Tag Archives: narrative

State of the Union: Still Genderfuckedup

The night of the State of the Union Address, the local news on NBC devoted a couple of minutes to a story that championed the fashion sense of one of the guests of honor, discursively linking the honoree’s taking notice of footwear to the honoree’s gendered identity. Noticing shoes became an index of woman-ness, of femininity. Liking shoes makes a woman. Awesome message, NBC. Just what our already strictly gendered society needs to hear.  The entire eye-roll-inducing segment can be found here. Take a gander.

It began innocuously enough. The anchor, Robert Kovacik, began to tell viewers about a couple of local residents who received honorary invitations to the State of the Union Address. But nearly all of the story focused on the white woman talking about Jill Biden’s shoes, with only a cursory mention of the other honoree: a local lawyer named Juan Jose Radin. We learned nothing else about him, not even if he was interviewed. No, the entire story featured Sergeant Ashley Berg and how asking Jill Biden where she got her shoes may have landed her that ticket to the SOTU. This conjecture isn’t corroborated, it’s just that: conjecture. And yet NBC chose to harp on it. So I will harp on their choice of harpitute (shut up, let me have my fun).

Kovacik introduces Sergeant Berg thusly: “Ashley Berg has served two tours of duty in Iraq. A decorated sergeant, who is still [news-pause-for-effect] a woman.” And this line sets the tone, dictates the focus, and frames Berg as both frivolous and doing her gender proud in spite of being an Iraq War veteran. In the context of the binary gender system in which Americans live, this frames her being a sergeant–or in the military at all–as a masculine thing. But she is vindicated–that is, she retains her feminine gender identity–by liking shoes.

Because shoes are being constructed as a metonym of/for female interest, thereby indicating that the person doing the liking is gendered female. Is a real woman. (Thanks, American conflation of gender and sex!) Liking shoes is being linked to the grand category of “things women like,” and is thus gendered feminine in this segment, and arguably much of the time in the American imagination. (I want to say it’s an acting second-order indexical, but I’ll have to check my ling-anth math on that one.) Anyway, the point is that Kovacik, or whoever wrote the segment, is making a big deal out of what would normally be considered a woman-y thing to like because this particular woman’s career is in the military. Part of her identity is being a soldier, which is a traditionally male-gendered pursuit and identity. This constructed juxtaposition is the reason there’s a 2-plus minute story at all.

Let’s be clear: I’m not critiquing the sergeant’s taking note of Jill Biden’s shoes, her liking shoes in general, or anything like that. Liking shoes is not bad. Noticing them in the middle of Iraq does not make Sergeant Berg one thing or another. No, my beef is with NBC’s framing of the story, which they decided was going to be all about this service person’s supposed shoe fetish/fixation. I’m not denying that the sergeant said what she said about shoes or claiming that the news story invented the fact that she genuinely seems to enjoy shoes. She said those things and is proud of having said them, and all that is grand.

My point is that NBC asked her the questions and edited her interview to make the focus on the shoes. They decided the story was going to be about how novel-and-yet-expected it was that a female soldier would still like shoes. That you could put war into a woman, but you can’t take the woman out of a soldier. The story-maker/interviewer, Robert Kovacik, was the one who framed the narrative as simultaneously surprising (look! even women soldiers like shoes!) and predictable (of course the soldier can’t stop thinking about shoes; she’s a woman!)

A little later in the story, Kovacik moves on to when Sergeant Berg visits the White House before the Address, “where Ashley once again notices what some may not.” What she notices is the interior decor of the White House. Once again, the story is choosing to focus on the sergeant’s taking note of fashion–of both sartorial and interior decorating ilk. There is precious little mention of her accomplishments, which is to be expected, if we want to be cynical about it. After all, what’s most important about women in this country is their looks, and by extension, how well they notice the way other things look. That is, it is the female gender that is expected to notice appearances.

And the narrative is constructed so that Sergeant Berg conforms to this role beautifully. There is a cut to Berg’s interview, where she is talking about her experience of visiting the White House. The excerpt Kovacik, his NBC producers chose was: “They had chandeliers that were undescribable [sic]. Um, they have carpets to match the ceiling, which, I think is really cool.” Somehow, her noticing the ostentatious interior decor of the White House proves that she’s a special sort of Sergeant because she’s still a woman: she notices appearances! She likes fancy things! But wouldn’t any other non-rich American notice this? Visitors are supposed to be impressed by the way the White House is decorated. Not according to this news story. No, sir. Only women notice these types of things. All this serves to present Sergeant Berg as a somewhat shallow member of the military and an upstanding example of an American woman.

The interview cuts out most of the context that is unrelated to the fashion angle, harping on the idea that this female “decorated sergeant” and veteran of a war was singled out from her peers to attend the State of the Union Address because she appreciated Jill Biden’s shoes. Toward the end, Kovacik describes Berg as “the smiling sergeant with a sense of style,” allowing American society to breathe a sigh of relief. You see, America, no matter how war-worn and accomplished a woman may be, however far she may appear to deviate from the prescribed gender norms of her society, she remains a bastion of ideal femininity.

Narrative is constructed, and the truth is what you discursively make it. Unfortunately, Kovacik and his producers chose a narrative that relied heavily on (arguably negative) gender stereotypes. So thanks for reinforcing the status quo, NBC. Thanks a lot.

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The 2011 Protester and Occupy Movement Uptake

A few weeks ago, Time magazine revealed its Person of the Year (a trope that has gained a lot of self-aggrandizing authority over the years as a touchstone of the state of the world and America and all that) to much mass-mediated fanfare. It was The Protester. A masked one. The image was a little sinister. To scare the white “normal” American public that reads Time and takes it seriously.

Who is the “protester” for Time, anyway? The cover is confusing and exploitative, simultaneously raising up and trivializing and making a public menace actual protesters…and differently for different audiences. How to even think about this?

Now, to be fair, the story that goes along with the cover is a little more nuanced and gives good space to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but the protester on the cover image seems to be more of a young American anarchist.*** And readers should fear this anonymous being with its dark eyebrows and hand-knit cap and bandana-hidden face standing in front of a red back-drop, ready to charge at your magazine-reading self. That protester is going to set fire to your lawn and ask about social justice. RUN!!!

The cover of “Time” magazine for the week of December 26th 2011/January 2nd 2012

Time‘s “Person of the Year” (the protester) was being reported by local and national news websites, TV stations and radio stations as if this yearly revelation were news, but Time magazine itself purports to be news. How incestuously layered, congratulatory, and self-promoting. Its own advertisement. Making itself an event by framing itself as such and getting other news outlets to do the same. Saying it makes it true: yay, performativity! We (some of the “normal” public and the mass media it listens to) wait with bated breath to find out who Time thinks is the person of the year, thus giving it the authority to say with definity who it is.

Not news at all, but another way to sell more magazines. Capitalizing on the major mass-mediated news stories of 2011 (the revolutions big and small, international and local) by turning it into another mass-mediated message. And the “normal” public eats it up. Or at least is exposed to it over and over.

The “revolution” has been televised. And thus, the real revolution has been largely silenced in terms of how many “normal” ears its message falls upon. Its message, its narrative, was co-opted almost immediately by those in power, those of the establishment, those of the mass-media. The mass media, after all, is where most “normal” Americans go for their answers, for their news. What “normal” person has time for much else than those neat little soundpicturebites? They trust the familiarity of the mass media–not the chaotic voices of those in the trenches.

It is difficult to say with any certainty how these mass-mediated messages are received by the “normals.” But since many of them seem to fill their conversations with regurgitated sentences and viewpoints heard and read from mass-mediated news sources, I feel it safe to say that they take up much of the repeated narratives without a lot of questioning. They believe the mass-mediated narratives of what’s going on around the world. Their opinions are not their own. (And in a society that is ostensibly all about the unique and sovereign individual, that would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it?)

And in this mess that is the ownership of narrative, who speaks for the actual protesters? The varied ones that the image on the cover of Time is supposed to represent. The “normal” public certainly does not let them speak for themselves. Not for long. (It could be argued that at first, the Occupy movement really did change the conversation, or at least brought more attention to the massive dissatisfaction Americans were feeling about the state of the nation and their own lives. The mass media even seemed sympathetic with the movement at first. But then it went on too long. It got bored and started reporting it from the perspective of the 1 percent that owns the news outlets. The conversation went back to the status quo, and the movement lost its ability to speak for itself to the “normal” public, at least through the mass mediated outlets that many of the “normals” turn to for guidance. Turn to to make sense out of what’s going on. Turn to to find out what’s going on, even if it isn’t. Even if they leave a lot out.)

No, the “normals” prefer the mass media to wrap up the complicated messages in easily digestible sound-bites of recognizable size and flavor: Crazy hippies. Bored rich kids. Rioting poor people. Naive college students. Uppity and inarticulate African-Americans. Dangerous and dirty transients. Entitled Native Americans. Basically, everyone who’s not falling into line. Not playing by the white, upper-middle-class rules.

The Occupy movement is doomed (assuming they want to affect change on a scale larger than themselves) if the “normals” keep listening to the mass-mediated take on what’s going on and investing these sources with the authority to speak for the movement. If the “normals” keep tuning out what the people on the ground, the actual protesters/members of the movement, are saying. If they keep letting the media speak for the many complicated and different individuals on the ground trying to call attention to the many issues our large society has. It’s easier to think that these issues don’t exist, or that they can be solved by placing even more stock in the status quo. It’s easier to listen to the mass media.

We really do have an impressively strong hegemony here. We think we’re free, that our society is  free, but the minute someone questions the status quo, the citizen police are out in force, squelching the questions with blindly accepted structure. This is the way things are; get a job. Stop ruining city hall’s lawn. We’ve decided it’s time for you to stop questioning the status quo: stop protesting and go home.

Because it’s not 99 vs. 1. The 1 may have all the money, but most of the 99 are helping to keep the structures that allow for the rich 1 to exist strong. Many of the 99 believe so deeply in those structures that they cannot see them–these structures have become naturalized: it’s just the way things are. And we must all operate within this system if we are to keep on keeping on, never mind get ahead. And this deep-seated belief in the invisible structures is one of the reasons the Occupy movement is in so much trouble. They aren’t speaking for the 99; most of the 99 are unwittingly in cahoots with the 1.

The Occupy movement can’t gain traction without the “normals” who are (now half-heartedly if at all) gazing in on them either listening seriously or joining. And the “normals” won’t do either when the messages of the movement have been co-opted by the mass media. As a closeted radical on the outside of the movements that are happening around the country, I feel (ashamedly) more in touch with the perspective of the “normals” than I do with the movement that I politically and socially identify with. So allow me to speak a little for them (they have no problem at all speaking for you, after all, and you won’t like what they say).

The normals hear what the media says about the movement and lets the media speak for it. The movement is too “radical”, too “disorganized” for them. “What do they want? If they just had an agenda…/Why are they wasting time holding up signs when they could be out looking for jobs? Why do they hate America?” etc. For the movement itself, I think it’s great that it’s somewhat lacking in clear leadership, instead thriving on some disorganization, anarchism. It seems invested in listening to everyone’s concerns. But for things to change–or for the national conversation to permanently change in any meaningful way–the movement needs the “normals” on board, and the “normals” like the very structure that the movement is trying to question.

Which leaves us at a stalemate. What kind of strategy can overcome this divide? Can we look to the relative successes of the revolutions of the Arab Spring for any tactics and strategies that can be adopted for our own cultural context? How can the movement get the “normal” public to join them in a conversation that isn’t mediated by the mass media? Is that even possible?

Where do we go from here?

***A Tardy Update: a link and a digression into self-critique***

Over at Al Jazeera, Larbi Sadiki has a different interpretation of the Time image as he deconstructs its many meanings. The various issues and details he points out are interesting and I think the piece is worth a read. He also pays attention to the fact that the image on the cover “veiled” the protester, and what implications that visual choice has, given the climate we live in and the many conflicting associations veiling has in the Western world (not to mention the cultures that actually wear variations of a veil).

Perhaps I’m implicitly guilty of demonizing the veil in my own interpretation when I talk about the image as a “scary” one of the hipster-anarchist…for which I apologize. That was not my intent, but it nonetheless points to the negative associations our culture has when it comes to images of people with their faces partially or fully obscured. Veils, burqas, bandanas and the like shouldn’t be signs that incite fear, because then this fear is displaced onto the person wearing these pieces of fabric and can often, as Yoda taught us, lead to hate. But for many Americans they are signs that incite fear. And when I interpreted the visual cues of the Time cover in this way, I was tapping into that negative stereotype that has been harmful to particular populations, especially post-9/11. Even though the dark red cover is also a menacing sign, I do believe I was wrong to not see that the image, as Sadiki points out, is also one that indexes Americans’ fear of cultures and populations who wear variations of a veil. I apologize for my insensitivity.

All of which goes to prove that meaning is located in the one who does the interpretation, not necessarily the one who produces. Intention has little weight. Uptake! Use! How can we determine what the producers of this image intended it to mean when there can be such radically different interpretations of it? Obviously, the producers of the image operate within the same systems of symbols that allowed for both Sadiki and my interpretations of it…but it is difficult to critique them without knowing which (or both?) the producers meant to “speak” to their readership. Either way, both of our interpretations find it problematic that the image contains overwhelmingly negative signs that cause the (white?) American viewer to call up culturally negative associations.

And I’m going to stop before this discussion spirals out of control in a vortex of fractally circular argumentation.

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