What if Trump is the Real-World Version of Negan? Thoughts on the 2016 American Presidential Election through a Walking Dead Lens

While not shying away from the realities of all the work that must be done to forge ahead so as not to let liberty die under Trump’s towering ego, I am currently finding viewing Trump through the fictional lens of a zombie apocalypse both apt and cathartic. If there is any character that seems Trump’s fictional double, it is Negan – the hyper-villainous leader of Sanctuary introduced in Season 6 of AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Negan, drunk on power, makes his followers bow before him, rules not with an iron fist but a bat wrapped in barb-wire. He amasses wealth and resources through oppression and fear. In The Walking Dead series, he has built a safe-haven surrounded by a wall. To live inside his “Sanctuary,” one must give up their individual identity, their personal relationships, and become one of his minions, willing to do his bidding. The wall surrounding Sanctuary is guarded by chained zombies who serve as a sort of flesh-eating border control. These zombies stop anyone getting easily in or out. And is this not key to Trump’s visions of wall-building? Not only does Trump want to keep certain immigrants out of America, he wants to keep CERTAIN people in as well and keep them beholden to his vision of a “great America.”

After his wind, some found Trump’s acceptance speech rather conciliatory, interpreting his vow to serve and unite “all Americans” was a sign that the hate-speech that fueled his campaign trail was just grand-standing. I think not. I think his statement hinges on his definition of “American” – an exclusive category in his mind that exists of the white and the right (and those willing to serve them) –  to those that believe in all those constitutional things the conservative right holds so dear – gun ownership, amassing capital, manifest destiny, America as “the greatest country on earth.” Trump and Negan are kindred spirits here as well.

While the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead introduced us to the hyper-violent Negan, a man who revels pummeling people’s heads to a pulpy mush and whose idea of fun is forcing a parent to face cutting off their child’s arm with an axe, the third episode of the current season, “Cell,” gave us far more details regarding this uber-creepy leader of Sanctuary. In the premier, Daryl was taken prisoner for protesting Negan’s killings and violently removed from the scene, much like resisters at Trump rallies. In “Cell,” we learn Daryl is locked in solitary confinement. Deprived of sleep and fed one dog-food sandwich a day, Daryl is tortured with an upbeat song played on loop to prevent him from sleeping. The lyrics of the song bare analysis:

We’re on easy street, And it feels so sweet, Cause the world is but a treat, When you’re on easy street. And we’re breaking out the good champagne, We’re sitting pretty on the gravy train, And when we sing every sweet refrain, Right here on easy street. It’s our moment in the sun, And it’s only just begun, It’s time to have a little fun, We’re inviting you to come and see why you should be, On easy street. Yea we got a front row seat, O, to a life that can’t be beat, Right here on easy street, It’s our moment in the sun, And it’s only just begun.”

To consider this in relation to Trump, certainly his life on “easy street” feels “sweet.”. When you lack any moral compass and live a life framed around amassing as much wealth, power, and doing as much “pussy grabbing” as possible, all while believing you fully deserve to “sit pretty on the gravy train” and drink “good champagne,” well surely your believe that you deserve your “front row seat” to “ a life that can’t be beat.” That this life is one that depends on “easy money usually gotten by illegal means,” as the idiomatic/etymological origins of the term “gravy train” suggests, is key to remember. Trump’s “easy street” (which 1% of the world’s population lives on), is made easy on the backs of the other 99% – a good portion of whom, in the U.S., voted for the very man that supports such a stark economic divide based in sexism, racism, classism and so on. This feel-good ditty also links to the way bigotry and racism are framed as “individual problems” that come to those who don’t accept the “invitation” to join life on easy street. The type of “easy” framing used in the song and Trump’s rhetoric denies the systemic, generational, deep-seated aspects of racism (as well argued here).

 Trump, like Negan, is a champion of the individual – that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” lie that feeds the myth of meritocracy. Such individualism encourages people to feel they deserve their “moment in the sun” regardless of who or what has to suffer as consequence. Worryingly, as history teaches us, giving despotic tryrants more power generally escalates their despotism, thus, Trump’s “moment” has likely “only just begun.” Trump/Negan types don’t turn over a “good leaf” once handed the keys to the kingdom – no, they go the way of Caesar, swelling up already overblown egos and inevitably banging the drums of war and hate ever more urgently.

In the Walking Dead comics, as well as in his televised depiction so far, Negan is a bully running an autocratic enclave of humans who survive by stealing from others. His fondness for hyperbole and profanity echoes Trump’s style of speech – one devoid of any substance other than egotistical boasting and hateful rhetoric. His kingdom is located in a former factory where the men serve as soldiers/laborers and the women as sex slaves. Believing the best way to have power over another man is “by fucking his vagina,” Negan not only subscribes to the view of women as men’s property, but actively ‘steals’ women from other men, amassing a “harem of wives” and insisting all females of Sanctuary belong to him. Meanwhile, he claims to be anti-rape (remind anyone of Trump?).

A loose cannon, Negan vacillates from bullying to threatening to bombastic bragging. Incredibly sneaky and manipulative, he will do and say anything to maintain power. Ruling over what he calls his “new world order” mainly through threats of violence substantiated by torture and murder, Negan uses fear and intimidation as his main means to power, dehumanizing people and forcing them into submission if they wish to remain alive.

Is this not what Trump wishes to do with those he plans to welcome into his “great America”? In short, his Americans will need to tow the line and to swallow various lies used to justify abhorrent acts and policies so that his version of “American Dream” (read white, right, male, uber-capitalist) can thrive. This will allow his ilk to continue stamping their business-suited, designer-shoed tyranny over the nation and the world – at the expense, of course, of working class Americans who will not benefit from Trump’s vision, of middle-class Americans who have less buying power than they have ever had along with less prospects for future growth, of students misled into an increasingly corporatized academic system which graduates them into a society of underpaid and not enough jobs, of the minorities and the marginalized (people of color, Muslims, immigrants, women, the queer, the disabled) who will variously continue to have their humanity trumped on by police brutality, Islamophobia, threats of deportation, repeals of reproductive rights, a return to “conversion therapy” for non-heterosexuals, and a society that condones the mocking of those with non-normative bodies, be they disabled, fat, of the ‘wrong’ skin color.

Way too many voters bought into Trump’s message. Surely, many did so out of desperation. And this is not the time for us to turn against those misled by this sneaky fucker. Trump assaulted the populace, much as Negan assaults the post-apocalyptic survivors of The Walking Dead. They both use fear as a weapon, spew condescension, and have egos so over-inflated it’s a wonder their ballooned heads don’t find them floating above ground.

In his latest assault on Alexandrians, Negan forced Rick to hold his weapon of choice, the bat Lucille, while he lorded all over town insulting people with quips about their weight and tossing off various rape threats like so many jokes – Negan, like Trump, sees “grabbing the pussy” as his birthright. Negan plunders medicine, weapons, beds, and various other supplies from the Alexandria safe-zone while strutting around like cock-of-the-walk, pretending his tyranny is oh-so-charming. Before leaving, he acts as if he has done Rick a great favor by not killing anyone and forces Rick to thank him. Smug as ever, he tell Rick, “I just slid my dick down your throat, and you thanked me for it.” It seems to me this might be something like what Trump is repeating on loop in that puffed up noggin of his while we, as a nation, have Trump shoved down our throats.

The question is, what are we going to do in order to spit him out, cut off his power, and show that we are not a fearful bunch of neophytes, but rather have Michonne’s rebellious determination, Rosita’s strategy skills, Father Gabriel’s ability to play nice while figuring out how to turn the tides, Eugene’s technological savvy, and Carol’s shape-shifting abilities. In addition to adopting the skill set of the human survivors of The Walking Dead, so too must we become like a rising tide of walkers, a mass that will not stop shuffling towards Trump and his ilk until we bring them down. Not as brainless zombies but as the awakened masses. Only in rising, in moving forward, step by painful step, in refusing to cede our humanity, can we take down the infection that Trump has unleashed. Whether we do this wearing safety pins or Black Lives Matter t-shirts, by disrupting racism, or simply by day in and day out refusals to be accomplices to the hate and fear Trump represents, we can do it. We will. We must.

What if those bruises are just “decorations”? Thoughts on Breaking Dawn’s Morning-After Scene featuring a bruised (and feathered!) Bella Swan

With the wide release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1 looming, what scene are you most anxious to see?

If the stars and attendees at Comic-Con are any indication, most people name the wedding or the birth scene. Not me. I am most anxious to see the morning after scene. And, I do mean ANXIOUS, not EXCITED, as I have trepidation regarding how this scene will be handled. Though Bella admittedly WANTS sex with Edward, does she also want the bruises that result?

There has been much debate regarding if the morning after scene represents sexual violence, violent consensual sex, hidden messages about women being “punished” for sexual desire and so on. As a recap, here are some details from the book:

Before Edward and Bella do the deed, when they are standing in the moonlit ocean, he says “if I hurt you, you must tell me at once.” This quote lends credence to those who argue we cannot place blame on Edward, as do other quotes where Bella notes she does not remember ever feeling pain.

As in the above parody, Edward is let of the hook for causing so many “decorations” on her body.  While Bella seems to relish her newly “decorated” body, he feels remorse, saying to the waking Bella the next morning: “How badly are you hurt, Bella? The truth—don’t downplay it.”

Bella assesses her body, noting “stiffness, and a lot of soreness” and “the odd sensation my bones all had become unhinged at the joints,” but also notes her happiness on “this most perfect of mornings.” Here, we could read this as understandable post-sex session soreness and equally understandable post-multiple-orgasm euphoria.

The problem is though, Bella is not just sore, she is covered in black and purple bruises – bruises which cause Edward to say “Stop acting like I’m not a monster for having agreed to this” and “Look at yourself, Bella. Then tell me I’m not a monster.”

To this, Bella “followed his instructions unthinkingly” (as she does all too damn often in the books!) and at first only focuses on “the fluffy white snow” that clings to her skin and hair. It is only at Edward’s insistence she looks at her arm that she has “large purplish bruises” that “blossom across the pale skin.”

Here, Edward is again presented as the kind, caring guy, and she as the oblivious, feather-covered sap. Sure, she is blissed out in post-coital mode, but must she speak of her bruises in flowery terms (“blossom”)?!? This description problematically suggests, as does the later use of the term “decorated,” that Bella’s body is beautifully and lovingly MARKED by Edward, harkening to the age-old notion of woman as man’s property to mark on as he pleases – the one that the institution of marriage they just entered into is historically based on.

As Bella looks at the bruises that “trail” up to her shoulder and across her ribs, Edward places “his hand against the bruises on my arm…matching his long fingers to the patterns.” So, indeed, he has quite literally marked her with his handprints, turning her body into a decorated object of “violet blotches.” However, Edward is not held up as the baddie here and Bella is presented as the happiest she has ever been.

Edward does not share her euphoria though, insisting “I’m… so sorry, Bella…I knew better than this. I should not have–…I am more sorry than I can tell you.” So, flipping the traditionally gendered script, he has morning after regrets, she does not.

But might we read her euphoria as more indication that she does not take sex seriously enough – that she is a “bad girl” who wants it too much and is punished for her desires? Or, are we supposed to read her as a sexually liberated, kinky vixen who likes her sex rough? While both readings are tenable, given the strong pro-abstinence messages of the saga, the religious underpinnings of the text, and the “sex is dangerous” message that permeates the books, the first reading is more apt.

Further, Bella is not really presented as sexually confident or in the know – she has to ASK if Edward enjoyed it, and says incredulously to his insistence that he most certainly did,  “Really? The best ever?” That she asks this “in a small voice” only furthers the notion that she is sexually naïve, small, and silent – or, in other words, a “good girl” gone bad – a bruised apple, so to speak.

Perhaps no other scene in the saga so crosses the lines between sex as bad, sex as enjoyable, Bella as good girl or Bella as slut. Yet, the representation of Edward and his acts are not complicated – while Bella’s sexual desires are left open to reader interpretation (we can read her as punished for her desires or read her night of headboard busting as a sexual triumph), Edward is framed as full of remorse and dutifully goes off to cook her enough eggs for two (hint hint).

After his departure, she stares in the mirror (as depicted in the above parody), thinking about how she will hide the bruises: “There was a faint shadow across one of my cheekbones, and my lips were a little swollen, but other than that, my face was fine. The rest of me was decorated with patches of blue and purple. I concentrated on the bruises that would be the hardest to hide—my arms and my shoulders. They weren’t so bad. My skin marked up easily….Of course, these were just developing. I’d look even worse tomorrow. That would not make things any easier.”

Recall that Bella is concerned with hiding the bruises not for others (they are on a deserted island!) but for Edward’s sake. So, she puts on a white cotton dress “that concealed the worst of the violet blotches” and trots off to the kitchen for her scalding hot eggs.

The chapter closes with her asking “You aren’t going to touch me again while we’re here, are you?” to which Edward answers “I will not make love to you until you’ve been changed. I will never hurt you again.”

Once again, Bella’s wants are refuted and Edward calls the shots. But, Bella’s insistence there is nothing to worry about regarding her bruised body, the bitten pillows, or the busted headboard can be read as a failure to recognize the dangers of sex with an uber-strong vampire – or, to put  it another way, for her, the danger sex poses for females like Bella but NOT males like Edward.

A sex positive message? A pro-consensual violent sex is sexy message? I don’t buy it. More like punishing silly, oblivious Bella for wanting it too much… And her punishment is only just beginning given that her pregnancy is hardly a “blessed event” but one filled with pain, broken bones, and the promise that “the creatures” like the one in her womb “use their own teeth to escape the womb.”

And how will the film present the birth? Will Bella scream in “a blood-curdling shriek of agony: and then vomit “a fountain of blood”? Will we hear the “crunching and snapping as the newborn monster” tear through her “from the inside out “ and the “shattering crack” as her spine is broken?

No doubt, we will see the gooey scenes of her loving her “little nudger” and her going ga-ga over the newborn Renesmee. But, I do wonder if the more horrific details of Bella’s pregnancy and delivery will be included, and, if so, if there will be any indication that this is her “punishment” for her sexual transgressions. I doubt it – instead, in keeping with the traditional happy ending message the saga ultimately upholds, pregnancy and motherhood will be framed as her reward…

What if you want to support student activists and new feminist bloggers? WTF! is the answer!

I am excited to announce that the blog created by students in my Feminist Activism class at Cal State San Marcos, WTF!,  launched today! Woot woot!

Students felt the creation of such a blog from our campus community was particularly crucial at this time due to the arrival of the sexist and racist paper The Koala (covered by Anna North at Jezebel recently), the presence of pro-life extremists on our campus, and the appearance of “noose grafitti” in campus bathrooms (covered in my earlier post here).

Thus far, the WTF! blog has posts on sexism in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, single motherhood, The Koala  and much more (with more posts on the Occupy movement, World AIDS day, and many other topics forthcoming soon!) The anti-Koala poem has already been attacked by pro-Koala commenters, so please visit that post to voice your opinion regarding hate speech vs free speech.

If you could spread the word about the blog and encourage your networks to read the blog and comment, that would be very much appreciated. Students could use the encouragement and feedback as brand-new bloggers!

Also, the WTF! writers will be putting out a “call for contributors” soon and anyone can guest post so if you or people you know are interested in guest blogging, please considering submitting to WTF!

The blog is called WTF! We’re the future and can be found at wtfcsusm.wordpress.com.

What if you’ve got Hermione fever? (A Hermione Granger link round up…)

Well, I certainly have. Over the past week or so, I have written five posts discussing Hermione. There is some overlap, but for those of you in the throes of Harry Potter mania, I have provided links below. I have also included three other posts (not authored by me). I am sure there are more – please add more links in comments!

7 Feminist Take-Aways From the Final Harry Potter Movie

Hermione, the warrior princess, or Bella, the total sadomasochist?

Why we Need More “Warrior Princesses” Like Hermione Granger

Popularizing Strong Girls: Will the New Hermione Please Stand Up?

The “Smurfette Principle” Needs Killing Right Along with Voldemort.

Posts by others:

“In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series”

Hermione Granger and the Fight for Equal Rights

Harry Potter’s Unsung Feminist Heroes

What if We Could All Finally Agree That Equal Opportunity Joking Does Not Exist?

Tracy Morgan’s apologies regarding his homophobic rant a few weeks back littered the web (as here and here), as did reactions to his anti-gay routine. However, most of the condemnation of Morgan has circulated around his framing of homosexuality as a “mistake” as well as his failure to take gay bullying seriously. Additionally, Tina Fey was been singled out with calls that she needs to fire Morgan (a move that Melissa McEwan of Shakesville aptly described as “an echo of the age-old stereotype that boys will be boys and it’s up to women to soften them and control them and deliver consequences for moral failures”).

In contrast, what received scant attention was Morgan’s anti-lesbian rantthat there is no way a woman could love and have sexual desire for another woman, that’s just a woman pretending because she hates a fucking man.”

In a move that is far from new, Morgan denied lesbians even exist, then went on to make many homophobic jokes about gay men. The blogosphere largely responded to this story in kind, leaving out (or not mentioning) Morgan’s anti-lesbian joke.

Here I am reminded of Adrienne Rich’s classic essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which Rich eloquently and exhaustively examines how the denial of sexuality for women is a means to control and suppress ALL females, not just lesbians.

Rich’s key point that male (hetero)sexuality is forced upon women can be linked to Morgan’s rant, which itself can be read as a comedic enforcing of compulsory heterosexuality. As Morgan’s “joke” suggests, women only “pretend” to be lesbians to get back at men. Yes, Morgan, because all desire revolves around the mighty phallus.

Apparently Morgan fails to appreciate that without his gay and lesbian co-workers, he, as Tina Fey put it “would not have lines to say, clothes to wear, sets to stand on, scene partners to act with, or a printed-out paycheck from accounting to put in his pocket.”

“30 Rock,” in contrast to Morgan, does recognize lesbians exist and does a good job of joking about lesbian identity without offense (as Fannie’s Room argues here).

As noted at After Ellen, “It’s no secret lesbians love Tina Fey” and, to her credit, Fey seems to understand that there is no such thing as equal opportunity joking.  In her GLAAD award acceptance speech she noted “so much what makes the difference between a joke being offensive and being funny is the context it is in and the intention behind it.”

In regards to Morgan, the intention was clearly not to promote acceptance or to breakdown stereotypes. Instead, it was hate speech masquerading as comedy. As Renee of Womanist Musings argues,

“Morgan like many comedians believes that comedy is specifically designed to be a shield that makes hate speech acceptable. Instead of claiming to be ‘an equal opportunity jokester,’ what he should have said is that he is an equal opportunity bigot.”

Tami of What Tami Said echoes this sentiment, noting “No comedy is really equal-opportunity. Why? Because our society is not equal opportunity. We are not all the same.” To illustrate her point, she argues that jokes about those who have privilege in society are not going to have real world consequences in the same way that jokes about marginalized groups are, that “No matter how many stupid jokes you tell about George Bush, none of this is likely to change for him. Nor will things change for people like him. Put it this way, no one is likely to stop hiring heterosexual, Christian, rich white men, because of George Bush.” No, nor is anyone likely to try and claim that heterosexual, rich, white men don’t exist.

You know what doesn’t exist? Being an equal opportunity jokester.” You know what does? Women loving and having sexual desire for other women.

What if book news…

A friend asked if I knew the two people that have reviewed my book on Amazon so far, and I pinky- double-cross-my-heart-promise I don’t! I was very excited when I found these two five star reviews, and even more excited when I found out they are from two total strangers – especially as some people have (rather cruelly) asked “who is gonna like a feminist take on the Twilight saga and vampire culture???” Apparenlty, people do! And people I don’t even know!

If you’ve read the book, please consider posting a review at Amazon and/or at Goodreads. Thanks so much!

Here are the two existing Amazon reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Wilson, Seduced By Twilight, May 5, 2011

By

MPBridgemanSee all my reviews

This review is from: Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga (Paperback)

Natalie Wilson’s book Seduced by Twilight provides an excellent examination of the pop culture phenomenon know as Twilight. Countering the simplistic reactions to this incredibly popular series in the media and some feminist scholarship, Wilson presents a nuanced exploration of both the conservative and subversive aspects of the texts. She avoids the trap of constructing Twilight readers as cultural dupes passively consuming a straight-forward conservative message, rather she respectfully considers the contradictory messages at work both in Twilight and in the wider American cultural imagination. In this way she roots her analysis in specific sociohistorical contexts. This lends her work greater impact, as Twilight is used as a lens through which cultural understandings of difference are refracted.
This book is required reading for anyone working in the area of 21st century feminist popular cultural criticism and would also be of interest to those fascinated by Twilight but feeling somewhat uneasy about that very fascination. Well-researched, well written, and highly engaging, it was a pleasure being Seduced By Twilight.

 

5.0 out of 5 stars Seduced by Natalie Wilson, May 20, 2011

By

JamesSee all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga (Paperback)

I have to start by raving about this author. She was able to create an educational and insightful book that was interesting to read. Her writing is phenomenal. I am anxious to see what else we see from this author.

This book takes a critical and thoughtful look at the messages presented in the Twilight saga that are accepted as the norm. Inspiring us to think more deeply about what this series is truly stating. Not to mention who this is series is targeted to! Thank you for opening our minds about things that are so often over looked!

 

What if weddings were not framed as “The Event That Will Change Everything”? (Thoughts on the Breaking Dawn trailer and continuing wedding fervor ala Twilight)

Rivaled recently by Royal Wedding fervor, the Bella Swan/Edward Cullen union will soon have the world agog in all things weddings.

The recently released Breaking Dawn trailer centered attention on the upcoming nuptials with an almost fetishistic focus on the wedding invitation – an aspect of weddings that is of utmost importance (as anyone familiar with the wedding industrial complex or with planning a wedding surely knows).

 

The trailer’s framing of the wedding as “the event that will change everything”  is hardly surprising given the way the wedding/honeymoon/headboard-busting has been framed as THE climax (pun intended) of the Twilight saga. More generally, popular culture continues to frame weddings as THE EVENT of a female’s life as in all the shows dedicated to getting married (The Bachelor), to planning a wedding (My Fair Wedding), to brides (Bridezillas) – followed in short order, of course, by the NEXT EVENT – the babies (as in shows such as A Baby Story, Bringing Home Baby, and Baby’s First Day).

As documented in books such as White Weddings or as in posts about the wedding industrial complex (as here, here, and here), society is in the grip of severe wedding fever, a fever which is on the one hand very expensive and promotes our consumer-driven society, and, on the other, which keeps humans (and females especially) all wrapped up in a romance narrative framed by ideas about (white) purity, true love, happily ever after, and normative (read monogamous and heterosexual) gender/sexuality roles.

This is one of the many reasons we, as a society, are so seduced by Twilight, it taps into our cultural love affair with weddings and romance BIG TIME.  And, in a few short months, this human-vampire union will be writ large on cinematic screens, allowing fans to wed themselves even more deeply to the immortal love-story between Bella and Edward.

The trailer pays lip service to the very narrative that I see driving a huge part of Twilight’s popularity – that love can last forever and that the best kind of love is that between a female and a male joined in marriage and resulting in the creation of children. New? Hardly. New for vampire tales? Why, yes. And that is a bit allure of the saga – taking things that are subversive and sinister – vampires, werewolves, immortality – and wrapping them in a true love conquers all package. Such a perfect, depoliticized message for our conformist times…

The fever surrounding the cinematic depiction of this wedding will no doubt rival another union that recently captured the public imagination, Kate and William’s royal nuptials. Like the sexy feminist, I was annoyed with this wedding and its hijacking of our mental desktops. As she asked, “when was the last time you saw the media go ga ga over a minority union, inter-racial marriage or gay marriage for that matter?” Hmmm, I can’t recall that EVER happening.

It’s not that weddings themselves are bad, rather, as the sexy feminist puts it so well, it’s that “The global focus on this wedding reinforces the most anti-feminist message around: Get married, ladies, and all your dreams will come true.”

Yet, am I excited about the film’s release and the cinematic depiction of Bella’s marriage to her virginity warrior? Of course. Would I like to get an invite? Sure! Even though I doubt there would be an open bar or that great of food! Like Kiva Reardon’s arguments at Ms. Magazine Blog as to why she was going to watch the Royal Wedding, I contend that we ignore popular culture (and its weddings!) at our peril. Whether one has wedding fever or not, understanding why so many do is key to a feminist analysis of our current societal norms and institutions.
So, come November 18, I will be there. I hope there will be cake.

 

 

What if Barbie went for a swim? Thoughts on the “Drown the Dolls” Project

“For decades, Barbie has remained torpedo-titted, open-mouthed, tippy-toed and vagina-less in her cellophane coffin—and, ever since I was little, she threatened me,” writes Susan Jane Gilman in her article “Klaus Barbie.”

This sentiment towards Barbie, one Gilman describes as “heady, full-blown hatred,” is familiar to many females (myself included) – but, so too, is a love of Barbie and a nostalgia for Barbie-filled memories.

Feelings towards Barbie often lie along a continuum that shifts with life’s passages –as children, many love her, then as tween and teendom sets in, she is tossed aside, forgotten about her for many years, and then later, when children come into one’s life – through mothering or aunty-ing, Barbie once again enters the picture. For feminist women, the question of whether or not Barbie is a “suitable” plaything for the children in their lives often looms large as they navigate the toy-fueled world of early childhood.

“Drown the Dolls,” an art exhibit premiering this weekend at the Koplin Del Reio art gallery in Culver City, California by Daena Title continues the feminist tradition of analyzing Barbie, this time with an eye towards “drowning” (or at least submerging) the ideals of femininity Barbie embodies. In the video below, the artist explains her fascination with Barbie as “grotesque” and how her distorted reflections under water mirror the distorted messages culture sends to girls and women about feminine bodily perfection.

Title’s project and the surrounding media campaign (which asks people to share their Barbie Stories in 2 to 3 minute clips at You Tube), has garnered a lot of commentary. Much of the surrounding commentary and many of the threads have focused on the issue of drowning as perpetuating or normalizing violence against women. For example, this blogger at The Feminist Agenda writes,

“When I look at the images… I don’t so much get the message that the beauty standard is being drowned as that images of violence against women – especially attractive women – are both acceptable and visually appealing in our culture.”

Threads at the Ms. blog as well as on Facebook include many similar sentiments. While I have not seen the exhibit yet, the paintings featured in the above clip are decidedly non-violent – they do not actively “drown” Barbie so much as showcase her underwater with her distorted image reflected on the water’s surface – as well as often surrounded by smiling young girls. As Title indicates in her discussion of her work, it is the DISTORTED REFLECTIONS of Barbie that captivate her – as well as the way she is linked to girl’s happiness and playfulness – a happiness that will be “drown” as girls grow into the adult bodies Barbie’s plastic body is meant to represent.

The reactions thus far of “drowning” as violent focus on the project’s title alone, failing to take the content (and context) of the paintings into account – they are not a glorification of violence but a critique of the violence done to girls and women (and their bodies and self esteem) by what Barbie represents.

To me, Title’s work is in keeping with the earlier aims of the Barbie Liberation Organization who infamously toyed with Barbie’s voicebox to have her say GI Joe’s line “vengeance is mine” rather than her original “math is hard!” Her work adds to the tradition of feminist work on toys, gendering, and girls studies – a tradition that is thriving and continues to examine new and old toys alike (as here and here).

The negative commentary regarding Title’s work as perpetuating violence seems to me a knee-jerk reaction – one not based in critical reading of her work. While maybe Barbie (and the bodily perfection her grotesquely ABNORMAL body represents) SHOULD sink, Title’s work – and the critiques of Barbie it is fostering, deserves to swim…

What if Dexter is Killer Feminism? A Review of Showtime’s Dexter, Season Five

Dexter’s eye for an eye vigilantism came to a gripping season finale this week with Jordan Chase, serial rapist and murderer, brought to a bloody end by Lumen. (If you are not familiar with the show, go here and here for two good feminist overviews of the series or see this series of posts here.)

Season five had much to offer feminist viewers.

For example, Dexter’s single dad status led to one episode with a mommy and me play date that revealed the ruthless world of toddler/parent interaction. As the lone dad, Dexter was the outcast amongst a sea of women – many who viewed him with extreme suspicion. The episode avoided demonizing the moms though, and instead suggested just how gendered the parenting realm is and how dads, when they walk amongst this “female world,” are outsiders in many regards.

And, the rape revenge fantasy at the heart of the season involving Dexter and Lumen allowed for a insightful exploration of sexual assault and violence against women. Lumen (played by Julia Stiles), one of two survivors of a murderous gang that raped, tortured, and murdered 12 women, joins forces with Dexter to bring the male perpetrators to justice. That justice in Lumen’s and Dexter’s book is vigilante murder may not seem in keeping with feminist aims for a less violent world.

So, why was this season good viewing for feminists? Yes, the violence is visceral and the blood excessive. The administered justice is very harsh – with murder on the agenda for those serial killer Dexter decides “don’t deserve to live.” But, underneath its brutal exterior, the show also presents us with deeper moral questions about a legal system that consistently fails to catch or punish serial killers, rapists, and child abusers – and, deeper still, about what type of society breeds such violence and, if indeed our legal system creates just as many criminals as it attempts to apprehend.

The depiction of Lumen  – a female raped, tortured and nearly murdered who realizes that the violence done to her cannot be denied and will forever change her view of the world and her place in it – was extremely powerful and expertly played by Stiles. As noted at Feminists For Choice, “the show does an above-average job of accurately depicting the agony of rape trauma syndrome and PTSD.” Moreover, by suggesting the boy-gang formed at summer camp that ultimately became a group of male serial killers is related to the equating of masculinity with violence (and particularly violent sexuality), the show functions as a scathing critique of guyland and its codes.

Ironically Dexter, the serial killer at the show’s center, is one of the best models of masculinity in the series – he is a good father, partner, and brother struggling in a world that often rewards the wrong people. Jordan Chase, leader of the murderous gang is a prime example of this – as a successful self-help celebrity, he is rewarded with admiration and wealth. Yet, beneath his shiny exterior, he is the mastermind behind the torture and rape of at least 14 women.

Men such as Jordan impel Dexter’s “dark passenger” to dole out punishment in order to partially make up for the brutal murder of his mother, which he witnessed as a young child. Yet Dexter suffers with his compulsion, feeling more monster than human. Here too, the show grapples with the complexity of morality and justice, showing that, as Deb reiterated again and again in this season’s finale, things are never simple. This message was also emphasized in the recent episode when Aster, Dexter’s tween daughter, showed up drunk. At first viewers were encouraged to see her as selfish and immature, to view her drinking and shoplifting as sign of a girl gone wrong. Yet, along with Dexter, viewers slowly realize Aster’s behavior was spurred by her attempts to help her friend, who was being abused by her stepfather. Such storylines reveal that often the “crime” committed (in this case, tween drinking and stealing) has much deeper roots than an individual’s “badness.” Indeed, the show turns the entire “a few bad apples” idea, where society is harmed by a handful of “evil people,” on its head. Instead, we see that our society is pervaded with rot – from tip to top – and that this rot is intricately linked to the violence done to girls and women by males raised on an excessively violent code of masculinity.

The show also explores how the competitive model of dog-eat-dog individualism leads to workplace backstabbing, especially among the few women who have had to claw and fight their way to the top.

This was exemplified this season via the storyline in which Lt. Laguerta (Lauren Velez) betrays Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). For me, this was the most problematic narrative arc – not only because it smacked of the “see what happens when you give women power” meme, but also because of its racialized undertones with a lying Latina throwing a wrench in the career of white female detective. However, given the racial diversity of the cast, the series avoids demonizing any one racial group, just as it avoids suggesting only men are violent or only women are victims. To the contrary, the show reveals that no one is safe from the violence that pervades our world and this viewer, like the Feminist Spectator, “can’t help celebrating Dexter’s queer victories, and looking forward to more”  – not only because the show transgresses boundaries and challenges a social system organized around a decidedly unfair system of power and privilege, but more simply because, as foul-mouthed Deb would say, I fucking love it.