James Hay, “Unaided Virtues: The (Neo-)Liberalization of the Domestic Sphere and the New Architecture of Community,” Foucault, Cultural Studies, Governmentality, ed., Jack Bratich, Jeremy Packer, & Cameron McCarthy, SUNY Press, 2003.

James Hay & Jeremy Packer, “Crossing the Media(-n): Auto-mobility, the Transported Self, and Technologies of Freedom,” Media/Space, ed. Nick Couldry & Anna McCarthy, Routledge, 2004.

James Hay, “Toward a Spatial Materialism of the ‘Moving Image’: Locating Screen Media within Changing Regimes of Transport,” Cinema & Cie, November 2004.

Laurie Ouellette, “‘Take Responsibility for Yourself’: Judge Judy & the Neoliberal Citizen,” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, ed. Susan Murray & Laurie Ouellette, NYU Press, 2004.

Image Credits:

Pimp My Ride

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