Thursday, October 25, 2012

After Prison: An Allegory

A part of him had always known that this was prison; but when you're born in a prison and have spent your whole life there, you'll go to extraordinary lengths to deny that you are, in fact, in prison.

It wasn't a bad prison, as prisons go. There was a comfortable bed, and decent food, and only occasional beatings from the other inmates. Most importantly, there was a television.

His whole life had revolved around that television. On television, there were other places, other lives, other things a person could be. He lived for that television. Every spare moment he had (and there are a lot of spare moments in prison), he turned his attention to the luminous box of wonder and the marvelous stories it told. He lost himself in those stories. At night, he fell asleep in front of them, and dreamed himself inside them. His dreams were the best times.

Still, it's not like he was delusional. He knew that television was television and reality was reality. All those incredible stories and beautiful places and different lives – those were mere fictions. Reality was here, this place he had been born into. These were the cards he had been dealt, and he would just have to deal with it. That was the mature thing to do: accept that all of life existed inside prison, and spend it watching as much television as humanly possible.

Then, one day, a crack appeared on the wall above the television.

It was the tiniest of hairline cracks at first, so faint he couldn't be entirely sure it was there. But, as the weeks and months passed, it grew and deepened. It never widened much, but it delved deeper and deeper into the gray stone wall, as if somebody were oh so slowly driving an invisible nail into the wall.

One day, unmistakably, a pinpoint of light shone through the crack.

He began spending less and less time in the television's thrall. Now his hours were spent worrying at the little hole in the wall with the plastic spoon that was his only utensil. Each day, he never seemed to have made any visible progress, but it was undeniable: the hole in the wall was growing larger.

Finally, several years after the crack had first appeared, he mustered all of his courage, approached the hole, and pressed his eye to it.

What he saw astonished him. Not the bleak, impassable void he had assumed must (if anything must) surround his prison; but color and wonder and excitement, a bustling metropolis full of people and noise and smells, a veritable scene from the television lay all around.

Dazed, he reeled backward from the wall. His dreams, he realized, the television – it existed. Not all of it, of course. But some of it. The parts that mattered.

With new eyes, he looked around the cozy little prison that was all he had ever known. He began walking, past the television set, past the comfortable bed, to the door of his cell. He put his hand on the door. It swung open, as a part of him had always known it would.

The bright light dazzled him. Standing on the threshold, he shielded his eyes, and turned back to take a last glance at everything he knew. My God, he realized, I have been in prison my whole life.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped outside and entered his own life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Deconstruction and Taylor Swift's 'Red'

Do you remember the first time you heard Taylor Swift's ubiquitous single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”? I do. After reattaching my mandible, I laughed until I cried, and then listened to it eight more times in a row.

So, naturally, when the album dropped this week, I just had to give it a spin. Okay, a bunch of spins. And it is my contention that Taylor Swift's new album is a remarkable work of smart, self-aware, post-structuralist deconstruction.

This is what a post-structuralist looks like.
How does Taylor Swift's new album enact the destabilizing process of deconstruction? Let me count the ways:

1. It's called Red. Obviously, this harks back to King Crimson's classic 1974 prog-rock masterpiece of the same name. By recalling a landmark record of cerebral, instrument-heavy progressive rock, Swift teases the listener with evocations of a style of music quite unlike her own, perhaps inviting us to reconsider whether there is really so much difference between seventies prog and aughts country-pop. (We also are reminded of Krzyzstof Ki√©slowski's Trois couleurs: Rouge, a film which focuses on the French Revolutionary ideal of fraternit√© and has been described as an “anti-romance,” thus hinting at the record's deconstruction of romantic categories.)

2. Self-awareness. In the second verse of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Swift sings about a lover who copes with fights by “hid[ing] away […] with some indie record that's much cooler than mine.” The way she sings it, you can positively hear her rolling her eyes. Similarly, in the impossibly infectious “22,” there's a laugh-out-loud spoken-word moment as Swift sings, “This place is too crowded, too many cool kids,” and a voice in the background asks, “Who's Taylor Swift anyway? Ew.” Swift is well aware of her general perception as deeply uncool, and she's not afraid to laugh at both herself and her haters, breaking the fourth wall in endlessly recursive ways.

Swift also displays a strong self-awareness of the public scrutiny of her romantic decisions, and the fact that she is perhaps most famous for writing songs about breakups. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is fairly self-explanatory, and could be a sequel to “22”: “You look like bad news – I gotta have you.” There's a degree of maturity here, a sense of taking responsibility for one's own decisions while still lamenting the more regrettable consequences thereof.

3. Self-contradiction. From start to finish, Red is shot through with ironies and contradictions. Here are just a few hand-picked examples:
  • In “22,” Swift sings about “dancing like we're 22.” Of course, Swift is 22 (holla at a fellow '89 baby! – though the Berlin Wall was still up when I was born, and had fallen by the time Taylor Swift entered the world), so these words seem puzzling until you remember that she's been in the public eye since she was 17. The years since high school, which I spent studying and privately figuring out my many issues, are the years Taylor Swift spent growing up very publicly and documenting it all in song. No wonder it takes a special occasion to make her feel like an ordinary 22-year-old.
  • I Almost Do” addresses an ex-lover for whom the singer still has feelings. These feelings are expressed through a striking inversion of the expected order of events. To tell an ex that every time you almost call them, you don't, would have the nuance of a kiss-off, an assertion of proud singledom; Swift sings instead, “Every time I don't, I almost do.” The hysteron proteron stresses the strangeness of this phrasing, which is much more memorable than its inverse, and highlights the singer's understanding that her feelings make no sense.
  • On its own, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is rich with irony: everything about the song, but especially the gratuitous “ever”s in the chorus and the repeated verbal tic “like” in the spoken-word break, suggests that the singer doth protest too much, and will very likely get back together with the song's addressee. This idea is heightened by the song's placement in the album's running order – in between the wistful longings for an ex expressed in “I Almost Do,” and the bubbly love song “Stay Stay Stay.” The segue from the closing “We are never ever getting back together” into “I'm pretty sure we almost broke up last night” raises intriguing questions: Are these songs addressed to different lovers? To the same lover at different stages of the relationship? Or is it that they simply are, coexisting in the post-structuralist tension of self-contradiction and inviting a neverending cornucopia of interpretive responses?

In short, this is a record of which Foucault and Derrida would be proud, and I strongly urge you to at least listen to the three standout tracks – “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22,” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – and to consider the multiplicity of hermeneutic possibilities as well as the layers of deconstructive tensions contained therein.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Counterreading 'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo'

[Originally posted at Bitch Flicks, which you should definitely be reading regularly.]

Reality television has never held much appeal for me. I get plenty of reality in reality, thanks – I like my TV fictional. Besides, hasn't the last decade or more of respectable journalism assured me, in the shrillest possible tones, that reality TV is the very lowest form of entertainment, positively reveling in the filth of humanity's worst, most voyeuristic excesses: a Coliseum for the digital age?


Even without watching it myself, I've become less and less comfortable with the traditional critiques of reality TV as I've sharpened my critical apparatus. For a start, it seems predicated on the notion of a hierarchy of art, the assumption that some forms of entertainment are somehow innately higher or better than others. It's a terribly condescending form of knee-jerk moralizing. And if you don't ever watch it, it's a bit presumptuous to be judgmental about the whole genre.

I've tried to stay in the moral middle ground, having no real opinion on reality TV other than that it's not for me. I'd likely have continued my reality-TV-free existence, had it not been for this excellent piece at the incomparable Womanist Musings.

Renee and Sparky watched TLC's infamous Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the reality show about six-year-old beauty pageant contestant Alana and her working-class Georgia family, and their reaction was not necessarily what you'd expect. They make many terrific points about how repugnant the show is as a piece of television, how it “other[s the family] at every turn,” but they also offer an invaluable counterreading. They like this family – the four daughters aged between six and seventeen, the quiet father figure, and heroic matriarch June – and they'll continue to like them, no matter what the show's structure seems to want us to think.

I love them all, but "Pumpkin" is my favorite.

If you consume entertainment and have any conscience at all, you are a practiced counterreader. You have to be, if you're going to stand up to the hateful kyriarchal bullshit with which 21st-century westerners are bombarded every minute of the day. All responsible entertainment consumption requires a risk assessment, weighing the potential value to be gained against the potential harm to be done, and everybody's evaluation is slightly different. For one person, well-rounded white female characters but no characters of color is worth the trade-off; for another, it simply isn't. And sometimes performing an adequate counterreading requires you to marshal all your critical resources.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is not a text that welcomes counterreadings with open arms. Operating well within the established format of reality television, it utilizes an arsenal of techniques – both subtle and not so much – to impel voyeurism. TLC makes it very, very easy to sneer at and judge Honey Boo Boo and her family. You have to work quite hard to counteract this compulsion. You really have to be on the critical ball the whole time. And is that okay?

All summer the debate has raged as to whether, or to what extent, the show is exploitative. Having watched all of it inside of a week, I'm still undecided. There are moments when June and the girls express a self-awareness and a confidence that has me cheering them to the skies, sure that their assertions of not caring what people think of them are sincere. At times, though – especially when outsiders are brought in to interact with the family, an etiquette teacher or a pedicurist, and get all flustered and shocked by them – the whole thing seems enormously exploitative and gross.

It's this indeterminacy, this openness to a multiplicity of different interpretations, that has the national conversation about Honey Boo Boo going so fiercely. As Time's James Poniewozik observes:
...overall, she has a kind of sassy sweetness to her. In the second episode, she gets a pet teacup pig as consolation for losing a pageant and decides to dress him as a girl, which she says will make him gay. The ensuing argument with her older sister is both ridiculous and oddly wise in a 6-year-old way: “It’s not gonna be gay.” “Yes it is, because we’re making it a girl pig! And it’s actually a boy pig!” “O.K., but it’s not gonna be gay.” “It can if it wants to. You can’t tell that pig what to do.”

You can’t tell that pig what to do. See, you can look at that scene, like you can most of Honey Boo Boo, several ways. You can laugh at the intensity of Alana’s conviction that she’s right. You can tut-tut at the gender-role signals this pageant girl must be getting to conclude that you can “make” someone or something gay by dressing it in girl clothes. But you can also see something kind of remarkable in it: a little country girl, whatever confusion and misinformation she has in her mind, fervently arguing a teacup pig’s right to determine its own sexual identity.

There are plenty of other interesting aspects of this show (Salon considers the race angle; Slate tackles the class issue), but the two that can't be ignored are the gender dynamic and the class factor. The gender dynamic is pretty glorious: five strong, opinionated women who love each other deeply and don't take anyone's shit. They do what they want to do, they look how they want to look, and they are happy. Dare I suggest that one of the reasons the country's spent its summer in thrall to these people is that we just don't see women like this in our scripted entertainment?

Of course, it's rare to see poor white people portrayed sympathetically on US TV at all. My understanding of class in the US is much less nuanced than my understanding of the British class system, but I'm aware of this country's distaste for its own working poor. “Rednecks” appear in the media as rapists, as racists, as the butt of jokes and the object of revulsion. Voyeurism and disgust motivate hate-watching in our culture to an obscene degree, and that is why I think it's important to perform a counterreading, to celebrate this family and refuse to let your responses be dictated by classism and hatred. If you want to be truly horrified by your fellow humans, check out the comments on this Gawker article (I hope you have a strong stomach). To me, this is the aspect of Honey Boo Boo that's truly awful – not a happy family letting a camera crew into their lives in exchange for some money they surely need, but the legion of haters who judge Honey Boo Boo and her family to be less human, less worthy of dignity and respect for their life choices, than themselves.
The family certainly does not reciprocate that sentiment. Even in the throes of labor agony, when asked, “Do you recommend to anybody else to get pregnant at 17?”, oldest daughter Anna replies, “Do whatever you want to do.” She just refuses to tell anyone else what to do with their body or their life. The rest of America – from legislators to judgmental internet commenters – could learn something from her.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Quick Update

Ten days ago I had The Conversation with my parents. By which I mean I told them I'm getting therapy for gender identity and transitions.

At the time, Mother took it amazingly well. Dad plotzed.

Now, Mother is ignoring my emails and Dad is cheerily emailing me as though The Conversation never happened.

Also, therapy is pretty dumb. It's like blogging, except you have to say words with your face and pay fucktons of money for the privilege.

Meanwhile, the grad school workload is kicking my ass, so you'll forgive us if the updates here are a little sparse. I'll still be pumping out something for Bitch Flicks on a weekly basis.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

How I Learned To Be A Man

If there's one person on this earth I consider a role model (it turns out Iorek Byrnison is fictional WHO KNEW), it's my older brother. My whole life, I have admired him fervently, and I truly believe him to be one of the best people I know. Twenty years ago he taught me to read, the single most precious gift anyone has ever given me; he's also taught, and continues to teach me, invaluable lessons about being a human being, and about being a man specifically.

My older brother has taught me the value of perseverance and inner strength. He has overcome obstacles not through a single climactic battle, but through ongoing daily work. He is innately a very shy person, and I know it takes enormous strength for him to do all the amazing things he has done: living on his own in Costa Rica for a year, rising to a semi-managerial position in his volunteering work, cold-calling strangers in his current job. In the face of underemployment and misery for the past year, he has continued to work so hard and never stopped applying for what he really wants to do.

My older brother has taught me loyalty and dependability. As an oldest sibling, he has often had to take responsibility for me and our little brother over the years, and was precociously wise and fair (most of the time none of us will ever forget the sailing camp where he ordered our little bro out of the boat to go slow down competitors!). He is an absolute brick, and I would trust him with my life.

My older brother has taught me conscience. He is acutely aware of his privilege as a straight white cis man from a financially stable family, and he is committed to justice. His morals are important on a micro level too, and his kindness and generosity shine daily in even the smallest ways.

My older brother has taught me that manliness has nothing to do with traditional gender roles. He has shown me that to be a man you do not actually have to be swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon. His brand of manhood encompasses traditionally male pursuits (science, nerdiness) and traditionally female pursuits (nail polish, squeeing at cute animals), without apologizing for, denigrating, or indeed gendering either. He is not beholden to the social forces that would compel him to be interested in things he hates (like sports and motorcars), and he seems rooted and confident in who he is. My older brother is the man I aspire to be.

My older brother has great taste. We share the books, music, movies, and TV shows that we love, and we have a monumental network of in-jokes based on our shared history. Our sense of humor is so similar that we often make the same joke at the same time, and we always crack each other up. When we're together we have a level of connection like no one else we know.

When I look at my older brother, I see myself, but better.