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.

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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