Katy Perry Does Critical Theory

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Illuminati realness, or reference to Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’? You decide.

There is little doubt now that we are living in a strange time, a time where Teen Vogue talks Black Lives Matter, Elle Magazine quotes Russian revolutionaries, and the dictionary trolls the President of the United States. Activist politics is filtering into mainstream spaces in strange and uneven ways. This week one such event was the release of Katy Perry’s video for her new song ‘Chained to the Rhythm‘, which is, in fact, a hilariously direct engagement with Critical Theory.

Critical Theory emerged in the mid twentieth century, and involved theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taking up strands of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, to provide a critique of society and mass culture. In particular, Adorno was very concerned with what he called the “culture industry“, that is, entertainment consumed by the masses that works to keep people controlled and complicit under capitalism. Adorno believed that popular culture numbs people so that they are not able to fully realise the conditions of their own oppression.

This is exactly the critique of society that Perry presents in her new video.

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Perry’s video is set in an amusement park called “Oblivia”, where everyone is either viewing the world through their iPads or shuffling behind others toward mundane rides such as a literal hampster wheel. The setting notably connects up with Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous claim that “amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism”.

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Gosh KP, what on earth does it mean?!

But with increasing nuance throughout the clip, Perry manages to address some of the most pressing political issues of our time. These include:

1. The financial crisis and the American dream

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The first ride Perry visits is a reference to the financial crisis of 2008 that saw the mortgage market in the USA bottom-out. It’s not a fun ride—you sit in a tiny house and get jolted in the air once you’re locked in the house. It’s almost like Perry read Lauren Berlant’s book ‘Cruel Optimism‘ which talks about how people invest in dreams of a better future (i.e. the American dream) but that this belief is actually a cruel and toxic attachment.

2. Heteronormativity

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The dream drop ride shows heterosexual couples enter, surrounded by a white picket fence. Perry comes along and smells the roses on the fence, only to prick her finger, realising that the roses have stems of barbed wire. In a reverse-Sleeping-Beauty move, this finger prick helps to wake Perry up, and we realise that the deep sleep represented in fairytales is in fact about succumbing to a heteronormative life. Here, Perry functions as a queer character who can’t quite meet the normative standards that allow her to fully enjoy the park. As Perry is also the star of the piece, we are called to rethink the “barbed” reality of heterosexually “normal” life.

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On this note, we should pause here to consider how Perry’s partner on the love-rollercoaster is an incredibly camp man in a glitter shirt.

3. Racism and the Trump Travel Ban 

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One of the next rides that Perry stumbles across involves black couples and single people getting flung over a fence/wall. Here Perry is offering a direct critique of the Trump administration’s white heterosexist rulings.

4. War and nuclear holocaust

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Park-goers walk around carrying fairyfloss that looks like broccoli, that we later realise are actually mushroom clouds. Also this ride:

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Bleak.

5. Climate change and environmental degradation 

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“Fire Water” is Perry’s most obscure reference—or, perhaps her most literal. Perry visits a gas station where the petrol is actually water but that water is on fire. There are also sailors. It’s pretty great. It appears to be a reference to climate change (the world is heating up) but also fracking (which can cause river fires!), and on that note, it is also clearly about Standing Rock.

6. The nuclear family and false appearances

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Toward the end of the song Perry sits in a crowd wearing 3D glasses, watching a family perform in front of a TV screen. Here Perry challenges the charade of the perfect nuclear family, and the societal focus on the heterosexual couple. The retro styling of the entire clip also gains greater meaning here, as we see that this world is also one where women are cast back into the stereotype of the 1950s housewife. But in Perry also adopting this dress (reminiscent of the Jetsons) she is entertaining a form of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag“. That is, a way of embodying the past in order to displace the “present”, to help us question our own progress narratives.

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The imagery of this scene also, remarkably, directly references Guy Debord’s 1967 work ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, which laments the way everything in society has become about consumption and appearances. One of Debord’s proposed tactics for interrupting such a society is called “detournement“—basically hijacking cultural products and subverting their meaning, also known as culture jamming. That Perry would reference (or perhaps recuperate) Debord would, I imagine, have him rolling in his grave.

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The cover of Debord’s classic

During the same scene, Skip Marley emerges out of the television screen, and in a direct critique of imperialism, the ruling class and capitalist society, sings: “Time is ticking for the empire/The truth they feed is feeble/As so many times before/They greed over the people/They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot”.

After this Perry dances around confusedly for a bit, before running and then stopping on a treadmill, giving us a completely alarmed stare down the camera.

When I first heard the song—which includes lyrics such as “So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble” and “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”—I was annoyed that Perry would take a swipe at ordinary people, as if everyone is just stupid and thoughtless. This seemed perfectly in line with the desperately elitist condemnation by Clinton of Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016, which only served to alienate rather than mobilise people. The original critical theory work from Adorno and others is similarly irksome in its extreme disdain for “low culture” enjoyed by the many, versus more intellectual “high culture”. As I see it, to condemn mass culture and in turn the “cultural dupes” who consume it, is to be radically ungenerous to the circumstances and experiences of the people involved.

But here’s where Perry manages to one-up Adorno. What makes Perry’s engagement more dynamic, is the way she places herself in the world of Oblivia. Rather than being a snobby outsider, she constantly refers to herself in the lyrics (through the use of “we”), and depicts herself in the video, as being caught up in oblivion similarly to everyone else. While she gradually becomes more “woke” than the other inhabitants of the theme park, she is consistently shown in a state of ignorant bliss just as unaware as everyone else. Here Perry manages to resolve the philosophical problem posed by Slavoj Zizek who suggests that it is false to think one can be authentically “outside” of a relation to culture. Perry doesn’t pretend to be outside of popular culture in an elitist way because she just physically can’t be…because this is a pop music video! That Marley emerges out of the television at the end also perhaps hints that Perry thinks critical ideas can come out of popular culture as much as you can also be “chained to the rhythm”. Presumably she’s hoping her work will woke you too.

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Marley climbs out of the TV

While the irony of all of this should give you a lot of LOLs it does also beg the question as to whether this is really culture-jamming or merely the selling-back to us of critiques of culture. My sense is that it is almost certainly both (Perry is making money out of this after all), and that it certainly won’t be a Katy Perry video that starts the revolution (unless she keeps up her Brit Awards antics of course).

But I also don’t think it’s bad—in fact, it should be taken as an overwhelmingly positive sign that there is a current mood in daily life that is about being wildly vocal and “about to riot”. As Perry and Marley suggest, “they woke up the lions”. Sure, some of those lions are totally bizarre pop stars, but it also means it’s a jungle out there…

The Queer World of Stranger Things

Joyce Byers: He’s a sensitive kid. Lonnie used to say he was queer. Called him a fag.
Jim Hopper: Is he?
Joyce: He’s missing, is what he is!

Judith Butler: Crafting a sexual position…always involves becoming haunted by what’s excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way

Eleven: The gate, I opened it. I’m the monster

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It’s almost too good

*SPOILERS (OBVS)*

I watched Stranger Things this week, yes, five months late to the party (just in time for Christmas so I can be creeped out by the lights). I could list a bunch of excuses, but really I just generally avoid anything that has a whiff of scary. But the thing about the horror/supernatural/sci fi genre is that it tends to engage with questions of the strange, the bodily and the abject, and is therefore inescapably relevant to queer theory and feminism. So, when I found myself in that inevitable position of why can I find literally nothing to watch on Netflix?, I gave in (and boy am I glad I did), because it turns out that Stranger Things is the gayest, campest, queerest, most feminist thing out at the moment—perhaps even in spite of its own intentions.

The troubling thing about watching shows later than everyone else is that you’ve missed the cultural discussion. So when I started feverishly googling “queer Stranger Things” and “feminist Stranger Things” after the series ended, I was surprised at arguments that worked hard to demonstrate how the show is anti-feminist, or like, stop making it about feminism already, and how people are stuck on questioning whether Will is gay or not. I was also intrigued by how everyone was obsessed with Barb and the grand injustice of it all. To me, all of these things entirely miss the richness of insight that the show has to offer on questions of gender and sexuality.

*****

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Oppression, comin’ atcha

Let’s get to the feminist themes of the show first. It’s not feminist because it overtly trumpets “political, social and economic equality with men” (it doesn’t), but rather, it engages a feminist lens that magnifies sexism in all its forms and portrays female and genderqueer characters who resist in spite of the oppression that’s bearing down on them from all angles (literally).

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Joyce, holding her ground

That Joyce communicates with Will via lights isn’t just for special effect—it’s a comment on the gaslighting that many women experience in their everyday lives. Gaslighting is when someone is led to believe that they are misperceiving things, and that they are crazy/losing their mind. The term originates from a 1930s play where a man tricks his wife into thinking she’s going mad, which involves him messing with the gas lamps in the house. Many women experience gaslighting as a subtle form of emotional abuse in intimate relationships. Joyce is told by all the men around her (the police, her oldest son, her ex-husband) that she’s crazy and that she’s mis-perceiving (so crazy in fact that she can’t even recognise the body of her own son), YET she persists in her rescue mission. The ultimate lesson is: believe in yourself and grab a f***ing axe while you’re at it.

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Karen Wheeler (note checked shirt for later)

The show also did a kick-ass job at celebrating mothers as at once loving and fierce. For one, there’s Karen Wheeler, Mike and Nancy’s mother, who is constantly reminding her children: I’m here if you need me. And we might wonder, where the hell is the dad most of the time? Their mother is the centre of it all, she’s the one doing the emotional labour. Joyce repeats a similar mantra of support to both Will in the Upside Down, and Eleven when she’s in the sensory deprivation tank: I’m here for you. Of course we could read this as stereotyping motherhood, but in a world where mothers are so frequently represented along a binary of either strong and evil, or caring but passive, I think it’s a celebration of strength in vulnerability. Unlike the mothers of the original 1980s slasher flicks, these women are to be revered, not feared. The lesson is: celebrate the mothers, they’re the ones keeping sh*t together.

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The patriarchy involves women leaders too

Fathers get a rather different wrap in the show, but the complexity of masculinity is also engaged with rather than made one-dimensional. Perhaps the most notable father is Eleven’s “papa” Dr Martin Brenner, who dare I say represents the patriarchy, that is, the “rule of the father”. This character also demonstrates the long history of science and medicine ruling over bodies, particularly female or genderqueer ones. For instance, he tells Eleven that they are “sick” and that he will make them “better”—a reflection of the disciplining of non-conforming bodies that has long been documented (thanks Foucault). There is also the absent father /deadbeat dad (Lonnie), who functions to show us the abuse that occurs in the family home and the perils of single motherhood. And then there is Jim Hopper, the dad who has lost his daughter. With this storyline we are made privy to the vulnerable side of masculinity, and the very few options for expressing these kinds of emotions that men are offered in life. For Jim, his sadness hardness into detached coolness. Similarly, for Jonathan Beyers—who reveals crying after being forced by his father to kill a rabbit as a child, to “make him a man”—his vulnerability hardens into stalkerish reclusiveness. The lesson is: the rule of the father (or whatever you want to call it—patriarchy, gender expectations, etc) is bad for everyone.

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How good is Nancy?! (Note checked shirt underneath)

You know what else is bad for everyone? Slut-shaming. Nancy experiences some pretty heavy slut-shaming not only from her friends at school, but from the police. While Nancy is all, Barb is missing! the cops are all, but did you have SEX? Nancy realises that justice isn’t going to be served through the formal legal channels, and that she’s going to have to take things into her own hands if she wants to get things done. She’ll pick up a gun, say “screw that” to the nuclear family, and unthinkably crawl through goo in a tree in order to rescue her friend. Unlike many rescue stories, the hero here is a woman. When it turns out that the monster has killed her friend, Nancy doesn’t give up, she grows in her resolve. Indeed, after this she’s out for revenge, but the female-rescuing-female trope subverts the normal “revenge” paradigm that usually focuses on rape. You know who cared about Barb in a world that just generally didn’t? Nancy did. That was the entire driver for Nancy, her friend. The lesson is: sh*t, Nancy is awesome.

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Eleven not even messing around one bit

Last but not least on the question of gender, Stranger Things engages with the gender conformity that is thrust upon us in a world of heterosexuality. In order to “pass”, Mike and his friends dress Eleven up in pink, a blonde wig, and makeup. Mike is rather happy about Eleven’s new “pretty”, but Eleven’s not so sure. When Eleven is accused of being too aggressive and too crazy (after hurting Lucas), they cast their wig off and strides into the supermarket to take whatever they like, slamming doors along the way. They’re saying, you don’t own me, you can’t control me. While Joyce teaches us that you can be a mother and a fighter, and Nancy teaches us that you can be feminine and a hero, Eleven shows us that femininity can be restricting and awful when it is thrust upon us.The lesson is: you can be queer in your gender expression and save the world.

*****

This last point brings me to my queer reading of the series. Again, this isn’t to say that the show is queer because there are a bunch of LGBTQ characters in it (this is debated), but rather, we can undertake a queer reading that reveals the show’s underlying themes related to subverting the normal when it comes to gender and sexuality.

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A camp extravaganza

First, the obvious things. The overabundance of christmas lights is super camp. Camp refers to a sensibility seen as linked with homosexuality, a focus on the over-the-top, and the rejection of middle-class taste. Camp is also often associated with Christmas, with its gaudy decorations and glitz and glam. Joyce goes totally OTT with the Christmas lights, and the same time that she’s tearing down the walls of the family home. It’s no wonder that when Lonnie comes home he tries to force “normal” family life by literally patching things up and taking the lights down. But Joyce won’t have it. The Beyers residence is a camp wonderland that does family life differently.

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Misfits abound in Stranger Things

Second, the title Stranger Things, refers to the strange that is so central to queer readings. Queer theory focuses on “queering” the normal, and has often been about celebrating that which is considered “strange”. In the show, all of the heroes are “strange” in some way, they are misfits who reject how things are “supposed to be done”.

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Will (in yet another checked shirt)

Very importantly, there is an overt emphasis on Will’s presumed gayness, with references made to his “queerness” almost every time he comes up in conversation. Whether his character is gay or not is really besides the point, because there is another story bubbling under the surface here (which this article from the Advocate basically hints at—but it’s much more literal than they suggest). When the school bully asserts that Will is “in fairyland now right”, we should take note. If we read this claim in conjunction with Judith Butler’s claim that we are always “haunted” by those sexual subject positions we exclude, we can understand the Upside Down as also implicitly referring to “inversion“, the old way that sexologists in the 19th century used to describe homosexuality. This isn’t to say that the Upside Down is a world of homosexuality, but rather, that it is the shadow world that the bigots project as the opposite normality.

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Mouth breather

It’s also a world that casts queer bodies into what Butler would call the “ungrievable“—where some people’s sexuality and gender cannot be understood to the point that their lives cannot even be mourned in death. That the “real” Will is illegible (he is a shadow, and his “body” is a fake) , that almost no one cares about Barb going missing, that there is barely a blink that several people have disappeared in a matter of days…It all testifies to understanding the Upside Down as that which is cast out of the world, that is not allowed to exist in “normal” life. But what can move between worlds, and what can be identified by those who are critical of normality, is the monster, i.e. homophobia. Here, the monster is the ultimate “mouth breather” (its face is all mouth after all), it is THE bully, the homophobe.

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Barb, another outsider (and checked shirt wearer)

Along these lines we can also note that unlike the old horror movies of yore, it is not the youngsters engaged in hetero sex who get taken by the monster…Barb gets taken specifically because she doesn’t want to engage in that milieu. Who else gets taken? As the police briefly discuss, two men who went out “hunting” that week but their utter lack of concern about this makes us think maybe there’s some subtle homophobia going on there, like, well, we know what goes down in those woods…

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Perhaps Will is reflecting on his internalised homophobia

It is also not surprising that the monster is unleashed in the processes of spying on Russians—as many have documented, fear of communism was often promoted through connecting “commies” to “homos”. As George Chauncey notes, “The spectre of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America”, which manifested in the USA as the Lavender Scare during the 1950s. In their spying on the Russians, Eleven predictably also spies homophobia. Of course, Eleven gets blamed for unleashing havoc, buying into the notion that it is them who is monstrous, rather than homophobia that is the destructor. We see this play out in life all of the time—when conservative politicians argue that that it is really gender and sexual non-conformity that is the real concern (think of the children!) rather than the bullying and hate-crimes that are committed against those who don’t fit the “normal”. Notably, the monster in Stranger Things forces ingestion on its prey as a way to reproduce, that is, it creates internalised homophobia. By the end Will is literally vomiting up this monstrous self-hatred, and the family home is neatly (too neatly) patched up back to normalcy.

That the monster is attracted by “blood” also calls to mind the AIDS crisis that emerged in the 1980s, and that was a central subtextual theme of many of the horror films that Stranger Things references. At the time AIDS was first called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” or GRID, and again, it was homosexuals who were seen to be the source of death, rather than the victims of homophobic governments who were slow to act on the emerging health crisis.

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The lab, lined by grids

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Steve’s room, so many grids

Interestingly, Stranger Things is dominated by grids. The corridors of the Hawkins National Laboratory that holds the doorway to the Upside Down depict a grid that is also mirrored in Steve Harrington’s bedroom decor (that we see just before Barb is taken). Many of the characters also wear plaid/checked i.e. grid patterns. In fact, the world of Stranger Things is literally littered with grids. The double meaning of this grid obsession is also the “grid of cultural intelligibility” that Butler discusses—the norms of sexuality and gender that constitute the fabric of the social world. Going to the Upside Down means falling off this grid, where you can be the prey of homophobia without cultural recognition.

The lesson of all of this is a reminder that the monster of homophobia needs to be fought, not internalised, in order to keep everyone safe from falling off the grid.

*****

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Stranger Things questions, rather than merely replicates, the dominant paradigm

All of this is not to say that the Duffer Brothers have been reading Judith Butler (though, it’s not that unlikely) or any other queer theory or feminist texts for that matter. Rather, we can see these elements of Stranger Things as testament to the zeitgeist permeating the popular subconscious from the 1980s to today, that involves a mash of ideas about gender, sexism, sexuality, and homophobia. The show manages to tap into these issues and depict the realities of oppression, all the while making its non-conforming characters the heroes. This is really what makes this show stand out in a field of popular representations: it does more than reproduce normative ideas, it offers a challenge to them.

 

Extraordinary Ordinariness: Cultural Imagination and the Australian Dream

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In America you don’t just aim for a home, you aim for the ultimate: The White House

The widely discussed “American Dream” is the belief that anyone is free to climb up the ladder of success and be extraordinary. In contrast, the lesser known “Australian Dream” – so the story goes – is the dream of owning a house in the suburbs. As a 30-year-old woman who has grown up in public housing and precarious rentals I feel a strong affinity with this latter dream, even though it seems on the unreachable horizon (as it does for many in my generation). But whether the accessibility of home ownership  is truly as bleak as it seems, the concept of the Australian Dream warrants fleshing out. And, what better place to begin an examination of the heart of Australian consciousness, than the Olympic Games.

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The American Dream: anyone can climb the ladder of success

On the surface of things, the Australian coverage (so far) of the Rio Olympics seems to suggest that the Australian Dream is very close to the American one. For example, Australia’s initial lead in the medal tally was strongly emphasised by Australian news broadcasters (to the detriment of hearing about what was happening elsewhere at the Games). This focus on success, domination, and being number one, seemingly echoes the obsession with being on top à la the American Dream. But the whole point of the American Dream, as historian James Truslow Adams first defined, is specifically about anyone being able to succeed despite their early circumstances. The American Dream is about everyone having the capacity to be an extraordinary individual, as he states:

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”

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American Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps hints at the bottomless aspirational quality of the American Dream

US media coverage of individual Olympic athletes exemplifies this narrative. For example, this discussion of wrestler Jordan Burroughs from USA Today highlights his innate ability (apparently visible at a young age), his hardworking attitude, and the importance of holding very high aspirations. The article states: “Though his parents stressed the importance of hard work and being true to his word, dreaming beyond their horizons wasn’t something a lot of people did in his hometown of Sicklerville, N.J. No one had shown them how”. The stress here is on aiming up and ever up. This means not just being number one, but always striving to do better and to work hard to be the best, not just of now, but of all time. As discussed previously, this kind of aspirational attitude has been critiqued by cultural theorists such as Lauren Berlant, who denounce the American Dream as a kind of toxic promise that always fails to deliver but that nonetheless keeps people enrolled in the idea that things might get better. So we might wonder, how different is the Australian Dream from this toxic attitude?

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Australian Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe (who competed at the same time as Phelps) emphasises staying normal

Looking at Australian media coverage of the Olympics, we see the expected focus on stories of success (the Olympics are about competition after all), however, a slightly different dream is visible. While there is a similar story about the importance of hard work, there is an emphasis on ordinariness rather than extra-ordinariness. For example, in this discussion of recent gold medalist shooter Catherine Skinner from the Sydney Morning Herald, the story follows Skinner’s tribulations trying to balance school and shooting practice. While there is a clear message here that you should keep trying and stick to your guns (literally in this instance), there is also sympathy for Skinner wanting to be a normal university student doing assignments and partying with friends. The article labours on Skinner’s hard work ethic, but doesn’t allocate her success to something innate. Rather, there is a sense of luck, as the article quotes her: “I was really lucky to come into the sport at the right time. There were a lot of development programs coming in. It’s really nice to see them all pay off”.

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From Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

In comparison to the American Dream then, the Australian narrative isn’t just about anyone being able to nurture their unique natural talents to reach stardom, but rather, anyone being able to achieve anything through a blend of hard work and luck. It is useful to remember here that Australia is often culturally defined as “the lucky country” after all.  The best thing you can be in Australia is extraordinarily ordinary, as you don’t want to risk being a “tall poppy” (someone who is too far above everyone else). A great example of this is Stephen Bradbury, who won a gold medal in speed skating in 2002 after everyone else in the field fell over. With his mix of persistence and sheer luck, Bradbury came to epitomise the Australian spirit.

c_13181_234_234_true_trueLooking at these examples, we can see that the Australian Dream is different from the American one, but presents perhaps another version of cruel optimism. Rather than highlighting one’s difference and unique abilities that one can harness for success, there is an emphasis on the importance of sameness and chance. Of course, Australia is also marked out as a land of the “fair go“, that being the idea that anyone should have a chance to make it, to get lucky. Interestingly, in the recent federal election opposition leader Bill Shorten made an appeal to the need for a fair go for all central to his economic plan, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull emphasised the fantastic opportunities already available to Australians. In other words, Turnbull turned up the volume on the myth of the lucky country, and quietly side-stepped the notion of the fair go that might call for some recognition of deeper inequalities.

Perpetuating this particular narrative covers over the social constitution of “luck”, that is, the structural privileges that  contribute to success. The toxic promise here is the lie that anyone can be a champion, if they keep working hard and are in the right place at the right time. There is no mention that as part of this you have to win the lottery of life, that is, be born into the best class position, race, gender and so on, that will guarantee a leg up. The perpetuation of this myth ignores the numerous indications that inequality and structural disadvantage is on the increase in Australia.

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Australia’s Next Top Model, where difference is played down

We also see this myth play out in Australian reality television. Anyone can be a Masterchef, and in fact, anyone can be as good as the superstar chefs. Never mind that if you’re not white or not emphasising your Aussie-ness rather than your complex ethnicity, you don’t stand much chance of winning. Similarly, anyone can be Australia’s Next Top Model, as long as you’re white and have that girl-next-door look exactly like everyone else. There is very little labouring on the unique talents, or features, or traumatic backgrounds of the contestants in any of these shows (which is surprising, given how much we still see the contestants cry). If anything the emphasis is always on how very normal the contestants are, and how normal they will continue to be despite their successes.

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The Australian Dream: work hard, get lucky

As I was watching the coverage of Rio last night, I was struck by the frequent remarks by the Channel 7 commentators that “anyone can be an Olympic champion”. Not only does this seem patently false in a way that papers over important advantages and disadvantages that people experience, it seems to diverge so much from the American narrative of everyone being special individuals. In Australia the best you can be is extraordinarily ordinary. The Australian Dream says: rather than wasting your time fighting for equality or better conditions or more affordable housing, your best bet is to put your head down, work hard, and be grateful for what you get in life. If you play by the rules, you too might get a home to live in one day, heck, you might even win a gold medal in speed skating! After all, this is the lucky country, isn’t it?

Feminist Utopias and Battling Cruel Optimism in Ghostbusters

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This is not a drill

When I first heard about the new Ghostbusters, I was bursting with anticipation. But when the trailers started coming I quickly tuned out. Like a child who has peeked at their Christmas presents before the big day, I needed to hold the excitement in. It all seemed too good to be true. So when the lights went down at the cinema last night, I turned to my girlfriend and said “holy crap—they really made this film!”

By way of review, the film itself is highly enjoyable but clunky at times.

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Hands up who wants to go get a science degree after seeing this film

Don’t get me wrong, I was still hanging on every word out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth, but the direction and editing needed some tightening up. It was probably a three star affair. But the film more than makes up for its pacing and logic problems with its sharp ideas and cast who pull it right through.

Whether this was a great filmic success is not really the point. The point is that they made a movie dominated by smart and funny female leads, who explore issues of gender and race inequality, with large hints of queer sexuality. It feels like a miracle in a world otherwise saturated with films epically failing the Bechdel Test.

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Outside of the film however, cruel optimism is arguably still going strong

However, the irony in celebrating this bastion of female representation is that I spend much of my academic time critiquing the idea that we should focus on representational politics. I often argue that our focus on getting diversity in film and television obscures the material inequalities that underlie the lack of diversity in the popular realm in the first place. When we are presented with images of “successful” characters from ordinarily marginalised groups, this can help to present a false sense that “anyone can make it” despite the odds stacked against them. This connects up with cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”, which refers to those fantasies we hold onto (like “The American Dream”) that are actually cruel promises destined to fail. Berlant writes:

“Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealising theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something’. What happens when those fantasies start to fray—depression, dissociation, pragmatism, cynicism, optimism activism, or an incoherent mash?” (2011, 2).

Cruel optimism operates where there is a desire and attachment to a kind of projected future, but where this possibility is either impossible or “toxic”. Berlant warns against investing in these projections, because when they fail, it can lead to serious disaffection and demoralisation (or, an unhelpful continuation of false positivity).

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The film doesn’t hold back about the discrimination women experience

So, I have to admit that I was worried that the all-female Ghostbusters might be doing its part to contribute to a cruel optimism about gender equality, to say “don’t worry, women can make it too!”, despite the real-life discrimination, harassment and assault experienced by a diversity of women on a daily basis (and on that note, the Ghostbusters cast). But the beautiful thing about this film is that it owns this reality, and runs with it. The film is surprisingly open about gender issues, directly representing the ways that women are systematically dismissed and derided.

When the characters are thrown out of their academic institutions, it is biting commentary on the historic sexist assumption that women pursue the “irrational” (here represented by an interest in the paranormal). When they are dismissed by the authorities and the “men in charge” it is a reminder of the fact that when women report abuse (here represented by the violent male mastermind) there is a practice of active disbelief. When they are vilified online and represented by the media as liars, it is a reflection of the abuse that women experience in these realms.

Ghostbusters doesn’t present cruel optimism: it reflects the true cruelty of the present. There is not a sense that this can be easily overcome, rather, a mass-scale battle led by a vanguard of ass-kicking diverse women is partly what is needed to make any ground.

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Kate McKinnon, the openly gay dreamboat, plays Jillian

The other thing that Ghostbusters does so well, is show us glimpses of the revolutionary future on the horizon. This is reminiscent of the late José Esteban Muñoz‘s work on queer utopias. Muñoz argues that there is a queer future that we are able to glimpse even in the darkest of moments, where oppressive norms of gender and sexuality have been undone:

“Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1).

In Ghostbusters we catch sight of this queer future in the team’s workroom. Here there is no hierarchy (they are all leaders), much empathy (like when Patty cares about Abby’s blood sugar levels), endless patience (even for Kevin who is terrible at answering the phone), and a deep but balanced engagement with questions of science (they make cool stuff) and humanity (like Jillian’s speech to Abby about love). The film is always on the verge of showing us out-and-out queer love, with a complicated triangle between Abby and Erin (past lovers?) and Abby and Jillian (present lovers?), only slightly ameliorated by Erin’s attraction to Kevin. There is also a diversity of bodies, backgrounds, skin colour, and sexuality. Ghostbusters doesn’t shy away from how difficult gender relations are in the present, but it does show us a hint of a future where things could be different.

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They ain’t afraid of no Men’s Rights Activists

There are times of “reverse sexism” within the movie, and I think that kicking a ghost in the groin is probably a bit unnecessary, but largely these moments are used to reflect on the standards that women experience today. The treatment of the assistant Kevin for example, explicitly functions as commentary on the sexual harassment women can expect in most workplaces.

It is no wonder that the MRAs of the Internet are up in arms about this insta feminist-cult-classic. While the sexist and racist hate directed toward the movie serves as a reminder of how far we have to go, it also reveals how challenging this film truly is. As they always say, the feminist proof is in the sexist-reaction pudding.

 

Why “woman” doesn’t equal “feminist”

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Emma Watson, the UN’s “He for She” spokesperson

It seems that every week there’s a new feminist celebrity in town. You definitely know the drill by now: Beyoncé dancing in front of a flashing “FEMINISM” sign, Taylor Swift insisting her girl gang is 100% feminist, or Emma Watson being the poster woman for male feminists. The reaction always falls along the same lines: feminist celebrities are either defended (“hooray at least someone’s talking about it!”) or pilloried (“these women don’t know the first thing about feminism!”). Many commentators also worry that celebrities identify as feminist in order to get attention, or just to appeal to their female audience. However, the key issue for me is not whether they truly and authentically hold feminist ideals, but how the debate fosters a more worrying trend…the idea that if you’re a woman, you’re naturally a feminist.

I’ve been trying to articulate the problem with equating woman with feminist for some time, but it wasn’t until I read an article from feminist theorist Sandra Harding that the heart of the issue became clear for me. Harding says:

“It is an achievement, not a ‘natural property’, of women to develop a feminist standpoint, or a standpoint of women”

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Miley Cyrus has been vocal about desiring “equality”

Harding is talking about something called “feminist standpoint theory”, which is about valuing women’s perspectives as key to understanding women’s marginalisation. At the centre of the theory is that it is important to consider the views of oppressed groups. Because the views of the oppressed are traditionally silenced, attending to their perspectives may spark questions that would never come to the mind of those in power and indeed, questions that those with more power may have an interest in suppressing. According to this theory, if you’re talking about women’s liberation, this should involve listening to women’s experiences (of domestic and workplace expectations, for example) because this helps provide a map of how women are being treated unfairly.

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Beyonce performing in 2014

However, this is not to suggest that women will naturally be able to provide an analysis of why they are being treated poorly, or what ought to be done about it (or, that they will even identify a particular experience as “unfair”). A distinct feminist analysis that says “this is happening because of sexism”, “we should fight back” and “what’s happening is unfair”, is something altogether different from just recounting one’s experience. In this way we see that feminist analysis relies not only on attending to the lived experiences of the marginalised, but stepping back and looking at the whole picture of oppression to see what needs to be overcome.

Of course the difficulty for feminism is that it has historically only provided an analysis that fits the lives of some women. Only in relatively recent times has feminist theory come to grips with the fact that it is important to bring more nuance to analyses of lived experience, to  acknowledge that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other factors may also be at work.

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A key slogan from the second wave

However, I think the point to take away from this is that political analysis isn’t inherent to identity. The idea that identity is the key to doing politics is termed “identity politics”. This basically just means that identity is seen as inseparable from politics in such a way that the politics flows from the identity in itself. Really this idea is founded in the promotion of the phrase “the personal is political” in feminist activism in the 1960s/70s. The idea in feminist organising at the time was to bring so-called personal issues, such as feeling unhappy as a housewife, to the forefront of feminist consciousness, to show that these “personal” things ought to have “political” ramifications. However over time this idea of the personal as political has collapsed into identity itself, with the idea that identity (rather than specific issues and the analysis of them) = politics.

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People in Sydney rallying to save Safe Schools

We see this belief that politics is inherent to women fail time and time again. This was recently demonstrated with Cate McGregor stating “I am transgender. And I oppose safe schools“. Cate identifies as  a transgender woman, but this doesn’t mean she inherently possesses the best political analysis of transgender women’s liberation. While there are plenty of transgender people speaking out and saying that Safe Schools is utterly important to the LGBT community as a whole, they don’t have the same platform as Cate.

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Former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard

This brings me back to celebrity feminism. The problem with celebrity feminism is that it often involves conflating “woman” with “feminist”. For example, when Leighton Meester says, “I don’t know if anyone would ever deny being a feminist” she is implying that all women are feminists because they have a vested interest in fighting gender inequality. Or when Taylor Swift says, “So many girls out there say ‘I’m not a feminist’ because they think it means something angry or disgruntled or complaining”, she’s suggesting that feminism is not about being critical and assumes that inequality is self-evident. Or when Zooey Deschanel says feminism is just about “being myself”, she’s locating feminism in self-expression as a woman. All of these celebrity feminists do have things to say about inequality, but they all treat this understanding as so obvious that it is basically incomprehensible to see how being a woman does not necessarily mean being a feminist.

It’s a perspective also adopted by some feminists who aren’t celebrities. It’s dangerous not only because it risks condemning women who say they aren’t feminist rather than convincing them why they ought to be, but also because it locates politics in women. There are many negative consequences to this view, but particularly problematic is celebrating female leaders for being female, even if they are materially making conditions worse for many women in society (I’m thinking here of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard cutting the single parent payment, for example).

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Actress Zooey Deschanel

Seeing politics as inherent to women is also bad for feminism. What emerges is the view that feminism can be utterly pluralised, because each individual woman has her own individual feminism. The sum of these fragmented parts is often a feminism that reaches for the lowest common denominator, such as the encouragement of a vague notion of “equality” that we see in celebrity feminism. In Hollywood “equality” might just mean getting paid as many millions as your male costars. While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for what feminism should be, I do think that a sharper political analysis is needed that calls for liberation in a much much broader sense than rich women gaining equality with rich men.

A Tale of Beards and Lavender: Imagining the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood

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My Internet history is a Snow/Kendrick love fest

It’s strange, but true: at least once a week I sit down and Google the celebrities I think might be not-straight. There’s Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow (hoping the Bechloe romance of Pitch Perfect finally comes true), Leighton Meester (sure she married Adam Brody but…), Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone (to name a few). Up until fairly recently Ellen Page, Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart were also on my list. They make up what I like to imagine is the “Secret Lesbian Club” of Hollywood. In my mind, this is basically an underground ring of awesome gays who like to get together fairly frequently to watch Bound, talk about butch/femme aesthetic, read gender studies texts, and figure out ways to insert queer subtext into their work. And who do I imagine is at the centre of it all? Taylor Swift of course.

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Life is more interesting through a rainbow filter

Some might say this is wishful thinking. But the thing is, when you spend most of your days thinking queerly (that is, making the familiar strange, particularly with regard to sexuality and gender), you can’t help but see the world through rainbow glasses. It seems to me that “normal” is entirely a fiction, and everyone is a lot queerer than all that. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people with “opposite-sex” or “heterosexual” desires, but just that: a) what we ordinarily make of pairings along these lines belies the complexity of human experience; and b) a lot of people are probably a lot less distinctly straight (or gay) than assumed. With this in mind I look to Hollywood, which produces so many of the cultural texts we consume that show visions of a perfectly normative heterosexual life. I spend much of my time—as is tradition in queer theory—re-reading texts differently, to uncover the hidden queer subtext in popular culture. So, why not re-read the lives of actors themselves, given that we can be 99% sure that the narratives produced about them by tabloids and other press are also entirely fiction?

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Taylor Swift

For me Taylor Swift is the perfect example of someone we ought to re-read, because she is held up as the epitome of the normal, wholesome heterosexual girl of today. For one thing, she made her debut on the country music scene, which is notoriously unfriendly to the gays—despite producing a bevy of flamboyant stars who epitomise the queer concept of “camp” aesthetic (Dolly Parton, for example). The boy crushes of Swift are heavily interrogated in the media, and her relationships with women are (for the most part) understood as purely platonic. However, if you look a little closer, we can see a queer subtext in Swift’s life and oeuvre that suggests a rather more fluid expression of desire. Here are a few things to note:

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It just doesn’t look fun for anyone

She dated Taylor Lautner and it was really awkward
There is no doubt that it is common practice in Hollywood for studios to pair stars up for promotional purposes. This is referred to as “showmance”. But there is also the well-known though little-discussed practice of “bearding” (typically this refers to setting up gay male actors with female stars) or in extreme cases “lavender marriage” where the charade involves putting a ring on it (Rock Hudson is one well-noted example). We can’t be sure whether is was a bearding scenario when Swift and Lautner got together, but they sure were very showy yet extremely uncomfortable together.

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Having a much better time

She used to have a pretty intense relationship with her violinist
During her country music days, Swift toured with a band which included violinist Caitlin Evanson for eight years. Unlike those Taylor x Taylor pics, Taylor and her violinist had sparks galore. Evanson, who is ten years older than Swift once commented, “Taylor is a 40 year old in a 19 years olds body”, which is just the kind of thing you’d expect an older girlfriend to say about their younger lover.

23C707C900000578-0-image-a-68_1417800412246There was that time she apparently kissed Karlie Kloss
Karlie Kloss is supposed to be the closest of Swift’s girl-clan, and in 2014 they were spotted kissing at a club. The photos are pretty dodgy and might well be fake. But I include this point here because it started a bunch of rumours about Swift’s sexuality, which is important for the next point.

Her song “New Romantics” is probably about being more than straight
taylor-swift_240822_top.jpgSwift’s new single off 1989 includes a number of lyrics that reflect a queer subtext. These include:
1.”We show off our different scarlet letters— Trust me, mine is better”: given that scarlet letters refer to adultery, Swift is basically saying here “I’ve got other partners but they’re not who you expect”.
2. “We team up then switch sides like a record changer”: note here that Swift doesn’t seem to be just referring to switching partners, but switching sides.
3. “The rumors are terrible and cruel/But, honey, most of them are true”: this might be referring to the gay rumours as noted above.
4. “And every day is like a battle/But every night with us is like a dream”: this suggests an outside persona that clashes with what goes on behind closed doors, specifically with a partner.
5. “The best people in life are free”: this might refer to the practice of studios paying for beards. Swift is saying, the best people in life are not the ones you get contractually set up with.

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Swift romancing with Calvin Harris on her Instagram

“I Know Places” is about secret love
One thing you can say about Swift’s hetero romances, is that they are very very public. Instagram pictures posted by Swift, hundreds of photos in gossip magazines, TV interviews, and so on. However this song from 1989 refers to a love that Swift must hide away. The song also starts with “You stand with your hand on my waist line/It’s a scene and we’re out here in plain sight”, which suggests a romance that might not be perceived as one at first. This might be a reference to that phenomenon that people will believe anything before they believe you’re in a gay relationship—i.e. “oh, you’re sisters?” or “you guys are such cute best friends” etc.

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Unfortunately it actually is a big deal because openly queer stars don’t get jobs

Let’s be clear here: I don’t want to essentialise sexuality, like it’s some nugget of “truth” that can simply be unearthed like a buried crystal. But I do think there is some benefit in cracking open what is considered normal, so that we can begin to see how this is really just a fiction that *no one* lives up to. This also isn’t to condemn those who do not “come out” of the proverbial closet, because we ought to realise that attempting to live up to the fiction of normality is often enacted as a mode of survival. The horrible reality is that once stars come out they can’t survive easily in Hollywood. Among others, Ellen Page has talked about how she has struggled to get parts playing straight characters since publicly declaring her sexuality.

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Okay so my analysis sounds a lot like this trashy magazine…but the conclusion is that if we refuse the idea of “normal” then this romance isn’t actually”shocking” at all

In any case, you might be thinking: why care about Taylor Swift’s sexuality anyway—shouldn’t that be none of our business? Fair point. Perhaps when you apply a queer “re-reading” to real people it can all get a little…gossipy. Despite this, I continue to hold onto the fantasy that our icons of culture aren’t all that straight and narrow. I think I care so much because I grew up looking and acting pretty heteronormative, and was treated as such. But while I had mad crushes on boys and aspired to extreme girliness in aesthetic, my desires were not simply straight. I had girl crushes too, I just didn’t know how to make sense of my complex range of feelings. I guess that’s why I hang onto the idea that there’s a Secret Lesbian Club in Hollywood, headed by the girliest boy-mad celebrity of all…because in that alternate universe, sexuality might be hidden but it sure isn’t black and white.

 

Queering and Queening Femininity

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SMA host Jenny Frost (centre) with two contestants pre-make-under

Recently I published an article in the journal Australian Feminist Studies titled “Queer Femininity Versus ‘Natural Beauty’ in Snog, Marry, Avoid“. In the article I discuss the way that femininity is represented on the BBC’s Snog, Marry, Avoid – the show where they take “extreme” women and give them a make-under to help them fit in.

I won’t go over all of the details of my analysis of the show, but in a nutshell the point I make is that the “natural beauty” promoted by the show is far from liberating. In fact, the contestants are merely presented with a form of appropriate gender that they must conform to, which restricts rather than frees them.

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A typical contestant pre-make-under

Indeed, if we consider the women prior to make-under we can see that their “inappropriate” and excessive femininity is actually queer in many ways. That is, “queer” in the theoretical sense of making the familiar strange and subverting ordinary understandings of gender and sexuality.

It may seem anti-intuitive to say that women who are covered in make-up, wearing extremely short dresses and who have outrageous hair extensions are queer in any way. The usual sentiment that would circulate about such women is that they are a product of a problematic “raunch” culture where women are compelled to be sexy and one dimensional.

However what we see in Snog, Marry, Avoid is that these women are not treated as “normal” at all. Rather, they are marked out as deeply problematic and in need of transformation.

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A contestant hears that a man would prefer to “avoid” her

Men are interviewed on the show and are asked whether they would like to “snog, marry or avoid” the contestants. Their responses (almost always negative) are used to justify why a make-under is essential for the woman in question. The women who don’t want to change are ridiculed as ridiculous and disinterested in being attractive.

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For Halberstam “kinging” involves some understatement, “performing non-performativity”

This is where the idea of “queening” is helpful. The term is an inversion of queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam’s “kinging” referred to in the book Female Masculinity. In this text Halberstam looks in part at female drag kings and the kind of masculinity they present. Kinging describes portraying masculinity via “understatement, hyperbole, and layering” that makes obvious the performative aspects of gender.

In the same way, the contestants on Snog, Marry, Avoid are involved in exaggerating femininity and showing it up. The contestants often talk about wanting to look “fake”, and the show frequently points out how the women indulge in/are obsessed with “fakery”. In this way the women are queening rather than kinging – making obvious their adopted feminine presentation. In contrast, when the women are made-under their gender is portrayed as “natural” despite the fact that they are still wearing make-up, have had their hair styled, and so on – sometimes they are even wearing wigs! Here another kind of queening is going on, where they are compelled to perform naturalness.

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A typical before (left) and after (right) shot on SMA

We see that while a more extreme portrayal of femininity (pre-make-under) can serve to show us how constructed gender is, the portrayal of “natural beauty” insidiously covers this up. The make-under process presents gender as something that is natural, as something that can be found underneath and within.

Rather, we ought to understand gender as something that is determined by social expectations and norms, where some people are considered “normal”, and where others fall outside of these constructed boundaries and are often compelled by society to conform. Ironically Snog, Marry, Avoid does help us to see this, if we analyse the show for what it is contained within it rather than the narrative of normalcy it attempts to enforce.