In retrospect, it was rather obvious: I was intrigued by Cultural Studies before I even knew what it was. My fascination with PostSecret—a site that began as a public art project wherein people anonymously mailed in secrets on postcards—began in early 2005, particularly timely given that I was just about to graduate from college and was feeling no small amount of anxiety about what would become of my life. Beyond an emotional connection, however, I also loved looking at the way in which the simple declarative statements combined with typography and associated images to produce a rather powerful artifact; the choices that people made in displaying their secrets—these innermost thoughts—fascinated me and I started down my path toward becoming a sort of amateur semiotician.
Over the years, the site has floated around in my head but one of the foundations of the project/website also serves as one of its greatest barriers to study: the anonymous submission process. All postcards are sent to an intermediary, Frank Warren, who selects and uploads the images to the site—this means that the original authors are impossible to study without violating users’ trust (and possibly a few laws). As a result, I cannot ascertain who feels compelled to create a postcard and, at times, that failure troubles me for these are the people who most need support.
I don’t mean to imply that I wish to know exactly who wrote which card but I would love to get an analysis of the demographics for the makers. What types of people feel the need to create cards and send them in? Are these individuals who feel as though they cannot express their voice through other channels? How does the population of makers compare to the population of readers? One might argue that there is likely to be a certain amount of overlap but the very notion that one set is driven to craft something is intriguing to me. And even if we were able to recruit study participants (ignoring likely IRB complications for a moment), we would have to suspect a kind of volunteer bias, particularly given the nature of the material being disclosed on the site.
So instead I endeavor to study the way in which the site and its associated products (museum exhibits, books, and speaking engagements) intersect with, and create, culture. The project raises a number of questions for me, specifically how it reflects our current culture of confession. In particular, I often wonder how the current state of media might have affected the success of a movement like PostSecret.
Growing up, I remember watching the first seasons of The Real World and Road Rules on MTV and was always entranced by the confessional monologues. As a teen, the confessionals possessed a conspiratorial allure, for I was now privy to insider information about the inner workings of the group. However, looking back, I wonder if this constant exposure to the format of the confessional has changed the way that I think about my secrets.
The confessional has become rather commonplace on the slew of reality shows that have filled the airwaves of the past decade and the practice creates, for me, an interesting metaphor for how Americans have to come to deal with our struggles. As confessors sit in an isolation booth, they simultaneously talk to nobody and to everybody; place this in stark contrast to the typical connotation of “confession” and its associated images of an intimate discussion with a priest.
PostSecret, in some ways, is merely a more vivid take on St. Augustine’s seemingly far-removed literary testimony in Confessions and yet also an extension of the modern practice of mediated confession: we hold our secrets in until we get the chance to broadcast them across media channels. We exist in a culture that has transformed the act of confession into a spectacle—we celebrate press conference apologies and revelations of sexual orientation make the front page. Has our desire for information transformed us into a society that hounds after secrets, compelling others to confess the things they hope to keep to themselves? Are secrets worth something only in their threat to expose or reveal? What does this whole practice of secret keeping tell us about the way that we relate to ourselves and to others? We oscillate between silence and shouting—perhaps we’ve forgotten how to talk—and we are desperate to make connections, to find validation, and to be heard. Are we so consumed with tending to our own secrets and revealing those of others that we have, in some ways, become nothing more than a site of secrets? How does this intersect with notions of empathy and narcissism?
These questions are, of course, not unique to PostSecret but I think that the project does offer a slightly different entry point into a community that can be secretive. Moreover, the development of an iPhone app might cause us to reflect on what is represented by the barrier of physically making and sending a postcard—does convenience lower the barrier to what might be considered a “secret”? As of yet, there does not seem to be a noticeable difference between the secrets sent in through the postal mail and those generated by the app but this might be due to the fact that secrets are screened and selected prior to their public display.
The various Occupy movements that have sprung up around the country have an interesting name that certainly harken back to the American practice of the sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. And although those in the movement choose to occupy places with their physical bodies, I also wonder how the very visual nature of Occupy works to demonstrate a claim over space in a different manner. Complementing the drum circles that serve to claim space through sound, we also see a high incidence of banners, posters, and signs.
The signs serve as the nexus of a complicated set of messages: in addition to planting an ideological flag in the ground (which occasionally manifests as a literal flag) for media outlets and in-person viewers alike, the choice of motifs and thematic elements gives us some insight into who the protesters are. Take, for example, the images displayed in the Tea Party rallies and those of the protests against Scott Walker in Wisconsin alongside those of Occupy and we begin to see points of contrast.
And, in a way, perhaps it is no surprise that the Occupy movement is so highly visible, given its roots in Adbusters and the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous—both examples of ways in which images are played with in order to create memorable (and powerful) figures. To this history we add a likely population of individuals steeped in a culture of parody and satire (e.g., The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Funny or Die, and Saturday Night Live) and one might argue that individuals in this movement possess a visual fluency that differs from previous generations of protest and concordantly deploy their visual aids with a different intent.
Through all of this, I wonder about how our mainstream media outlets manage to keep pace with the recent changes in protests (or hasn’t). As we have unpacked the events of Tahrir Square and the “Arab Spring,” we have come to see that although social media played a role in organizing and dissemination of information, it was not a “Twitter Revolution” in the sense that the movement was born on an online platform. Was the moniker simply something catchy and representative of the protest’s novelty? How much of the name was a desire by the media to collapse the complexity of the movement into a sound bite that could be readily conveyed? Similarly, I think about the media’s efforts to pin down the purpose of Occupy with many voices wondering aloud in the early stages. If we think about the recent set of unrests as a modified form of political protest, how much of the media’s vagueness (or our own for that matter) can be explained by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that our ability to comprehend the world depends on what we have language for? Are we struggling to develop a language for the different ways in which signs, symbols, and images are being used in political protests?
Consumables are the product of how a culture understands its relationship to the world around it (although it should be noted that they are not the only way) with items following an underlying logic about the way in which the world works and often fulfilling a perceived need for consumers. Manufactured products, then, are not just products but also serve as tangible artifacts of entire ideological structures: “products” are the result of, and indicative of, a specific type of relationship between consumer and consumable and it is this relationship that speaks to the underlying ideology. Accordantly, it does not seem out of the question to argue that the trade of products also allows for the transmission of values.
Although this process is most likely apparent when trading groups are most dissimilar (e.g., when trade is first established between two communities), we can continue to glimpse aspects of this process occurring in our highly globalized Western societies. On one level, we have products that are closely connected to our understanding of culture that make their values highly visible—fashion, for example, transmits ideas through aesthetic (e.g., color, structure, cut, textile choice, etc.) that reflect how a particular group of people see themselves. Beyond just notions of status or ornamentation, we might also consider how a group’s use of materials like fur or toxic dye also reveal how a culture positions itself relative to other things in the world: things in the environment are tools or resources to be used in service of humans.
Certainly, cultural products like fashion, film/television, art, music, comics, and literature all contain a fairly visible sensibility that is easier to recognize (if not isolate) and discuss. Take, for example, the highly visible way in which Disneyland/Disneyworld portray a very particular understanding of the world through the ride “It’s a Small World.” Getting past anger that may arise from stereotypes or characterizations, we see that the animatronic dolls depict the world through a set of Western eyes (which, given their locations and likely audience makes a certain amount of sense). But also fascinating is the way in which this ride is reproduced around the world and how those iterations help to reveal the ways in which a product can not only reflect, but produce, ways in which we see ourselves in our surroundings.
Here we can look at how a likely Western family is experiencing China’s take on Disney’s version of countries like China—incredibly rich, to say the least. But we can also think about how theme parks like Disneyland/Disneyworld represent a physical sort of colonization in countries like Japan and France. Colonization, it seems, has become less about invasion and domination through force and more concerned with buying into a particular ideology through consumption; put another way, our missionaries are no longer people but products.
But we can also consider how the development of the Internet has allowed for an incredible flow of information around the world. While there are certainly positive aspects to this development (e.g., the potential for access to information and the creation of different channels for individuals to be heard), we must also grasp with the very real concerns that a free flow of information also creates a competition for survival amongst the ideas of the world. In an ideal world, this sort of competition would be the “survival of the best,” but increasingly it seems as though it is the “survival of the loudest.”
As we discussed last week, English has an incredible influence on the types of articles and information that are published in scientific journals (the influence is less in journals that concern Natural Science but English seems to continue to exert a large presence). Although some of my classmates may be able to speak to this in more nuanced ways, I also wonder about the effect that the dominance of English has on the ways in which we understand the world. I am not fluent in another language but find that when I try to speak in Japanese, I need to think in Japanese and that this causes me to adapt a different set of behaviors and thoughts. If this sort of shift occurs on a larger scale, we then not only have to question the content of the information being circulated around the world but also the form in which it manifests.
On a conscious level, I don’t know that heterosexual pornography has many demonstrable effects on men’s attitudes toward women and, in truth, these are not the things that I worry much about. Instead, I wonder about the ways in which pornography serves to create a new normal for heterosexual sexual interactions and the ways in which men and women are positioned relative to one another. For example, it seems unlikely that many men would ever consciously condone rape or necessarily believe in the rape myth, but I wonder about how the myth’s very existence and continued portrayal in pornography then allows for the appearance of violent acts like choking and tearing of clothing in films that are not part of the BDSM genre. Does the existence of simulated rape allow us to create a space where telling a woman to “gag on it” is acceptable? Of course we must be careful not to suggest that the appearance of simulated rape causes a rise in these other forms of violence but I would suggest that the resulting change in viewers’ attitudes toward pornography might allow for violence against women in pornography to become increasingly acceptable.
And I think that these sorts of extremes are reflective of changing cultural norms, giving us one way to mark the changing attitudes of Americans, but also work in conjunction with other types of media to desensitize us to ways in which violence in routinely inscribed on the bodies of women (typically by men, although I think there is much more to say about the ways in which American culture promotes a form of infighting by women in order to get them to enact violence on themselves and other women).
We have, for example, long heard the adage that “sex sells” and, for me, advertisements represent a form of media that that is adjacent to pornography and also not only reflects the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. We can talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch ads that border on pornography (although here I should note that the interpretation of this type of advertising is centered on the United States as European ads seem to operate in an entirely different context) but I am much more interested in the subtler ways in which advertising forwards the idea that women’s bodies are open to violence.
We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history and I think that most of us are aware that this tendency still occurs in spaces that are “out there.” Perhaps modern males would like to think that we are enlightened and sophisticated? That we respect our mothers and colleagues? But how many males still use misogynistic language like “bitch” in order to demean other males? Do we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption? From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children. (This is, of course, in addition to language like “doll,” and “baby,” that serves to infantilize women and language that links women to other forms of consumables like “sugar,” and “honey.”)
The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects in pornography and in advertising. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?
And, of course, it is not just women who are subject to this process: increasingly, male bodies have become objects of consumption as we have become more permissible of women’s sexuality (not to mention gay pornography). Although one might debate if this is in fact “progress,” we see men being referred to as “eye candy” and the visual language of the gaze being reversed as in this Diet Coke ad.
I assume that this ad is targeting working women who drink Diet Coke with physiological arousal tied to a brand/product but a secondary reading might be aimed at men who wish to be the object of the female gaze (through the drinking of Diet Coke which was not seen as “manly”), thus getting men to internalize a system in which they are objects of consumption!
Ultimately, I would argue that pornography’s increased visibility—thanks to the distribution power of the Internet and lower production costs—is not necessarily immoral but does contain a serious potential to affect the way our culture understands gender and sexuality. There is something to be said for bringing sexuality back into the public sphere and removing the aura of shame that surrounds it but I am also cautious as mainstream pornography often showcases a particular type of idealized sexuality that can have unwanted consequences as society attempts to realize that particular dream.
As I’ve grown older, I have to increasingly come to appreciate the ways in which I have managed to pursue an academic discipline that affords me the ability to watch copious amounts of television. Who would have thought that I could go to school to watch vampires on TV? And yet here I am.
But as much as I watch television for fun, I also constantly find myself turning a critical eye to the subject at hand. A long-time fan of mythology and the power of narrative, I often think about how characters and tropes in television shows reflect, articulate, and create new aspects of culture. Very much in alignment with Stuart Hall’s notion of decoding/encoding, I believe that television is dissected by viewers and the pieces are shuffled around to enact new forms of meaning.
As such, I’m quite intrigued by the viewers of shows like True Blood (HBO, 2008-present). Over the years, vampires have been theorized to embody issues of gender (e.g., Nina Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves), sexuality (Camilla and the lesbian vampire or James Twitchell’s work on the fears of male heterosexuality), and medicine and the body (Ludmilla Jordanova’s Sexual Visions: Images of Gender and Medicine and Science between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries). And while these themes are still relevant to contemporary culture, I think that it would be interesting to investigate issues of authenticity and representation in a show like True Blood.
Although this past season featured a number of references to illusion, appearance, and authenticity (ranging from introduction of faeries—long known to be notorious visual tricksters—to politicians and amnesia), the series itself has also wrestled with “realness” over its run. Whether it is vampires struggling with their “true nature,” the duplicity of organized religion, or relationships wherein one is cruel to be kind, I’m curious to examine how viewers interpret themes of authenticity and employ these incidents as references or models of behavior. How, for example, do viewers navigate the multiple layers of reality that exist on the show? How do stereotypes (i.e., “this is what you say I am) meld with religious themes (with an underlying current of “this body/life is not all that I am) and the lingering accusation of “Are you now or have you ever been a vampire?” Are the contemporary interpretations of vampires consistent with previous ways of thinking? Who watches the show and with whom? Do viewers watch a show multiple times (and does their understanding of the show evolve)?
Admittedly, one might be able to develop a rich body of work as a result of conducting a media ethnography on a show like True Blood but one should also be mindful of who is left out of this type of investigation, namely that one might miss the effects that a particular program has outside of its primary viewership. Obviously researchers must eventually decide who to examine in the process of ethnography as resources are not unlimited; this reality does not, however, excuse researchers from clearly labeling the bounds of their inquiry and articulating the limitations of their work. But, if we follow the argument that media can constitute culture, we can see how individuals may interact with a particular property at the level of culture without ever viewing the source material.
Take, for example, the Sesame Street short “True Mud,” which is roughly based on HBO’s True Blood. Here we see the potential for a wonderfully rich and complex set of meanings as Sesame Street appropriates a popular (and very adult) television show in order to wink at parents who might have seen True Blood. Although a portion of parents watching the “True Mud” skit might think back to an episode of True Blood, there are also assuredly parents who understand the reference but have never seen the show or parents who have no idea that “True Mud” is a parody of anything. These parents would most likely not consider themselves viewers of True Blood but their voices might tell researchers something about how True Blood fits into a larger media ecology.
Watching the clip, one immediately begins to develop a host of questions. What is the importance of the Southern setting and what does such an environment evoke for viewers of “True Mud” and True Blood? How does this contrast in setting relate to the environment of Sesame Street, which is urban? What is the demographic makeup of audiences for “True Mud” and True Blood and how does this constitution affect the way that the South is understood in relation to the property? How and why does the concept of a vampire map onto a grouch from Sesame Street? How does this presentation of a grouch differ from Oscar?
Ultimately, interviewing viewers of a property allows researchers to develop a complex understanding of the ways in which a piece of media might influence individuals but we must also recognize that the impact of media does not just stop with those who watch it directly. References made in pop culture, interpersonal interactions, or even children’s shows indicate that media can exhibit echoes as it permeates our lives.
 As a side note, this theme has been something that has been building up steam for a couple of years as I am curious about the seeming need for characters who can see through the veil or otherwise ascertain a measure of “objective” truth. We’ve seen shows like The Mentalist and Psych that feature incredibly observant individuals; Lie to Me, which concerned itself with Paul Ekman’s micro-expressions and truth telling, Ringer and The Vampire Diaries, which both feature doppelgängers, and Once Upon a Time and Grimm that both prominently feature a character who can see things that others can’t.
Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of this overreliance on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) samples (see “The Weirdest People in the World?”) is that the body of social scientific knowledge becomes self-reinforcing as supposed truths are legitimized through scientific inquiry.
In some ways, I am reminded of how standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT can unconsciously work to reify WEIRD culture. Ignoring for a moment who the test is made by and for (both groups undoubtedly fall largely into the WEIRD category), we can examine how the methodology of the test’s construction acts to privilege a particular kind of information and legitimizes such knowledge as normalized.
Although the issue has been somewhat corrected, early forms of the test attempted to work backward in order to find measures of intelligence and asked individuals already considered “smart” to test questions. The assumption behind this practice was that questions answered correctly by those who had already demonstrated their intelligence were accurate predictors of intelligence—the questions that intelligent people answered wrong were obviously not good questions because the intelligence of the respondents was assured.
One might make a case that this sort of test construction might work for more “objective” areas like math, but the larger question that should be considered is how a standardized test endeavors to test knowledge but instead assesses only specific types of knowledge. Taking the example of math, we might assume that there does not exist a large amount of variation in knowledge among those who would take a test like the SAT or the ACT (i.e., math is taught in very similar ways across classrooms) and so therefore might make the case that the test exhibits a rather high measure of validity.
But we can also consider areas like reading comprehension where WEIRD students may have an advantage. Although no student that I have talked to has particularly enjoyed reading the passages on the SAT or the ACT, I would argue that the types of passages that appear represent styles, formats, and subject matter that WEIRD students may have been exposed to before through their schools, test preparation services, and their families. In essence then, tests like the SAT or the ACT might measure raw intelligence (if such a thing exists) but also measure social capital and dangerously transmute capital into a form of intelligence in the traditional sense. This form of knowledge is not only overgeneralized but also held up as a standard of what intelligent people should know, thereby initiating a self-reinforcing cycle as the non-WEIRD people become labeled weird.
Here, an effort to equalize society (in the case of the SAT/ACT to form a meritocracy) seems to continue on in the vein of Matthew Arnold’s belief that culture should evidence “the best that has been thought and known” while not pausing to reflect on just whom all of this is best for. In other words, the ability to align with, internalize, and parrot back the knowledge that test makers hold in esteem—what a disproportionately powerful subsection of society thinks is worthy—becomes a sign of culture and intelligence. At our worst, we punish students for not knowing things they should and, at our best, we help to indoctrinate students into a framework that aspires to be WEIRD; in many ways, we tell our young people that knowledge gained outside of the mainstream—those bits of wisdom collected from folk culture or non-White homes or from rural areas—are simply not worth much to those who matter.
 By this I certainly do not mean to argue that knowledge in the form of social capital is not a form of intelligence, but merely that it is not the type of intelligence purported to be measured on a standardized test like the SAT or the ACT.
What else is speculative fiction other than a bagful of nickels?
This image, from Dexter Palmer’s book, has long haunted me since I first encountered it. Hope, possibility, dreams unrealized—the nickels manifest an interesting relationship between Harold and technology that extended far beyond the original creator’s intention. And, in a way, isn’t this what steampunk and science fiction are all about? It is what is represented by the nickels rather than the nickels themselves that are important and we might even turn to Saussure’s semiotic labels of objects, signified, sign as we realize that there also exists a tension because the only way to manifest the dreams is to spend the nickel—what is the balance between dreams realized and the pull of dreams left to dream?
Ultimately, however, we must also ask ourselves just how “punk” is steampunk? If the term endeavors to draw upon the Western history of punks from the 1970s, it must then speak to a form of subversion or resistance against the dominant culture of the time. Although one might argue that the aesthetic of steampunk along with an emphasis on construction or reappropriation of machines certainly represents a challenge to the status quo, the centrality of technology in the lives of steampunks certainly seems to remain aligned with current views. Technology looks different, but does it function in a fundamentally different way?
Although a casual fan of the culture, I also continue to wonder about just how deep this love of Victorian-era ideals go. Perhaps I am just sensitized to the resurgence of Gothic (e.g., horror, gothic Lolita, etc.) and Victorian because of my research interests? I find myself struggling with the grand visions put forth in steampunk (not unlike other forms of technological utopia we have encountered previously in the course) as erasing the very real struggles that surrounded the appearance of steam-powered technology in the 19th century. In addition to the pollution and physical hazards mentioned in Rebecca Onion’s piece, I also think about how the new machine culture affected workers’ health. But even beyond the scope of the machine and the factory, steampunk seems to pluck out fetishized elements of clockwork while leaving the very real (at the time) menaces of disease, improper sanitation, and corpse stealing that were intertwined with developing technology in the Victorian age.
But then again, perhaps I am reading this all wrong. Does steampunk speak to a deep cultural need for us to strip away the layers of shine and sheen that surround modern implementations of technology? To see the gears and pistons is to see behind the curtain and experience a different type of technological wonder all together. Is there a sort of excitement that comes from knowing that gadgets might not work? And, as mentioned earlier, surely the culture of production that pervades the experience of being steampunk speaks to an increasingly diminished notion of the average person as tinkerer.
There are times, I think, when all of this just seems overwhelming. With a new section each week, we are asking each of you to grapple with things that you may not have encountered before and I completely understand that this may not be easy.
But, then again, who said it was going to be?
Although you have to find the balance with this, some part of me believes that, as investigators, we should be a little overwhelmed for it is in this moment that we begin to grasp just how large the problem really is. What was once so clear becomes infinitely murky and we struggle to find a foothold. The issues that Asians Americans face are complex and seemingly never-ending. How do I go about dismantling the myriad problems that we encounter every day? Will I even make a difference? Should I even try?
It’s taken me a few years to get to where I am now but I have to come to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes.” I get called out for being impractical because I’m not as interested in deliverables, action items, and long-range plans; instead, I’m interested in the transformation that occurs on an individual level when one decides that he or she is capable of making a difference.
And the thing that they never tell you in school is that you don’t have to change the world in a grand way on your first go. Making a difference isn’t about spectacle and scale so much as it is about intent and meaning. There a million ways in which one can change the world on an everyday basis that have profound and lasting implications and it is these sorts of actions that I often think about when we come to issues of sexuality and gender in CIRCLE.
By now, all of you have gone through the exercise where we attempted to place ourselves in the mindset of someone who does not identify as straight. Although our session exhibited moments of laughter and sympathy, I hope that the exercise also went beyond this to generate a feeling of empathy. I get that it’s a bit heavy to think about some of these things on a night when you are coming off of class and looking forward to homework, but I would challenge my session to think about how they would react if they couldn’t just go home after all was said and done. How might you feel if you really had to tear off the corners of your star?
The thing that we strive to teach our students in CIRCLE is that all of these issues are linked (and, yes, messy) but that you can also apply what you’ve learned from one week to another. What if you thought about sexuality like you think about ethnicity? Students in our session can’t just stop being Asian American—just like other students can’t stop being GLBTIQ. How can you map your need to justify your worth as an Asian onto things like gender or sexuality?
But even if that’s a bit too heavy for you, I do want to mention something that I brought up at the conclusion of our session. Issues of gender and sexuality figure heavily into what I do, along with my experiences in college admission and psychology. I spend a lot of time thinking about self-harm/mutilation, eating disorders, depression, restlessness and projects like It Gets Better (which I can happily discuss the faults of). I spend a good deal of my time trying to think about ways to change educational policy to help students to recognize and feel of worth; I think about bullying in schools but also bullying on Perez Hilton, TMZ, and even by Dan Savage.
One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.
However, I should also mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect: any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—you can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.
And one of those amazing things is to realize just how much power you have. As I mentioned before, you don’t have to change the world overnight but I challenge you to realize that, just by being yourself, you possessed an incredible amount of agency: each and every one of you has the power to keep at least one point of that star intact. If they so choose, the you have the power to potentially save a life—and how amazing is that?
This week you were all given stars, but the thing that you need to realize—as cliché as it might sound—is that you are all, in your own way, stars. Go out there and burn bright. Shine like you’ve never had any doubt.
As an admission officer, you have to be quick on your feet. More often than not, you’re on your own in front of an audience who is scrutinizing your every move. What you say, how you say it, what you don’t say—these are all things that are examined for hidden meanings. Grace, poise, enthusiasm (not unlike a beauty pageant contestant?) are attributes that the job demands, especially when you are trying to put out fires without breaking a sweat.
One of the most challenging experiences I ever had took place at USC’s satellite campus in Orange County. Current USC undergraduates were on hand to give local college counselors a taste of life at USC and were performing admirably until I heard those words float across the room:
“It was great to come to USC because you really got to see how the other half lives.”
I will fully admit that I hadn’t been entirely focused on the conversation, but, with that, my attention snapped back into focus. How do you fix something like that without drawing overt attention to it? Do you just hope that people didn’t notice? Is it worse that they didn’t? How do you come back from that?
Eventually everything worked out all right and, in the long run, that moment was much more instructive for me than it was damaging: it’s something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career and something that I think about when we come to the topic of ethnography.
It’s easy, I think, to claim that you are interested in understanding the mindset of others but it is another thing entirely to be open to such a practice. Even if we momentarily ignore issues of assimilation and the fear of losing oneself in or to a project (as if self identity was ever something that was static), it is still incredibly difficult to work against a process that automatically filters perceptions through layers of developed experiences. Despite our stated intent, it may take us longer than we expected to truly begin to understand those we wish to study.
I’m looking at you, Tyra Banks.
Needless to say, Tyra Banks going “undercover” as a homeless person for a day is not a form of ethnography (although I do not think that Tyra herself would ever employ such a word). Being made up to look homeless for a day undoubtedly fails to convey the sense of hopelessness that some homeless feel or, for that matter, even a very real sense of the pervasiveness of the issue. In fact, at its worst, Tyra’s undercover episodes are a form of stunt journalism that seeks to profit off of the very groups that she is purporting to help; entering with all of the trappings of privilege, it is her duty and her prerogative to expose injustice, wrongdoing, and prejudice. This is, of course, not to suggest that the objects of her inquiry (e.g., strippers, homelessness, sexism) do not deserve inquiry but the danger lies in individuals like Tyra believing that their investigative experiences are more meaningful than they actually are. Spanning across instances as varied as Tyra’s episodes, colonialist literature, and It Gets Better, we see a common theme: the story of the investigators is elevated above the tale(s) of the community.
Here we understand an opportunity for ethnography to redress the situation as it reasserts the relationship of the observer to those that he or she would study. Rather than striving to remove all traces of the observer (which is probably impossible anyway), I think that good ethnography acknowledges the impact of the observer and clearly outlines ways in which the observer’s presence might alter outcomes and how the observer’s perception of events is framed by personal history.
So as I sat in an after-school tutoring session, I found myself racing to take four sets of notes: observations, possible meanings of what I saw, implications of those actions, and a running account that attempted to explain why I perceived things in the way that I did. In essence, I made a series of passes, adding additional layers of information each time I revisited my notes. Although this process would have ideally been aided by audio/visual recording, I think my mini-ethnography was quite instructive as I began to think about what things were worth recording (and which I had to let go because I just couldn’t keep up) and also how to rapidly shift between different layers of analysis. After three hours I found myself exhausted but with an interesting record of how the students in this center interacted with one another and their tutors; in my hands I held a formal record of what educators learn to do instinctively as they evaluate and assess each of their students (and themselves). Some students were easily distracted but amazing when focused, some were great motivators but not great leaders, some were bored when working with tutors but animated when teaching their peers, and some just seemed to feel uncomfortable in larger groups. To their credit, tutors seemed to have picked up on many of these traits (and undoubtedly more that I couldn’t even begin to see) and adjusted their mannerisms as they moved back and forth between students: to some they were kind, others stern, still others saw a stern exterior interrupted with sly smiles. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to interview the tutors after I observed them, I wondered how much of this process was automatic for them. Did they consciously consider how to best handle a student or did they just seem to “know” what to do? Had they, as teachers, done an exercise like this before? Did this sort of self-reflexivity make them better teachers? How had these volunteers grown into their jobs as educators? Did the skills exhibited in the tutoring center translate to a classroom?
I suppose there’s always next time…
In retrospect, it should have been obvious.
Growing up in Hawaii, I learned about westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, and Manifest Destiny in US history courses but was never asked to connect the events presented by my textbooks to the world around me. I was certainly aware of sovereignty movements—I’d even taken the mandatory tour that talked about the imprisonment of Hawaii’s last queen!—but never took time to understand the issue because, to me, it wasn’t my problem.
Or, worse, as a child attending a school founded by missionaries, I had internalized the ethos of Western colonization and domination. What else could I do but shrug, for that’s what Whites/Americans (and conflating those two is a whole separate host of issues) did?
So maybe this whole history combined with early space exploration in Science Fiction to convince me that colonization was something to be done in the name of progress. Although some sense of this must have floated in the background, I never questioned whose dreams had to die so that my reality was secure; history, after all, is written by the winners.
Needless to say, deconstructing this is difficult for me.
To make matters worse, I often wonder how colonialist tendencies have, like many subversive acts, become increasingly harder to see as fewer gross examples of physical imperialism appear. Instead of marching in with an army, states employ ideology in an attempt to legitimate their positions of privilege; by setting the “first-world” standard as the norm, powers like the United States strive to conquer through images, not physical occupation.
Although certainly not unique to Science Fiction, I often wonder about figures who purport to have a close relationship to the Truth: whether seeing it, speaking it, hearing it, or feeling it, there often seems to be an underlying message that one (and only one!) form of objective truth exists in these fictional worlds. In this context, words like “liberation” or “revelation” become potentially problematic as individuals profess an obligation to set people on the “right path.” In this process, false gods must be unmasked, natives need the help of mainstreamed humans, and the “primitive” treatment of women in “barbaric” cultures must be addressed. In short, wars are less about skirmishes over geography and territory in the traditional sense than they are about ideological contests.
If we accept that these represent strains of colonialist themes in the genre, then the fiction of post-colonial SF seems to present two challenges: introducing the voices of those subject to colonialist tendencies—turning them from subjects of imperial empires to anthropological subjects full of agency—and questioning the ways in which colonialist thought has been institutionalized, coded, and made systemic.
I fully admit that this is not mine, but I think it raises many good points about the nature of the project and its dialogue. While I certainly don’t think that the project comes from a place of ill will, it may be somewhat misguided. Or, more accurately, I think that the scope of what this whole thing is trying to do is limited and the project is unable to recognize its own bounds.
queerwatch: “Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying”
“Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying
(Ten Points, in order of appearance)
1. The video promotes metro-centric and anti-religious sentiment. By aligning their bullying with the religiosity and “small-town mentality,” Dan and Terry tacitly reinforce the belief (especially rampant in queer communities) that the religious and the rural are more bigoted.
2. The message is wrong. Sometimes it gets better– but a lot of times it doesn’t get any better. Emphasizing that things will improve upon graduation is misleading both to young folks struggling and also to people with privilege who are looking on (or looking away).
3. Telling people that they have to wait for their life to get amazing–to tough it out so that they can be around when life gets amazing– is a violent reassignment of guilt. Dan Savage telling kids that if they don’t survive their teenage years they’re depriving themselves? What kind of ageist garbage is that? This quietly but forcefully suggests that if you don’t survive, if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. It blames the queer for not being strong enough to get to the rosy, privileged, fantasy.
4. Stories of how your mom finally came around, over-write the present realities of youth. Arguing that in the future, the parts that hurt will be fixed, not only suggests that folks shouldn’t actually inhabit their own suffering but it also suggests that the future is more important. For a lot of folks, it doesn’t matter if your mother might come to love you and your spouse. It matters that right now she does not love you at all.
5. The rhetoric about being accepted by family, encourages folks to come out– even when coming out isn’t a safe idea. There is no infrastructure to catch you when your family reacts poorly. There is no truly benevolent queer family, waiting to catch you, ready to sacrifice so you can thrive. For a lot of folks, coming out doesn’t only mean that your parents will promise to hate your lovers– it means violence, homelessness, abuse.
6. Bar story: vomit. It’s no coincidence that this is the first place where Dan and Terry mention queer space. Codified queer-space, restricted to 21+, w alcohol? Try again.
7. We shouldn’t be talking, we should be listening. Telling our own stories from our incredibly privileged positions, overwrites youth experience.
8. Stories of over-coming adversity: no thank you. Narratives of how life was hard and but now is good, belittle lived pain, imply that a good ending is inevitable, and also undermine the joy and happiness in even bullied kids’ lives.
9. There is actually no path to change in this vision. Promoting the illusion that things just “get better,” enables privileged folks to do nothing and just rely on the imaginary mechanics of the American Dream to fix the world. Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how.
10. Then we get a baby and go to Paris? WTF? This is a video for rich kids for whom the only violent part of their life is high school. It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others. Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them– it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.
Plus three (with a little help from my friends)
1. When we treat campaigns like this like they’re revolutionary, they undermine all the really amazing work that the youth already does for itself. Too often in the LGBT world, we are asked to thank our brave queer activist ancestors who made the world safe for us. That does have its place. But queer youth take care of themselves. They nurture and organize and love in order to save themselves and each other. Making famous messages legible as THE messages makes youth-work look minor, haphazard, or unofficial.
2. Campaigns like this lump everyone together. It doesn’t honor or respect the individuals. It turns them into icons. It sends confusing messages that we only attend to folks when their dead– when giving care doesn’t actually take anything out of us.
3. Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting. We should help folks feel seen— by trying our hardest to see them.
It has been my experience that people are ashamed to help the folks they see as destitute. They are willing to let someone crash on their sofa for a night if they know that they have a back-up bed, somewhere else. They are happy to provide dinner, so long as they know you would be eating even without their generosity. It seems that if you’ve never been homeless or lost or hungry, if you don’t know what that feels like, is too embarrassing to give things to people who might die without them– it is humiliating to hand someone the only food they’ve had all week.
No one is skittish about giving things up so that others can live comfortably. But they are unspeakably afraid of giving away something so someone can merely live. Campaigns like this exacerbate these realities by dehumanizing the people they address, turning them into a depressing mass, ready to be farmed for beautiful tragedies, and transformed into class-passing, successful adults.
How about instead of hope: change. Even if it’s really small change. Even if it doesn’t inspire anyone and no one is grateful and no one even notices. How about doing the kind of work that makes differences in peoples lives without holding them responsible—without turning them into an icon of suffering or of hope, without using their story for a soundbyte, without using their life as your proof of goodness, or of how the world is so liberal, or how it’s great to be gay. I mean money. I mean listening. I mean time. I mean giving people space that we respect and don’t enter. I mean listening to needs and finding ways to fill them.
How about instead of honoring the bravery of youth and the sadness of our times: respecting queer youth for all the incredible work they do– despite the fact that it is so rarely recognized as work, or as adequate work.
Instead of jettisoning our religion, our upbringing, our origins: a cohesive self.
Instead of narratives of suffering and then, finally, success: a celebration of the pain and pleasure throughout.
And listening– way more listening. Because telling your personal story of adversity from a place of privilege, might have a lot of applications, might be asked of you perpetually, might seem alluring because it’s so often milked from us. But it’s not the way. Saying, “I know how you feel, because I used to feel that way, and let me tell you, I don’t feel that way anymore,” doesn’t help, it hurts. You’re dwelling in the present. Don’t insist that those in pain relocate themselves to the future.”
I really relate to the critical commentary on the It Gets Better project. I feel like my rural upbringing was in many ways a product of the gay rights movement settling down in urban areas and abandoning the rest of the country, without safe spaces, without infrastructure, and had this attitude of a binary—be closeted and rural or run away to the city and the university to have rights, be happy, and function. When we don’t return to our origins, to the communities we come from, we deprive those we leave behind of such richness of diversity and wisdom that come from experience and moreover, they fail to see the beautiful possibility of queer and trans rural youth who live, survive, and thrive, and make themselves ignorantly blessed to the continual struggles of these populations who deal with even more barriers and bigotry.
My town is a three-hour drive from San Francisco. I read the following on Wikipedia under the entry for Trannyshack, a SF-based drag venue regarding a tour they took: “Trannyshack also holds the annual Trannyshack Reno bus trip. Hosted by Trannyshack veteran Peaches Christ and held over Easter Weekend, participants are encouraged to dress and act as outrageously and/or provocatively as possible and imbibe alcohol heartily over the course of the weekend. During the ride from San Francisco to Reno, ***the tour bus makes several pit stops in relatively conservative places such as Placerville and Donner Pass, designed partially to get a rise out of small-town locals and unsuspecting travelers, all in real life scenes reminiscent of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert***. The culmination of the event is a special Trannyshack show at a Reno nightclub, followed by Easter Sunday brunch the next day at a local casino.”
I was so sad that I had missed this group of fabulous queens and kings…but also frustrated that they only came by my rural town of Placerville, in order to “get a rise” out of the ‘conservative’ population—what about actually networking with the rural town’s queer, trans, and allied populations, WHO EXIST, and are generally without resources and lack fabulously queer entertainment??? I would have loved them to perform for us, to have the opportunity to speak with them. To show them that queers exist beyond the city limits.
Beyond this note, I think that the argument that Dan Savage and crew are making about how queer life improves linearly with time ignores the experiences, past and present, of queer and trans elders/seniors, whose needs are not part of the mainstream gay rights movement’s agenda—are they really “better off” because they are no longer queer youth???
And for all the awesome power of the online video platform he uses, the self-replicating-ness of the video testimonial doesn’t really do much beyond go in a circle like a dog chasing it’s tail—what kind of policy change, structural change, cultural shift is he advocating? How do Dan Savage’s friends from similarly privileged backgrounds telling a similar story mobilize and organize the viewers to act?
Dwarfs, bastards, eunuchs, and cripples—A Game of Thrones is filled with those who must suffer the indignity of living in a world that delegitimizes their existence. For many of these individuals, the only response to their presence is disgust.
And disgust, one of Paul Ekman’s basic emotional states, becomes significant as it serves to position entities along a superior/inferior continuum. Here, even without formal titles, trappings, or structures, we witness the formulation of class distinction—a process of differentiation that almost necessarily has political implications. Put another way, the simple act of feeling an emotion like disgust is enough to transform individuals into political agents!
But the objects of disgust are also inherently political creatures, according to philosophers like Mikhail Bakhtin who argue that the ambiguous nature of the grotesque body serves to articulate and contest latent boundaries in society. Tyrion, perhaps the best example of this concept, not only destabilizes the highly ordered familial social structure of Westeros through self-acceptance of his dwarfism but also demonstrates a penchant for cleverness, a trait that, by its nature, plays with established limits in thought or speech.
Building on the medieval fascination with monstrous bodies (i.e, transgressions of the ideals of the classical body), this paper will draw upon work by Richard Schusterman, John Dewey, and Gilles Deleuze with respect to somaesthetics, phenomenology, and the body as political/cultural metaphor in order to explore how grotesque bodies challenge the fictional socio-political world set forth in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. Although primary emphasis will be placed on Martin’s first book, A Game of Thrones, material from other sources (e.g., the television adaption) will be used to support the argument that grotesque bodies work to subvert the existing social structure of Westeros through their very existence as well as through their actions. Modern implications for the body as political agent will also be discussed with the hope that the reader will contemplate how changing perspectives in the late 18th century served to simplify the conceptualization of the body’s narrative (i.e., the ability of the body to simultaneously manifest multiple layers of meaning), a process that contributed to the disenfranchisement of the body in modern culture. Ultimately, through this process, it is hoped that readers will be given tools to reinscribe meaning onto their physical bodies as they simultaneously gain a renewed sense for the latent socio-cultural voice that lies just beneath the surface.
 It is important to note that this argument applies primarily to the continent of Westeros and the society developed therein. A less “civilized” space by the standards of Westeros, Essos manifests different social structures that consequentially are not largely challenged by the issues embodied in grotesque/monstrous figures. There is admittedly some reference to the grotesque among the Dothraki and blood magic that will be reconciled in the course of the paper.
I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to posit that most humans maintain ambivalent relationships with their genitals (if and when they think about them at all). Freud and psychosexual notions of penis envy aside, we see others ways in which genital discourse has entered into popular culture with shows like Sex and the City attempting to characterize some aspects of the relationship between women and their vaginas.
But we can also consider how the concept of power comes to be embodied in—and through—our genitals. Although there has been serious scholarship on the subject, we can also turn to popular offerings like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to explain how a hierarchy is instituted in the military through display of phallic symbols (i.e., the more chevrons/penises one has, the more powerful one is). And power as represented by genitals is an important point to consider with regard to feminist readings of media.
Earlier in the semester we talked about the racist overtones of Summer’s Eve’s newest ad campaign “Hail to the V.”
But what interests me most is that another arm of the campaign, which was introduced at the same time, has yet to be pulled:
In some ways, I find the existent advertisement much more problematic than the original set (although I will fully admit that this may be due to increased familiarity and sensitivity to issues of gender over race, insofar as the two can be separated into discrete categories). In general, I am all for the idea of women owning their vaginas and feeling comfortable with sexuality but so many things about this ad struck me as offensive (or, best case scenario, thoughtless). The notion that Americans protested over potentially racist characterizations of vaginas but not this ad makes me wonder just what we envision women’s roles in America to be.
On the surface, all of the statements contained in the the ad seem well meaning—the intent was, I think, to demonstrate the importance of the vagina. But then something went horribly wrong: “The cradle of life,” for example, cannot help but evoke notions of race in addition to gender, with the Mitochondrial Eve emerging out of Africa. And, on a structural level, even the sequence of featured women further supports the mother/whore/virgin triad (i.e., an expansion of the Madonna/whore duality from some strains of Christianity) , which only further serves to entrench women in roles proscribed for them by dominant male culture. Having watched the entire ad, one cannot help but interpret the “center of civilization” line as a society of men ruled by their lust for the vagina.
But perhaps the most upsetting component of this ad is the final sequence wherein the following voice-over appears:
“Over the ages, and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, even died for it. One might say it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.”
The vagina, then, might be argued as the “most powerful thing on Earth,” but the question remains: whose power is it? The ad depicts women (and through visual/semantic linkage, their vaginas) as objects for conquest—their vaginas are trophies to be won in battle (between men, no less, indicating that women do not evidence a sexual desire to “know” vaginas and that women cannot fight for their own vaginas!) and are not their own! In addition to the incredibly problematic practice of reducing women to their vaginas, we are to understand that women are not even owners of their vaginas!
On one hand, this sort of attitude might seem surprising for a company promoting feminine hygiene products until we take a moment to consider the long history of control imposed upon women’s bodies in the name of hygiene. In the case of douching, we are actually trying to naturalize a process that could actually be detrimental to women’s health!
Again I don’t believe that this campaign was launched with malicious intent—but perhaps that’s only an indicator of how far some of these ways of thinking have snuck underneath the radar. For the Summer’s Eve ads to survive multiple rounds of revision and be placed onto the airwaves with no real thought as to their consequences is a tragedy perhaps best summed up by following Oprah clip which is problematic in its own way:
You know what, Oprah?…I don’t have a vajayjay but I’m painin’ nonetheless.