Goodbye, Appalachia

Dear Appalachia:

I want to start this letter with a little anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, I reopened some of my journals from the months right before I was set to go to graduate school. In those pages, I talked about how I hoped to one day come back to my beautiful home state of West Virginia, to give back to the state that had nurtured me and played no small part in the person I was. To do my part as an educator to help our young people think critically and analytically about the world around them and about the pressing issues facing our state and its future viability.

Seven years down the road, I’m afraid I have to let go of that dream. Probably forever.

This hasn’t been an easy decision for me to make. Time and again while I’ve been here in Syracuse, New York, I’ve gone to bat for the people of good ol’ WV, arguing that many of them feel disenfranchised, that the progressive intelligentsia just needs to find the right way to communicate our values and the native goodness of Appalachians will come to the fore.

Ah, what a sweet summer child I was.

It quickly became clear during the 2016 Election that all the things I had thought to be true were illusions crafted of my misguided hope in the better angels of our natures. Instead of despising Donald Trump for his brutality, his uncouth attitude, his racism, and his willingness to assault women with impunity (and to brag about it!), my fellow Appalachians turned out for him in force because of those things. They saw in him the opportunity to spit in the eye of the progressive administration that had done a great deal for them and, in pushing for cleaner energy, would also help create a viable energy economy for Appalachia.

Needless to say, I was horrified. How was it possible, I wondered, that the hospitable, kind-hearted people that I had known growing up–with their not-quite-Southern accents, their generous attitudes, their homespun wisdom–could have turned out for this monster conjured up by the GOP?

But then, the more I thought about it, the more this American tragedy began to make absolutely perfect sense. I gradually realized that I had papered over and repressed the unpleasant and unpalatable truths about my fellow Appalachians.

Somehow, I had managed to forget my own youth in a small town in West Virginia, where to be a boy who was smart and used “big words” was mocked and derided for being gay. Where being smart was somehow a badge of shame and where, if you wanted to be popular, you basically had to be a dunce or a jock (or preferably both). Somehow, I’d managed to forget how belligerently, pugnaciously ignorant so many people in my home town were (and we weren’t even in the worst places in West Virginia, not by a long way). I somehow managed to forget that some of my dearest friends and family cling to the idiotic sentiment that climate change is propaganda (for whom? I always ask, but never get a thoughtful answer). Somehow, I had managed to fool myself into believing that IF ONLY my people were given the tools, they would see the light and move forward with the rest of us.

But all of that came back with full force. When I took to social media (including Facebook) to express my outrage at the shitshow and the terror that was about to erupt upon us in the wake of the election, an acquaintance from high school decided to message me and criticize me for my “divisive” language, liberally sprinkling terms like “bro” and “dude’ throughout his missive. The cynical part of me believes that he was not-so-subtly trying to assert his masculine, military persona over me, urging the high school faggot to shut up about his gay rights. The more generous side thinks he was just trying be comradely. In actuality, it was probably a little of both. In any case, it was infuriating to have my very legitimate fears dismissed out of hand, when the evidence was right in front of us that this newly-resurgent GOP would, indeed, act to sweep away the rights of queer people everywhere.

In any event, this exchange, brief and one-sided as it was (I responded to him outlining my concerns, but he never answered back), revealed to me why you, Appalachia, are no longer my home. You cry out that you have been ignored and overlooked by the educated elites on the coasts, and yet you do nothing to better yourself. So many of your people wield their ignorance and their uneducated status as a weapon, a belligerent, pugnacious fuck you to those who do, actually, fight to make the world a better place. And yes, that includes you, the out-of-work and economically dispossessed that call West Virginia, and Appalachia as a whole, home.

Of course, by the time of this conversation I had already decided to wash my hands of you, Appalachia. There was just too much about my home state that I couldn’t stomach any more. I had tolerated for far too long the cowardice of West Virginia Democrats on social issues ranging from LGBTQIA+ rights to women’s reproductive rights, and New York (for all of its flaws) had shown me what true Democratic leadership looked like. I knew, with a dreadful and final certainty, that there was no longer any hope for me in returning to WV. I just….couldn’t.

I want desperately to come back to those mountains, those hills, those open skies full of millions of stars. I want so badly to feel that sense of home again, to drive those wickedly twisty roads but…I just can’t.

I’ve been betrayed, and for me the hurt no, the anguish, goes far too deep to ever fully heal. Were it not for the fact that my immediate family is still in West Virginia, I would probably never visit again.

But there are some bonds that are impossible to break.

Still, in my heart of hearts, I’ve had to let you go, Appalachia.

And the worst part?

I don’t even think I’ll miss you.

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Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

Teaching Outrage

In my course on reading popular culture, I spend several weeks teaching students how to discern the ideologies at work in popular culture texts, focusing each week on a particular reading method.  After several weeks of vigorous and intellectually engaged discussion about the vexing nature of popular media, one of my students asked, “So, what do we do, now that we’ve learned how to read texts in this way?”  At first, I was somewhat flummoxed, as this is not normally a question that arises in my lower-level undergraduate courses; I was quite pleasantly surprised to see my students thinking at such a high level.

And, to be honest, I didn’t know how to answer at first, simply because this remains a question with which I also struggle on a daily basis.  However, as I ended up telling my student, we can do a great deal with the outrage we feel at the vexing representational strategies utilized by the popular media.  We can blog, we can write letters, we can even become involved in the production of texts ourselves and reclaim the narratives that have been hijacked and used as weapons against us.  For those who remain politically and socially disenfranchised, gaining a vocabulary in which to express moral and political outrage, as well as what to do with that outrage, can become a solid means of effecting political and social change.

That remains one of the most challenging aspects of teaching the reading of texts.  How to get students to see the stakes of their critical reading strategies?  After all, we live in a culture that routinely tells us to stop over-reading and overreacting to incidents of micro-aggression, to simply sit back and enjoy the entertainment value of popular culture.  Indeed, this impulse to dismiss any critical approach to everyday life–including the “basest” or “dumbest” forms of entertainment–as over-reading is itself a function of a society and a culture that stubbornly refuses (in the main) to engage in self-critical evaluation.  Part of our jobs, as critics and as educators–and I would like to stress that I see the two functions as inextricably linked–is to encourage students to break away from those habits of thought that let these elements of our culture remain unexamined and uncommented upon.  This can be quite challenging, as being critical often gets coded as being a killjoy, as bringing down the life and the energy of the cultural party.

The job of the cultural critic and educator, I argue, is to guide students so that they can see not only the ways in which media propagate and draw upon existing ideologies and systems of power, but also learn how those representations can have real-world effects on shaping and reinforcing existing patterns of thought.  Once they realize how even the most seemingly banal and “entertaining” texts are part of a larger set of discourses that are themselves dependent upon intertwining systems of power, it becomes easier to see why it matters, for example, that Game of Thrones utilizes existing racial stereotypes in its presentation of the Dothraki wedding, or why Looking can be seen as an example of the mainstreaming and commercialization of queer sexualities.  Further, they can also realize that they, as the consumer of these texts, can also have power over them rather than being controlled by them.

This, I think, is one of the great things about teaching in the humanities.  Contrary to what Arthur Krystal claims in his recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is still a great deal at stake for those who engage in the rigorous and sustained study of texts (especially for those who still occupy a marginalized or denigrated corner of our culture).  We live, after all, in a culture that is hyper-saturated with images and narratives that our students, and we ourselves, have to interpret every single day of our lives.  As a teacher of media, I remain absolutely committed to teaching students not only how and why they should be outraged at what appears in popular culture, but also what is at stake in their outrage.  As I stress again and again, I do not believe in “mere entertainment” or “pure escapism.”  I do, however, believe in pleasures, and the power that can come with both resistant pleasures (as my insistence on queer pleasures demonstrates) and the pleasure of the act of critical engagement.  It’s time that we stop seeing (and stop encouraging our students to see) critical engagement as a chore.  Instead, we need to encourage them to see the pleasure, and the power, of critical outrage.

What Do Maroon 5 and Camille Paglia Have in Common? Or, How I Know Rape Culture Exists

The answer, surprisingly, is a lot.  Or at least that’s what one might think seeing Maroon 5’s new video for the song “Animals,” as well as Paglia’s recent column for Time.  Viewers and readers alike no doubt emerge from their engagement with these texts with the idea that a.)  Men are primarily animals and beasts, driven by base lusts that cannot be controlled b.)  It is women’s responsibility to learn how to not only deal with but defend against this irredeemable and irrevocable part of man’s nature and c.)  If they can’t, then they should just give in an enjoy the ride.

If it sounds like I’m being snarky, it’s because I am.  When I watched Maroon 5’s video yesterday morning, I was appalled not just by the imagery (which mainly consists of Adam Levine dancing with slaughtered animal carcasses and then making out with his object of affection, which he has stalked and smelled out like an animal, while being doused in blood), but by the suggestion that women secretly love the sexual allure of being stalked by an incessantly and disturbingly amorous man.  Even more importantly, I was struck by the equating of the stalked woman with an animal that the speaker of the song, played by Levine, will hunt down and devour “like animals.”  As Carol J. Adams long ago pointed out in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, there is a deep and powerful cultural connection between the consumption of meat and the perpetuation of violence against women.

Cue Camilla Paglia who, in typical Paglia fashion, takes aim at what she sees as the failings of liberal feminism, namely that it has insulated young women from the “urban streets,” which she argues are full of animalistic men driven by a prey instinct that makes them eternally susceptible to misreadings of women’s sartorial choices and likely to go on a murderous sex rampage at any moment.  As she sees it, our civilization is always on the brink of collapse into animality and chaos, simply because of the ways in which men’s brains are hard-wired.

If this sounds like something from the 19th Century, it should, and Paglia even refers to 19th Century psychoanalysis to bolster her thinking.  To her, there are certain immovable parts of men’s brains that make them inescapably violent and sexual, and we as a society have taught women to ignore these facts at their peril.  Aside from the racism implied in Paglia’s “urban streets” comment, her thinking is both incredibly reductive, discounting any cultural influence on the ways we train our men to behave (after all, if we train our young women to ignore the danger of men, don’t we also train our men to ignore the “fragility” of women?  Clearly, Paglia did not follow her own logic to its conclusion).  Aside from my political differences with the piece, I find it lazy writing as well, an example of lazy public scholarship masquerading as serious engagement with one of the most important and urgent political and social issues of our time.

Though I doubt that Maroon 5 has read Paglia, their most recent video nevertheless serves as a perfect illustration of the way in which her particular brand of thinking permeates our culture, encouraging us to see victims of stalking, rape, and other violent crimes as both asking for it and secretly enjoying it.  The lyrics to the song include the phrase “the beast inside,” implying that there is something deeply and irrevocably bestial about the male psyche.  The fact that the character is played by the undeniably charismatic and attractive Levine makes the video’s vexing politics even more aggravating, as it casts its glamour around one of the most unpleasant, vicious, and downright ugly aspects of our culture, one which we should be doing everything in our power to eliminate, rather than valourize or explain away via outdated and heavily-disputed notions of biological determinism.

If I had possessed any doubt that we live in a rape culture, both the video by Maroon 5 and Camilla Paglia’s deliberately inflammatory and simplistic tract would have disabused me of any such idealism.  We clearly live in a culture in which the objectification of women, and the blaming of women for that objectification, continue to hold sway.  I know that I, frankly, am tired of these pernicious attempts by our culture to convince us that really, deep down, the problems that women face in our society are either their own fault or easily explained away an contained by their erotic submission to men.  As feminists and gender justice warriors, we must continue pushing back against these attempts to blame victims of oppression for the conditions of their subjugation.  We will continue to put pressure on those systems as we work toward a more just and democratic society.  We will not be intimidated by their rhetoric, and we will not be silenced.

In Defense of the Academy

I know I’m going to take some flack for what I’m about to say, but I’m going to go through with it anyway.  Despite all of the hand-writing over the decline of the humanities, despite the call from some corners for humanities Ph.D.s (if anyone is so foolish or masochistic to go into that calling) to flee to non-academic jobs, despite the ways in which the American university system is indeed plagued by a myriad of difficulties and inherent problems that threaten to drag it down into oblivion, I still support the existence of the Academy.  I still support the existence of a space in which scholars and those devoted to the much-maligned “life of the mind” can engage with the pressing issues facing our society and our culture, while also advocating for a more engaged type of humanities scholarship that works to bring the Academy into the university and vice versa.

When I see humanities scholars and writers so flippantly and easily abandon the systematic study of the humanities, I can’t help but feel a heady mix of emotions:  anger, frustration, and (perhaps shamefully) a little joy that someone is finally being brave enough to say the unsayable.  However, I also worry that, in throwing in the towel, we are actually precipitating the very thing that we claim to be mourning, namely, the death of the humanities as a meaningful intellectual pursuit.

Like most social problems facing our late capitalist, heavily globalized, and technology-glutted society, there is no easy solution to the myriad problems facing the American Academy.  However, does that mean we should just give up on it?  What if we said the same thing about the many other social problems, about bullying of queer youth for example, or the increasingly violent and war-prone world in which we live?  Though the problems themselves seem insurmountable in their complexity, it is precisely this complexity that makes our engagement not only significant, but necessary.

Rather than throwing away what we have, perhaps we should start encouraging our non-academic friends to speak up on our behalf when it matters, i.e. during election time.  If we truly believe that what we do is meaningful and important (and I, for one, do), then it is also our responsibility to continue fighting the good fight (incidentally, I realize that this sounds very trite and cliche, but sometimes that’s the only way I can find to express my philosophy on these things).  We need to explain to our friends, our families, and even our students why what we do is important.  Of course, in order to do that, we need to be able to articulate to ourselves why what we do matters.  Our reasons for this may be as varied as our individual interests, but we need to be more vocal and active about making them intelligible to those who do not speak our academic language.  At the very least, we must invest more of our energy in doing everything possible to ensure that those who are not trained in the esoteric language of the Academy have at least a measure of appreciation for not only what we do, but why.

All of this is not to suggest that I am blind to the gross inequalities that currently construct the Academy and that are, in many ways, built into its DNA.  Nor is it to suggest that non-academic jobs are in some way inferior; indeed, I see them as another part of a multi-pronged approach to make the humanities vibrant and present in American society and culture.  However, I remain unconvinced that abolishing the systematic and sustained study of the humanities–including the production and education of Ph.D.s!–is the solution.  It is, in my mind, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  However, I do want to add my voice to the chorus currently calling for some real change in the Academy, but that call comes out of a love of what we do and what we can do, if we but keep up the fight.

What are your thoughts?  Is the Academy salvageable?  Or should it just be dispensed with?  Is there still a place and a purpose for sustained scholarly study of the humanities?  Sound off in the comments below!

Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.

Quality Television and the Violence Against Women Problem

If the recent murder spree of Elliot Rodger has taught us anything, it is that there is a massive vein of murderous, violent misogyny simmering beneath the surface of American culture.  Although many men have come forward to disavow the sentiments expressed by Rodger and those like him, just as many have also, somewhat shamefacedly, admitted that they have sometimes harbored similar feelings of resentment at their lack of ability to gain a sexual partner.  Although Ann Hornaday rightly drew attention to the seemingly endless run of comedies that encourage men to relentless pursue and objectify women, I think it is also important to take note of the ways in which quality television not only unreflexively includes violence against women, but positively relies upon it as a means of establishing its “quality” designation.  For my purposes, I will focus on Game of Thrones and FX’s new series Fargo, though the problem of violence against women within quality TV is as far-ranging as the genre itself.

Two disturbing trends emerge from the violence against women perpetrated within these series.  On the one hand, as the Game of Thrones example reminds us, people are willing to go to practically any length to disavow or attempt to water down the importance of the representations they produce, but only after public outcry has practically forced their hand.  As if the infamous scene wherein Jaime rapes Cersei were not bad enough, many of those responsible for the scene, including the director, brushed aside criticisms of the rape scene by arguing that, with these two characters in particular, almost anything that occurs carries with it a sexual charge.  Of course, the brutal rape of a woman who attempts to assert agency is par for the course with HBO and other creators of quality TV drama, but that is precisely what makes this such a profoundly troubling moment in an even more troubling trend in the televisual landscape.  Perhaps things might have been somewhat better if the series had attempted to explicate the consequences of Jaime’s rape of his sister but, alas, it moved on to bigger and better things (which, of course, continued to contribute to its quality designation).*

FX’s Fargo also features the brutalizing of a woman in its first episode, as Lester Nygaard (played with supreme skill by Martin Freeman) strikes his nagging, shrewish wife with a hammer and then proceeds to bludgeon her to death.  Most troubling of all for me as a viewer was the fact that the episode went out of its way to make me loathe practically everyone on screen, including and especially Nygaard’s wife, whose incessant comparisons of Lester to his wife serves to thoroughly emasculate him.  Just as viewers are encouraged to hate (and then, perversely, encouraged to be titillated by the rape of) Cersei Lannister, so are they urged to see Kitty Nygaard’s death as deserved and Lester as the man driven to the edge by a culture that views him as a failure as a man.  Once again, we are supposed to feel sorry for a man who lashes out in violence and murders his wife, all because society’s unreasonable expectations have left him no other way to express himself other than through outbursts of deadly violence.  Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

Just so we’re clear, I actually enjoy watching these shows and that’s part of what makes them so troubling to me as a feminist film critic.  How can I still enjoy a work of fiction when it seems to go out of its way to brutalize and perpetrate violence against women?  Part of the reason, I suppose, is that the “quality” of these TV series often translates into narrative complexity, which in turn enables viewers to provide their own explanations for why this type of violence occurs, reasons that may not be spelled out in the series but are nevertheless made available.  However, such a negotiation requires a certain kind of viewer trained in reading in certain ways, and many viewers would no doubt prefer to take their entertainment at its (problematic) face value.

If we want to seriously address the horrible position that women occupy in our culture–both in representation and in reality–then we need to start thinking about and requiring our representations and our realities to seriously, thoughtfully, and reflexively engage with the status of women in our society.  While TV and film may not necessarily teach young people in a straightforward way, they do gain their intelligibility by both relying upon and emphasizing those most problematic and destructive tendencies in our culture.  It’s high time that we realized that and started to do something about it.

*Note:  It is worth pointing out that Cersei is as unlikable in the original novels as she is in its television adaptation.  The problematic status that she occupies as one of the few women in the series to actually hold a position of political power is a subject for another blog post.

Why Masculinity is a Feminist Issue

If you’re at all familiar with this blog or with me, you no doubt know that I am an avowed feminist.  And a feminist of a very particular sort.  For me, it is absolutely crucial that we address both the epistemological and material ways in which women are continuously disempowered and often outright oppressed in our culture.  Indeed, women, in my mind, are still the primary recipients of the goals of feminism, precisely because they are still the group that faces the most types of oppression.

However, as a feminist I also believe that men have just as much to gain from a feminist critique of patriarchy as women do, and it is for this reason that I ardently believe the study of masculinity should be (as it has recently become) a central component of feminist analyses of patriarchal culture.

Why do I believe this?  For one thing, feminists are already equipped with the analytical tools and knowledge to take on the seemingly hegemonic and indestructible cultural construct of masculinity in nuanced and politically radical ways.  It is not enough to simply argue that it is a construct—a masquerade, if you will—although that is certainly an excellent starting point.  One need only look to the work of such scholars as Judith Butler (in both Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter), Steven Cohan (whose Masked Men, building on Butler, argues that even the seemingly hegemonic construction of masculinity in the 1950s was riddled with contradictions that constantly pulled apart and undercut the hegemony), and Susan Bordo (whose book The Male Body artfully teases out the way American society has consistently placed demands on the male body that it can never adequately meet and that therefore create unrealistic and unhealthy expectations) to see the value of such an approach to masculinity.  What these various scholars reveal is that those trained in a feminist methodology can bring those tools to bear in important and potentially radical ways upon masculinity, exposing it for a construction and thus rendering it susceptible to both critique and, ultimately, absolute deconstruction (and perhaps abolition?)

Just as importantly, as my students recently pointed out to me in the course I teach on gender and literary texts, it is precisely because the patriarchal construct of masculinity imposes such demands on male subjects that those very same subjects often feel obligated or pushed into their oppression of women (whether consciously or unconsciously).  This is, of course, not the only reason that men oppress women, but I would argue that it is at least one reason, and a very important one.  As feminists, we need to recognize that patriarchy negatively influences both men and women, in often complementary and simultaneously contradictory ways.  With theoretical apparatuses that have been finely forged in the crucible of explicit oppression, feminists are more than prepared to tackle the challenges posed by the hegemonic construction of masculinity.

Likewise, we as feminists (especially those who are educators) need to provide young men with the critical tools they need to examine their own masculinity.  I hear numerous anecdotes about the ways in which today’s young men still remain wedded, whether wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly, the privilege that their masculinity affords them.  What’s more, many young women also buy into the myth of masculinity, as well as all of the other unfortunate vectors that intertwine with gender.  Thus, when we as feminists talk about/analyze/interpret masculinity, we must do so through an intersectional method that takes thorough account of the ways in which masculinity is always/already inflected by issues of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality.  For example, masculinity means something very different for an African American male than it does to a white, middle class one, just as it means something different for a gay man (although, as I have noted elsewhere, many gay men are buying into the privileges afforded by a hegemonic view of masculinity, often at the expense of the much-despised “femininity”).  As feminists, we must constantly be aware of our own complicity in these discourses, and we must also constantly work with our students to help them understand not only how these constructions function, but also the particular ways in which they are reproduced throughout our culture.

At the end of the day, however, some questions remain.  As I alluded to earlier, there remains the question of whether we want to abolish masculinity and femininity altogether in favor of a gender pluralverse.  But then, perhaps the solution would be to not make them mandatory patterns of behavior to which one must subscribe in order to gain access to certain nodes of privilege, but instead affectations and behaviors that may have no relation to the gendered and sexed bodies which we inhabit and with which we move through the world (though it is not a problem if one does draw a connection between those two things).

I suppose the issue, for me at least, is one of choice.  I want to believe that masculinity as a set of behaviors is not in and of itself a bad thing; it is the ways in which those behaviors become tied to certain hegemonic privileges and impositions that it becomes especially problematic.  But that is precisely the point that I have been arguing so far.  It is feminists who have the ability, the desire, and the tools to ask these sorts of questions and to be able to work the slow and tortuous way to some sort of answer, all the while remaining acutely conscious of the moral, ethical, and political consequences that all definitive answers inevitably carry with them.  There will not, of course, be an easy answer that will completely efface the contradictions and complexities that are part and parcel of the gender ideology under which we all live (though we all may not support it).  With the tools provided by feminism and particularly by feminist theorizing, we can continue to probe and problematize, to ask questions that no one else is willing or able to ask, in order to slowly push us toward a world in which gender can be opened up to explore its multiplicitous potentials.