Tracks for the Trump Era: “Perfect Illusion” (Lady Gaga)

I’ve decided to launch a series of blog posts about songs that we can listen to in order to help us deal with the advent of the Trump Era. To inaugurate these, I’d like to propose that Lady Gaga’s bitter, raw song “Perfect Illusion” is indeed the perfect song for this era of woe and rage.

The lyrics, certainly, help to give expression to the sense of disillusionment that many of us have felt this past week. After all, isn’t America itself the perfect “perfect illusion,” something that appeared beautiful and wonderful, something that we loved. We were poised, after all, to deliver a resounding defeat to not only Donald Trump, but also the ugly political movement of which he was the leader. There were times when I dared to imagine the entire conservative ideology swept away in the rising tide of millennial progressivism.Furthermore, we had come to believe that American society had at last become a safer space for many people, or at the very least it was moving inexorably toward progress. Black Lives Matter. Obergefell. A living wage. On both the economic and social fronts, it really seemed like we were making genuine progress, that somehow the Obama Era was really the beginning of a new world, a world we now believed was possible and was the future. Somehow, it seemed that all of the darker forces of the collective American id had at last been suppressed and banished into the past.

A perfect illusion, indeed.

At a deeper, more affective level, the song’s aesthetic also taps into a profound sense of rage, betrayal, and disillusionment that many of us on the Left have felt as we have watched the America we thought we believed in shatter in the face of a tide of right-wing bigotry. Somehow, the breaks in Gaga’s voice and the screaming instrumentals help us to feel a similar sense of rage and despair, that the things that we took for granted were the very things that ended up betraying us. It’s hard not to feel your body respond to the rawness in her voice. The imperfections of her delivery give affective expression to our own sense that the world we thought we saw hovering on the horizon was nothing more than a figment of our own imagination, that somehow we have been betrayed by the very people that we thought we could count on. The very idea of America that we had created in our minds was as ephemeral as gossamer.

So, whenever you’re feeling that familiar emotion of despondency and despair, just tune in to some Lady Gaga. If you’re anything like me, this song will galvanize you and enrage you enough to keep marching in the streets, to keep protesting, until we force the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. Let those percussive beats that punctuate the end of the song serve as the drumbeat of our relentless pursuit of a better, more verdant world. We have been beaten down before and emerged triumphant, and we shall do it again.

We shall make our illusion a reality.

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.

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.

The New Frankfurt School?: The Myopia of Contemporary Film Critics

A recent piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson regarding the recent spate of “boring superhero movies” is interesting not so much for its claim about the ubiquity of the superhero genre as for what it reveals about the contemporary intelligentsia’s views on film and the nebulous issue of aesthetics.  Much like the Frankfurt School before them, many of today’s film critics seem to believe quite fervently that contemporary Hollywood is a mere shadow of its former self, producing nothing more than average fair for average consumers, rather than the piece of art that it once did.

Such arguments have themselves become ubiquitous within much film criticism and the broader review culture and can be seen in the recent critical response to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films as well as the lukewarm reception given to The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  To paraphrase Thompson’s article, films have become average, and we as filmgoers have become accustomed to both asking for and receiving more and more average films.  While this may be true to an extent, it is important to both historicize this phenomenon and to point out some of the complexities that get left out of the equation in the rush to claim that today’s blockbuster Hollywood is in some ways a betrayal or corruption of some earlier era of filmmaking in which artistry and craft were somehow held up as the pinnacle of achievement.

On one level, these critiques are quite blind to the history of Hollywood film as an industry, which has consistently attempted to appeal to the widest market as it can, since that makes sense from a business standpoint.  Even the most vaunted of Hollywood directors, many of whom are known for producing films that qualify as that most prized of monikers “art,” came out of a system that was easily as profit-driven as it is today.  Names like Hitchcock, Ford, and von Sternberg were just as much a product of a profit-driven industry as Spielberg, Lucas, and Jackson are today, though of course the industrial structures they worked within were in many ways quite different from today’s conglomerate Hollywood.  And yet, for all of the valorizing of these important figures in film history, it is important to remember that there were other equally successful filmmakers (Cecil B. DeMille being a notable example), who were criticized in terms remarkably similar to those used to criticize today’s blockbuster directors.

The current trend in bemoaning the downward spiral of blockbuster Hollywood also shows how dismissive most film critics are of average moviegoers.  Much as the Frankfurt School felt that the entertainment industry as a whole (including music) was slowly and inexorably eroding the ability of the masses to think for themselves (thus rendering them more easily manipulated), so too do the film critics of today seem to think that filmgoers are at least partially to blame for the spate of mindless entertainment.  Again, my point is not that this is not at least partially true, only that we need to historicize this issue and recognize that this is not some new phenomenon that is strictly the result of corporate Hollywood.  Just as importantly, we need to resist the urge to valorize classical Hollywood as a bygone age and recognize that, though it did produce some truly magnificent and entertaining films, the system was as much a profit-driven capitalist enterprise as it is today.

However, all of this is not to suggest that there aren’t some terrible films being made, because of course the opposite is true.  However, we should also not lose sight of the fact that even the most artistically impoverished of films (whatever vaguely-defined set of criteria we use to define “artistically impoverished) can often offer up a number of pleasures that we should take seriously rather than simply dismissing as bad art.  Many of these superhero films are actually part of a very complexly woven universe with its own mythology.  The superhero films produced by Marvel, for example, are all linked in the same timeline, as is the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.  And, as I have noted in an earlier blog post, even a seemingly simple film like Captain America:  The Winter Soldier can often carry a series of complex meanings and messages about history and 20th/21st Century politics.  And then, of course, there are the numerous fan cultures that proliferate around superhero film franchises, all of which engage with these films, some of them in very complex and imaginative ways.

All of this suggests that, far from simply average entertainment, these films actually speak eloquently about our contemporary moment.  If we continue to dismiss them as just so much average entertainment, with little or no awareness of the either the varied history that underlies these critiques (or the film industry) or the ways in which fans engage with these texts, then we deprive ourselves of a full understanding of the many roles these “average’ films play in the early part of the 21st Century.

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.