So Mike Tyson enjoyed a great big lovefest for his cameo in The Hangover this Sunday at the Golden Globes. For those who have forgotten, the lovable Mike Tyson is also a convicted rapist.

It seems to me that if one is convicted of rape (a highly unlikely occurrence which generally requires massive amounts of irrefutable evidence), one should lose one’s status as a pop culture hero.

I realize that this is a radical sentiment.

Entertaining as it might be, it would take a lot of time to follow Mike Tyson to various auditions with signs pointing out the fact that he is, in fact, a convicted rapist.

So how’s about from now on, we just don’t pay for movies by directors who knowingly hire convicted rapists to star in their films?

p.s. Roman Polanski can kiss my ass.

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Adventures in Advertising

August 5, 2009

If there’s one cultural force that has the strongest effect on our ideas of what is normal and acceptable, I’d say that advertising is pretty much it. The lovely and talented Jean Kilborne has been talking about this for many years now:

She is so smart.

So, what with advertising being one of the major ways our culture is created and replicated, it would seem that some analysis of common messages in advertising makes sense, if, you know, we want to have some understanding of the world around us.

Somehow, though, many people seem steadfastly against any sort of media analysis, and argue in particular against analysis of advertising. Most commonly, they will argue one of four points:

1) Advertising does not affect behavior, or its impact is trivial.

2) There is no particular power structure being created or reinforced by advertising—it is simply a value neutral attempt to sell products by any means necessary.

3) Social context is irrelevant to understanding the meaning and impact of a given advertisement.

4) Any objection an oppressed individual has to an advertisement on the grounds that it reinforces their oppression is evidence of a psychological or psychiatric problem on the part of that individual.

Of course, these objections are not expressed in precisely these words. They’ll sound more like this:

1) “I don’t pay attention to advertising.” See, also: “Are you saying that advertisements cause [social problem x]? That’s ridiculous!”

2) “What do you expect? Sex sells.” See, also: “White people/straight people buy more stuff, so advertising is naturally aimed at them.”

3) “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s just a commercial.”

4) “You’re just jealous because that model is prettier than you.” See, also: “You see oppression everywhere. Why are you so [insert character flaw here]?”

Alright then. Let’s knock ’em down one at a time.

1) Advertising does not affect behavior.

I hear this argument, and the extreme force required to maintain such a state of denial—which pulsates from any individual who can make this statement with a straight face—threatens to make my brain ooze out of my ears.

Are. you. fucking. kidding?

Really? REALLY?

Advertising does not affect attitudes and behavior?

Let us contemplate this sentiment.

The idea that advertising, a medium specifically designed to affect attitudes and behavior, and which continues to exist only because it effectively affects attitudes and behavior, is irrelevant to our, uh… attitudes and behavior, is not just naive and ridiculous. It’s fuckin’ dangerous. If we have no analysis of how we are being manipulated by advertising, we are all the more easily manipulated… Into buying jeans or carbonated sugar water, maybe, but also buying elected officials, government policies, jingoism, wars…

A population with no ability to know propaganda when they see it is a population just waiting for a beloved daddy dictator to sweep away their worries.

Advertising affects how we think and what we do. It does this even if we are the most socially aware, thoughtful people in the world. I can pull all kinds of critical theory out of my butt when I look at an American Apparel ad, and on a conscious level, I can tear it apart. But I’ve been socialized into this culture, with all its fucked up beauty standards and its reinforcement of the worthlessness of women who are not appealing to the male gaze. So when I look at an American Apparel ad, on a visceral level I will be reminded that I am not good enough. Will never be good enough. I am completely conscious of the fact that this manipulation is happening, but that doesn’t mean the manipulation doesn’t work. Because I’m conscious of what is happening, I won’t buy American Apparel products. But what I will buy, however much I wish I could avoid it, is a little bit of the sense of worthlessness they are selling. Worthlessness is always the first thing an advertisement based on oppression sells you. Then they tell you that you need to buy the product to fix the worthlessness. You can decolonize your mind to the point where you see the manipulation for what it is and reject it, but there is no escaping the fact that some manipulation will occur, because that is what an advertisement is designed to do.

2) There is no particular power structure being created or reinforced by advertising.

Okay, first? There is always a power structure being created and reinforced. Humans are social animals. Social animals create power structures to allow them to cooperate. The power structures may be democratic or authoritarian, cooperative or coercive, just or unjust, but they have to be there. Otherwise, we would be completely unable to interact with each other. I am deeply suspicious of anyone who attempts to obscure the workings of power in any aspect of life. Power is there in our private relationships, in the workplace, in political life… you name it. Those who try to hide that fact, or who avoid addressing it, are usually the people who are unfairly benefiting from the current power structure, and they’re usually trying to screw someone else over. Creating transparent, fair power structures takes lots of very conscious work. It’s not something that happens by itself, and it definitely doesn’t happen by ignoring the fact that power exists.

Second, advertising absolutely works to create and reinforce white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Take, for example, the very common depiction of women of color as sexy sexy animals:

ciara

What does an image like this inspire in us? First, I would say it asks us to look at Ciara. The fact that she is not looking back at us tells us, through visual language, that it is okay to look at and judge her. I’d go further and say that, through the vulnerable, presentational visual language of her pose, the ad asks us to look at her as a desirable sexual object. So essentially, the ad tells us to look at Ciara through the eyes of a man who wants to have sex with Ciara, regardless of our actual identity. Her pose emphasizes her availability for penetration, which makes clear that we, as the viewer, should identify with a male gaze, not a homosexual female gaze. The fact that she doesn’t look back at us inspires us to think only of our own judgment of and reaction to her, and asks us to avoid thinking of, for example, Ciara’s own desires. Or hopes, fears, likes, dislikes… In short, her humanity.

The image also plays into a very, very old storyline in our culture: that of people of color (and women) as animals. This was the justification for slavery and Jim Crow laws. Eugenicists tried to prove white superiority by claiming that people of color were closer to monkeys than white people.

Just ask me what I think of the Broadway version of the Lion King. I have things to say, I tell you.

The concept of women of color as animalistic “exotic beauties,” rather than “regular” (read: white) women, which is what such representations play to, implies that women of color are not just normal people. Instead, their racial and ethnic identity is primary, while any of that pesky individual humanity of theirs is secondary or irrelevant. It also implies that their beauty is a special treat, not the real ideal. Not the kind of beauty we usually value. Not the kind of beauty we really value. White beauty.

It’s worth noting that in a culture where whether a woman is valued by others is completely tied up in how attractive she is considered by conventional standards, being labeled less attractive has important consequences for women. For their personal lives. For how they are treated, in everything from school to employment to interpersonal relationships. For their sense of self-worth.

And, most painfully: for whether they find love, which I’d say is about as important as consequences get.

So the ad eroticizes female vulnerability and male domination, encourages us to identify with a straight white male view of the world as the “objective” and “normal” way of seeing, plays into racist ideas of women of color as incomplete humans, reinforces unrealistic and racist beauty standards, and, it must be said, has Ciara in a cage.

I would say that such an ad reinforces white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Now, to address objection #3 (Social context is irrelevant to understanding the meaning and impact of a given advertisement), that wouldn’t matter so much if this was the only ad of its kind. But if we get the same messages over and over again, we might start to believe them. We might even absorb them so deeply that we wouldn’t notice them. Like fish with water. That sort of thing.

racist-peta-ad

Moschino

wildafrica-large

Enough said.

4) Any objection an oppressed individual has to an advertisement on the grounds that it reinforces their oppression is evidence of a psychological or psychiatric problem on the part of that individual.

The technique of silencing someone’s opinions by stating that they come out of some sort of character flaw or lack on the part of that individual is, above all, a completely shady rhetorical trick. No matter what you’re disagreeing about, ad hominem attacks should not fly. They don’t address the issue being raised, they reflect an unwillingness to engage in honest debate, and beyond that, they’re just plain mean-spirited.

Besides, oppression pretty much relies on the ability and willingness of those in positions of privilege to deny the value of oppressed people. In oppressive systems, there will always be culturally sanctioned ways of doing this. For example, the belief that women should not hold positions of power is often justified with the claim that we are “too emotional” and “irrational.” So what will the ready-made claim be when some of us start saying that maybe men don’t actually deserve to hold every position of power in the world, and that maybe we should be allowed to have some power too?

Why, we’re being irrational, of course!

I’ve been around the feminist block a few times, and I’ve been called a lot of names for challenging people’s misogyny. I’ve been told that I’m dogmatic, self-righteous, judgmental, irrational, hysterical, narcissistic, humorless, too young to understand, too angry, too idealistic, too pessimistic, just struggling with my own insecurity… Blah fucking blah.

Sometimes, I’m all of those things. So what? That doesn’t make anything I have to say untrue or irrelevant. Show me evidence that advertising does not create and reinforce oppression and I’ll listen. Give me a load of psychobabble about what’s wrong with me and I see no reason to engage in discussion.

I’ll leave you with a Diesel Ad that I’m sure will have no impact of any sort, on anyone, via Racialicious:

Diesel Ad

I think we’re done here.

“Haven’t Seen It”

July 17, 2009

I have a fun little game I play when I get stuck watching a movie that bores me: I switch the genders of the characters in my head. It almost inevitably makes a bad movie more interesting, and usually teaches me something about how gender oppression works.*

Try it yourself (don’t forget the announcer or the music):

Just threw that last one in because The Wicker Man is the best movie ever made.

EVER.

Anyway, sometimes the ways that movies enforce and perform gender roles are subtle (the way that sympathetic male characters engage in far more physical comedy than female characters, whose bodies are usually only used for laughs to inspire audience disgust, for example, only becomes clear after you’ve watched multiple films through this lens). Some are screamingly overt (can you imagine a helpless adult man pleading for his “mommy” to save him?). But it’s always there.

One of the things that becomes most clear if you do this enough is the prevalence of the “Smurfette syndrome,” in which a movie presents many different male characters with different characteristics, but only one female character, whose primary role is to be sexually appealing to the male protagonist, with a secondary purpose of observing him as he lives out his story arc and providing him with approval and validation.

The Smurfette syndrome is one of the primary reasons I don’t watch many movies. As much as I can identify with male characters as fellow humans, I can’t help but feel alienated when nearly every character, in every movie, is a (white, straight) guy.

It’s well documented that there are many more male characters in film than female characters, by a margin of about 3 to 1. Most movies fail the Bechdel Test. It’s also worth noting that by far the majority of producers, screenwriters and directors are men (over 90%). It’s very rare to see women presented as complex characters, and even rarer to see female characters imagined by women.

This makes a lot of movies kinda boring to me, and beyond the more subtle Smurfette syndrome/Bechdel Test failure issues, the outright sexism? (as in: entire movies about how the masculine men jockey for dominance and blow jobs from that one lady in the mob/corporation/army/navy/marines/imaginary outer space military division/sporting event/police department/law firm, entire movies about how women are annoying mommy figures who just bring the man children down, entire movies about how it’s fun to see ladies with boobies get stabbed and tortured, rape-as-plot-device-to-further-male-character-arc, fat/old/slutty/not slutty ladies are useless jokes, etc. etc. etc. for ever. and ever.) These things make me annoyed. Which is not a feeling I seek out for entertainment.

But there’s always the inevitable moment when someone asks me if I’ve seen the latest bromance or action flick. It kind of leaves me stuck. On the one hand, I don’t usually want to go into a monologue about gender representation in film, especially since most people haven’t really thought much about it and are pretty attached to their favorite movies, which sets the stage for defensiveness. On the other, that puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to hide my thoughts and feelings in order to get along. So I usually say something about how I don’t watch many movies, and try to change the subject. It’s one of those lonely with other people moments that get more and more common the more you question why things are the way they are in this world. Turns out all those platitudes about the road less traveled leave out the part where that road is often covered in horse shit.

Unfortunately, I don’t see much chance that this will change any time soon. I guess, for now, at least there’s Joss Whedon. (He starts speaking at 2:06)

*You can do the same thing with other forms of identity oppression, though mostly what you’ll notice is a complete absence of various oppressed groups… interesting in its own way. Quentin Tarantino movies are a hot and fascinating mess, if you want to examine how race and ethnicity are presented when people of color are included in a story.

Because Oprah Kicks Ass

July 11, 2009

I often end up stuck in conversations where I feel compelled to defend my choices in literature. Case in point: I once had a conversation with a hipster dude (H.D.) who got very upset when I said I didn’t really dig J.D. Salinger. H.D. asked me which of Salinger’s books I had read, no doubt expecting me to say I’d read the Catcher in the Rye, and all excited to school me on Franny and Zooey. When I said I had read all of Salinger’s work, I think his ego was a little bruised. Not only was I unimpressed by the author who represented everything H.D. identified himself with, I actually knew what I was talking about. So H.D. counterattacked. He asked me who my favorite novelists were. I told him I like Morrison, Kingsolver, and Winterson. He smirked and said, “All women. And all part of Oprah’s book of the month club. What do you think about that?”

Mostly I thought I wanted to tell him to take Nine Stories and shove it up his ass. But I decided to take the bait, and talked to H.D. a little bit about how female authors are routinely undervalued, and how I prefer to read books where female characters are treated with seriousness and respect. I love me some John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway, but lets be honest: the women in their stories are mothers or whores, they’re completely one-dimensional, they’re usually evil, and they’re completely boring. Toni Morrison’s heartbreakingly complex Sethe in Beloved is just so much more interesting and realistic than any female character I’ve seen in a book written by a man. Though I know Don DeLillo tries really hard.

I like to read about people I can identify with. I think this is a fairly common human trait. In fact, I find it very strange that H.D. and many other men out there refuse to acknowledge that they prefer novels by and about men, and instead pretend that their preferences are solely based on the rational, objective “merit” of the books, and their “universal” human messages (This just in!!! Art is subjective!!! Also: turns out men are not the default setting for humanity!!!).

I also defended Oprah. I love Oprah. Oprah is a woman who has survived some serious shit. And man, she has it together. She devotes her life to helping others the best way she knows how. The other day, I heard Oprah say that she has spent her life “talking to women, and any men who would listen, about how to live their best life.”

I thought that was so profound. Here is a person who wants nothing except to help people… She’s got all the money and fame and power she could want. Unlike pretty much everyone else on TV, all Oprah wants to do at this point in her life is make people’s lives better, and most men refuse to listen to what she has to say. In fact, most men ridicule her. So she talks to women. And men don’t learn about self-care, despite the fact that they probably need it more than women. I find that sad.

I also think it’s way fucked up that Oprah, who is quite obviously brilliant, is routinely dismissed as a lightweight who should not be taken seriously. I wonder if this is because she’s a black woman who discusses emotions and relationships in a culture that devalues black people, women, emotions and relationships… Actually, I don’t wonder. It’s completely obvious. I just said “I wonder” as a rhetorical device.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah. Books.

There are obviously many female authors who buy into patriarchal narratives (In fact, I’m farting in Candice Bushnell’s general direction as I write this). But if I’m going to find novelists interested in presenting a non-patriarchal counternarrative, it is likely that most of those novelists will be women, since men in a patriarchy are conditioned to believe that they’re benefiting from women’s subjugation (they aren’t, but that’s a post for another day). I know it’s weird and probably a sign of hysteria of some sort, but I have this strange preference for art that does not present people like me as inherently lacking and inferior, or at best irrelevant. Which means that, given our cultural context, I tend to prefer books by women.

So yeah, I like a lot of the same books Oprah does. And? Anyone who has a problem with that can kiss my best life living ass.

Music Choices

June 20, 2009

I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, and I think by now I’ve heard just about every possible justification for not listening to music by female artists, individually and as a whole. Ani DiFranco is so angry, Cyndi Lauper is just silly, and Meshell Ndegeowho?

True story: I once had a guy tell me that he doesn’t like female singers because he “doesn’t like whiny music.”

His favorite artist? Neil Young.

Now, I love Neil Young, but can I just say:

Moving on.

Here’s the thing. One of the most important elements of power in human society is the ability to make your thoughts heard. That means that access to that ability will be one of the most tightly controlled parts of culture, and that media of all kinds, but especially popular media like music, will be one of the elements of culture most likely to reflect any power imbalances that exist. The institutional structures that create and distribute media will tend to be very difficult for marginalized groups to access. When people who are not members of the dominant group are given access to a mic, it will generally be because they present themselves in a way that affirms their oppression.

So, for example, I would argue there’s something pretty deep going on when white people make up 70% of hip-hop consumers, and what they want to buy is music by artists like 50 Cent and TI—guys who play into just about every stereotype of the violent, sexually uncontrollable man of color that you could think of.

And Britney Spears? Well.

The people who decide which music gets mass marketed are usually straight, white, rich men who are thoroughly invested in the system the lovely and talented bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. To state what should be obvious, they have a stake in presenting us with messages that fit into this worldview.

As individual consumers of media, we also make choices about which voices we want to hear. In a capitalist economy, our consumption of certain messages means that they get recreated again and again, according to demand. Our music consumption is, of course, influenced by our ideas about who is worth listening to… Ideas that are shaped by our socialization through family, peers, and media. The replication of culture and its hierarchies is a big ol’ feedback loop.

To quote Michel Foucault, it kind of sucks goat balls.

So who did you learn to listen to growing up? When you turned on the radio, did they play an equal number of male and female artists? Did the friends you admired introduce you to an equal number of male and female artists?

Now that you’re old enough to make your own music choices instead of having them forced on you by mass marketing and peer pressure, what does it mean if the only musicians you take seriously are men? What does it mean if you rarely listen to the voices of female artists? What if you never seek out female voices when the words they’re singing are actually their own?

I can’t answer for you. What I can say is that pretty much every time someone who doesn’t identify as politically radical looks at my music collection (which is made up of approximately 50% female artists, though most people perceive it as being almost entirely dominated by women), they respond with contempt. There is a pattern here, and the pattern has meaning.

I’ll leave you with some of that whiny, angry music I like.