What if we got our messages about food, race, and ethnicity from fiction rather than from commercials? (Consuming Whiteness part 4)

 As a professor of both Women’s Studies and Literature, I find myself more drawn to the politicized analysis of contemporary culture and global issues right now than to the analysis of literature. However, as literary critique is still a major love of mine, I want to consider how the notion of “consuming whiteness” is critiqued in contemporary fiction in the following post.

 In contrast to the homogenizing images of a milk drinking, white America, many contemporary authors use food imagery in order to examine individual and group identity as profoundly diverse. For example, Bharati Mukherjee, Fannie Flagg, and Marlene Nourbese Philip variously employ images of food, eating, and cooking to examine cultural, racial, and gendered identities in the modern US. As their work indicates, the consumption of certain foods can be simultaneously enabling and delimiting. Like language, food both allows for the expression of identity and puts limitations on the types of identities that are possible, and, more crucially, that are valued in contemporary culture.

In literature, food and issues relating to consumption often allows characters to metaphorically ‘consume’ or integrate their cultural heritage into hybrid identities. For example, in the works of Bharati Mukherjee, characters’ struggles to integrate themselves into the cultural landscape are accompanied by changing eating practices. While some critics suggest Mukherjee is overtly celebratory in relation to issues of assimilation, I would counter that her fiction presents the way in which dominant (white) American culture figuratively consumes ‘exotic’ cultural foods (and cultural Others) in order to destroy and/or “Americanize” them.[i] In Jasmine, for example, the main character notes that her dinner guests “get disappointed if there’s not something Indian on the table”.[ii]This fascination with Jasmine’s ‘exotic’ cuisine seems to constitute what critic Lisa Heldke terms “cultural food colonialism”.[iii]Examining her own tendency to go “culture hopping in the kitchen,” Heldke finds that:

the attitude with which I approached such activities bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the attitude of various nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painters, anthropologists, and explorers who set out in search of ever ‘newer,’ ever more ‘remote’ cultures they could co-opt, borrow from freely and out of context, and use as the raw materials for their own efforts at creation and discovery.[iv]

In Mukherjee’s text, Jasmine’s neighbours in Iowa seem guilty of just such a practice. Jasmine is treated as an intriguing oddity and mined for her culinary exoticism. However, she proudly notes, “I am subverting the taste buds of Elsa County”.[v] In a more positive take on the local passion for her Indian cooking, Jasmine reveals”multi-cultural consumption” to be a double edged practice. On one side, characters such as Jasmine consume, create, and resubstantiate devalued cultural heritages through the communal creation and ingestion of diverse food. On the other, such characters are also shown as vulnerable to being consumed by the machinations of the homogenizing, capitalist world – or, in other words, to being blandly Americanized.

Marlene Nourbese Philip, like Mukherjee, uses food to explore cultural identity in her short story “Burnt Sugar”. In the story, a daughter laments that her mother’s yearly Christmas gift of a home-made Burnt Sugar cake has failed to arrive from the Caribbean. Reminiscing about baking this cake as a child with her mother, the daughter ponders over the “ritual of transformation and metamorphosis” the cake represents.[vi]Detailing how the white sugar transforms into the black “magic liquid” that gives the cake its signature taste, the narrator muses that “the burn sugar is something like we past, we history”.[vii] The black liquid is characterized as strong and unique and the narrator wonders if this liquid is able to “change back, right back to cane juice, runny and white”.[viii]In a reversal of the white/black dichotomy, the story celebrates blackness as delicious and unsurpassed, and whiteness as bland and weak. Using food to negotiate the history of colonialism, the narrative reveals the symbolic role food plays in upholding (and negotiating) one’s cultural heritage in relation to the legacy of white imperialism. As the story implies, consumption can thus both enable one to uphold cultural traditions as well as reveal the ways in which certain dominant groups figuratively consume other cultures. Through the symbolic use of her wonderfully black cake, Philip’s story leaves a burnt taste in the reader’s mouth – by reading the story, we are forced to taste the bitter remnants of colonialism.

Fannie Flagg, in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, also uses food to explore racial divides but with a change in focus to civil rights in America. Set in Alabama, the narrative spans the years 1929 through 1988. In the late 1980’s, Evelyn Couch befriends an elderly lady, Mrs. Threadgoode, while visiting her mother-in-law at a nursing home. Mrs. Threadgoode enchants Evelyn with her stories concerning Ruth and Idgie, two social rebels who opened the Whistle Stop Café in Whistle Stop, Alabama at the dawn of the Depression. Through Mrs. Threadgoode’s stories, we learn that Ruth and Idgie, despite warnings from the local sheriff and the Klu Klux Klan, served black patrons and also supplied travelling hobos down on their luck with hearty meals. Using food as a form of political activism, Ruth and Idgie refused to conform to the dictates of their white supremacist surroundings. Idgie even donned a secret identity – that of “Railroad Bill” – in order to raid government supply trains and furnish the black community with much needed food reserves.

Significantly, Idgie does not like milk and refuses to drink it, preferring strawberry soda or whiskey. Her dislike of milk – a ‘normal,’ mainstream food staple – subtly emphasizes her status as a cultural outsider, a staunch anti-racist and civil rights activist who, through her daily actions, resisted and subverted ‘white’ culture and its racist, sexist, and classist norms. Evelyn, inspired by Idgie’s bravery, also transforms from a kowtowing housewife into an activist in her own right. At the end of the novel, she visits Whistle Stop and buys a strawberry soda from the local store -symbolizing she, like Idgie, refuses to drink down the dominant (and exclusionary) white ideology of American society. As this book reminds us, how and what we eat (and who we eat with) is a political act that can either enforce or resist inequalities. As sociologist Melanie Dupuis reveals and this novel so brilliantly intimates, “Every meal is a political act.”[ix]

 


[i]See for example Gurleen Grewal, “Born Again American: The Immigrant Consciousness in Jasmine,”in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993) 181-196.

[ii]Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine(New York: Fawcett Crest, 1989), 7.

[iii]Lisa Heldke, “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism,” in Pilaf, Pozole, and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food, ed. Sherrie A. Innes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 176-7.

[iv]Heldke 177.

[v]Mukherjee, Jasmine, 16.

[vi]Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Burn Sugar,” in International Feminist Fiction, ed. Julia Penelope and Sarah Valentine (Freedom, California: Crossing Press, 1992), 160.

[vii] Philip 157, 160.

[viii] Philip 157.

[ix]Dupuis, Nature’s Perfect Food, 243.

What if you didn’t have to be hetero to be beautiful? (Beauty Imperatives part 4)

 

As noted in the previous Beauty Imperative post, reality programming re-defines and further entrenches the linkages between beauty and whiteness. Less obviously though, it also upholds heteronormative beauty standards. It does so in a number of ways: firstly, by presenting the pursuit of beauty as a pursuit of a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship; secondly, via the suggestion that heterosexual people are more likely to be beautiful; and thirdly, by either putting homosexuality/queerness under erasure or by mocking it as an entertaining stereotype.

In relation to the first issue, reality shows such as The Swan and Extreme Makeover were informed by heteronormative narratives that equated happiness and success to heterosexual coupling and gave substantial airtime to details of the contestants heterosexual relationships or desire thereof. This trait was particularly evident in the “Where Are They Now” episode of The Swan. Detailing the engagements, new boyfriend’s, and improved marital relations of the contestants, as well as continually emphasizing the ‘newfound thrill’ of garnering appreciative male gazes, the episode continually reiterated an underlying aim of the show: to make women more beautiful for men.

Statements by many of season one’s contestants further revealed this aim, making it very apparent that many women on the show envisioned their surgical alteration as a means to make themselves more pleasing to existing or potential male partners. For example, one contestant pronounced that she thought her husband should leave her “because he deserved someone more attractive.” Another  explained that she didn’t leave her unfaithful husband “because I guess I’m afraid no one else would ever love me”. Here, her radical surgical alteration is presented as able to ward off infidelity and bring about a successful heterosexual union.

Season one’s winner, who the show repeatedly noted had a husband who felt she was “just average,” was surgically altered so as to be more pleasing to her mate. Enthusing that her hubby’s jaw dropped down to the floor when she paraded down the catwalk, she affirmed that she viewed her husband as the primary benefactor of her surgical extravaganza. Similarly, Belinda, whose supposedly ‘fat’ body was problematically equated with her string of abusive relationships, was whittled down to size in hopes of acquiring a mate. This ‘beautifying’ of the female body for male benefit continued in season two with a number of contestants noting they hoped to improve or save their marriages, while numerous others related they hoped to find a male partner after their surgical improvement.

In addition to presenting the pursuit of beauty as means to successful heterosexuality, such shows also suggest that heterosexual people are more likely to be beautiful by not including homosexuals in their narratives. While The Swan is perhaps most obvious in its emphases of the heterosexuality of its contestants, other makeover shows suggest that heterosexuals are more able to approximate beauty by the relative absence of homosexual participants. By putting homosexuality under virtual erasure, these shows enforce the notion that homosexuality is not, in fact, ‘beautiful,’ nor, such shows suggest, can it be made-over into beauty.

By equating the pursuit of beauty with the pursuit of successful heterosexuality, shows like these are saturated with what theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner call “the project of constructing national heterosexuality.” In fact, Reality TV in general, as evidenced by shows such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Wife Swap, Joe Millionaire, A Wedding Story, A Baby Story, and Trading Spouses, largely circulates around narratives of heterosexual coupling and reproduction.

Moreover, when homosexuality is showcased on Reality TV, it is often done so in a way that reinforces existing stereotypes and packages homosexuals and queers as entertaining oddities. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, as well as Boy Meets Boy, Survivor, Extreme Makeover, and The Real World all aired ‘gay stories’. Yet, they did so in ways that enforced stereotypes such as the ‘fashion savvy gay man,’ the ‘effeminate hairdresser’, or the ‘radical lesbian.’ Furthermore, gayness was offered as a marker of difference – as what makes one more amusing, more emotional, or more angry. Homosexuality is thus represented as a quirk to be mined for its shock value. Moreover, as theorist Kathleen LeBesco notes, Reality TV “falls short in its representation of lesbians and bisexuals.”

The stereotype of the ugly ‘butch’ lesbian was also repeatedly alluded to in shows such as The Swan via its continual derision of  women ‘looking masculine.’ Here, The Swan trafficked in a surgically inscribed ‘femininity’ through the recurring suggestion that the unaltered contestants were simply not feminine enough.  Show surgeons made statements such as “she’s a handsome woman, the goal is to make her a pretty woman…[to make her less] bulky and masculine.”

When another doctor commented to one participant “you’re nose is too big for your face and it’s not feminine,” he suggested that it is painstakingly obvious noses must conform to normative gender standards or else be cut down to size. Here the show reveals its very limited definition of acceptable femininity.

Further revealing that the show specifically links feminization to being attractive to men, the shows ‘experts’ noted that another contestant needed “to be feminized” so that she could live out “Her fantasy…that when she comes home looking ‘hot’ her husband’s going to wish he had treated her better.” Here, the show implicitly derided any woman who ‘looks masculine’ while simultaneously suggesting females are obliged to attract men. In so doing, it offers a condemnation of the non-heterosexual woman, coding her as ugly, undesirable, and deviant.

However, anyone with any appreciation of beautiful bodies knows that non-heterosexuals are just as (if not more) body beautiful than the rest of us. Been to a True Colors concert or a gay bar? Then you know that queers and homosexuals are a nice-to-look at bunch. Give me a fashion conscious queer over a couldn’t care less if I wear the same underwear 5 days in a row hetero any day!

The point is that ‘beauty’ does not require white skin or hetero desires no matter how much reality TV, pageants, and advertisements instruct us otherwise.

What if the hypermasculine US phallus wasn’t raping the world? (Bodies of War part 4)

When the war is covered in the mainstream media, it is done so via surface stories and photo ops that foreground facile heroism and testosterone fueled hypermasculinity. This hypermasculine narrative is evident when Bush dons a flight suit, when in-your-face banners triumphantly claim “Mission Accomplished,” when aircraft carriers and missiles are metaphorically constructed as the ultra-powerful, unstoppable American phallus. This macho war stance, while foregrounding supposed US strength and heroism, also works to hide a number of key issues – firstly, it hides the profit/power motivations of the war, secondly, it hides the gender, race, and class dynamics of the war, and thirdly, it hides the extreme bodily costs in terms of civilian as well as military causalities.

In regards to the profit/power motives of war and its masculinist undertones, the money hungry devil is metaphorically hidden in the red, white, and blue robes of a protective patriarch. This ‘good father’ is not vengeful, nor does he suffer from a ‘god complex,’ rather, he wants to protect his innocent American family by fortifying the walls of his house and keeping out all the ‘bad guys.’ As a concerned father, he also supposedly wants to help others in need – to save the ‘poor and oppressed’ veiled women of the Middle East, to bring democracy to the masses. The devil within, who desires control of the world’s natural resources as well as of the bodies and souls (and labor) of the worlds people, is shrouded in happy face patriotism and facile, flag-wagging nationalism.

This hypermasculine warrior stances hides the fact that the war is about securing US corporate interests. It is also about shoring up American masculinity both at the specific level of individual American males and at the broader level of America as a ‘manly’ country that is powerful, aggressive, and dominating. Opposition to the war is coded as ‘wimpy’ and those countries that the US is either trying to ‘democratize’ or those countries that do not support the war effort are metaphorically emasculated.

As feminist war critics such as Cynthia Enloe and Carol Cohn examine, decisions and actions regarding war are cast as issues of masculine power and strength. For example, when one refuses to partake in war or when one is targeted as an enemy, images of phallic penetration are often employed. From bumper stickers that read “Saddam, Bend Over” to cartoons that show Saddam in prayer position with a US missile pointed at his ass, the message is clear – the US aims to penetrate the world with its specific brand of masculinized military power.

This championing of a very particular type of masculinity has a very dangerous companion – a de-emphasis on intellectualism, analysis, and critical thinking. The US seems unconcerned with our rash stupidity in rushing into a war based on lies (let alone questioning the intelligence of our president) – rather, the US is concerned about being perceived as ‘backing down,’ ‘pulling out,’ or, that most un-macho of outcomes, ‘going soft.’ Tellingly, MSM war coverage also relies on a masculinized rhetoric that not only characterizes the macho body of the solider as heroic, but also defends the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of our leaders. Simultaneously, ‘enemies’ are cast as weak, illogical, and unintelligent (much like the representation in the recent pro-war movie masquerading as a super-hero flick, Iron Man).

If we as a nation lost our aggressive, power-hungry erection that goes around raping the rest of the world, maybe we could turn our attention towards fixing some REAL problems-like racism, poverty, corporatist globalization, sexism, the degradation of the environment, etc. Instead, like a rutting male who can’t think straight because all the blood has drained from his head and into his penis, we keep screwing the world. (For another post that uses rape as an analogy for US war mongering, as well as a good consideration of why an anti-war stance and feminism coincide, see Punk Ass Blog here.)

I wish our hypermasculine warrior stance would go limp.

I wish that as a nation we would heed the words of the wise Wau Wau Sisters and “Just Pull Out.”

On another note, I also wish there was as much interest in eradicating war and critiquing militarization as there is in so many other topics covered in the blogosphere. While dedicated anti-war or build peace blogs have large followings, it seems blogs focusing on feminism, anti-racism, sexuality, etc don’t generate as much interest when writing on war related topics. I know from my own blog, when I write about beauty, white privilege, or popular culture, I get a lot more readers than when I write about war. I don’t get this — like Kevin Moore from Moore Toons, I am surprised one needs to spell out that war is a feminist issue.

What if advertisements didn’t offer whitewashed messages? (Consuming Whiteness part 3)

The American Heritage Dictionary defines whitewash as “Concealment or palliation of flaws or failures.” The Merriam Webster defines it as “to gloss over or cover up (as vices or crimes).” In both cases, the whiteness is covering (or washing over) flaws, failures, vices. The white is making things better, as when the paint coverage known as ‘whitewash’ is used to protect and beautify buildings/wood/furniture.

This usage of the term white as something that is good, something that is so powerful it can palliate flaws or conceal crimes, reveals the high esteem ‘white’ holds in the western cultural imagination. As a color it is seen as pure, clean, refreshing. When it refers to people, the same positive associations also apply. White people are seen as ‘purely human’ and not animalized or denigrated in the way people of color are. Or, as Chris Matthews would term it, white people are ‘regular people.’  These associations between whiteness and what is better/normal certainly are readily apparent in advertising.

Ads offer a ‘whitewashed’ message that conceals their true intent. They aim to make consumers forget they are viewing an ad. As such, they conceal their ultimate aim – profit. However,  they also are ‘whitewashing’ in a different way–the ads are awash in white imagery and white actors to the point where people of color are rendered invisible, marginalized, or ‘glossed over.’ What such ads conceal is an underlying white supremacist narrative, a narrative that reiterates, again and again, the ideas that white is right, white is better, white is prettier and more healthy.

Yes, there are people of color in advertisements. Notice, though, how often poc are animalized in ads, are made to represent that which is not fully human, not good, not to be trusted, etc. And yes, this is getting somewhat better, but in no way is advertising getting anywhere close to anti-racist messages, let alone anti-sexist ones.

In fact, most advertisements convey white male supremacist messages.  Whites are represented as the most beautiful and successul in ads, while men are represented as the dominant sex.  In relation to male supremacy, ads convey that men are superior mainly via what is not shown — i.e. men are not shown near as often as women in ads as they are constructed as the purveyors of the gaze — hence Laura Mulvey’s arguments about the male gaze. When men are shown, they are usually represented as powerful, domineering, smart, and/or funny (and they are usually fully clothed).  As for women, they are usually objectified — their ‘to be looked at-ness’ as Mulvey calls it, constructs them as objects to be ogled, desired, exploited, etc.

The Got Milk ad campaign is thus not unique in its problematic linkage of whiteness with perfection (or in its objectification of women).  Its valorizaion of “the milk white look” consistently associates milk (white) consumption with goodness, health, and wealth. It’s “milk your diet” campaign associated the thin body with the good, healthy, white body. Its television commercials, although they feature more ‘everyday’ (re: non-celebrity) people than the milk moustache print ads, also suffer from whitewashing. In the commercials, (predominantly white) actors are flummoxed when they find themselves out of milk at inconvenient times. When the actors in the ads are not white, they are whitewashed so they can ‘pass.’

For example, some milk ads are especially targeted towards bi- or multi-cultural teens. One in particular, the La Llorona tv ad, was targeted towards Latino/a Americans. This ad, playing on a humorous rewrite of Mexican folklore, features La Llorona, who, according to legend, drowned her children after being betrayed by her husband.

Traditionally used as a cautionary tale for children, La Llorona is a familiar figure in Latino/a culture. In the commercial, the white clad ghost of La Llorona made her way through a darkened home as she wept eerily. In a humorous turn on this legend, she was not weeping over her lost children or her husband’s unfaithfulness, but rather, over the empty carton of milk she finds in the refrigerator. While the ad attempted to put a funny spin on a cautionary tale, it also worked to belittle Mexican cultural heritage while simultaneously upholding limiting stereotypes. By mocking the weeping and wailing of this cultural figure, the commercial overlooks the fact that La Llorona symbolizes hardship and suffering and often serves as a symbol of female resistance.[ii]

The tale was taken out of context in an act of cultural misappropriation, and viewers (unless they knew of the legend) probably didn’t even realize the ghostly figure was Latina. Thus, the commercial is able to target the Latino/a population without making non-Latino Americans conscious of this. Viewers unaware of the legend most likely interpreted the ad as a humorous ghost story. Tellingly, the ghost can ‘pass’ for white and she seems to haunt an upper middle class house most likely located in white suburbia. The ad thus plays to a Latino audience in one way and to the non-Latino audience in another.

By erasing the cultural context of the La Llorona legend, the commercial took what could have been a culturally aware narrative and dumbs it down, promoting the idea that it’s alright to be ‘ethnic’ in America as long as one’s ethnicity is invisible or hidden. Moreover, those viewers who realized the ghost was meant to be Latina were presented with a stereotypical portrait. Is it mere coincidence that a figure associated with infidelity, violence, and excessive emotion was the figure used to represent (and address) the Latino population of the US? Furthermore, what about the fact that the target audience of this ad, Latino teenagers, is largely lactose intolerant? Perhaps the ad is trying to convey the notion that if young Latino/a’s imbibe this curative white beverage, they can leave their ‘minority’ status behind.

This multi-million dollar Got Milk campaign was prompted by a decline in milk consumption that caused the dairy industry great concern — not because the industry worried about the health of the nation, but rather about waning profits. But, by promoting the ingestion of milk as a necessary, even life-changing practice, these ads also promote a limited idea of what it means to be a ‘proper American.’ To be an American, according to the commercials, one must be thin and attractive and eat ‘real’ American foods. And, if one’s color is not the pure whiteness of milk, one can at least imbibe some whiteness (and the superiority such whiteness is associated with) by partaking of this ‘wholesome’ beverage. (Ironically enough, the ads also play off the ‘wholesomeness’ of milk while simultaneously sexualizing the females used in the advertisements).

Currently, the majority of ads still trade in various “white is right” messages through the representation of white as the norm, as beautiful, as desirable. And, when a person of color is featured in ads, they are often cleaning (as in recent ads for Pledge) or diseased, as in various print ads touting the curative powers of pricey pharmaceuticals. On the other hand, when the message in ads plays on the beauty/desire/power/wealth of the person or people represented, guess what, the actor(s) are usually white. Even the Oprah magazine has ads that feature mainly white people. Thus, the ubiquitous whitewashed message still dominates. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the advertising industry has made much progress colorwashing its narratives.


 

[ii] See, for example, Ana Maria Carbonell, “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlicue In Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros,” Melus: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 24, no.2, Summer (1999): 53-74.

What if beauty wasn’t equated with whiteness? (Beauty Imperatives part 3)

As evidenced on television, in print ads, and in beauty pageants the world over, beauty is rarely envisaged as dark-skinned or morphologically diverse, rather, beauty requires acquiescence to an assembly-line sameness. Typically, the whiter the teeth, the thinner the frame, the straighter and longer the hair, the ligher the skin, the more likely one is to be defined as beautiful.

The surgical-makeover showThe Swan made this homogeneous beauty imperative particular apparent. Suggesting that ethnic markers had to be excised in order to attain Swan status, the show’s surgeons cropped the noses and laser-zapped the ‘hairy’ bodies of its non-Caucasian contestants. More worryingly, one of these contestants, an immigrant from Ecuador, was presented as enacting the American Dream via her surgically modified performance. When her transformation was revealed, she enthused “I came for a dream. An American Dream. And I got it.” Here, by equating the surgical erasure of racial features with the American Dream, the show implicitly suggested that American beauty is defined by the absence of racial or ethnic markers.

Further, in season two, the first and only black contestant was transformed into a white approximation of beauty, with long straightened hair and a ‘de-ethnicized’ nose. While the show avoided racially normalizing procedures such as “upper lid Westernization,” it nevertheless sent the message that making bodies more beautiful involves making them more white.

As the lineup of contestants in the Swan finale revealed, public performances of beauty require long, straight, lightened hair, cropped noses, smooth hairless features, ultra white smiles, and bodies chiseled close to the bone. These finales, via their display of a cartoonish exaggeration of white, able-bodied, heterosexual beauty, encapsulated the show’s message that being beautiful entails the erasure of difference in favor of an excessive performance of the same.

In a seeming echo of the infamous racialized history of the Miss America pageant, The Swan thus upheld Caucasian skin and hair as ideal. Noting that the infamous first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, had to “pass for white” to win, theorist Sarah Banet-Weiser links Williams’ demise to both race and sexuality. Arguing the nude photos of Williams and another woman disrupted the regulated moral boundary of femininity and the institutionalized framework of heterosexuality that defines the Miss America pageant, Banet-Weiser contends that Williams’ downfall was fueled by homophobia. Here, suggesting the heteronormative and racialized aspects of traditional beauty pageants, Banet-Weiser’s work reveals the “complicated cultural work” pageants perform in relation to beauty, femininity, nationhood, class, race, and sexuality.

As Sarah Banet-Weiser’s work on beauty pageants reveals, such contests have long presented so-called beautiful women as liberal citizens enacting democracy and self-agency via their beauty. The Miss America crown, for example, is codified as available for all, just like the ‘American Dream.’ Emphasizing equal opportunity and liberal ideology, beauty pageants thus negotiate conceptions of citizenship, proffering the idea that the ‘true citizen’ is also a beautiful citizen.

But the utopic fantasies currently being disseminated via television are, as the title of the show The Swan suggested, problematically based on a fairy tale narrative. The shows do not in fact offer any sort of improved democracy, let alone widen the definition of who can become a valuable or valued citizen. Rather, they, and their more recent descendents, trade in the message that beauty, done ‘right,’ is white.

What if queer is the new feminist?

The debate over radicalizing the LGBTQ movement put forward by queer theorists and activists verses keeping the movement “mainstream” put forward by gay rights/equal marriage groups reminds me of similar debates within feminism. It’s akin to the ‘do we want women to be equal in an unequal society or do we want to overthrow the whole system’ argument that has colored feminism from the get go.

Claiming the title queer seems to be a similar move to claiming the title feminist – both are politicized identities. On the other hand, “I’m gay, not queer” seems to be a statement comparable to “I’m not a feminist but…” Refusing the term queer (as with refusing the term feminism), is a de-politicizing move. It’s as if you are saying: “I’m ok with the way things are in this unfair game of life, just give me a seat at the table, just give me my gay marriage that looks just like your hetero one.”

I, being one for in your face radicalism (and a big fan of Emma Goldman), call for loudly and proudly claiming these identities. That’s why I particularly enjoyed a book I read and reviewed for Feminist Review. If your into resisting assimilation, or interested in queer activism, it’s great read. I have pasted the review below or you can read it at the Feminist Review site here.

That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation

Edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Soft Skull Press

That’s Revolting, in thirty-two essays, covers the breadth and depth of queer activism. It is not a queer theory anthology, but a primer in, as the subtitle suggests, “queer strategies for resisting assimilation.” The broad coverage of the book is both a strength and a weakness. On the plus side, the wide-range gives readers a succinct, entertaining overview of queer history and activism over the last 40+ years. The writing is strong throughout, emphasizing an in-your-face analysis laced with humor.

The anthology does a particularly fine job stressing the intersectionality of privilege and oppression, and for anyone unsure about the differences between ‘gay rights’ and ‘queer activism’ (or merely what ‘queer identity’ means), That’s Revolting delivers a witty, angry, and thought-provoking introduction to the Q word. Taken as a Cliff’s Notes of queer activism, the text serves as an inspirational guidebook for the queer activist in training.

On the less positive side, the book lacks any overview of queer theory. While a number of pieces nod to theoretical underpinnings, none of the writings examine in detail the links between queer theory and praxis. Granted, the book proclaims its activism agenda up front and does not purport to cover queer theory. However, given the importance of queer theory in the academy, as well as the ways queer theory has undoubtedly informed queer activism, this omission seems unfortunate (especially given the explosive growth of queer theory in the past 10 or so years).

Putting that minor criticism aside, the book does a phenomenal job of including voices from many margins. From questioning Zionism to mocking Dr. Laura, from discussing queer parenting strategies to exploring the need for “restroom revolutionaries” (or activists that addresses public restrooms exclusion of trans and disabled people), from tackling the divergent as well as overlapping issues of queer inter-city youth to examining how race, class, disability, and geographic locations shape, limit, and police queer identity, the book’s thorough coverage is laudable.

That’s Revolting is especially topical in its coverage of the move to legalize gay marriage, which it defines as a “gay assimilationist” stance. Via analysis spread throughout the anthology, various writers reveal the problems with ‘normalizing’ or socially sanctioning certain sexualities and gender identities. A number of the writers indicate that those identifying as ‘gay’ or ‘gay rights activists’, rather than as ‘queer’, are mainstream sellouts. While this may seem severe, overall the book is very convincing in its claim that ‘queer’ is the politicized identity the LGBT movement needs to adopt if it really wishes to undo the white-supremacist, classist, ableist, heteronormative mandates of society.

For its provocative, original coverage of queer identities and activisms, this nifty little anthology deserves a read. And, as a bonus, you can shock (and maybe even inspire) onlookers who take a gander at the cover as you lug the book (as I did) from doctors’ waiting rooms to public swimming pools to the school carpool pickup. Perhaps by just putting the That’s Revolting cover in the public’s face, you can take your first steps toward “queer strategies for resisting assimilation.”

What if the United States was not wrapped in camouflage? (Bodies of War part 3)

Along with the abstract, disembodied, and dehumanized language of war used by the military, the media, and the administration, we in the US are given comforting ‘bedtime stories’ by our MSM that attempt to lull us off to sleep with images of America as the knight in shining armor poised to save the innocent and oppressed maidens of Afghanistan or battle the evil villains of ‘terrorism.’ Part of this narrative relies on a pro-military media and culture that envisions military might as necessary.

As feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe reveals, contemporary American culture is one of pervasive militarization. From the Hummers that now rule our roads, to the camouflage attire available for all ages at everywhere from Target to Neiman Marcus, to the endless yellow ribbons and ‘support our troops’ bumper decorations that bedeck vehicles of all sizes and shapes, militarized images and commodities are everywhere.

However, the militarization of our culture does not seem to be accompanied by awareness, let alone an analysis, of what this pervasive militarism entails. Teenagers in camouflage t-shirts or suburbanites driving Hummers are not cognizant – nor are they promoted to be – of the realities of militarization around the globe, let alone the contemporary war in Iraq. As a case in point, in a recent survey in a San Diego paper that queried people if they were more worried about rising gas prices or the war, one person admitted they tend to forget a war is even happening while another noted that gas prices were more concerning as “I drive a big truck.”[1] What goes unspoken in these comments is the unblinking belief that the massive loss of life as well as continuing destruction of the infrastructure, culture, and value system of various Middle Eastern countries brought about by the war is on par with what we have to pay at the pump. And, as the comment above notes, trading in that ‘big truck’ is not worth an Iraqi life, let alone an end to war.

Further, that the paper could in good conscience and without public outrage even ask such a question reveals a very worrying amnesiac thought pattern in the contemporary US. The media, this newspaper being an example, does not foreground the war, how it is linked to oil interests, and how all this is linked to the profit driven corporatization of the globe – rather, it asks facile questions about the everyday cost of gas.

This outright failure of the media to address the excessive and continually rising militarization of US culture is criminal, as is its excessively sparse coverage of the war. Other than brief mentions of the death toll, or of superficial stories characterizing Iraqi’s as a crazy, violent people who insist on insurgency, civil war, and self-flagellation, the media does little to incite the American public to be concerned about the war, let alone analyze its root causes and motives. This is, of course, because the media is in the back pocket of those who benefit from militarization – our corporate, conservative, and religious right leaders who see the world as an oyster they can squeeze profit out of right until ‘end time.’

The mainstream media has become a huge propaganda machine, keeping Americans fearful, dumb, and shopping. It prompts them to be frightened of ‘terrorist attacks’ and be in a tizzy over ‘homeland security’ in order to allow the administration to enact neo-conservative domestic policies while simultaneously urging them to forget about the realities of the war we are waging and the extreme bodily, environmental, and monetary costs of our growing war machine. In fact, the sedatives offered by the media are so powerful that many fail to realize what the Hummers populating are streets represent-a militarization so ubiquitous that camouflage has become the new black, that driving a tank has become as common as sliced bread. Yes, the peace sign has made a comeback and adorns t-shirts, mailbags, and bumper-stickers as well-but, unfortunately, it is not backed by the same might (or money) of camouflage-there is no peace army, at least not one that can stay out of jail long enough to foment revolution or garner enough media attention to wake up a sleeping, camouflage wearing populace.


[1] Poway News Chieftan, May 18, 2006

What if you (don’t) got white skin? (Consuming Whiteness part 2)

As sociologist E. Melanie Dupuis suggests in her book Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, milk was one of the first foods to be mass labelled as ‘good’ and ‘necessary.’[i]Coinciding with the rise of milk as a perfect food was the rise of ideas concerning what it meant to be a ‘perfect American.’ As Dupuis reveals, “milk is more than a food, it is an embodiment of the politics of American identity over the last 150 years.” For instance, as early as the 1920’s, National Dairy Council pamphlets subtly linked racial superiority to the ingestion of milk through such practices as picturing malnourished children in “Old World garb” alongside healthy children in modern American fashions. Implicit in these ads was the suggestion that drinking milk allowed one to shed the ‘dark’ stigma associated with being an immigrant and assimilate into ‘white America.’

Of course, milk was not the only food used to integrate a diverse populace. As Donna Gabaccia argues in We Are What We Eat, waves of immigration were often accompanied by campaigns to ‘Americanize’ immigrant diets. According to these campaigns, part of ‘becoming American’ was letting go of cultural/ethnic foodways and learning to ‘eat like an American.” While in the US we now relish eating all sorts of foods, there is still an emphasis on ‘properly assimilating.’ For example, in the contemporary USA, this ‘Americanization’ plays itself out via the ‘English only’ or ‘English speaking customers only’ signs that often grace restaurants in border towns. It is further apparent in the ways certain cultural eating practices are denigrated linguistically via terms such as ‘beaner’ or ‘rice rocket.’

This is the modern day equivalent to earlier times, when those who ate ‘ethnic’ were seen as failing to become properly assimilated into American culture. For example, there was a marked repugnance to immigrant foodways during the first decade of the twentieth century. During this time, dieticians and social workers emphasized the unhealthiness of ethnic diets and attempted to persuade immigrants to give up their ‘spicy ways.’ As Gabaccia notes, one of the common chidings against immigrant diets was that they included “too little milk”.[iv]Disclosing that “the lack of interest in milk among Asians and southern Europeans” was “shocking to American sensibilities,” Gabaccia reveals the longstanding association between milk consumption and ‘proper’ American citizens.[v]

However, despite these “campaigns for culinary Americanization,” as Gabaccia terms them, the ingestion of milk (and American identity by extension) was not as easy as the ads, social workers, and dietitians suggested. For, far from stubbornly holding onto ‘ethnic foodways’ and eschewing the supposed curative powers of milk, many people were (and still are) literally unable to readily stomach this white concoction. As Dupuis and others remind us, the majority of the world’s population cannot easily digest milk. Northern Europeans and their descendants are tellingly the group that can tolerate this ‘purifying’ beverage. As Dupuis argues, the “establishment of white racial hegemony and the celebration and purification of a white substance digested predominantly by this group” is “more than accidental”.[vi]

In fact, the glorification of milk coincides with white hegemonic practice and has served to enforce ideas of racial superiority through – of all things – the ability to digest dairy products. Just as milk has been deemed the ‘perfect’ food, so too have whites been deemed the ‘perfect’ race. But, as Dupuis reminds us, “The privileged discourse about the perfection of milk has left out those people – mostly people of color – who are genetically lactose-intolerant. The perfect whiteness of this food and the white body genetically capable of digesting it in large quantities become linked. By declaring milk perfect, white northern Europeans announced their own perfection.” Nutritionists, historians, dietitians, the American government, and most recently, the “Got Milk” ad campaign have fostered this association. For example, in the 1920’s, the famous nutritionist E.V. McCollum proclaimed the following:

The people who have achieved, who have become large, strong, vigorous people, who have reduced their infant mortality, who have the best trades in the world, who have an appreciated for art, literature and music, who are progressive in science and every activity of the human intellect are the people who have used liberal amounts of milk and its products.[viii]

Along similar lines, historian Ulysses Hedrick claimed in 1933:

A casual look at the races of people seems to show that those using much milk are the strongest physically and mentally, and the most enduring peoples of the world. Of all races, the Aryans seem to have been the heaviest drinkers of milk …a fact they may in part account for the quick and high development of this division of human beings.[ix]

Various activist groups have recognized milk as a “racist product,” pointing out that the majority of the non-white population in the US is lactose intolerant. Due to complaints from such activists, the dairy industry was forced to change their tag line “Milk, it does a body good”. For African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latino Americans, among others, milk, far from ‘doing a body good,’ often causes bloating, nausea, diarrhoea, cramps, etc. Conveniently though, a 450 million dollar industry of lactose intolerance products was (profitably) designed to meet this dietary fact. In capitalist America, it is, of course, more lucrative to promote pricey pharmaceuticals rather than endorse soy beverages or green vegetables as alternative sources of calcium.

The refusal to admit that milk doesn’t do most bodies good is also related to the fact that milk is a big-money industry. This industry is the impetus behind the got milk ads — a campaign aimed at increasing declining milk consumption. Thus, even though milk has been revealed to not be that healthy after all, the money behind this white beverage hides this information behind a clever ad campaign, a campaign so successful that the phrase “Got Milk” is recognized by 90% of Americans.

As Shanti Rangwani writes at Race History, milk is more like white poison than a curative beverage to many:

Got milk? If not, then thank your lucky stars. Because if you do, medical research shows that you are likely to be plagued by anemia, migraine, bloating, gas, indigestion, asthma, prostate cancer, and a host of potentially fatal allergies–especially if you are a person of color.

Ignoring this, the government declares that milk is essential to good health, subsidizes the milk industry to the tune of billions of dollars, and requires milk in its public school lunch programs. And celebrity shills sporting milk mustaches tell us that milk is rich in proteins, calcium, and vitamins–and very cool to boot.

The promotion of dairy products is thus not an innocent affirmation of a supposedly essential product. Rather, the encouragement to drink milk is economically motivated, and, more ominous still, fails to take into account the racial diversity of the populace. Dietary guidelines and food pyramids suggest dairy is a fundamental, easily digested product that should be a key part of every American’s diet. Yet, as Rangwani further writes,

…milk is also a racial issue. Almost 90 percent of African Americans and most Latinos, Asians, and Southern Europeans lack the genes necessary to digest lactose, the primary sugar in milk. The milk industry’s response is classic: they have launched new campaigns arguing that non-whites can digest milk if they take in small sips during the day. There is a burgeoning industry worth $450 million a year churning out products designed to minimize lactose intolerance.

 Lactose intolerance is the most common “food allergy,” but to call it an allergy is to take a white-centric view that trivializes the fact that most of the world’s people are not biologically designed to digest milk.

Milk does no body good, but for the vast majority of the world’s people–people of color–it is a public health disaster

Despite the fact that for the majority of people of color milk is a ‘health disaster,’ the Got Milk ads, (which, for the most part, feature famous white people) set up an erroneous equation between milk consumption and health (not to mention weight loss, athletic ability, beauty, success, fame, wealth, etc). The milk moustache ads, which feature supermodels, actors, musicians, famous athletes, and politicians, imply that drinking milk is the key to opportunity, fame, and fortune. Although the ads portrayed some diversity in terms of race, class, and social background, the people of color that do appear are, ironically, often lactose intolerant. Whoopi Goldberg, for example, appears in a milk print ad- although she has to take lactose intolerance medication to consume milk.

The ads, through their continued focus on milk as a white drink, also often refer to the superiority of whiteness. While some may argue that this is a merely a marketing tactic with no racial undertones, it is problematic to ally whiteness with perfection in a country with a long, ugly past (and present) of racism. Take, for example, the milk ad featuring a young white woman with copy reading “the milk white look.” Not only is the ad equating consuming milk with ‘consuming’ this white woman (and thus sexually objectifying her), it is also claiming that ‘the milk white look’ is desirable, sexy, beautiful, etc. This message that white is better is conveyed in a number of ads. For example, in a milk moustache ad that features country singer Clint Black, the copy reads: “My favorite color? White of course”. Or, as the ad suggests, even those who are named ‘Black,’ really prefer white.

Recent milk moustache ads have featured Sheryl Crow, Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Hurley, David Beckham, Miley Cirus, Christian Bale, and, yes, Beyonce. But, the majority of ads show white people or, when they do feature people of color those featured tend to accord to ‘white beauty’ norms. This gives the t-shirts featuring the “Got White Privilege” or “Got Privilege” taglines yet another spin — when you are a POWP (person of white privilege), one of your ‘privileges’ is that you are likely to be featured in advertisements as representing purity, beauty, success, etc.  Another is the ‘privilege’ of likely being able to drink the supposedly pure, healthy, curative white milk.

Of course, milk is not pure (unless you consider growth hormones pure) and is neither healthy or curativefor the majority of people. Nevertheless, the US still equates wholesomeness, purity, and good health with milk. Just last week my daughter stayed at her cousin’s house where she was only allowed milk as it is ‘good for you.’ Too shy to refuse to drink it, she has been suffering stomach pains as milk does not do her body good. And, today, my aunt reprimanded me when I told her my kids don’t drink milk.  These relatives of mine are not unique I suspect — they, like many other Americans, have been misled by a very successful ad campaign into believing that a beverage that is unhealthy and damaging to the majority of the world’s populace ‘does a body good.’ Not only is it an unhealthy product for many, it is also promoted via a racist narrative that conveys a white supremacist paradigm.


[i]Melanie Dupuis, Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 10.

[ii]Dupuis 8.

[iii]Dupuis 118.

[iv]Donna Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 123.

[v]Gabaccia 124.

[vi]Dupuis, Nature’s Perfect Food, 14.

[vii]Dupuis 11.

[viii]Dupuis 117.

[ix]Dupuis 117-18.

[x] “Milk Madness,” Consumer Freedom , 3 December 2002, <http://www.consumerfreedom. com/headline_detail.cfm?HEADLINE_ID=1695> (12 January 2003).

[xi]PrkStRangr@aol.com, “Got Bilked,” Animal Writes: The Official Animal Writes Online Newsletter, 20 October 1999, http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/1395/aro991020.html (12 January 2003).

What if we refused to take part in a controlling, panopticon-style gaze of our own and others’ bodies? (Beauty Imperatives part 2)


The trend to glorify the edited texts and ‘edited’ bodies of Reality TV necessitates a consideration of how the Reality TV genre is defining a very particular version of American subjecthood. Reality TV opens up new possibilities as well as new limitations for representational politics. Unfortunately, the representational politics of makeover shows offer far more limitations, especially in relation to the representation of race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability.

Reality TV profoundly impacts what counts as a ‘normal body’, as a ‘beautiful body’, and shapes new realms of social power in which certain types of bodies are deemed more ‘real,’ or inhabitable, than others. Of course, Reality TV effects far more than beauty/appearance standards. It also enforces ideas, stereotypes, and normalizing criteria in relation to race, class, age, abitlity, sexuality, etc. According to most Reality TV, the world is like the cast of Friends— white, hetero, middle class, attractive by conventional standards, etc. But, unlike sitcoms and other fictional TV, the reality genre functions according to a ‘reality paradigm’ — a set up that claims to show the ‘truth’ about people and thier lives.  This representational stance is far different as it conveys expectations and norms of normal subjecthood. In effect, it has made celebrity culture, or the obsessive watching/judging of others, something that is now done to everyone, not just to celebrities. By promoting new and increased surveillance of the ‘real individual,’ reality TV has made the judicious watching and ‘sizing up’ of others – and ourselves – a natural (and even expected) component of everyday life. 

While many people featured on reality tv are characterized by extreme personalities and behaviors (for supposedly added extra entertainment value), this is where the extremity ends. Those featured may be bizarre personality/action-wise, but, for the most part, are ‘normal’ according to other criteria, such as body size, ability, appearance, age, class standing, etc. The message here seems it’s ok to be a bitch as long as you are ‘hot,’ it’s ok to be a pathological liar if you have a nice six pack, it’s entertaining to be a racist, especially if you can look cute while doing it.

Worryingly, Reality TV summons us to survey others with a judgmental, all-pervading gaze in everday life. It directs us to critique private actions, beliefs, and conversations, to put others under a punitive surveillance. At the same time, it also promotes a degree of self-surveillance, a tendency to judge oneself via the standards of particular reality shows. In relation to The Swan, for example, viewers were prompted to judge their own appearance against those of the surgically altered ‘Swans.’ In relation to the many hetero-romance scripts (The Bachelorette et al) viewers are encouraged to judge their own and others relationships by fairy tale standards.

This panoptical impulse that Reality TV fosters is particularly evident when one examines audience reception and fan readings of reality shows. As various web sites devoted to Reality TV evince, many people are avid viewers, watching shows with the minutest attention to detail and then reporting back with episode recaps, blogs, queries, comments and/or chat.

Further, fans seem to very closely identify with certain show participants or certain situations. For instance, fans of The Swan discussed their favorite contestants, forecasted who would win the pageant, criticized those whose makeovers they saw as less than perfect, commented on appearance ‘defects’ they felt they shared with certain contestants, and continually discussed their desires to be on the show. In so doing, these viewers created a public dialogue that began to redefine standards of beauty, acceptable appearance, and desired behavior. In effect, their identifications reinforced the shows message that appearance is all and, by colluding and promoting this message on the internet (and presumably in their private lives as well), such fans worked to further inscribe and uphold the beauty imperative so rampant in contemporary USA.

One of the most common viewer responses seemed to be uncritical adoration of the show accompanied by a marked desire to become a ‘swan.’ Moreover, as post after Internet post revealed, viewer responses were marked by a particularly brutal surveillance of appearance. Offering scathing critiques of contestants’, such commentary seemed to have a sadistic impulse colored by envy, competition, and scorn. Worryingly, this scrutiny of the body was often then turned inwards, with posters reflecting on their own ‘ugliness,’ their own need for surgical intervention.

But, what is we refused to take part in this controlling, negative gazing? What if we decided to move outside of the prison house of the panapticon wherein we are directed to discipline ourselves and others?  Well, it would mean a lot more self esteem would be flowing. And, a lot less money for the corporate machines that profit off self/body hatred.  Sounds like a good option all around to me.

***FYI, If you are not familiar with the concept of the panoptican, read Foucault (especially Discipline and Punish). Even if you are, read Foucault! His work is fabulous.There are also many good feminist theorists who respond to/further his work such as Judith Butler, Sandra Bartky, Susan Bordo…

What if the war was news? (Bodies of War part 2)

When certain types of bodies are deemed as ‘Other’ or less worthy, or, as Judith Butler would term it, “as lives not worth living,” they become subject to treatment that denies not only their bodily materiality, but also their very humanity. Currently many such bodies become war fodder – ‘collateral damage’ that is not ‘worth’ worrying about. Certain bodies have become subject to torture, imprisonment, starvation, and various other forms of violent onslaught. However, in order for the public to accept this visceral attack on humanity, a culture of dehumanization is necessary.

One of the ways this disembodying of war is achieved is via current war practices in which those doing the killing are often far removed from those being killed. Aerial bombing, so called ‘smart bombs,’ implanting of landmines, daisy cutter bombs, dropping of white phosphorous – all of these war practices allow those being killed to be put under erasure (especially because so much of these antics are done not only from high in the sky but also under the cover of night, when the bodies on the ground are shrouded by darkness and/or the walls of their homes). Various rhetoric also allows for bodies to be abstracted into ‘targets’ to more readily justify and/or hide their killing while the media simultaneously dehumanizes death by couching it in metaphor, statistics, or euphemism. Ironically, as scholar Philip Neisser notes, “many in the United States who have adamantly refused to objectify the deaths caused by the World Trade Center attack (one person said, ‘five thousand people didn’t die here; five thousand individuals died’) have nonetheless helped to objectify the lives of others”.[1]

This disembodying war coverage is also apparent amongst various military intellectuals and ‘think tanks’ – the groups that are involved in designing weapons and orchestrating war ‘strategy.’ Mainstream ‘news’ often draws on the professional language of such defense analysts, as feminist scholar Carol Cohn discusses in her article “Wars, Wimps, and Women.” As Cohn’s article attests, in order to make war decisions palatable, when you are calculating the death toll of certain actions “you do not discuss the bloody reality behind the calculations.”[2]

As Cohn further notes, “most defense intellectuals believe that emotion and description of human reality distort the process required to think well about nuclear weapons and warfare.”[3] Thus, the tried and true practice of ‘war games’ is put into effect, wherein war is conveniently abstracted into a competition with dehumanised winners and losers. Within this disembodied war rhetoric, a number of things remain unspoken. For example, “any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction” must not be uttered.[4] Second, the ‘outcome’ of using certain weapons “may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with his skin hanging down in strips.”[5] In other words, human lives and human bodies need to be kept out of the picture, both literally and figuratively.

Hiding the bodily costs of the war, the MSM is currently carrying on another American wartime tradition: ignoring civilian casualties. As with Gulf War I, when the US killed upwards of 100,000 Iraqi citizens and then held an embargo that led to over a million deaths and the MSM didn’t bat an eyelash, American military action and the wider practices of American corporate global imperialism are now killing, starving, deforming, torturing and raping Middle Eastern citizens by the thousands, yet, what the MSM keeps reminding us of is the ‘small’ military death toll of, at this writing, 4,116.
What the MSM does not deign to remind the American public of is people such as the 16-year-old ice cream vendor who, accoding to Mark Herold, “lost his leg and two fingers in a Cruise missile strike on an airfield near his home” on the first day of US invasion. Nor does the MSM emphasize civilian casualties in imagery or coverage. As Herold argues, “A growing disconnect exists between the daily reality of war experienced by the common Afghan and how this war is represented to the American general public by the corporate media.”

A further problem in this erasure of the bodily costs of war is the fact that the U.S. media is very selective about what casualty reports it considers valid. As Herold reminds us, “the only casualty reports considered ‘real’ by the mainstream U.S. press are those either issued by a western enterprise or organization, or ‘independently verified’ by western individuals and/or organizations. In other words, the high levels of civilian casualties reported elsewhere…are simply written off as ‘enemy propaganda’ and ignored.”

Another problem is the relative ‘worth’ delegated to certain types of bodies – to put it bluntly, an American soldier’s life is construed as ‘worth’ far more than an Iraqi child’s according to US military policy. As Herold notes, “From the point of view of U.S. policy makers and their mainstream media lackeys, the ‘cost’ of a dead Afghan civilian is zero (as long as these civilian deaths are hidden from the public) but the ‘benefits’ of preserving U.S. military lives is enormous, given the U.S. public’s aversion to returning body bags in this post-Vietnam era. The absolute need to avoid U.S. military casualties requires flying high up in the sky, greatly increasing the probability of killing civilians.”

Here, Herold reveals two key issues – civilian deaths are not only hidden and ‘written off,’ they are also caused by an us/them ideology in which ‘our’ lives are worth protecting, and ‘theirs’ are not. In fact, the MSM goes so far as to only report American deaths. The Chicago Sun Times, for example, reported the first deaths of the war two weeks after our invasion of Afghanistan- of course these ‘first’ deaths were only the first American deaths – many, many apparently irrelevant Afghan lives had been lost at this point – the majority of them civilians.[6] As Herold notes, “For the most part, the major U.S. corporate media appear to have obeyed the Pentagon directives and given sparse coverage to the topic of civilian casualties.” This ‘sparse coverage’ continues – in fact, while casualties and other atrocities are escalating, general war coverage is shrinking.

We must consider, what would happen if we had a free and independent, investigative media that delivered thorough war coverage? If we did, we just might see what has been termed “the Vietnam syndrome” return with a vengeance. Instead, the media lulls us into apathy with stories of celebrities, athletes, and the latest diet trends.

Next time you (are forced to) watch or read the MSM (if you do or have to because those you live with do) remind yourself that we are at war. Then, click off the CNN or FOX, put down the local paper, and find yourself some real, non-corporate media just about the only place you can-on the internet or in the pages of the few remaining independent magazines/papers.


[1] Neisser, Philip T. “Targets.” Collaterol Language. Ed. John Collins and Ross Glover. New York: NY UP, 2002. 152

[2] Cohn, Carol. “Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War.” In Men’s Lives, edited by Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner. Boston, Pearson, 2007. 593.

[3] Cohn, 593.

[4] Cohn, 594.

[5] Cohn, 594.

[6] Neisser, 144