Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why Alternative Transportation Can Be a Form of Activism

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the intersection of the two seemingly disparate ideas of transportation and gender. Most likely, my recent interest in the two topics in conjunction with one another comes from my new-found love of cycling, but my ruminations on gender and transport don't stop with the frame of my bicycle. I began thinking about the implications of taking the subway, the bus and the train for the two years that I lived in New York City. Obviously, every person packed into a subway car or sitting on a humming crosstown bus means one less vehicle on the crowded streets of Manhattan, taking down the air and noise pollution significantly and most likely decreasing the number of collision-related injuries and deaths. But less obviously, participating in alternate forms of transportation puts one in a more vulnerable position, taking them out of the safety of their personal vehicle and placing them in contact with strangers, darkened street corners, and abandoned late-night subway stations.

It takes awareness, wherewithal and a little dose of courage for ANYONE to take the subway back to one's apartment alone at 3am, although it took me a while to admit to myself that I was vulnerable to any negative consequences by waiting alone on an almost empty subway platform. This vulnerability was palpable not just because I am a woman, but also because the reactions of my friends and family would lead one to think that my womanness somehow made me more of a target. I refuse to believe that I was any more susceptible to assault or attack because I was a woman alone on a subway platform because I believe this to be a subscription to victimhood. I understand that pleading with me to "be careful" or to "just take a cab home" were their efforts to protect me from the comfort of their own apartments and from across the country, but their attempts at protection made me feel less like a woman and more like a child that needed to be told how to function in the world. Which made me doubt my own confidence in my safety. Which, in turn, made me start taking cabs home when I had maybe had a few too many or was a little more tired than usual.

Now that I have started cycling, I'm starting to feel this same undue protectiveness coming from all directions. When my brother, a road cyclist of over 5 years, decided to bike 100 miles from Los Angeles up to Santa Barbara, almost everyone was impressed instead of worried. This could be due to his experience with road riding, but I don't think his years of riding were what made my family and his friends okay with his excursion. When my brother and my boyfriend ride their bikes to work or to do errands, friends shrug their shoulders or shake their heads in a disbelieving - albeit impressed - manner. When I decide to ride 2.5 miles to Target to run an errand, I am met with worry and hushed voices regarding my safety. I understand that my family and friends want me to be safe and want me to be aware of myself when I'm on the road, and I appreciate their concern; I do not, however, appreciate their overwrought concern that is directed only at me and not at my male friends and family who decide to employ cycling as their primary mode of transportation.

As of right now, I live in the hills. Due to my level of experience, the quality of my bicycle, and the grade of the nearby hills, cycling everywhere is totally out of the question. I'm forced to drive in order to cycle, and for now I'm okay with that. I've only had my bike for three months, and I have no desire to completely abandon my four-wheeled vehicle in favor of my two-wheeled one. I didn't begin cycling to make some grand statement about the reduction of my carbon footprint. I didn't start riding my bike to prove anything to anyone, least of all to myself. But slowly I've been realizing that cycling - and all other alternative forms of transportation, for that matter - actively takes a stand against the pervasive car culture of my hometown of Southern California, a culture that is dangerous to others, to animals, to the environment, and to the landscape and unique geography of the area. Cycling is only dangerous to me if I decide to ride in a dangerous manner, and I've been taught by experienced bikers how to obey the rules of the road. That being said, I understand that I have no control over the actions of vehicles larger than my vintage road bike, and that the unprotected state of my cycling body potentially puts me at risk for injury.

But I am beginning to realize more and more that by participating in this activity, I am also actively changing and challenging the perceptions of females and their safety when engaging in cycling and other solo, alternative transit options. This activism also comes in the form of my good female friend who chooses to take the Metro to and from work in Downtown Los Angeles alone instead of buying a car, or my closest gal pal who prefers walking to dinner in her neighborhood despite the setting sun. We may not be speaking out at rallies, but our activism in the form of alternative transportation makes me feel like I am a part of what Susan B Anthony called "free, untrammeled womanhood.” The bicycle helped to liberate women from their domestic setting and attire. That liberation became taken for granted when women preferred less strenuous activity for the sake of aesthetics. I say to hell aesthetics, and to the roads with our bodies. Transportation need not be gendered, and our gender should be no indication of our ability to travel.

Friday, September 17, 2010

To Be Young, Skinny and White - A Comment on Modern Standards of Beauty

One of my favorite popular-culture-meets-gossip-meets-strong-female-voice blogs Jezebel has an on-going, fantastic series they call "Photoshop of Horrors." These pieces - always accompanied by the images being critiqued for going under the Photoshop knife - tend to focus attention to the wildly disproportionate waist-to-hip ratios, wrinkle-free faces, and oddly disembodied legs and arms that grace the pages and covers of fashion magazines and other pop culture images. From brand advertisements to movie posters to fashion features all the way to the front cover of Elle magazine, Jezebel stops at nothing to point out every noticeable (and even not-so-noticeable) instances of airbrushing, cropping, editing, and chest-enlarging that it can scour from the pages of popular culture. Heck, the subtitle of the website is "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing," two sentences that, if a few words were altered, could read as a scathing manifesto about the topic that most commonly graces the pages of their wonderful blog.

When I say that this topic is a prominent feature on the website, I'm not exaggerating - a quick search for the hash tag #photoshopofhorrors yields 214 results ranging from the removal of emotion from Scarlett Johansson's face to Ralph Lauren repeatedly giving the Photoshop stick-figure treatment to their models. Why I love what Jezebel is doing is that - much like the fantastic Sociological Images blog - half of the time the images in the posts are left to speak for themselves. The occasional addition of arrows, brief text, and side-by-side comparisons allow these (at times really disturbing and un-human) figures and faces to be removed from the noisy, cluttered context of a fashion magazine to a space where they can be singled out, scrutinized and studied, calling attention to the little things that we as a society are beginning to take for granted as beautiful, "healthy," and normative body types. But at other times, when the "cease and desist" emails start pouring in from magazine editors, photographers, and talent agents, Jezebel will do more than just show some cringe-worthy images - they'll fight back.

When there's a watchdog like Jezebel out in the neighborhood patrolling for these sorts of transgressions, you would think that magazine editors and talent managers would be a bit more careful when deciding what type of images to print. But it seems that these unfortunate, blatant and sometimes just negligent Photoshop mishaps have been popping up everywhere lately - however, this perceived pervasiveness could just be my recently attuned interest in the topic. The most recent instance of blatant alteration comes in the form of the obvious skin-lightening of actress Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of Precious who now has a recurring role on Showtime's The Big C alongside Laura Linney. This piece was brought to my attention yesterday by my step-brother who, anecdotally, asked me tonight if I "look for sexism in everything." (A comment to which I responded "I don't look for it in everything, I just see it in everything!") I really couldn't go much further without giving full credit to the guy for pointing me in the direction of a Yahoo! piece that positioned the photo of Gabby from the Elle cover next to a red carpet photo to display the drastic difference in her skin tone.

[Credit: Getty Images] There is no doubt in my mind that this photo has been retouched. Even Elle admits that Gabby's photo "was not retouched any more or less than the others." It's no secret that real life skin lightening is a dangerous trend that's received uneven attention in the media, and that aside from all of the lightening cosmetic creams available at the drug store there are Facebook apps that promise to lighten the shade of one's skin in their profile picture. These products and applications are targeted at any community whose skin tone is darker than the average Western European's skin color, hinting that the lighter one's skin, the more beautiful they will look and feel. The reason for the retouching of Sidibe's skin tone on the cover of Elle becomes abundantly clear when you view the other three Elle covers coming out for this 25th anniversary special edition of the magazine (see below):

[Credit: The Daily Mail] Of the four girls that Elle chose to represent the face of young, modern America, three of them are white, thin, and conventionally beautiful. Sidibe is the only woman of color represented, and the only woman who is shot in extreme close-up - presumably in order to hide the truth of her weight and size. As Elle makes an attempt to be inclusive and representative, it ultimately fails by instead making Sidibe's cover so dramatically different than the other three so as to single her out and almost specifically call attention to her differences from the other three actresses gracing the special anniversary cover. In an attempt to represent "what 25 looks like" in America, Elle has fallen back to the reoccurring white and thin beauty standards of yesteryear - and, not to mention, has completely alienated Asian-American, Latino-American, Muslim-American and myriad other ethnic communities in the process.

It's also no secret that black Americans are highly underrepresented in fashion, in film, and on television. The same, interestingly enough, seems to go for full-figured women. Plus-size models generally measure in with waists that are still smaller than that of the average American woman, and, despite what brands like Dove want you to think, the perceived normative beauty standard still lies within the advertisements for high fashion brands. It's applauded when women appear in magazines touting their un-Photoshopped bodies or faces, something that I think should be less of a celebration and more of a common practice. With an attempt to move toward truth in advertising in American media, this is one of the first places we should start, especially when so many women suffer from eating disorders, depression and social anxieties about their weight and appearance, or, in some extreme cases, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

While the causes of BDD are usually psychological or neurological, one of the triggers of BDD is said to be environmental, meaning that the influence of images in the media might cause an individual grappling with the disease to become even more sensitive or self-conscious about their appearance. A recent episode of MTV's True Life titled "I Hate My Face" featured Pamela, a young woman about the same age as the four actresses on the covers of Elle who was suffering greatly from the disease. Pamela is unable to hold down a job or finish dinner with her boyfriend at a restaurant because of her insecurities about her self-perceived "ugliness." In one scene, she compares herself to the blond women she sees out in public and expresses her insecurities that she is not as beautiful as this one woman. In another, Pamela fights with her boyfriend about her disease:

While Pamela may not be Western European-looking or blond, she ultimately upholds these physical features as the ultimate in beauty standards. Where she gets the idea that her Filipino looks and, more specifically, her nose and her chest size, could not possibly be perceived as beautiful is anyone's guess, but I can venture to lay blame on one culprit in particular. I'm not saying that the media or American society instilled in her these negative feelings toward her appearance, but based on what she believes to be "beautiful," the blame also cannot be completely exonerated. While I want to applaud Elle for depicting some semblance of diversity on their anniversary covers, it's difficult for me not to wonder how those who recognize Sidibe's change in skin tone will feel about the alteration. It's possible that women with darker toned skin could be offended that Sidibe is being misrepresented. It's possible that women who have been otherwise marginalized for their weight or body shape could view the cropping of the photo as an attempt to censor the truth of Sidibe's size. It's also possible for anyone to be just downright offended on a purely aesthetic level by the horrible wig that the fashion editor provided for Gabourey to wear.

Of course the wonderful Jezebel has covered this topic, but it seems not to have made as many waves as, say, the afore-linked extreeeeme retouching of Jennifer Aniston's tan and wrinkles. Granted, this year did see the first ever plus-size fashion show at New York Fashion Week, but based on this whole Elle magazine fiasco I'm not about to jump and say that this singular incident represents a change in the tide. In theory, it's totally great a woman of color and of size like Gabourey is being represented on the cover of Elle. In reality, Elle seems to believe that dark skin and anything but a size 6 isn't worth representing - at least, not fully and completely.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thoughts on same-sex parents - from flirting with disaster to the kids being all right.

After Judge Vaugh Walker handed down his decision that Proposition 8 - the legislation that banned gay marriage in California - was unconstitutional on August 4th, proponents of the legislation promised an immediate appeal. The majority of the arguments being shouted back-and-forth for appeal of the unconstitutionality ruling are primarily based on the grounds of the potential "harm" inflicted from lifting the ban: the harm that would come to the institution of marriage, the harm to tradition and personal morals, and, seemingly, the harm that will be inflicted on the children raised by same-sex couples. Listening to NPR the day that the decision was handed down, I heard callers basing their argument that children would be "harmed" if they were raised by same-sex couples on historical evidence: children have traditionally been raised by one mother and one father, so now why would we want to go around messing with this already functional system?

If tradition dictates that children should be raised by a man and a woman, then over 12 million families in the US are guilty of breaking tradition by functioning as single parent households. If the definition of an "adequate parent" is based on the presence of a man and a woman to raise a child, then women whose spouses have left them, or men whose partners have passed away, or ambitious single women who choose to adopt a child without the financial or emotional support of a life partner do not qualify as "adequate parents." What about families that have several generations living under one roof, families in which aunts and grandparents and siblings share in the parenting responsibilities? Or families in which one of the parents falls ill and can no longer share in the child-rearing responsibilities? Attempting to define the basis for what makes an adequate parent is such an incredibly personal and unique assessment to make. It is so frustrating that more people aren't offended by all of this "tradition" rhetoric that organizations like the National Organization for Marriage are throwing around, especially given the profound ignorance of the feelings of the children involved in this whole discussion.

Seemingly released apropos recent research that supports this notion that children of same-sex couples "are well-adjusted," Lisa Cholodenko's newest dramedy The Kids Are All Right attempts to depict what The New York Times dubbed "a generous, nearly note-perfect portrait of a modern family." If one knows the premise of the film, the title effectively conveys the outcome of the storyline in a fairly clear manner - that children of gay parents, despite popular belief, might just turn out to be pretty okay. Is it possible, in the face of the beliefs of Proposition 8 supporters, that non-traditional family models can actually produce children that can function in a dominantly heteronormative society? Is this film trying to tell us that despite the "abnormal" behavior of their parents, the children of same-sex partners might just be able to function as the normal, well-adjusted human beings that we want to have in society? That, in fact, the kids of lesbian parents might just be totally all right?

Interestingly enough, some affirmation of this notion came in a recent lonely late night with my Netflix Watch Instantly queue, which lead me to revisit the fairly forgotten mid-90s film Flirting with Disaster, a movie that unexpectedly touches - albeit somewhat ironically - on the parenting questions being raised by Prop 8 supporters. This frenetic David O. Russell comedy stars Ben Stiller before he was a male model conducting walk-offs refereed by David Bowie and threatening that "nobody makes me bleed my own blood," and - brief sidebar - reminds the viewer why some audiences fell in love with him in the first place.

The film focuses on the journey of neurotic Mel Coplin (played by Stiller) and his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) as they travel the country with their newborn son attempting to find his birth parents with the incompetent-but-flirtatious adoption agency employee Tina (Téa Leoni). Mel's adoptive parents Ed and Pearl Coplin (played to bickering perfection by George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore) are deeply hurt and defensive of his decision, thinking Mel's search for his birth parents is a slight on their skills as parents. The first few scenes of the film set up the audience for the true reasons behind Mel's myriad neuroses and his quest to find out the reasons behind them - his adoptive father Ed is perplexingly afraid of the wheel of cheese sitting on the living room table (Pearl later calls him "food-phobic), and his mother won't let her son finish a sentence without a loud and dramatic interruption.

As the film goes on, Tina brings the young couple to two different people who turn out not to be his parents - the last of whom subsequently enables Mel to back a semi truck into a post office. At the police station, the three run into Nancy's old high school classmate Tony (Josh Brolin) who works in the alcohol, tobacco and firearms division with his partner, Paul (Richard Jenkins). The five of them all go out to an Italian restaurant, where it is slowly and subtly revealed that Paul and Tony are not just partners in the ATF division of the station - they are also romantic partners who are potentially considering adopting a child.

Tony and Paul serve as comic relief for the remainder of the film, if not just for their sexual orientation: Tony (who admits he's bisexual) attempts to seduce Nancy by licking her armpit, and Paul ends up running half naked through the desert after taking two hits of acid that Mel's vindictive and bitter younger brother meant for him. But, to my surprise for its serendipity, the last few lines of the film turn the joke away from the same-sex relationship and over onto the potential reality of any family situation - that even a child who is raised by a man and a woman in a typically "traditional" household has every chance of being messed up and poorly adjusted.

In the last scene of the film, the whole group gathers outside the jail from which Ed and Pearl Coplin have been bailed out after being caught with hundreds of tabs of acid in their trunk (I'm telling you, just see the movie - this matter of the plot is far too tangential to my main point). Outside the jail, Pearl turns to Ed and, motioning toward Tony and Paul, says "I think those two men are homosexuals." Ed responds that the two are thinking about adopting a child, and expresses how "sick" someone would have to be to do that. Pearl agrees with Ed, adding "can you imagine the neurosis that child will have to deal with?" After an entire movie about a man who can't name his child until he's met his birth parents, who (it's mentioned) has problems performing during oral sex, whose mother exposes her breasts to his wife, and who has awkward and illicit sexual interactions with someone who's effectively his psychiatrist, devoting the last three lines of a film to this ironic comment on the nature of familial relationships struck me as oddly timely to all the yelling and hand-wringing being done by outspoken Prop 8 supporters about the effects on the psyches of the children of gay and lesbian couples.

I cannot describe the surge of feelings brought forth in me that the last minute of a film made 15 years ago managed to pinpoint the exact fear expressed by supporters of traditional marriage values today in 2010. I smiled, feeling like I was a part of some in-joke, when the fear of potential mental harm to the child of a same-sex couple is spoken by a dysfunctional, heterosexual couple that produced an entirely neurotic and idiosyncratic offspring. Sure, one could argue the mere fact that Mel was adopted in some ways makes his family a non-traditional one, but keep in mind that I am going off of the assumption that a traditionally defined family (according to certain supporters of the ban on same-sex marriage) is one that is lead by a man and a woman. One could also argue that, seeing as he is married and has a child and job, Mel is an ipso facto well-adjusted member of society, but I would beg to differ that his issues far outweigh his surface normalcy.

I find that the testimony of the adopted children of same-sex couples is hardly given any credence in this whole discussion, even though they are seemingly the ones who are so negatively effected by their family situation - and who, not surprisingly, tend to express positive feelings about their home life. This issue is so extremely personal, and anyone who attempts to try and dictate what is best for any one child or any one family needs to step back and take a good look at what they are implicating about other non-traditional families in various alternative circumstances. Is it appropriate to turn to a strange family in a crowded restaurant and attempt to scold their child for being messy or consuming their food too loudly? Is it anyone's responsibility but the parent of a child - be it birth or adoptive - to decide what is best for their children? If anything, the laws against gay marriage are what most effect the psyche of a child of a same-sex couple - it can't be anything but devastating to grow up watching your parents be discriminated against for simply loving each other and making some attempt at normalcy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Abstract for Global Fusion 2010 conference at Texas A&M

I just heard today that my paper was accepted for presentation at Global Fusion 2010: Sustenance and Globalization, an academic conference at Texas A&M University. Here is the version of the abstract that I submitted to the selection committee, which includes some basic information on the issues that my paper will cover.

Net neutrality and reproductive health: How new media platforms navigate controversial issues.

In this uncertain time for the future of access and openness on the Internet, it is not surprising that controversial issues are often not permitted the same amount of openness as neutral ones. A contentious issue around the world, especially in relation to the United States’ recent attempt to pass health care reform, has been and continues to be the issue of abortion, including not only access to the service itself but also access to information regarding the service. This project is interested in exploring how companies and institutions that own rights to new media services - such as search engines and text messaging services - censor messages or information regarding controversial issues such as abortion. What does this censorship imply for the future of public health when certain reproductive health NGOs and information sharing societies both within the US and in Latin America are the target of this silencing?

In this paper, I would like to begin with an introduction stating the current temperature of the net neutrality debate; provide a brief background on the issue of abortion at home and abroad; introduce and analyze some of the literature on net neutrality, Internet filtering, and access to information on reproductive health; outline the inspiration for the methodological approach to this research; and present two instances of censorship: Verizon Wireless's refusal to participate in NARAL Pro-Choice's text messaging campaign, and Google AdWords' exclusion of ads offering abortion information in over a dozen countries internationally.
I am SUPER excited for this opportunity, especially since this is the first academic conference to which I have ever submitted an abstract. Certainly encouraging and commending considering the flood of rejections I've received for job opportunities lately. Let me know what you think, and fill me in on some ideas for presentation methods - already thinking about Prezi or something similar.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lady Gaga's 'Telephone': Exploitation cinemas, homosexual attraction, and the blending of public and private.

The following is an excerpt from a full-length paper entitled "“We’re C-Coming Out”: Lady Gaga’s Postmodern Videographic and Public Bisexual Persona" that was completed in May 2010. For an analysis of the Gaga's depiction of her heterosexual tendencies in her music videos, see my post on irony, innocence, and the death of the heterosexual binary.

In order to experience a bisexual camp reading of the video for Telephone as a comment on one aspect of Lady Gaga’s sexual identity, one cannot expect the song’s lyrics to provide deeper meaning. The actual song does not begin until 2 minutes and 50 seconds into the video, with multiple starts and stops of the track throughout that make clear the point of the video is the visual and not the lyrical content. Although the video is ironically edited to the contents of the song in part – namely when Lady Gaga answers a payphone in prison to begin the song, singing “Hello, hello, baby, you called? / I can’t hear a thing / I have got no service in the club / You see, you see” – the overall context of the video rarely reflects the events taking place in the lyrics except through occasional irony. The video begins set in a prison and then moves to the road and into a diner – and never, ever finds Lady Gaga or her co-star, Beyoncé, in a traditional club setting. Through a reading of the visual elements of key instances from Lady Gaga’s video for Telephone, I will attempt to further the idea that Gaga’s public and private life are indeed blended together in a remark on postmodern authenticity while also calling attention to the presentation of her sexuality in a single video as never bisexual and always only hetero or homosexual.

Telephone opens with blue-tinted shots of the exterior of a prison including images of barbed wire, guards positioned up high on a wall, and the surrounding cityscape all beneath fluorescent graphics and text that announce the stars (Beyoncé and Gaga) and director Jonas Åkerlund). This text and visual style set the stage indisputably for the campy visual style of a cult grindhouse film alá the blaxploitation classic Super Fly (dir. Gordon Parks, Jr., 1972) or
I Spit on Your Grave, Meir Zarchi’s 1978 rape-revenge film. Seemingly being imprisoned for poisoning and killing her boyfriend in her previous video for Paparazzi, Lady Gaga appears dressed in an exaggerated take on the black and white striped jailhouse uniform complete with her (or Grace Jones’s?) signature pointed shoulder pads which both function as a type of androgynous costume play as well as a nod to queer camp aesthetics of exaggeration discussed by Dyer [1] and Bryant [2]. A title appears explaining she has arrived at the “Prison for Bitches” as she is guided along a long line of hard-yet-chic feminine women within their respective jail cells who cat-call, blow kisses, and lick the metal bars, pronouncing their sexually aggressive – and therefore prison-societal – superiority over the new inmate. Each dressed in their own unique and completely more subdued variations of Gaga’s uniform, the women behind the bars look more like femme sex workers than regular prison inmates (and in fact, none of the women in this segment of the video come close to appearing butch), perhaps Åkerlund’s and/ or Lady Gaga’s comment on the type of women who are depicted as deviant jailbirds who might inspire empathy in the women-in-prison films (yet another sub-genre of exploitation cinema showcased in this video) like Chained Heat (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1983) or the original contribution to the genre, Caged (dir. John Cromwell, 1950).

Gaga is shoved into her jail cell and disrobed of all but her fishnet stockings by the transgender guards, who throw her down onto her cot. As she scrambles in an attempt to escape she mounts the bars of the door to her cell, exposing her pixilated crotch just long enough for the world to see the truth of her gender identity. In a direct comment to this revelation, one of the guards becomes the authority to announce this now-proven genital knowledge to the skeptical general public when she proclaims “I told you she didn’t have a dick.” Including proof in the pixilated version of a Lady Gaga’s vulva is perhaps an attempt to dispel this rumor once and for all that she is not “a very well-endowed young man” and is indeed cisgendered.

Lyrics from her previous single “Poker Face,” which Lady Gaga has claimed is about “poker facing with your sexuality,” lead in some ways to the development of this rumor: “I won’t tell you that I love you / Kiss or hug you / Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin / I’m not lying I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning.” About seven months after her 17 April 2009 appearance on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross – the show on which Gaga was rudely confronted by the host with the rumor about her assigned gender – Gaga reinforced in an interview with Barbara Walters that the lyric “bluffin’ with my muffin” is not a reference to her assigned gender, but indeed to her sexuality as a woman who is attracted to both men and women, albeit to each in different ways. The few seconds of screen time that Gaga’s vulva receives in 2010's Telephone seek to do away with this persistent rumor – a case in which gender has been conflated with sexuality [3] – once and for all.

The scene in the exercise yard in which Gaga is adorned in an outfit complete with heavy metal chains and sunglasses covered in lit, smoking cigarettes (visible in Figure 4) positions her as “the phallic femme” discussed by Chris Straayer. She moves across the yard as two of her previous hits, “Paper Gangsta” and “I Like It Rough,” play through the speakers of a boom box, perhaps a comment on Gaga’s consistent radio presence and media saturation no matter where one might find themselves. As soon as she sits down at a table outside, a “she-butch” female [5] in leather with short hair sits down beside Gaga and begins to kiss her (see below). Gaga kisses her back and even grabs the other woman between her legs, heightening the sexual tension of the moment. Feministe blogger Sady Doyle pointed to this instance in the video as one that plays with transgression from the normative pop culture representations of girl-on-girl sexual expression, especially since “special makeout times Between the Ladies [sic] almost always happen, in pop culture, between two very femme-looking individuals” [6]. Look no further than Katy Perry’s video for I Kissed a Girl to see instances of feminine women implicated as potential sexual partners for other feminine women, or 1998’s feature length film Wild Things in which Neve Campbell and Denise Richards, two traditionally femme females, share an intimate moment together in a pool. For the remainder of the video we only see Gaga implicated in relationships with other women whether as a domestic or sexual partner, clearly aligning the Lady with her attraction for women, or the homosexual side of her bisexuality.

Soon after this femme-butch kiss in the exercise yard a girl-on-girl kung fu-style fight reminiscent of the gloriously camp and stylized Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill! (dir. Russ Meyer, 1965) breaks out in the prison and an impromptu dance number begins that combines acrobatics, aerobics, and aggressive boxing moves. Soon after the brawl and the dancing Beyoncé comes to Lady Gaga’s rescue in the Pussy Wagon, loaned to Lady Gaga by Quentin Tarantino specifically for the video, who obviously recognized the parallels between Gaga’s character in this video and the non-normative femme female action star of Kill Bill Volume I (2003) and II (2004). Gaga is dressed in yet another new outfit, this time a slightly more exaggerated and androgynous nod to camp queen Jane Mansfield’s outfit from her famous scene in The Girl Can’t Help It (dir. Frank Tashlin, 1956).

After making a sandwich into a phallic object via a nod to oral fetishism and allowing Beyoncé to sing a little bit, the two ladies tear down a dirt road in the neon yellow truck on their way to a diner where they will eventually poison everyone, starting with Beyoncé’s abusive, hyper-masculine boyfriend. After her boyfriend keels over dead onto the table, Beyoncé makes an innocent yet knowing hand-to-mouth, wide-eyed gesture similar to Lady Gaga’s from Paparazzi after she too has poisoned her boyfriend. This positions Beyoncé as a referential figure by drawing a parallel to the previous video performance to create a space for Beyoncé that is indeed strictly performative and is not meant to make reference to her celebrity persona in the same way that Gaga’s gesture in Paparazzi is meant to be viewed. Another aspect of the video that positions Beyoncé in a different light than Gaga is that Beyoncé is allowed to be presented as bisexual in the contexts of this video even though her public and private personae are consistently positioned as heterosexual. The video does, however go to great lengths to situate Beyoncé’s true performance as non-normative and a stark contrast to her typical presentation in the media by her outlandish dress and her robotic movements that mirror the sound of the skipping audio track. Gaga’s videos consistently employ this aesthetic, as do her songs; Beyoncé’s videos and music, on the other hand, do not subscribe to the same “fake authenticity” that are present in the pantheon of Gaga representations. The video ends in a similarly consistently referential manner with a nod to the film Thelma and Louis as Gaga and Beyoncé grasp hands as they drive off together into the horizon. A heart-shaped graphic appears, situating the two as not just friends but romantic lovers, who interestingly enough do not share an on-screen kiss in the video.

[1] Richard Dyer. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004.

[2] Wayne M. Byrant. Bisexual Characters in Film: From Anais to Zee. New York: The Haworth
Press, 1997.

[3] Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge (1990, 1999), 9.

[4] Chris Straayer. Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientations in Film and Video. New York: Columbia University Press (1996), 83-84.

[5] Ibid, 94-101.

[6] Sady Doyle. “Nothing That Happened This Week Was Ever Going To Be As Important As The ‘Telephone’ Video.” Feministe. 13 March 2010.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"The Internet is boring today" - A Brief Look at How This is Even Possible

When I was checking my email last night before tucking myself into bed with John Irving, I noticed a Google Chat status update from a former classmate that read as follows:

The Internet is boring today.

I immediately asked myself: How is this even remotely possible? There is just so much information available on the Internet - however, this is not to say that all of it is credible, interesting, or even entertaining. Most of the stuff one finds on a daily basis holds their interest for a matter of minutes, sometimes even seconds, which certainly does not make time fly if one is bored out of their minds. I don't think that it was necessarily the Internet that she was bored with - quite possibly, she had simply run out of motivation.

I would argue - and maybe I'm starting in with the big guns of optimism a little too soon -that even someone with the most niche and the most obscure of interests can find something interesting, intriguing, or inspiring to read, interact with, create, or watch on the Internet on any given day. But - and here's the catch - one has to actually be in the mood to seek it out. Optimistic, starry-eyed scholars love to elevate the Internet to this amazing source of ultimate information, comparing it to a bridge that will connect all peoples in their quest for knowledge, truth, and cute kitties. But the echo chamber into which most bloggers are contributing (guilty, I'm sure) and through which most readers are hand-picking their content of choice does not lead us to these infinite options as much as we would like to believe. However, if one is smart enough about their pursuits of knowledge and is willing to devote time to seeking out content and information, then the Internet can never be truly boring. This "boring" label should be more appropriately slapped on the user.

Sure, the viral video selection might not be as exciting as it was on Monday, or maybe the details of the Financial Reform Bill just don't pique your fancy, or perhaps Twitter is down and you just don't know what to do with your info-hungry self. But as I'm considering all of these caveats for why one would state that "the Internet is boring," I can't help conjuring up the adage "if you are bored, you are boring." Was my media-obsessed (and I would think she would have to be to pursue a Masters degree in the field) former cohort making the statement that the Internet was boring to her at that moment? That she was bored with the information or news she was finding? Or that she was simply bored with the Internet?

Whether or not the day's local or national or international news is particularly appealing or exciting for one reason or another does not negate the wealth of yet-unread blog posts that one has been meaning to get to; does not immediately discredit the available fiction, non-fiction, opinion, and how-to articles on which one has been meaning to sit down and focus; and certainly does not mean that one has watched, listened to, clicked on, or looked at everything available on a given day. Most of us go to websites, blogs and videos to look for things that interest us - however, I can understand how one can become tired of staring at a screen for hours on end if, say, one's job requires them to do so, and how one can subsequently become bored of looking for things to do on the web. This was probably her way of saying she was "bored," but was looking for someone/thing to blame for her boredom. And of course, who better to blame than an intangible, potentially info-rich source of information? It's like someone walking into a library with the explicit purpose of reading only to fall asleep on their pile of books and then report back to their friends that "the library was boring today." While this is entirely possible, one should blame their lack of sleep or disinterest in the subject matter before blaming the books - but then again, this blog entry is simply the nitpicking of a five-word status update, which could perhaps be used to prove that I, too, have nothing better to do online and that I, too, have also found that "the Internet is boring today."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Art of Becoming: An exploration of female artists living for (and in) their work, PART 1 is no longer possible to regard the contemporary
work as a space to be walked through...It is henceforth
presented as a period of time to be lived through, like
an opening to unlimited discussion.

Art is more about asking questions.[2]

How should we think of ourselves? How should we
articulate who we are and what we can become?

As disparate as they may seem, for French philosopher Gilles Deleuze the arts, science, and philosophy are all arenas of potential creation. Deleuze asserts in most of his texts and interviews on philosophy that “we really have to see philosophy, art, and science as sorts of separate melodic lines in constant interplay with one another”[4] and not as disconnected factions at war with or competing with one another for prominence. Not so much interested in discovering a preexisting notion, a quest that would imply that all realms of possibility are already in existence and are just waiting to be found, one of the main goals behind Deleuze’s philosophical pursuits was to create something new, believing that there exists “a hidden image of thought that, as it unfolds, branches out, and mutates, inspires a need to keep on creating new concepts.”[5] Perhaps this is why Deleuze held such an affinity for the arts, focusing many of his 18 total works on visual modes of representation and literary forms of creativity,[6] for the arts are generally viewed as the ultimate realm of creativity in opposition to science, the ultimate realm of logic. But one cannot ignore that a good portion of Deleuze’s work, especially his monumental text A Thousand Plateaus written with longtime collaborator Felix Guattari, focuses on specific scientific and mathematical arenas such as neuroscience, geometry, and chemistry in relation to his and Guattari’s theories on assemblage and process ontology, thus conflating these modes of potential experiment-based creativity with philosophic inquiry.

To maintain and continue Deleuze’s investigation into the connectivity (and potential unique breaks) between the arts and science, it is my hope that a focus on these two fields will reflect the way that each sphere of creativity incorporates or disunites from Deleuze’s themes of being as becoming, duration, and smooth and striated spaces, and the exploration of immanence. Although Deleuze would assert that “there’s no order of priority among these disciplines. Each is creative,”[7] an exploration of the ways in which science and art look at the final outcome of an event – as well as an examination of the process of becoming during an event – will hopefully make an argument for art, especially duration-based performance art, as an ultimate potential for the representation of becoming. This paper will primarily explore the ways in which contemporary female performance artists Linda Montano, Marina Abramovic and Andrea Zittel have experimented with[8] and (unintentionally) incorporated these Deleuzian concepts into their work. In a way, all of the following works of art answer Deleuze’s essential question of “how might one live?” giving the viewer of the work a glimpse into the lived life of an artist living for and in their work. Interested in the effects of these “lived” art experiences, Abramovic, Zittel, and Montano attempt to suggest one mode of lived experience through their pieces, all of them relating somehow to austerity, duration, isolation, and dealing.

An essential starting point for understanding some key concepts in the work of Deleuze is certainly with his prioritizing of process ontology over substance ontology, favoring constant development and transition over absolute statehood. Process ontology allows for entities to be open to transformation and change, is an exploration of that which is coming into existence. Note the use of the term exploration here as opposed to definition, for “ontology does not offer answers but rather ways to approach the question of living.”[9] Process ontology values being as becoming, being in a state of constant development towards an unforeseen and undetermined goal. For Deleuze, “to become is not to progress or regress along a series…becoming is not an evolution, at least not an evolution by descent and filiation;”[10] becoming is therefore not about improvement or degradation, betterment or deterioration. Becoming is about transition and change, never stopping for ultimate satisfaction but constantly exploring new possible situations for one’s own existence.

Not restricted to the theoretical realm of philosophic thought, process ontology very much informs architect and theorist Bernard Cache’s stance in his work on the creation of structures. An alignment with process ontology certainly inspires Cache’s concept that “in no case does the identity of a site preexist, for it is always the outcome of a construction”[11]; for Cache, no destination has a predetermined future or path along which it necessarily will or must follow, much like the Deleuzian concepts of individuals as in a constant state of becoming (Deleuze, never one for humanism, would argue that architectural sites are no different than animals, than humans, than flowers…). Architecture is an art form that plays a prominent role in the A-Z Living Spaces – small, self-contained home modules in which an inhabitant has access to everything she or he needs – of Andrea Zittel and in Marina Abramovic’s durational performance pieces, and is another space to which one can apply Deleuzian concepts surrounding this ontology of becoming. Noticing that “Zittel’s aspiration to ‘new kinds of situations’ seems to parallel a broader trend[. T]he proposals she (Zittel) receives at Socrates—for “Interstate” as well as for other exhibitions—increasingly reflect ‘a notion of public art that is not monumental but rather changing and ephemeral’,”[12] Zittel’s collaborator Alysan Baker reflects on the notion of the nomadic (or, in Deleuzian terms, “the smooth”) in contemporary art as offering potentials for becoming and transition.

For the three female artists in question, process ontology offers a chance to recognize the outcome of each lived experience as uncertain and unpredictable, especially Montano’s Seven Years of Living Art, in which the artist wore a different color every year and lived in a room of the same color for seven years; Abramovic’s experiments in duration and consciousness with The House with the Ocean View (2002-2003); and Zittel’s hope to create “wonderful experiences that are completely unpredictable”[13] with her A-Z Pocket Property and her A-Z Living Units. In constructing the first of her home units, Andrea Zittel believed “that when I made that piece and I had everything perfected that [would] solve all of my problems" of living in the confined space of a storefront in Brooklyn. However, once she was done with the first unit she discovered that was perfect and there was nothing left to do to it, I felt
completely despondent, very listless and depressed. At that
point...I had this revelation that no one really wants perfection;
that we're obsessed with perfection, we're obsessed with
innovation and moving forwards, but what we really want is
the hope of some sort of new and improved or a better

When Zittel set out to execute the performance of A-Z Pocket Property in which she lived on a prefabricated, floating island in Denmark by herself for one month, she liked the idea of “not really knowing beforehand if it’s going to be a great experience or a horrible one”;[15] this spirit of conducting tests mirrors the ways that Abramovic “considered performance art a laboratory for experiments in consciousness.”[16] Zittel’s Pocket Property enterprise was a dance with isolation in its purest sense – except, of course, if we are to account for the friends who joined her to film the experience for a day.[17]

In mentioning this fact of video recording that performance artists tend to employ when documenting their work, one cannot ignore the discussion of live performance versus recorded performance – in fact, Phelan holds true to the notion that, at least in terms of Abramovic’s House, “the potential for the event to be transformed in unscripted ways by those participating (both the artists and the viewers) makes it more exciting,”[18] something that arguably cannot occur when re-watching of the video of an event. A video of an artistic performance, most likely edited down for length, does not bear witness to the complete experience of becoming through which the artist is moving both in front of and with an audience. When deciding to document her seven days of performances for Seven Easy Pieces (themselves re-performances of the works of other artists such as Vito Acconci, Valie Export, and Gina Pane), Abramovic asserted “that her purpose in hiring the famous documentary filmmaker (Babette Mangolte) to record every minute of the total forty-nine hours was to avoid “repeating the mistakes of the ’70s” in failing to attend to such details.”[19] But, as Phelan would argue, “performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: Once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”[20] In fact, one must question whether not recording those performances in the 1970s was actually a failure of these artists or in fact an acknowledgement of that which Phelan insists. Tending to agree (and I am certain that Deleuze would as well) with Phelan, moving away from a focus on the recorded representations of the work of these artists will offer a more true depiction of the duration-based experiences of becoming explored by Montano, Abramovic and Zittel.

As mentioned above, all three of these women artists have conducted performances and pieces that deal with the concept of duration, although they were certainly not the first in the art world to explore these Deleuzian notions. Similar in the themes of duration, striated space and immanence, Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1978-1979 (Cage Piece) explored the notion of isolation, discipline and dedication as he positioned himself within a self-constructed jail cell. This piece consisted of Hsieh living in an 116 × 9 × 8 caged room with nothing but simple lights, a sink, a bed, and a pail. He also had some toiletries and a friend who would visit to feed him and rid the waste from his cell. He did not speak nor read nor listen to music for this entire year.

His works have been called explorations not in suffering but in struggle and duration. The living of one’s life is certainly comparable to duration, for life is unquestionably the ultimate duration for all of us. A precursor to the work of the three women to follow, Hsieh’s work is perhaps a comment on “prison, the model site of confinement”[21] for Deleuze in his extrapolation on Foucault’s notions presented in Discipline and Punish. Indeed, the setting and title of Hsieh’s work do evoke a site of confinement as opposed to the older notion of a society of discipline; thus, it is interesting the Hsieh explains his work as exploring this very notion of “discipline.” To a certain degree, Hsieh locked himself in a cage for an entire year in order to free himself from the weight of his life, similar in vain to his goals with One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoor Piece) in which he did not allow himself to enter any buildings or confined spaces, moving about New York City with only the items he could carry with him. The ways that Outdoor Piece more readily manifests this sense of freedom from control and imprisonment Cage Piece achieves through irony. Far more ominous and incarcerating in nature than the female artists to follow him, Hsieh and his work still “[fit] squarely within performance art’s peculiar and extreme explorations of the human condition”[22] although perhaps in a different, more politically enforced notion of what is to exist within and through humanity.

[1] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du réel, 2002), 15.

[2] Andrea Zittel qtd. in Jori Finkel, “ART; Making the Desert Bloom Out West. Way Out West,” New York Times, 25 September 2005.

[3] Todd May, “How Might One Live?” in Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 8.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, “Mediators,” in Negotiation 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 125.

[5] Deleuze, “On Philosophy,” in Negotiation, 149.

[6] See, for example, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (with Felix Guattari), trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London and New York: Continuum, 2003); Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

[7] Deleuze, “Mediators,” in Negotiation, 123.

[8] In maintaining a discussion aligned with Deleuze, this phrase should not be seen as an attempt to separate the body from the mind in the Descartean sense of transcendence. Deleuze would argue that there is only mind, consciousness, self, or I that exists within and not separate from life.

[9] May, 25.

[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 238.

[11] Bernard Cache, Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories, ed. Michael Speaks, trans. Anne Boyman (Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT Press, 1995) pp. 15.

[12] Alysan Baker qtd in Michael Ned Holte, “From California to the New York Island,” Art Forum, May 2006.

[13] Interview with Andrea Zittel, “Consumption,” 2001 episode of Art: 21 – Art in the Twenty-First Century (PBS, 2001-present; Art21 Inc)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Peggy Phelan, “Marina Abramovic: Witnessing Shadows,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 56, No. 4 (December 2004), 571.

[17] The outcome of her friends’ visit is the film Gollywobler, directed by Joachim Hamou (2000; Denmark).

[18] Phelan, 575.

[19] Johanna Burton, “Repeat Performance,” Art Forum, January 2006.

[20] Peggy Phelan, “The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction,” in Performance: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Philip Auslander (New York: Routledge, 2003), 320.

[21] Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” in Negotiations, 177.

[22] Roberta Smith, “A Year in a Cage: A Life Shrunk to Expand Art,” New York Times, 18 February, 2009.