Category Archives: Beginning of the Body

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.
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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

Forcible Consent: (in)Humanity & Submission on Star Trek

About a month ago, I sat through a season four episode of Star Trek: Voyager that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. No, not the one where B’Elanna succumbs to oxygen deprivation and declares her misguided love for Paris. As troubling as that installment was, it was an arc in the first few episodes of season four, culminating in “The Gift,” that had my jaw on the floor.

A brief background on the episode before we wade into the (un)ethical subspace of the Delta Quadrant:

After striking a tenuous alliance with the Borg to defeat a common enemy, our wayward crew finds itself playing host to Seven of Nine, a member of the Borg whose connection to the Collective has been severed for the standard techno-magical reasons. A few other Borg henchmen are unceremoniously dispatched from Voyager after they betray the crew’s trust, leaving Seven of Nine to advocate for itself. (It should be noted here that the Voyager crew think of Seven of Nine as female, although at this point the Borg probably considers such gendered designations Irrelevant.) The crew digs into their effective captive’s history, discovering that Seven of Nine was once a little girl who was abducted and assimilated by the Borg. At that point, Captain Janeway makes it her mission to bring Seven of Nine back into humanity’s fold.

7 of 9 borg

Seven of Nine, badass Borg

This is not the first time Janeway’s leadership has made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure I’d follow her home, especially if the option of joining Holo(hottie)-Chakotay in his coup were to worm its way out of its interactive fictional exercise and into reality. The point is, Seven of Nine wants to return to the Collective, or, barring that, be dropped onto the nearest hospitable world. Both of these requests are denied, as is her more basic request to maintain her personal (or species?) agency.

A crucial aspect of “The Gift’s” plot revolves around the ethical question of whether to return Seven of Nine to her original human state. Because she is no longer connected to other Borg, the Doctor determines that the human parts of her body are rejecting the Borg technology. Captain Janeway seizes upon Seven of Nine’s biological history as proof positive that she is fundamentally human and must, deep down, wish to become so again biologically. Janeway denies Seven of Nine the choice of whether to undergo what amounts to both major invasive surgery and a change in biological identity, instead claiming this as her prerogative, citing Noble Human Reasons.

In doing so, Janeway denies the Borg as a species the dignity of personal agency. And since what little humanity is left within Seven of Nine doesn’t readily (or recognizably) asset itself, Janeway takes it upon herself to speak on its behalf and give it more weight than the (very loud) assertions of the Borg part of Seven of Nine. Thus Janeway leverages her power as captain to declare Seven of Nine’s Borg identity invalid, clinging to the idea that what was once human must still be fundamentally so. She orders the Doctor to medically extract and enhance Seven of Nine’s available human biology, enabling it to completely eject her Borg DNA and technology. The Doctor, for his part, enables Janeway, and Seven of Nine is forced to become human against her will through a process that amounts to medical torture.

Why the Doctor doesn’t invoke his Hippocratic oath, as he did when Tuvix expressed his desire not to die (season 2, episode 24), is a major unanswered question. The Tuvix episode did a much better job of representing the complexity of the ethical dilemma at hand. There’s little such nuance here. Viewers are made aware of the opposing arguments [read: Seven of Nine’s position about her own body] only so they can be shut down by the characters who occupy the positions of power in the Federation hierarchy and along the moral axis of the cast.

One of the most maddening weaknesses of Star Trek‘s otherwise inclusive philosophy is its insistence that humanity is the pinnacle of existence. The episode is SO SURE of Janeway’s moral high-ground that it’s disturbing, which points to Star Trek‘s occasional failure to achieve the progressiveness it prides itself on espousing. Janeway’s position amounts to one of human species supremacy, echoing centuries of colonial white supremacy, and she imposes it on a being who is already in a disadvantaged position and has little recourse. Janeways repeatedly ignores Seven of Nine’s clearly stated desires and staunch refusals to grant consent. But in a heartbreaking irony, resistance for this Borg is indeed futile.

7 of 9 human

Seven of Nine, reluctant human

Once again, the female body is stripped of its agency and remade into society’s image. This time literally. Viewers are meant to side with Janeway’s view of the situation and cheer when humanity triumphs and they are able to count Seven of Nine (see what I did there?) as one of their own.

Perhaps contemporary discourse surrounding consent and identity politics is what’s causing me to react so negatively to this plot and character developments. I don’t doubt that the episode’s moral stance was better received when it aired in 1997. But today, these blatant denials of someone’s personal agency simply do not fly (puns are always intended).

In the Delta Quadrant, the perception of humanity eclipses even the Prime Directive.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Gender Trouble, Power, Television and Movies

Walgreens Commercial Normalizes the Objectification of Women Using a Young Boy and Christmas

Briefly:

There’s a commercial running for Walgreens Pharmacy, claiming it’s a great place to find gifts for the holidays. Leaving this insane claim and any deep analysis of commodification aside, I’d like to talk about what the commercial does visually to make the objectification of women seem cute and normal. The commercial centers around a young elementary school boy who is giving gifts to various female classmates, all awe-struck by his shopping prowess. The young ladies man then turns his gift-giving attention to his teacher–at the same time that the camera turns its attention to her rear end as she writes something on the board. The boy gives her the gift, and she walks away. Cut to a shot of him smiling in the direction that she walked away, causing us, the viewer, to surmise that he is watching her walk away. Like a sleaze. We are meant to think he’s getting a good look at her ass.

And the commercial frames this as funny-cute. As normal. It implies that this boy has the right to do this because he bought her a gift. It ignores, or makes light of, the inappropriate of this in several ways:

1. On an age level, by attributing sexual motives to a prepubescent boy

2. On a gender equality level, by reducing a woman to her sexualized body part that is ogled

3. On a power and ownership level, where the buyer/gift-giver is accorded rights to transgress social decorum

Ugh. Just, ugh. All of this is what is wrong with our culture. That all of this gross sexism and scary commercialism is wrapped in a pretty, innocent bow of holiday generosity.

My ass.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Uncategorized

Performing Togetherness: Sartorial Coordination at School Dances

In an effort to procrastinate on the promised treatment of that dog book, I’ve decided to take a little time to dissect another youthful phenomenon. Today it’s not cheap-ass broken friendship hearts, however. No, this topic is even more worthy of copious eye-rolling and the activation of gag-reflexes. I’m talking about high school students who go to dances together wearing matching outfits.

I’m almost nauseated thinking back on it now–realizing the implications. The market-place/political economy of securing a date for the dance, and being able to identify them as your date with visual cues. Cultural capital made materially concrete through dress. The (gendered?) performance of mutual ownership…turning “relationships” into a parody of themselves. I am ashamed to have actually participated in such displays. (Although I am rather proud for having once done it by wearing a “mens” shirt. Take that, gendered expectations!)

The tradition of dates wearing similarly colored clothing (or a corsage/boutonniere) to dances all seems to boil down to a social performance of togetherness and mutual ownership. Making visually obvious the fact that these two people came to this dance with one another. It “marks” your date as yours. This performance is so that others recognize these two people as being together–if only for the evening. I wonder at what point this matching is for the couple themselves…the chance to recognize themselves in the other and vice versa via the very obvious medium of clothing (a representation or manifestation of their inner emotional connection, if you will)…and at what point it becomes more about the outward appearance of togetherness. My guess is that this phenomenon is heavily weighted toward the latter. It’s mostly about the public’s perception of two people as a couple. The assumption that two people are receiving recognition of their togetherness is made salient in the very performance of this sartorial togetherness. TOGETHERNESS!!! (must. find. synonym.) Ahem.

One aspect of this phenomenon that bears discussion is the fact that all these school-sanctioned social functions are in an effort to play at adulthood. As one of my more arrogant professors smugly loved “revealing” to us, the Prom is in many ways a practice wedding. But these dances-as-social-spaces encourage couples to perform adulthood to a cartoonish degree. What real adult couples make a conscious, agonizing effort to match their wardrobes at social functions? (Irritating ones.) Sometimes this type of couples-dressing is sanctioned, but it’s all about context. Perhaps the most “allowable” social occasion is that of Halloween, but even then adults who match one another can be a bit much. Especially those who are romantically involved. Okay. We get it. You’re together. Enough already. But if we take high school dances as opportunities for young adults to “practice” being actual adults, it seems odd that they perform imagined adulthood to such a hyperbolic degree. Maybe you have to over-do it before you can do it, do it. (Control yourselves.)

The other adult social context in which sartorial coordination is sanctioned, even encouraged, is the wedding. This is the ultimate ritualized performance of couple-dom in our culture, and wedding parties often don similar colors, if not identical outfits. This, it need not be noted, is a special occasion. As is the school dance (albeit a more frequent one). If school dances are a shadow of the ultimate couple ritual, then matching the colors in one’s outfits makes a certain amount of sense. This is, after all, playing at being recognized as being together: practice for the ritual where you perform your together-forever-ness in front of your sacred social circle.

So the color-coordination teenagers endure can be accounted for quite easily. What I cannot fathom an explanation for is why the matchy-matchy gets so overblown at Sade Hawkins dances in particular. Is there a worry that because the girl asked the boy, it won’t be pheromonically obvious that they are together? (That’s stupid and I would never argue that.) The most I can work out is that it somehow off-sets (or complements) the relative informality of the dance. The fact that the girl is supposed to ask the guy, that the traditional gender roles are reversed, seems to be a mere correlation. Why would a switch of gender hierarchy entail the hyper-matching of clothing? Couples often literally wear the same thing, rather than simply matching color-schemes. At the Sadie Hawkins dance, there’s no mistaking who asked whom. It’s an aggressive sign of mutual ownership, commemorated forever in an embarrassing photo in front of a cheesy, themed backdrop. But exactly why the hyper-matching occurs at the informal Sadie Hawkins dance is a mystery to me. So if anyone wants to venture a theory that helps explain why this happens, I’d love to hear it.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary

Beef So Fresh It’s a Cash Cow

Turning life into food isn't free

First, a disclaimer–this is neither well-thought out nor well written. Also, here is the NPR article that goes with this picture. Photo credit is Greg Zabilski/ABC. Now to the somewhat predictable spin-off rant:

The host of this show (human pictured above) apparently wants people to think about what they are eating. And to think about it as a good American consumer would: in terms of how much it costs. This is veiled in the guise of encouraging more healthy eating (does cheaper automatically equal less healthy?). I’m not criticizing his project as a whole, just pointing to a few implications it has, or, more accurately, the delicious implications of the image above. (I’m also not criticizing the NPR story, which is focused on different issues and is worth reading for itself, especially if you want to know more about the TV show that this image is from.)

I frequently (some might say obsessively) use bovines to explore a lot of cultural issues, and this image and its accompanying article smacks you in the face with a few of them: animals-as-food, commodification of life, and placing monetary value on the spoils of death, to name a few. This cow is being used as a powerful device to illustrate to people how much they are paying for which cuts of meat. It is powerful, for one reason, because the connection between the live animal and its edible products are normally not illustrated so graphically. Cash value has been physically inscribed on a live animal that will, ostensibly, be killed and eaten. This cow stands for the idea of nutritional value for one’s money, and stands for all the beef that Americans consume. (I do wonder if the show at all addresses how value is added to cattle and the various cuts of meat they become…and this reminds me that I should really re-read and do a book review of Shukin’s Animal Capital.)

Honestly, I just love how blatantly monetary value is inscribed on this animal–it becomes a thing, a commodity, right before our eyes, even as it continues to embody movements that might be construed as independent and life-like. But this animals isn’t given a subjectivity of its own. Rather, it is made an object of education; a symbol of itself as a heavily used commodity in the U.S., of American eating and spending habits, of many things, just in this one image. The human next to it uses the animal and makes it mean certain things for his audience; lays his hand on its shoulder as if its body were a blackboard–as, indeed, it has been visually manipulated to become. It is on a leash, and at any moment the man can pick up the other end and have this mobile blackboard tethered to him–the man is in control of this might-as-well-be-dinner educational tool. (Unrelated note: wtf is with the washing machine in the right-hand corner?) This animal is marked for consumption–both as a commodity and as an eventual collection of differentially priced food items.

I just find this all very interesting, is all, and when I come across images such as this one which so clearly capture America’s relationship with food animals and consumerism, I squeal a little inside and have to share it. Mmm…semiotics!

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Bovinity Infinity, Commodification, Contemporary, Media, Television and Movies