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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Soapy Odysseys

While I cranked up Season Three of Game of Thrones for a Thanksgiving Binge-Watch, a was visited by a thought: Mad Men is a soap opera. I think the chain of associations ran something like this: I am suddenly quite interested in Game of Thrones and definitely looking forward to more Justified and Archer in January. However, I could not be less interested in what happens next on Mad Men.

Clearly, my tastes are not squarely aligned with the Golden Age of Television favorites. But why did I become less interested in Mad Men? Why was I disappointed by the final season of Breaking Bad? Why does the US version of House of Cards leave me utterly cold?

I think part of my response has to do with the overwhelming air of seriousness and self-regard these shows muster. If you're going to tell me--with lighting, sound, pacing, and plot--that you are the most important television show of our times, then you had better live up to it. If, however, you admit that you're for tossing back popcorn as much as for any greater insights into humanity, then I have a lot more patience with you.

Let's be honest. Mad Men lost the plot long ago. The show is no longer about one man's secret: Don's identity has been revealed many times to many people. Nor is it any longer about the fortunes of an advertising agency: it has been unclear for much of the last two seasons just what kind of financial shape SCDP is in. At this point, characters seem to be introduced and plots launched simply to keep the show afloat and mobile--and not for any greater reason. The writers are simply giving the characters additional things to do--without, in many cases, addressing the conflicts that were at the heart of such characters from the show's debut. (The sidelining of Roger is a prime example; the unraveling of Pete Campbell an admirable exception).

So, what's left of the show's original draw? Well, the show remains an opportunity to immerse oneself in--and criticize--the intrigues of the rich. Similarly, it remains a visually captivating period drama, in costume.

What, then, makes it so difficult to see that Mad Men, despite all its pretenses, is still, in part, an heir of Dynasty or Dallas--not to mention kin to The Tudors and Game of Thrones?

I'm certainly not the first to say so: it's the show's focus on its male stars. We do not have a genre called "straight male soap opera." Therefore, the show automatically gets granted status alongside something like The Odyssey--with Don Draper as the lost, sojourning man. He is imbued, by the viewer, with great psychological depth and complexity. We read all of this from Jon Hamm's pressed lips and tight jaw. Yet, when (at the end of last season) he finally seeks to reveal to his daughter  his hidden roots, I find myself yawning. First, this offer of biographical truth is beside the point. Teenage Sally is angry with him because she caught him committing adultery with the mother of a boy she liked. He never apologizes for what she witnessed. The looming, ramshackle house where he was born is supposed to speak for him. Second, from a dramatic standpoint, the show has already revealed to viewers much of Don's early years. So, we aren't really hungry to know (hence, the credits begin to roll before he can begin to explain to Sally what we already know).

I think the continuing appeal of Don and company (and I'd extend this claim to BrBa's Walter White) lies in vanity. Viewers like Don because they ascribe to him an endless depth of personality: a depth they either fancy is akin to their own or, instead, want to understand and, perhaps, repair, like a therapist or a mother. My own sense, from dealing with people of the first ilk, is that they are absolutely detrimental to be in relationship with. It's impossible to achieve their regard, to have one's own complexity or concrete needs acknowledged. Unless acknowledging you suits the story they like to tell about themselves, forget it. Now, of course, we all have the capacity for extreme self-involvement. In fact, sometimes the acts we tell ourselves are good for others can be based on a confusion of their concrete needs with our psychological needs. It seems to me, though, that the strong, silent type also feels justified in demanding thatgo hunting for his psychological complexity, his reasoning, his feelings of remorse. There's a great power in withholding--that is, until the other person decides they can live without whatever you're holding back. And that, dear friends, is where I am with Mad Men.

I was trying to imagine a narrative about adult women that featured such a character and drew such intense loyalty and vaulted praise. I can't think of any examples. Indeed, I find myself recalling Jennifer Rycenga's observation that Joni Mitchell's songs are so rare because they are not told from the perspective of a wife or courtesan. Surely, even in Game of Thrones, wives and courtesans are the primary possibilities for women. And even novels written by women often speak more of frustrated odysseys than of women on the move. Toni Morrison has famously been trying to tell stories of women's adventures since Sula (1973), which famously omits the title character's journey away from her home in The Bottom. After several novels in which women journey from one domestic space to another (such as Beloved and Paradise), she may have finally succeeded in A Mercy (2008), whose protagonist strikes out in search of love but, failing to find it, must journey on. Of course, Morrison's Florens is strong but anything but the silent type. We are not asked continually to seek emotional dispensations from a withholder. Rather, she offers us that which she knows how to say. Even a younger novelist, Stephanie Grant, gives us a truncated journey in her award-winning Map of Ireland. While the young white lesbian at its center wants to leave racist 1970s Boston and journey with a shadowy black militant group, in the end she just can't. The female Huck Finn novel barely gets going "downriver" before the getaway car stalls and she returns home. What are the stories in which a woman embarks on a journey--perhaps one with an indefinite destination--on which she encounters an array of personalities and societies? A sort of female Odysseus--or Gulliver? And, more important, when such a woman presented herself in a fiction, who has heralded her?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Womb Privilege: The Last Frontier in Equal Rights

Aint Studying You received this letter in response to the proposal that we reconsider the use of the term White Privilege in 2013.

Dear Aint Studying You:

I am a single gay male in my mid-thirties. I want a child--well, a child that I don't have to be financially responsible for. So, I want a friend's child to be named after me.

One of my longtime friends, a lesbian, is having one--any day now. Said lesbian friend rejected me long ago as a sperm donor, despite the fact that I fit her IQ and demographic markers for the position. She said she just thought it would be too weird and "incestuous" because we're such good friends and also because she was afraid I might not renounce all paternal rights. Such a  litigious mind! (Quiet as it's kept, I think she didn't want the baby to have a gay father. Oh, but two mommies are ok?! The irony!) I swallowed the rejection and soldiered on.

As a consolation prize, I requested, in honor of our decades-long friendship, that she name the child after me--male or female. After all, I will certainly bear no children and I will likely not sire any, either. But in a display of what can only be understood as middle-class, cis-gender, lesbian feminist privilege run entirely amok, she has refused the naming request categorically. As I was thinking about being frozen out of this ceremony, I realized we are going to need a name for a phenomenon far more powerful than white privilege or male privilege, which are so clearly on the wane in the age of Obama. WOMB PRIVILEGE: the power that all women exercise over all men--but especially the socially vulnerable, nonreproductive population of gay men with college educations and jobs but no children. WOMB PRIVILEGE: it's mothers acting as monopoly capitalists, using their uteruses to enclose the commons of the child (whom the village, after all, is raising), to turn a human being into her private property, and then assert naming rights.

It's neoliberalism, homophobia, and reverse sexism unleashed and on the rampage. Therefore, I say, let womb privilege be the new target of our collective radical ire.

Because Matthewsula is a wonderful name.

P.S. She's light-skinneded, too.

Monday, September 9, 2013

That Man is Not Your Maker


It's a mistake to think Robin Thicke spoke the first word of patriarchy. I explain why below...


For some time I have been saying facetiously that not everyone should go to college. Or, put another way, college should not be the prerequisite for entering such a wide array of jobs.


I am not alone in having a moral objection to the ways that college serves as an economic gatekeeper, imposing debt as a precondition for entering the workforce. But I also have a more petty objection to college as a universal.


Because college also serves as a cultural gatekeeper, even when it does not guarantee employment, it tends to produce a certain smugness that comes from believing one holds the key to decoding all of the meanings in life. Witness the student who, after taking an introduction to women's studies or ethnic studies, becomes the resident expert on what is *really* sexist or racist. Note that this phenomenon can occur whether the student accepts or staunchly opposes the definition offered in the course.


This smug certainty is not unique to the humanities, as one might expect. Indeed, if I may be forgiven a gross generalization, those who believe that what they practice is a science (from physicists to Marxists) tend to be serious table-pounders. That is, while most of the rest of us must declare a position that might be assailed from the beginning as tainting, they get to pass as unbiased observers without much care for how their evidence is produced, gathered, framed, and interpreted.


However, rather than re-fighting the science wars, I would like to turn to the response to Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" as promoting rape culture. The primary culprit is its red-flag line "I know you want it." Reading any number of posts or comments will lead you to people flagging this line as "rapey." First, I would hope we can agree that rape is a term that doesn't need a cute diminutive. Rape would seem to be an absolute. But perhaps "rapey" conveys a certain discomfort with forcing Thicke into the role of Grand Marshal in the Sexism Parade.



Friday, August 16, 2013

The Visible Hand of the Market: Public Inequality and Private Violence

Dear Readers,

Pardon the hiatus, if you would be so kind. I can't say that I won't go away again, but instead I will promise to post some of the thoughts I've begun but not completed over the last six months. It seems that, now, this is how I blog.


The following are notes I took while trying to think of something to move the discussion about the Supreme Court hearings on DOMA from where it got stuck--namely, in simple assertions that gay marriage is the new interracial marriage, and denials thereof.


--------


Drawing these equations is fraught, I know. We know about the similar objections: opponents have variously asserted that gay marriage and interracial marriage are unnatural, antisocial, and confusing or outright damaging to children. Advocates for a liberalizing gesture argue that unrestricted choice in the marital arena is as much a hallmark of a free person as the ability to select any new model of cell phone.


I'd like to come at these from a different angle and talk about the shared status of both interracial and same-sex trysts as open secrets. In the spirit of the tried-and-true feminist dictum that "the personal is political," I'd like to sketch out some ways that the open secret of widely-known private affairs connects with the official world of law and economics.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

I Didn't Know Lincoln Was Jesus, and Other Things I Learned at the Movies

I may not bring 400 hundred years of slavery and  oppression to Lincoln--I'm not that old. But I do bring two films worth of acid reflux to this latest attempt by le Spielberg to deal with the Negro question. So, in addition to *SPOILING THE PLOT* of Lincoln, I fear this post may also spoil the cheering over the national reunification the film wants to praise and call forth again.

My first disappointment with Spielberg's colored people was in The Color Purple. To keep this part brief, suffice it to say that I don't mind films differing from books. I do mind when they veer from the womanist politics of the novel by having the one female character who is independent of the story's violent men turn 180 degrees for no reason to cry out "Papa, I'se married!" That's not a difference; that's a violation of the whole spirit of the enterprise.

More recently, in the days of Amistad, Speilberg said (on Oprah, with Debbie Allen near him for backup) that he wanted to create a story so that his adopted black children could be proud of their country. I kept thinking that there is another option: help create a country your adopted black children can be proud of. In any case, this desire to exculpate the nation led him to the absolutely false courtroom climax in which John Quincy Adams wins the freedom of the Amistad mutineers through an impassioned Abolitionist speech when, in fact, JQA argued that, as they revolted at sea and were not yet the property of a slaveholder in the Americas, they should be free to return home. JQA was an unlikely hero for a story of the triumph of colorblindness anyway, he who withheld his sympathy from Desdemona in a review of Othello, because he believed that nature would always punish such outrages as sex across the color line.

So I come to Lincoln not primed to be pleased.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Phrases to Consider Retiring in 2013: 1. (White) Privilege

Nothing lasts forever. Gum loses its flavor. Welcomes are worn out. In the hopes of keeping critical edges honed, AintStudyingYou is sponsoring a discussion of which phrases, memes, habits, and tendencies to consider retiring for the 1-3. Please submit your suggestions (serious and humorous, personal and public) to the comments section and we'll see what kind of series we can come up with. 

My first nominee for forced retirement: (white) privilege...

This month, I have fallen down the rabbit-hole of privilege memes. Some (like this one on literacy) I found illuminating and forceful. Still, I find myself doubting that privilege is the most accurate or useful way of approaching social inequalities. In fact, I have lost faith in these exercises of cataloging privileged groups (whites, Christians, first-worlders, citizens, thin people, straights, cis-genders) and enumerating their ever-expanding privileges.

Therefore, be it hereby stated that I, AintStudyingYou, am perfectly willing to consider retiring  all variations on the term "privilege" (white, male, cis-gender, thin, etc), if certain stipulations are met.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

White-on-White Crime: Domestic Terrorism Widens its Reach

Preface: I haven't had time to verify statistics on whether, in fact, white-on-white crime as a form of massacre is new in the US. In this case, I'm trying to think of what it would mean to add that to our repertoire of signs of social illness. 

In the days since Newtown, I have been looking for understanding about the apparent link between white males and mass violence in recent US history. Circa 1994, when Newt Gingrich helmed the Republican Revolution that gave the party control of Congress for the first time in decades, pundits described "angry white males" as the voting bloc responsible for the shift.  At the time, portraits of this constituency focused on their fire-breathing resentment.

At present, the mood seems elegiac. In the grips of this lament for the passing of what Fox News describes as "your father's America," a strange consensus is appearing across the political spectrum. (Follow this link to read David Brooks and Gail Collins of the New York Times in agreement that the "white working class" bears the brunt of economic inequality--an accord that emerges in spite of the fact that unemployment rates for blacks and Latinos are in many regions, including their own, as much as double that of whites).

If my previous post was about our practiced exercise of sympathy on behalf of white boys, this outpouring of feeling across lines of region, income, and region would seem to confirm my observations.

One comment in particular struck me while searching the internet. I find it a straightforward explanation of why gun sales spike when Democrats (not least President Obama) take the White House. I would prefer not to reduce a complex political and economic project to the emotion of "race hatred." After all, race hatred without voting power and firearms wouldn't concern me much. Besides, almost no one white admits to "hating" nonwhite Americans anymore. So, to get away from sanctimonious condemnations of hate-filled racists (always imagined in the South and the Midwest), let's call it the marriage of anti-federalism and white national masculinity. Said one commenter on Daily Kos (notable for his lack of inflammatory language):
"I think the extreme emotions worked up by the fear of gun restrictions plays into a sense of powerlessness felt by most working class guys I know. (I'm a blue collar gun owning hunter, and I even have a diesel pickup). Our wages have gone down our whole lives, a doctor's visit could mean losing our houses, ethnicities and languages we don't understand are mainstream." 
The writer's gesture toward "ethnicities and languages we don't understand" strongly suggests the "working class guys" he imagines are white Americans. If one really stretches, the group might include non-immigrant blacks and English-speaking Latinos. The way he makes "working class" identical to "white citizen" is something I've addressed elsewhere. In the process of this relatively mild and seemingly innocuous exercise in nativism, he makes two moves I find confounding. First, he insists that national and linguistic Others have become "mainstream." Outside of the most major cities, where can one use any language other than English to sell or obtain goods and services? For that matter, when was the last major film or weekly television program that featured a cast that wasn't predominantly white and that didn't speak in English? The writer's sense of loss is notably disproportionate to the actual loss.

Second, there are those amazing commas in the last sentence, linking economic issues of wages and health care to the aforementioned sense of lost dominance in the realm of culture and representation. It would seem as if, for this frustrated white male figure, the loss of cultural power is connected, in some inarticulable but deeply felt way, to depressed wages and soaring health care costs. From within this logic, two solutions present themselves: 1) oppose immigration, affirmative action, welfare and other expenditures allegedly earmarked for non-natives; 2) stock up on guns to prevent the federal government from extracting property for redistributive purposes.

It barely requires saying that the image of federal imposition in mind relates to those two great impositions on white property: emancipation and desegregation, both implemented with the conspicuous intervention of federal troops.