Beyoncé, Feminism, Ambivalence

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First things first: I like Beyoncé.  I like her songs.  I think she’s a great dancer and a phenomenal singer.  She and Jay-Z are incredibly skilled at controlling their own images, and if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know how I love an exquisite case of star production.

What bothers me, then — what causes such profound ambivalence — is the way in which she’s been held up as an exemplar of female power and, by extension, become a de facto feminist icon….effectively the patron saint of every feminist blog, including the non-explicitly feminist blog to which I regularly contribute.  And let’s be clear: Beyoncé is powerful.  F*cking powerful.  And that, in truth, is what concerns me.

But let’s explore the feminist/empowered woman case:

*Over the last decade, Beyoncé has repeatedly broadcast her independence, fiscally and physically.  She refuses to hew to (white) body ideals, because her body is “too bootylicious.”

*She (and Destiny’s Child) believe women should be “independent” and self-reliant.  To wit:

The shoe on my feet, I’ve bought it
The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it
The rock I’m rockin’, I’ve bought it
‘Cause I depend on me

*Aforementioned song was the theme for Charlie’s Angels, a film (ostensibly) about female empowerment, vis-a-vis fighting.

*The song “Survivor” is about women perserving through break-ups and thriving in the aftermath.

*She released a song called “Girls Run the World.”

*Three years ago, she owned the feminist label, but “in a way.”  Her explanation: “My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship, because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.”

*She told GQ: “You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat?” she says in her film, which begins with her 2011 decision to sever her business relationship with her father. “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

*Jay-Z is taking her hyphenated name (they’re both Carter-Knowles).

*She was awesome at the Super Bowl and broke the electricity.

Other misc. arguments: she is powerful, she is strong, her thighs are strong, she has a Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she has shown the music business what’s up while not being Taylor Swift.

 

The unsettling thing, then, are the contours of Beyoncé’s feminism — which is only coincidental, not owned, feminism.  In the Destiny’s Child’s era, it is commodity feminism — which is to say, postfeminism.  As many, many scholars have persuasively argued, the ability to buy commodities — the vast majority of which only serve to further subjugate women to men — is feminist, then feminism is a word without meaning.  In the Beyoncé qua Beyoncé phase, it oscillates between fantasy (“Girls Run the World”) and striving-towards-monogamous-coupling  (“Single Ladies”).  To refresh: “Single Ladies” is not about how being apart from a man is awesome; rather, it is about how men fail to secure what they want.  Bemoaning and satirizing men’s inability to commit to monogamous relationships is not feminist; it is, in many ways, regressive — the inability to “put a ring on it” is denigrated; by default the ability to “put a ring on it” is celebrated.  I’m not saying that feminist can’t be married.  But placing “putting a ring on it” as the ultimate — I don’t need you to to tell me that that’s problematic.

Beyoncé says, in the pages of GQ, that she wants women to be financially independent, claiming that financial independence will help women change what’s declared sexy, and then she poses on the cover like this:

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…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.

 

As she puts on a superb Super Bowl show, but does it in outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishes the otherwise powerful female body….

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…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.


Because Beyoncé does, indeed, hold a tremendous amount of power.  She is revered by men and women alike.  She is not “too much” in the way that other female artists are — she’s not too weird like Gaga, or too abrasive like Nicki Minaj.  She’s struck just the right tone between empowered and, let’s be clear, objectified.

Her status as object was driven home during her performance at the Super Bowl, which just happened to coincide with my re-reading of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.”  If you’ve taken a film class, you know that Mulvey, and this essay in particular, is the most influential essay in all of film history.  It effectively built film studies as a discipline, inspiring enough response to differentiate film scholarship from what had, to that point, been predominantly rooted in either communication or English.  Today, people chide at the mention of this essay, in part because it’s so polemic — as Mulvey herself admits — and inspired so many effective, persuasive critiques.  But the fact, or rather, the guiding principle, remains: The Male Gaze is the structuring element of all cinema.  And not just cinema, but television and filmed performance, broadly speaking.

To summarize a complex and nuanced argument, Mulvey argues that women become powerful — in part through their lack of a phallus, and the threat that represents — and the way to neutralize that threat is actually quite simple: either punish them within the context of the narrative (think film noir or horror films and how sexualized, powerful women get the ax) AND/OR turn them into sex objects, primarily by fetishizing (read: doing close-ups on) various sexualized parts of their bodies.  They become less powerful; less-anxiety inducing — a sum of beautiful parts, rather than a ball-busting whole.

Beyoncé submits herself to this gaze, over and over again.  I feel like this is a painfully obvious argument.

 

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And before you say that men make her do this, remind yourself that she controls her own image.  These decisions are HERS.  No matter how many times she throws you the Sasha Fierce look, no matter how much leather she’s wearing, the fact remains that she’s dressing herself, preparing herself, willfully submitting herself, to her own sexual objectification.  We fancy her a self-realized subject, but before the gaze of camera, she becomes an object, defined, no matter how much her look and her power seems to argue against it, by her to-be-looked-at-ness.

To some extent, I can’t blame her: her power stems from her ability to temper her power with her own objectification.  She can say “Girls Run the World,” but so long as she wears that outfit at the Superbowl, it’s not threatening, because girls will never actually run the world.  She can say that women should become financially independent so that they can determine what’s sexy, but so long as she appears on the cover of GQ adhering to the dominant ideals of what is sexy, she’s a non-threat.  She can pose for pictures looking strong and returning the gaze, so long as she also poses for pictures like the ones above.  Her power is evident but highly negotiated, effectively innocuous, even toothless: am I actually just describing mainstream contemporary feminism manifest?

During this past week’s Super Bowl discussions in class, my ambivalence to Beyoncé’s image was met with resistance.  The resistance was, at least on the surface, one of defensiveness: Beyoncé is awesome.  No doubt, students.  She is, as I say at the beginning, a tremendously skilled singer, performer, star.  But there was a secondary reaction and defense that soon emerged.

To summarize: Yes, Beyoncé is objectified.  Yes, she caters to the male gaze.  But that’s the reality of the current moment.  That’s the game.  So she acknowledges it for what it is, and she runs it.

These students are not wrong.  In fact, they are very, very right.  Beyonce is so successful — and so tremendously, universally likable — precisely because she reconciles the ostensibly powerful with the objectified.  Because these days, it’s not cool to be a non-feminist.  You can’t disavow it strongly, publicly.  Awesome women — POPULAR women — are strong women.  And I want to be very, very clear that I see the ways in which Beyoncé is strong.  And celebrating that strength is part of our current cultural moment.  But we still live within a patriarchal culture; one within which norms of female behavior and appearance are very clearly circumscribed, even if only implicitly.

And that implicitness is what makes it all the more insidious, all the more dangerous: Beyonce appears feminist.  She appears to be a role model.  But in reality, she’s playing within the boundaries.

Now, some may argue that that’s the way to make progress: do what you can. Manipulate. Understand what society demands of you, then exploit it.  Exploit men, exploit what they think they want.  And I agree: that was a viable way of affecting progress…..in the 1880s.  In the 1920s.  Even in the 1960s.

But we are, to be blunt, fucking past that point.  To play within the boundaries, however effectively, is to reinscribe the legitimacy of those boundaries.  Either you believe those boundaries are legitimate and will be with us for the foreseeable future — and, as a result, it’s silly to challenge them — or you believe that they’re constructs and thus deconstructable.  Either you think that a negotiated feminism is good enough, or you’re brave enough to ask for more — of yourself, of Beyoncé, of others who you idolize.

As I told my class today, this isn’t simply a question of representation.  The way we think and revere women on the page and on the screen has very real, lived ramifications.  If women are rendered implicitly passive, to-be-looked-at, inherently and necessarily sexualized — and if we agree to that, explicitly or implicty — that agreement has all matter of manifestations.  Manifestations for which we must be held responsible.

When we look at the material realities of patriarchal culture — the persistent wage divide, endemic spousal abuse, the very public fight on the part of Conservatives against women’s rights — it’s easy to say that we disagree with all of those things.  Obviously I’m in favor of women’s rights.  It’s much harder to see how our own equivocation about what it means to be a “powerful” woman has led to the persistence of those issues.

Beyoncé will still sing songs that we like.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to like the negotiated comprise — between feminism and objectification, between subjectivity and objectivity — her career so clearly represents.

Beautiful But Boring: Blake Lively + Ryan Reynolds

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If two star images get married “in secret” in South Carolina and everyone yawns, did the marriage actually happen?

I’m being somewhat facetious, but the news of the marriage between demi-stars Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds broke late last night, and everyone yawned. Twitter is undoubtedly the best place to observe these initial reactions, and there were some doozies:

 

 

 

Now, if you are a lover of the Reynolds or Lively star image, you will likely protest: they did it in secret because they don’t want the publicity!  True and false.  They did not sell the photos of their wedding to People Magazine — something we associate with reality stars, but don’t forget well-respected, well-regarded stars like Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, and even Tom Cruise sell the rights to their weddings.  It’s smart PR.  (And who knows – these photos may emerge in the next week or so).  Many of those stars had “secret” (meaning: not publicized ahead of time) weddings.  This wedding was not publicized ahead of time, and there are currently no paparazzi shots, but I do not buy, for a second, that it’s truly a secret wedding.  If anything, they kept it secret so that they could then sell “exclusive” rights to the photos, another well-known gossip industry trick.  They’re also slowly leaking crazy info, like the fact that Lively’s “friend” Florence Welch (does this seem to crazy to anyone else?) performed a few songs, the couple had lunch with Bette Midler earlier that weekend, and the site of the wedding is from The Notebook.

But here’s the thing: Lively is an established fame-whore. She/Her Agent runs the fame game, and she has done a spectacularly good job of exploiting her major talent, namely, the ability to look stunning in short dresses.  There is no way she’s not going to exploit this marriage – in as tasteful a way as possible, of course – the same way she exploited her relationship with Penn Badgley and Leonardo DiCaprio before her.  When you’re short on one half of the stardom equation (actual acting talent), you compensate with an intriguing extra-textual life.  And Lively has been very, very good at doing so every since her name made its way to the public’s lips back during the halcyon days of Gossip Girls‘s first two seasons.

Again, doubters gonna doubt: and say that Lively did love Badgley, did love DiCaprio, does love Reynolds.  I don’t contest that.  You just have to understand that love — in any situation — can also be accompanied by career savvy.  Both Lively and Reynolds were on paths to legitimate film stardom that didn’t quite pan-out.  And when the performances don’t do the job, the best publicists know that you turn to the extra-textual life to keep interest until the performances can win it once again.

Which is why this reaction to her marriage to Reynolds may prove a problem.  The all-powerful minivan majority will eat up the details, in part because the minivan majority just loves monogamy and wedded monogamy in particular.  But when the tastemakers of celebrity gossip consumption consider the union boring, confuse Lively with Reynolds’ previous wife (ScarJo), and express general disinterest, the best laid star union may not equal the sum of its star parts.

On a purely pragmatic level, lots of stars date other stars because they’re the only ones who understand/can cope with the lifestyle.  Frankly, it’s the same thing with grad students, which is why I need to get some start-up capital to start my genius “G-Date” graduate-student dating site.  But stars also date other stars because it raises their star stock exponentially — meaning, star dating star does not equal star + star, but (star) * (star).   This wedding should be dynamite.  It should be so much more fascinating than Barrymore’s wedding to a non-star, or Witherspoon’s wedding to a beige-looking agent.

But we don’t care.  It’s not because Reynolds hasn’t been truly interesting since Van Wilder (seriously, that persona: go back to it) or because Lively can’t enunciate.  It’s because their relationship is beige.  It’s because there’s nothing scandalous, despite the fact that Reynolds is ten years her senior.  It’s because they, and their teams, have planned badly: sure, it’s a wedding, but they’ve done nothing in the build up to make it worth your gossip-minded energy.  It doesn’t stand for anything.  It doesn’t represent anything, other than two wealthy good-looking white people with middling talent getting married — which, if you’re really invested in such things, read the New York Times on Sunday for much more fascinating backstories.

People mistake Ryan Reynolds for other handsome, long-faced stars all the time.  People mistake Blake Lively for other long-haired television blondes.  People mistake their relationship for the relationships of other beautiful yet otherwise unnotable people.  Even if you think that it doesn’t matter whether they married for publicity or not, the fact remains: neither one of them is interesting enough to render the “secret” wedding interesting.  And that, readers, is the sign of a falling almost-star.

Why You Care for Michelle Williams’ Happiness

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Earlier today I posted a link on this blog’s Facebook page to a few pictures of Michelle Williams, boyfriend Jason Segel, and Williams’ daughter, Matilda, doing totally normal boring things.

A good male friend of mine Gchatted me soon thereafter, essentially asking about my interest in Williams and Segel.  To summarize, “I don’t understand: you and Lainey Gossip both love posting links to this stuff — but it seems like it’s always just pictures of her and Segel….walking on the street?  And he dresses worse than I do, and I work from home?”

TOUCHÉ.

But it did highlight a practice in which I didn’t (fully, consciously) know I was engaging, namely, celebrating any evidence of Michelle Williams’ domestic happiness/peace.  We all “want” things for various celebrities — some people really, really want Jennifer Aniston to get married/have babies, for instance, whereas I really, really wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to not be dating Blake Lively.  And don’t even get me started on how excited I was at the rumors that Mulder and Scully were together at last.

Those wants generally have little to do with the celebrity him/herself — and much more to do with how we feel about what women deserve after being cheated on, etc. etc.  And the way we care about Michelle Williams really isn’t that different, even though her situation is very quite unique.

But here’s the thing about my friend’s confusion: he had no idea about the “uniqueness” of her Williams’ situation.  No idea that she was with Ledger, that Matilda was Ledger’s daughter.  No idea why the pictures of all three of them together would make people happy, no matter how ostensibly boring.  And this is a guy who’s quite culturally savvy — but just didn’t read gossip until somewhat recently.

And here’s where the backstory — the gossip narrative, if you will — becomes so crucial.  No sad break-up; no Heath Ledger overdose; no even sadder pictures of Williams and Baby Matilda trying to avoid paparazzi in Brooklyn = no desire to see quotidian photos of Williams and Segel.  Seriously: they’re demi-stars.  I love them both, I love them so much — but no one’s taking dozens of pictures of, say, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett and their babies.  A few, sure, but no one’s posting pictures just to say “I’m so glad Poehler is happy!”  “Look, they’re holding hands!”  “The kid is there, that’s so great!”

That’s what most of my comments on these photos have amounted to: I love that she is with someone who seems as loving and loveable as Jason Segel.  Even though I don’t know Jason Segel; I don’t know what he’s actually like with kids.  I don’t know how he’s working the difficult maneuver of dating a mom with an early-elementary age kid who’s never known her father.  But his image makes me think that he’s pretty awesome at it.

And that’s what amazes me: that my knowledge of him, culled from his interactions with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, his devotion to The Muppets, his vampire musical theater act, his drum playing on Freaks and Geeks, plus all his other roles, makes me think that he’s a decent guy who’s very patient and loving and playful and perfect for someone as seemingly wounded as Williams.

BUT AGAIN:  I don’t know Williams.  But I do know the fragility of her characters, her interviews, and first-hand anecdotes of her trauma following Ledger’s death.  My heart wants his image to help heal her image, which is really another way of saying that “woman grieving, accosted by press deserves solid man.”

Of course, there’s a paradox, as there is to most gossip.  My own investment in this situation — my desire to see pictures like these, your desire to see pictures like these — fuels the market for pictures like these.  Fuels the continued surveillance, the very thing that fueled the perceived discontent in the first place.  We want what’s “best,” what’s “happy,” what’s “peaceful” for celebrities, but we want to see it documented — we want to experience and endorse it.

And therein lies the rub.  Celebrities are actual people, experiencing the commodity demands created by their images.  The problem with someone like Michelle Williams is that she should, by all rights, simply be an actor, experiencing the same sort of attention devoted to Joan Allen, even Jennifer Lawrence.  But her association with “scandal” (meaning: unexpected, not-totally-explained death) makes her gossip-worthy.  Makes her a star — someone whose on-screen and off-screen parts attract equal interest — despite her desires.

I don’t feel “bad” for the celebrity lifestyle.  It’s a hard one, but so are many, many “lifestyles,” especially those with far less money.  The academic lifestyle is hard, but you know what’s really, really hard?  Being a member of the working poor.  Just sayin’.  But as a consumer and cultural critic of gossip, I do feel conflicted about the way that attention and investment in situations like Williams’ work.  Do you? Should we?

 

 

 

 

Decoding the Beyonce Tumblr

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Earlier this week, The Beyonce Tumblr went live.  And there was much rejoicing: across the web, gossip sites and news organizations alike trumpeted her decision to cultivate a web presence.  Various articles figure the “release” of the site in vaguely mystical terms: Beyonce celebrated her fourth anniversary with Jay-Z on April 4th (4/4); she was “born” onto the web on 4/5.  This is some crazy stuff, kids.  As Jezebel headlined it, “Beyonce Joins Internet; Internet Flips Out.”

But the internet wasn’t just flipping out over some new website.  This was Beyonce’s website.  Beyonce, a fierce protector of privacy, the woman who, along with Jay-Z, rented out an entire floor of a hospital to avoid coverage of her daughter’s birth.  The two are reigning royalty of the music world, in part because of their tremendous talent, but also because of their substantial media savvy.  Instead of fleeing paparazzi hungry for a shot of daughter Blue Ivy, they posted a set of frankly adorable pictures to helloblueivycarter.tumblr.com, paired with a note, written in what we are led to believe as Beyonce’s handwriting:

That’s even more savvy than Gwenyth Paltrow, who decided to push the market down for shots of her son, Moses, but simply stepping outside and letting every paparazzi take a picture of her.  (It’s not a coincidence that Paltrow and husband Chris Martin are friends with Beyonce and Jay-Z, as evidenced by the tumblr).

The question remains: What is Beyonce doing?  No web presence for so long — why now?  And what exactly is going on in this tumblr that makes it so compelling?

One at a time:

What is she doing? 

She’s refining and reinvigorating her image.  Not that she exactly “needs” it — because she’s a private person, and because she’s married to an equally famous person, information about her will be in demand for the foreseeable future.  But as little as we know about Beyonce, we do know that she likes control – and by releasing information herself, she’s controlling the conversation about her.  Every celebrity (and his/her publicist) attempt to do this; some are just better at it, or have a more interesting conversation to make.  Lindsay Lohan is bad at controlling the conversation.  Angelina Jolie is, in truth, only okay, and seems to care less and less about whether that conversation is negative or positive (thus the increasing skeletor conversation — if she really wanted people to focus on her films and philanthropy, she’d figure out how to put on some weight, just like she’s been able to figure out how to bulk up for action roles. I’m not kidding).  Gwenyth seems less and less adept at controlling the conversation, in part because Goop allows so many refractory points.  Her image may be stable as that of an ice queen, but every newsletter allows people to take her words differently than she intended.  It’s really a bit of a trainwreck.

Point is: Beyonce is re-sparking conversation about her, but only if it’s on her terms.

But why on the internet?  Why not release photos to a magazine, or sit for an extensive profile with Vogue?  No web presence for so long — why now?

Because it’s the only way.  If Beyonce wants to truly start a conversation about herself, she has to release information digitally. While a lengthy profile — and gorgeous, high-quality photos — would have been excerpted and linked all over the internet, it would still lack the potency of a single site.  Sure, aggregators and gossip sites are taking single photos from the tumblr, but all traffic is directed back to the single, entirely controlled site.

Despite the fact that Beyonce’s image is that of a artist on the vanguard of innovation — especially in terms of music and fashion — she’s been an analog star in a digital world.  She’s old-fashioned in the way of stars twenty years her elder.  She has a Twitter account but, until Thursday, had never posted a Tweet (The Tweet, of course, announced the launch of her site).

Whether Beyonce herself is “old-fashioned” or even a naturally private person is really beyond the point.  Her image has acquired a gloss of privacy, and in today’s media environment, saturated with celebrity disclosure, it renders her unique.  Information about her is rare and, as a result, far more valuable.  You don’t see the launch of a reality star’s tumblr burn through the internet like a forest fire.

But even the most exclusive clubs sometimes need to let someone in the door — otherwise there’s no one to buzz about how exclusive the club is.  So Beyonce has to release some material, lest she disappear from discourse entirely.  As foreshadowed by the tumblr for Blue Ivy, she and her team have decided that a tumblr-like site is the best way to enact this strategy.  My guess is that she still steers clear of Twitter — it’s just a bit too direct of a conduit.  I’d even be surprised if the tumblr is updated more than a few times a year.  But time will tell.  For now, it’s a brilliant strategy for reactivating yet controlling the conversation about her between albums/tours.

But let’s get to the good stuff: why makes this tumblr so compelling?

Because here’s the honest truth: I like, but don’t love Beyonce.  But I could look at this tumblr all day.

I’ll divide the appeal into three categories:

1.) AUTHENTICITY

The tumblr is compelling because we know it is Beyonce.  I realize this is fairly obvious, but in an age of photoshop, Twitter hacking, and other forms of image manipulation, it is absolutely essential that this tumblr is “the work” of Beyonce.  This isn’t a fan site; this isn’t a gossip site.  This is her site, that is her husband, that is her sister, this is their tropical vacation.  (Which isn’t to suggest that older stars were somehow “more” authentic because their images circulated in a pre-digital-technology world.  They had their own issues with image manipulation, and tried to add authenticity to their images through various means, the most popular of which might have been the magazine byline.  ["My Story" by Marilyn Monroe, etc.]  Of course, such stories were almost always penned by press agents.  Manufacturing authenticity is an ironic thing.)

Beyonce further authenticates the site through her “analog” signature.  Look, it’s her handwriting! (Or, perhaps, a font modeled after her handwriting!) No matter: handwriting is one of the ways that we authenticate identity, and this handwriting matches the previous note on the Blue Ivy tumblr.  No doubt: it’s B.  Plus she testifies that “this is my life, today, over the years, through my eyes.”  That’s a promise: this is me.

 

 

2.) INTIMACY

When it comes to celebrity images, intimacy and authenticity go hand in hand.  The more intimate  the information appears, the more authentic it seems.

Here’s where the choice of a Tumblr as her main form of web presence (I realize there’s a larger site, beyonce.com, but the tumblr is the real meat) is so effective: it’s all images.  Apart from the above welcome, there’s no explanations, no distracting words.  Just   a waterfall of images — a virtual scrapbook.

Of course, not all photos connote intimacy.  Beyonce’s Vogue cover, for example, is the antithesis of intimacy:

I mean, she’s separated from us by actual text! Vogue has also posed her like a mannequin, and everything about her dress, her hair, even her make-up and half-smile scream at a remove! Not friends with you! She’s beautiful, she’s exquisite, but she’s miles away.

Compare this shot with those on her Tumblr:

No make-up.  No make-up equals authenticity AND intimacy.  If you look closely, you can see that she’s wearing a strapless top of some sort, but at first blush, she looks naked — bare — the very apotheosis of intimacy.  Plus she’s smiling, and there’s an inherent warmth to the aesthetic and emotional tone of the photo.  She looks relaxed, and people only relax with intimates.  You’re invited to her private party — a theme that structures the majority of the photos.

This is funny! Beyonce is funny!  (See also: Spiderman).

This photo is goofy, but it’s also unflattering, and therein lies its power.  Intimacy means seeing someone at their best and worst, and here you go — Beyonce with a snorkeling mask on her face, not looking at the camera.  Granted, she’s wearing a beach shift that probably cost $5000, and the ocean looks gorgeous, but look, googles distort even the most beautiful of faces!  Unkempt, unflattering, in a shot that would have been otherwise discarded — it’s as if we have access to the Beyonce “between” the best shots, and we all know that’s where the “real” self lies.

This is one of several “Instagram” style shots on the site — you can tell it’s Instagram by a.) the Polaroid-style border and b.) the distortion of colors to make it look like a photo from a different era.  The photo seems to catch Beyonce is a private moment (waiting to take a helicopter ride? More on that below), and her positioning in the corner of the photo, glancing down, strapped in, creates a feeling of vulnerability.  The photo’s Instagram-ness, for lack of a better word, suggests something even more intimate: the photo was taken on a cell phone.  But someone who was close to Beyonce — someone who also got to go on that helicopter ride.  The insinuation, of course, is that it was taken by Jay-Z.  (The aesthetics of Instagram only add another layer — a sort of analog, fuzzy, soft intimacy that even the crisp photography from above lack).

This triptych of photos, seemingly taken at the magic hour, offers a similar warmth, but at the same time, the POV of the viewer is clearly that of the camera man.  Beyonce vamps for the camera, cracks up, and poses again.  The person behind the camera — whose place we take, even for just an instant — is clearly the cause of her glee.  In this moment, we make her perform; we zoom-in for her reaction.  You probably don’t think of this consciously, but that’s the effect of the close-up, that’s why they included all three images instead of just one: she looks at the camera, but really, in this moment, she seems to be looking at you.  Or, alternately, you feel you are privy to an interaction between her and Jay-Z: in this moment, you are inside their marriage.  At first glance, they’re just a set of silly photos — but the effect is stunning.  Granted, there’s no way to know who took the photos.  For all we know they hired a profesional photographer to accompany them on this trip and create a set of images that connoted intimacy.  But for a fan (or journalist) to suggest as much makes him/her look cyncial, and read constructiveness into a set of images that suggest a holistic sense of intimacy.  There’s no question that the choice of photos adds up to to a construct.  But you can’t see the seams, and that’s why it works so well.  Whatever they did, they did it right.

3.) CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION

Conspicuous consumption, according to Richard Dyer, is the process by which the wealthy display that they are wealthy.  It does not have to be garish — it’s not simply something Jay Gatsby would do.  Indeed, conspicuous consumption doesn’t necessarily mean diamond rings.  It also manifests depictions of leisure: of people doing little more than not working.  At least 2/3 of the pictures on the Tumblr were taken on some sort of tropical vacation, exact location uncertain.  But this isn’t some getaway to a Mexican mega-resort.  They’re on vacation in some place where no one bothers them.

That sort of privacy costs a lot of money.  In this way, their conspicuous consumption is, in fact, an absence — the absence of people, the absence of paparazzi, the absence of distractions.  This vacation at its most pure, and its filled with snorkles, deserted beaches, and tubing behind a speed boat.

In this video below, for example, Beyonce (addressing Jay-Z, behind the camera, intimacy yet again!) tells the unspecific audience that they woke up, “took a nice little walk,” and found a tree with blue ivy.

No big deal, right — only it’s leisure. Lots and lots of leisure.  This is conspicuous consumption done right: it doesn’t make you resent them, it just makes you want to join them.  We all know that both Jay-Z and Beyonce do, in fact, work hard.  Touring, appearing in public, writing songs — it’s certainly exhausting work, even as they work to elide that work.  But we see very little of that difficulty here.  Even the images in which Beyonce is obviously preparing to work, such as this one, when she’s in full, intricate make-up for some sort of performance or photo-shoot, do not emphasize labor.  The shot is gorgeous, but it’s also included to emphasize the in-formality of the other shots.  Take a look at its positioning on the home page (the shot is in the lower right hand corner) –

Beyonce at “work” (black and white) makes her at “play” (the vibrant color) all the more compelling and authentic seeming.  The shot on the left is Beyonce-as-Image, while the rest of the page reads as Beyonce-as-Real (which, again, is also an image, but that image is “realness.”)  Being a top pop star may be hard work, but we see very little evidence of it here — just the benefits she reaps from that work.  [She does seem a bit exhausted in this photo with Paltrow -- but again, black and white is for "work," color is for "real."]

The tumblr is also filled with less discrete examples of conspicuous consumption.  Beyonce with a wall of champagne, for example….

…or a shot from a yacht which must, by dint of its white leather and positioning with the skyline, be expensive.

In general, however, Beyonce is more circumspect.  Nothing too conspicuous — nothing that would be dissonant with she and Jay-Z’s collective image of class and sophistication.  (See: every lyric on Watch the Throne).  Since the 1920s and the rise of the “idol of consumption,” we’ve looked to stars and celebrities as aspirational consumptive models.  They show what leisure looks like; what consuming often and well looks like; what American capitalism taken to its extension looks like.  They’re what make us keep working so as to keep spending.  It’s a weirdly cyclical process: we consume (their CDs, their clothing lines) so that they may consume more and, in turn, inspire us to consume more.  Late-stage capitalism makes my head explode.

* * * * *

Take a moment and think about your reaction when you first saw these photos.  Were you a. pissed; b.) jealous; or c.) just wanted to join the party?  If your answer was a.) or b.), please, I beg you, tell me why in the comments.  But if it was c.), which was definitely my reaction, then welcome to the party: we’re reacting exactly how Beyonce and her team would like us to.  The Tumblr is a public relations triumph, emphasizing that Beyonce may not “run the world,” as one of her most famous songs suggests, but she certainly runs her own image.   In a time when image control is increasingly elusive, it’s a feat worthy of praise.  And while Beyonce has worked hard to elide the tremendous labour required to construct such an image, my hope is that I’ve helped make that labour — and the discursive and semiotic layers that fuel it — visible.  Making things visible doesn’t mean killing the pleasure they evoke…it just makes them more nuanced.  I can still look at those photos and want to hang out.  But now I don’t feel nearly as bad that I can’t.

Channing Tatum: My Favorite Doofus

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Image via GQ.com

Think about every time you’ve seen Channing Tatum onscreen.

From Fighting to The Eagle, from Step Up to Dear John, there’s a clear line that runs through his performances:

*He is a (very heterosexual) man — a fact authenticated by a love interest of some kind.

*He’s working class in some form, meaning he’s in the military (either in the present or in Ancient Rome; see Stop/Loss, Dear John, G.I. Joe, and The Eagle), a foster kid doing community service (Step Up), a street peddler (Fighting), a cop (21 Jump Street), or a stripper (the upcoming Magic Mike).  [Notable exceptions: "normal" high school kid in She's the Man and Coach Carter; covert operative in Haywire; I honestly can't tell what he is in The Vow, but he seems to drive a crappy car in the trailer, so who knows].

*He’s very sincere.

*He’s very American.  HE’S G.I. JOE.  He’s the modern American military personified.  Sometimes he’s bitter and f-ed up (Stop Loss), more often he’s stoic and honorable (Dear John).  Even when he’s playing a Roman Centurian he speaks with an American accent.

*His character’s goal = 1.) find and/or restore honor (to himself, to his family); 2.) find and/or restore love, usually while doing thething that restores honor; 3.) Look good with his shirt off.

Shirtless in Dear John

Don’t mistake me: I’m not complaining.  Because Channing Tatum is by far my favorite lovable doofus, and I’ll seriously watch him in anything.  As in I went to the movie theater and watched Fighting all by myself.  I am not joking.  But what makes him lovable and other bad-acting, Ken-Doll-action-figure-Nicholas-Sparks schmaltzy doofuses intolerable?

Because Channing (Call me ‘Chan’) Tatum is by no means novel.  He is the latest in a time-tested lineage of star types, a lineage that includes Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Bruce Willis.  He’s a hard body with a soft heart.  His picture personality is static, and his extra-textual life mirrors it with startling symmetry.

Because Channing Tatum, off-screen, is also very heterosexual, with a love interest (read: his wife, who neatly also happened to play his love interest in Step Up; more on that later), (formerly) working class, very sincere, very American, very honorable and loving and LOOKS GOOD WITH HIS SHIRT OFF.

ahem.

I know these things about Tatum because men’s magazines LOVE HIM.  GQ adores him.  Details has profiled him  twice.  He’s been the “next big thing” for the last three years — ever since he landed the lead in G.I. Joe – and the boy is game.  For his first big GQ interview, he took his (female) interviewer to his Uncle’s spread in Alabama, where they rode around the place on four-wheelers and drank six-packs of beer.  Lots of talk about where Tatum would build his modest cabin on the land (it’s the place where he feels most safe — his escape from the outside world) and how his accent thickens when he gets back home.  To wit:

….we drive off to Uncle Bruce’s cabin. “He built it himself,” says Chan, “and I’m a-gonna build mine right about there.” He points to a little spot under the trees. (About the thickening accent: He’d warned me that he slips into country talk within minutes of being with his family.)

He’s just a normal Joe Schmoe: went to high school, almost flunked out, got a football scholarship to small state college, realized it wasn’t for him, and went in search of menial labor.  Easy, familiar, accessible points of personal history.

For his second interview with GQ, published during the ramp-up to the release of The Eagle, he takes his (once again female) interviewer to a tiny old mining town.  They’re “breaking all the publicist’s rules” — they get wasted on tequila, buy Snuggies, and sleep in Rite-Aid sleeping bags in the bushes.  It’s the Rolling Stone-brand profile taken to its 21st century extension: if you can’t pull an Almost Famous and ride along with the band until you find yourself in an airplane that’s about to crash, then you have to make a crazy situation on your own.  But there’s no funny business: Tatum steps out at one point to call his wife; they play pool with a guy named “Ordinary Mike,” even the hangover seems underplayed.  (Compare this interview to Edith Zimmerman’s interview with Chris Pine, also in GQ,also known as my favorite interview of all time, in which the narrative becomes much more about Edith and the act of interviewing an otherwise bland star and much less about illuminating down home aspects about the subject).

In the most recent issue of Details, he takes the (male) interviewer to go shoot lots and lots of guns while loading up on whiskey, then takes him home, where his wife is waiting, and Tatum spends time dancing with dog.

That's a very sensitive sweater.

The underlying message of the profile, like every profile of Tatum, is that he’s an awesome guy: a fun, beer-drinking, risk-taking, goofy, loving guy.  The sub-title for the middle-of-nowhere GQ profile says it all:

Channing Tatum is crazy. That’s not an epithet. That’s his life’s motto. Don’t believe us? We invite you to spend twenty-four hours deep in the California desert (bring some tequila and a sleeping bag) with probably America’s most fun movie star.  

But here’s the thing: he’s not crazy.  Russell Brand is crazy; Val Kilmer is crazy (see Chuck Klosterman’s profile in Esquire if you don’t believe me).  Tom Cruise’s crazy rises from profiles like steam from a volcano.  But Channing Tatum is not crazy, and neither is his image.  Rather, his image of a tough, lovable doofus — and doofuses sure love to have fun.  Not the world-traveling, fancy cocktail drinking, airplane-piloting kind of fun (read: upper-class fun), but the shooting-guns, playing-pool, riding-around-on-four-wheelers-while-drunk sort of fun.  Around where I grew up in Northern Idaho, we just called this “hick-ing out,” but we might also call it (rural) working-class fun.  And if upper-class fun reeks of European glamour, then working-class fun is pure America.

Hick-ing out Crappy Diner Style

But if Tatum were just pure America, I might still find him attractive, but I wouldn’t find him enjoyable.  In fact, he’d probably be insufferable.  If Tatum were just the sum of his parts – Bad Actor, Good Looking, Beautiful Body (in the words of one of my friends from college, that body just goes on forever…), he’d still be a model or a regular on the soap opera circuit.  He’d be in Vampire Diaries or mired in the seventeenth season of One Tree Hill.  But Tatum has something that makes him more than a beautiful face, that gives him a weird, unexpected form of charisma —
And that thing, I’d argue, is his ability to dance.  His actual dancing skill (on display in Step Up), of course, but also all that his dancing signifies.  Let’s unpack this a bit.

Tatum can actually dance.  He’s not classically trained (how un-American would that be!); he’s self-taught.  In Step Up, he naturally plays a self-taught dancer who “spices up” his love interest’s formal choreography.  See for yourself:

[My personal favorite dance moment comes earlier in the film, when Tatum does a weird dippy move and pops his collar.  So good, SO BAD!]  He rejects all the feminine connotations of “male dancer” — he dances in sweat pants rather than tights; the scene when she makes him do ballet is played for pure laughs.  His dancing is physical, improvisational, and marked as amateur.

So the dancing is cute.  But the “Dancing” component of Tatum’s star image is packed with meaning –

1.) How he started dancing.

Here’s where it gets so good: Tatum didn’t just start dancing around his living room.  He was a STRIPPER.  A male exotic dancer.  There is tape, and it is right here.  SO. MUCH. HAIR. GEL.  While Tatum didn’t exactly broadcast the fact during his early film career, once it did arise, he embraced it whole-heartedly.  As he told GQ, “I had wanted to tell people [...] I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t regret one thing. I’m not a person who hides shit.”

He then proceeded to make fun of himself all over the place — he laughs about it on Ellen and then gives her a lap dance.  He developed a script on the inside of the male stripping “industry,” and Steven Soderbergh jumped to direct it.  He’s not just “owning” his past as a stripper, he’s exploiting it.  A past as a male stripper could be emasculating, it could be gross, it could be embarrassing.  But Tatum, working, I’m sure, with some coaching from his PR team, has rendered it endearing.

2.) Dancing —> Monogamy 

Tatum met his wife, Jenna Dewan, while filming Step Up.  As they danced together, they fell in love, etc. etc.  Fans love it when the actors who play characters who fall in love actually fall in love themselves (McGoslings, Twi-Hards), but this is something a little different.  Crucially, Tatum has been with Dewan the entire time that he has been in the public eye.

His star text is that of a pure monogamist.  Even in his movies, he’s never a philanderer — always into one girl; in fact, totally, selflessly devoted to one girl.  It’s the perfect counterpoint to the ostensible “crazy” of his textual and extra-textual roles: sure, Tatum drinks whiskey and shoots guns, but he loves his wife.  The moment in the latest GQ profile when he steps out of the house to call his wife is just pure monogamist gold.

3.) Dancing –> Sincerity

Tatum may be a self-taught dancer.  He may play his “route” to dancing as a joke.  But dancing is totally a sincere thing.  Look at his face when he dances! He is SERIOUS about choreography!  At other times, he’s just reveling in the dexterity of his own body.  He loves to dance, and he doesn’t care who knows it.

That sort of transparent sincerity inflects Tatum’s entire image.  You see it in the very earnest way he professes his love in Dear John, and you see it in the way that he talks about “real people” in nearly every profile.  When someone in the bar in the old mining town uses the phrase “shit brickhouse,” he replies

“Oh, my God! Yes! Brick shithouse!” Chan says, slapping his knee the next day at Rusty’s. “See! This is why I wanted to come out here. I love these places. You can’t get this good a time in the city! Real people, man. Real people.”

I’m this close to cringing.  But then I remember that it’s coming from Channing Tatum’s big, over-sized, attractive face — that he doesn’t want to observe and laugh at these “real people” so much as go back to the time when he was one of them, that I forgive him all his dopey authenticity-seeking.  I mean, look at this closer to the Details interview:

Two Woodford Reserve bourbons go down fast at the Blue Boar bar around the corner, where the bartender greets Tatum with a fist bump. Half an hour later, Tatum orders two shots of Bulleit whiskey to cap our bullet-filled day. “What are we toasting?” I ask. He looks up and meets me dead in the eye. “Isn’t it obvious?” he says. “We’re just getting started with our lives, just figuring out the rest of it. The creativity is in place, the sex is good. There’s really only one toast to make.” Tatum lifts the glass as high as he lifted his dog. “Live forever,” he says. “Just live like this forever.”

 

You see this sincere Tatum in half of his pictures — the half when he’s straight-faced and doing awkward things with his body, model-y, mooney-looking things.  But something about it makes me love him even more, like the guy writing really bad yet really sincere acrostic love poetry.

Lainey Gossip argues that he out-Matthew McConaughey’s Matthew McConaghey.  But these days, McConaghey’s just a douche with his shirt off.  Tatum, on the other hand, has three high profile movies coming out this year and two in pre-production.  The trick, I think, is that Tatum can do what McConaughey has never quite been able to pull off: he can play his sincerity straight, as he does in nearly every film.  But he can also play that sincerity for laughs, as he does in the trailer for 21 Jump Street.  

I could be wrong, but this actually looks hilarious — in part because it takes Tatum’s established image and satirizes it.  Ultimately, this knowledge forms the crux of Tatum’s success: he and his team know his image and how to exploit it, but they also know how to make fun of it.  And that, more than any actual acting skill, is a ticket to stardom.

The Ryan Gosling Meme Has Jumped the Shark

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Three things happened in Ryan Gosling meta-commentary news this week:

1.) The Ryan Gosling Tumblr-sphere expanded to include “Biostatistics Ryan Gosling.”  Add it to the pre-existing blogroll of “Medieval History Ryan Gosling,” “Public History Ryan Gosling,” “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” and dozens more discipline-specific Gozes to which I have not even been made aware.

2.) Inside Higher Ed published a (brief) thinkpiece on the phenomenon.

3.) Well-known media theorist Nancy Baym tweeted “What’s up with this Ryan Gosling tumblr meme thing?

4.) My friend Rebecca, pop culture enthusiast and American Studies dissertator, posited “Don’t you think this whole thing has jumped the shark?  You need to write about it quick.”

I have to agree.  Biostatistics Ryan Gosling is Jumping the Ryan Gosling Tumblr Shark.  Not because I don’t like Biology, but because it lacks the very thing that made the original Ryan Gosling Tumblr (Hey Girl) work so well: you could actually imagine Ryan Gosling saying the very phrases that adoring bloggers were photoshopping into his mouth.

To be more precise: The reason “Hey Girl” works is because Ryan Gosling’s image supports it. You can imagine The Goz saying things like….

…because his image is that of a considerate, intelligent, somewhat quirky yet somehow also adorable and amusing man. (For the specifics of Gosling’s image, see my earlier post on “Why You Love the Goz“). His picture personality may dictate otherwise (read: he plays a lot of assholes and weirdos), but somehow the weight of his extratextual image is enough to convince most of America that he’s really Noah Calhoun (of Notebook fame) transplanted off the screen and into the 21st century.

What’s more, the very notion that Ryan Gosling COULD SAY THESE THINGS is reinforced by clips of him being adorable WHILE SAYING THESE THINGS. He knows about the Tumblr; he finds it quite funny (and somewhat absurd); he laughs at himself and his image which, in reality, just reinforces his image. He gets the joke! The Hotness just multiples!

Get More: Movie Trailers, Movies Blog

 

And Feminist Ryan Gosling is “Hey Girl” taken to its natural (feminist) conclusion. Ryan Gosling’s image goes to grad school! But here’s the thing: Ryan Gosling’s image wouldn’t go to get his PhD in Biology. Or Public History. His image has evidenced no interest in biology other than hanging out with those ducks in The Notebook. Ryan Gosling’s image would either sell out and become a lawyer (see, for example, many of his picture personalities) or pursue an altruistic career in the humanities (see Half Nelson), more specifically, English and/or Gender Studies. And I’m not just saying that because I have a Ph.D. in the humanities: if I were interested in making The Goz be part of my cohort, then I’d be arguing that Ryan Gosling Film Studies is awesome, which I’m not. See below).

But Feminist Ryan Gosling is doing more than just placing feminist theory next to well-chosen pictures. It’s combining rigorous feminist theory with something that’s not quite so rigorous — it couples the theoretical stances we believe in with the negotiated way we live them.

Take this image, for example.  Yes! I believe that the hegemonic relationship between the state and the prison industrial complex is bullshit, and needs to be eradicated.  But I also want someone to hold me!  (And in my personal fantasy space, that person could be Ryan Gosling.  It couldn’t be, say, Brad Pitt, because his image doesn’t seem like it would want to go to gender studies grad school.  Architectural school, sure).

Or here.  Yes, gender is a construct.  To live that idea everyday — that’s tough (necessary) work.  To emphasize it to your students, to your parents, to your kids, to your peers — seriously, that’s tough, because you’re pushing against a whole heavy load of ideology.  But again, the idea is paired with the idea that everyone, including those who make theory in personal praxis, enjoy and hunger for human touch and intimacy.

Apart from the fit with Gosling’s image, there’s also an element of pleasure and play at work. As Danielle Henderson, creator of Feminist Ryan Gosling, explains,

Feminists are apparently not supposed to have a sense of humor. I think people are really liking the fact that this site is intelligent while simultaneously silly, and obviously self-referential. A lot of my followers are women’s studies majors, or people who have taken women’s studies classes, and love seeing inside jokes presented in this way. For example, if you’re a women’s studies major, you’ve probably read “The Yellow Wallpaper” at least 18 times. Now matter how much you like that story, it gets a little ridiculous.

There’s a lot of “snark” (hate that word), and a lot of intellectual examination of pop culture going on with most popular feminist sites, but not a lot of fun. I think I’m having fun with feminism, but not making fun of feminism. People recognize and respond to that crucial difference.

That element of play has far less to do with Ryan Gosling’s image and far more to do with feminism‘s image.  But again, it only really works because the feminism can actually work with Gosling’s image.  Would it work with Will Smith?  With Tom Cruise?  With Daniel Craig or Jackie Chan or Channing Tatum?  You need a very specific constellation of star attributes in order to make it seem plausible that the person in that picture could potentially read, understand, and repeat the theory contained therein.  You need an image as inflected with feminism as The Goz’s.

(Note: I realize that part of this process is self-fulfilling and tautological: Gosling’s image seems feminist so feminist theory can be ascribed to him, which, in turn, makes his image seem even more feminist.  Star image formation is complicated shit).

As I was writing this post, several of my friends alerted me to “Film Studies Ryan Gosling.”  Part of me wants to love this, if only because I want to imagine Gosling’s image’s familiarity with the likes of Bordwell and Thompson. But Ryan Gosling image isn’t that of a cinephile, and it’s most definitely not indicated an interest in apparatus.  I so wish he were.  If anyone should be responding to these meme, it should be me — someone who loves Gosling AND film theory.  But when you apply his name to film studies, it only make sense with knowledge of the meme and its previous application – not by itself.  In other words, if “Hey Girl” is Ryan Gosling’s extratextual image turned into a meme, and Feminist Ryan Gosling is the higher ed extension of that image, then there’s just not a space for Ryan Gosling, Film Theoretician.

What’s more, the author gets it wrong: sure, Grad School Gosling would know Mulvey and the theory of the male gaze, but he would also twist the theory so that he wasn’t embodying the very oppressing gaze against which Mulvey was arguing.  For Gosling to be the male gaze suggests that he’s fully enveloped in patriarchy — which is the exact opposite of what his image suggests.

Here’s the simple truth: all pop culture phenomenons, especially those which gain traction on the internet, exhaust themselves eventually.  Sometimes it happens through overexposure, sometimes it happens by being spread too thin and thus losing their potency.  Whether Stuff White People Like or even LOLcatz, there’s a certain point at which the very thing that made it work — made it special, made if hilarious, made it something that you wanted to pass along to your friends and laugh at a common joke — ceases to function in the same way.

Pairing star images with dense theory is funny.  Every scholar wants to think that an object of their desire would be interested in the things they’re interested in — would have a discussion in which you share a secret language familiar to a select few (and then, after you’ve had a good debate, you an go to the Farmer’s Market and snuggle).  I wish Ryan Gosling’s image wanted to get his PhD in media studies with me.  But it doesn’t — he fell in with the gender studies people long ago.  That’s where his image belongs.  That’s where it works.  To take it beyond can be funny……but, if we’re honest with ourselves, misses the point.  It’s a meme built on a meme, and thus evacuated of its core.

Maybe Postmodern Ryan Gosling would have something to say about this?

Why You Love The Fassbender

michael-fassbender-Prometheus

Am I getting ahead of myself?  Do you even know The Fassbender?  If you do, then you know why this column is worth your time. If you do not, let’s begin with a down-and-dirty orientation.

Plainly put, Michael Fassbender is the next big thing.  GQ just put him on its cover as 2010′s Breakout Star, and it’s no joke: this guy was all over the place, but in the very best of ways.

After toiling for many years on the periphery of visibility, Fassbender’s big break came in the form of Steve McQueen’s Hunger, in which he plays the lead role of an IRA hunger striker.  The film won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and both McQueen and Fassbender were suddenly very visible.  (Link to disturbing image of Fassbender’s emaciation here).

Fassbender followed Hunger with Fish Tank, a totally awesome and under-seen (in the United States, at least) film about a British teenager and the, uh, unique relationship between her and her mother’s boyfriend.  Lots of film festival awards, Jury Prize at Cannes, BAFTA for Best British Film.  But Fassbender didn’t become truly visible to American eyes until Inglourious Basterds, in which he plays a British spy (in one of the tensest moments of the film, and that’s saying something).

Basterds led to Jonah Hex, which was primed to be a big blockbuster.  All the pieces were in place: big lead stars (Josh Brolin, John Malkovich), sexy girl-on-the-side (Megan Fox), pre-sold comic book franchise….but the film was a STINKBOMB.  Panned across the board (12% Rotten Tomatoes score!) and made back only $10 million of its $47 million budget.  But Fassbender was already off and filming what would become his gangbuster 2011: Rochester in Jane Eyre, Young Magneto in the rebooted X-Men, Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, repaired with Steve McQueen as a sex addict in Shame, some sort of secret agentness in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (Winter 2012), and the male lead (android) in Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi film Prometheus (Summer 2012).

We’re right in the middle of that list right now: both A Dangerous Method and Shame are in limited release right now, with Oscar Buzz slowly accumulating around Fassbender’s performance in the later.

Add in the fact that Fassbender is spectacularly, unequivocally, viscerally handsome.

But handsomeness does not make a star.  And it certainly does not make a cult of fandom, the way that The Fassbender has recently inspired (if you follow the blog’s feed on Facebook, you know what exactly what I’m talking about).

[Quick Clarifying Note: When I title a post using the "second person," insinuating I magically know Why You Love The Fassbender (or, before, The Goz -- who knows, maybe this will become a regular column?), I'm not so much suggesting that I know why you, specifically, find him endearing/attractive/compelling so much as why society/Hollywood has found him endearing/attractive/compelling, a grouping of which the magic 'you' are obviously a part.  Perhaps that much is obvious].

So here’s the big (somewhat obviously) revelation: You love The Fassbender because He’s a Method Actor.  That seems obvious and facile, so let’s break it down:

1.) THE PRETTY FACE + THE TALENT 

First and foremost.  Pretty face is one thing, pretty face that can act — and act astoundingly well, in myriad and diverse parts, is like taking “pretty face” and squaring it.  It makes the hotness level go off the charts.  Pretty face without talent is two dimensional eye candy — a model in a fashion magazine, not someone with whom you’d actually want (or be able) to interact.  Pretty face with talent = three-dimensional.  Suddenly you can imagine having a discussion.  Touching his face.  It’s not just because he’s acting, three-dimensionally, on the screen, but because he seems less like a pin-up and more like a person.  That’s what skill does to people: it makes them interesting.

And Fassbender isn’t just a decent actor.  In all the articles I read preparing for this post, I saw him compared to Daniel Day-Lewis at least a dozen times.  That sort of praise is not fucking around.  You can nonchalantly compare someone to, say, Brad Pitt, or George Clooney — underlining the way he matches charisma with skill, etc. etc.  But Day-Lewis is the contemporary actor par excellence.  He is our moment’s Method Actor.

The comparison between Fassbender and Day-Lewis stems from two qualities: Fassbender’s devotion to specific characters, and the diversity of characters to which he has devoted himself.  Profiles love to retell the methods of “The Method” — how he holed up and fasted for weeks to emaciate himself for Hunger, subsisting on sardines and nuts.  For the famous 17-minute unbroken take in the film, he and his co-star moved in together, practicing the scene twelve times a day.  CRAZYTIME.  When A Dangerous Method screened at the Venice Film Festival, Fassbender had so effectively become Jung (and not “Fassbender”) that he had to introduce himself and his character when he went on stage afterwards.

Cronenberg calls him a “working class actor,” by which he  means that Fassbender works for each role, spends hours devoting himself to the script and losing himself within the character.  According to one interview, “To prepare for a role, he’ll read a screenplay as many as 300 times in daily shifts of seven hours.”  He’s best known for his performances in minor keys: moody sad-sacks with little way out. Rochester, his character in Shame, Magneto.  But his character in Fish Tank is a marvel to behold, all smiles and sun-kissed charisma.  Cronenberg calls him a shape-shifter, a chameleon.

From Fish Tank (2009)

In some ways, a chameleon is frightening: you never know which Fassbender you’ll get onscreen, whether he’ll terrify or seduce you.  But that chance is also extremely beguiling, and the talent it takes to affect that sort of transformation is, on a meta-level, extremely attractive.

As Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method

2.) THE INTELLIGENCE.

Or, more specifically, the intelligence that stems from Method Acting.

Here, for example, is Fassbender’s take on Rochester:

“[Rochester is]….A Byronic character burnt by experience, arrogant but also eloquent and introspective. He’s world-weary and jaded, sensual, selfdestructive, yet there’s a good sense of humor in there, and at the end of the day a good heart. He sees the freshness and beauty in Jane when everybody else looks past her.”

As Rochester in Jane Eyre

I don’t think Fassbender is smart about everything, but he has evidenced himself to be extremely intelligent about people – and he’s done so not only in the way he speaks about characters (who are, in fact, people) but in the way his performances underline a deep understanding of the diversity of human experience.  To be a method actor is to be capable of understanding how other people work, and embodying that understanding with your performance.  Fassbender is thus intelligent in the way that all method actors are intelligent.  Consider our current crop of method actors: Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Sean Penn.  We associate each of these mena nd women with intelligence.  (Poor choices sometimes, yes, especially in the case of De Niro’s late film career, but intelligence nonetheless).  Actors that “play themselves,” like, say, Gary Cooper, are likable, but we don’t think of them as necessarily smart.  Method Acting is a learned and difficult skill, and it differentiates those who excel at it from the rest of Hollywood.

You — readers of this blog who like to think deeply about the popular culture you consume — are most likely attracted to thoughtful, intelligent men, whether as friends or as objects of affection.  With his close association with The Method, ratified by his own meta-textual perceptiveness, The Fassbender is this man.

3.)  THE BLANK SLATE.  

If you’ve only seen Jane Eyre and X-Men Origins, you might think Fassbender is a type.  I certainly did.  But having watched his other films, I’ve become convinced of the Method/Talent stuff up above.  As mentioned above, I have no idea what this man could do, what character he could embody next, whether or not he’ll be creepy or endearing.  He could be anyone.

Including Your Total Boyfriend.  Your Best Guy Friend.  You can paint him into your elaborate fantasy and it so totally works.  

It’s because he’s a Method Actor, but it’s also because he’s Not a Real Movie Star.  I know this comes as a surprise — haven’t I been saying that he’s the next big thing?  Isn’t he on all of these magazines? — but he’s not a movie star in the same way that Brad Pitt, or Will Smith, or Ben Affleck are movie stars.  Not because he’s not a blockbuster star — because with Ridley Scott’s film, he will be — but because we know virtually nothing of his extra-textual life.

Because as much as people love to argue this point,

Star = Picture Personality (accumulation of roles) + Extra-Textual Personality (the image of their lifestyle off screen).

Fassbender has submitted to dozens of interviews.  He’s posed for GQ fashion shoots.  He’s super visible.  But what do you know of his homelife?  Sure, you know a bit about his family — that his father is German, that he lived in Germany — but that was emphasized to explain his near-perfect (if accented) German in Basterds.  Maybe you know that his father is a chef.  Maybe you know that he dated Zoe Kravitz, his co-star in X-Men, over the summer.  But it’s unlikely that you knew that, because they were caught a total of  ONCE by photographers.  The man is intensely guarded about his private life.  In fact, the most illuminating thing he’s said about his private life is that he’d like to to model his career on Viggo Morgensten’s, which is to say he’d like to remain intensely private and choose his roles carefully, balancing high profile films with personal projects.

This level of privacy — and the resultant blank slate of his private life — is part of the reason he’s able to recede into his roles so effectively.  Even tremendous, transformative actors — like Brad Pitt– can only go so far with a role, if only because every time you see his face, you’re reminded of his everpresent star image.  Fassbender, in his current iteration, is free of the heft of a star image.

As a result, we can project our own fantasies of “what he’s really like” onto Fassbender’s highly mutable image, and Fassbender can continue to refine his non-star-image as a method actor.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.  The less we know about him, the more Method he seems, the hotter he becomes…..and The More You Love The Fassbender.

THE FASSBENDER.

Brad Pitt Stars as Brad Pitt in New Brad Pitt Movie

Clearly playing "himself" in Moneyball

Writing about Brad Pitt is too easy. He’s the quintessential movie star.  He’s the type of star that fits so neatly into Richard Dyer’s conception of stars as images both extraordinary and ordinary that embody and reconcile ideologies.  That’s a complex way of saying that Brad Pitt plays the societal function that classic stars did: his image is of a particular type of masculinity, and that masculinity mirrors what the dominant American society values/tolerates/expects/valorizes in a man in terms of looks and attitudes towards women, parenting, multiculturalism, philanthropy, or marriage.

When we say “Brad Pitt is the ideal man,” what we are actually saying is that he embodies what our current society thinks is ideal.  Brad Pitt didn’t make those things ideal; he became popular because his image matched the things that our society values.

And Pitt, like all iconic stars, also embodies ideologies that are seemingly contradictory.  Take, for example, his attitude towards marriage.  He went through a very public divorce, joining himself with another (sexual, sultry) woman who seemed to have moved in when he was still married to his first (All-American) wife.  He and this women then adopted several children and had three biological children of their own, but Mom and Dad are still not married.  Very un-American of you, Brad.  Very anti-marriage.  But here’s the thing: his relationship with Angelina Jolie is, by all accounts, the very portrait of a blissful union.  They forward an image of happiness and engagement, modeling a parenting style that is tolerant, multicultural, and cosmopolitan. (Whether or not this is true is completely beside the point: they sell it so well, it’s impossible not to buy).

In other words, Pitt and Jolie are ahead of the (ideological) curve, but not so ahead that they profoundly disturb existing ideologies.  They model an ideal, but one that’s not quite been achieved across America: a couple together because they love each other; a blended family; tolerant and playful parenting; a global lifestyle that promotes understanding, awareness, and philanthropy.

Photo via People.com

If Brad Pitt and George Clooney started dating and had the same family, that still might be too out-there (read: transgressive) for mainstream audiences to swallow.  But Pitt and Jolie are just “normal” enough — and just beautiful enough — that they make practices and attitudes that might otherwise be “other,” “weird,” or otherwise transgressive into the mainstream.  Or at least make them speakable — some may not agree with their parenting style, their refusal to marry “until everyone can,” or how they let Shiloh dress, but that parenting style and non-marriage decision is still very visible.  In this way, it prompts discussions that might not otherwise take place, and it makes what was formerly “fringe” behavior into the mainstream.Sometimes the popularity of a star can highlight a societally regressive moment (Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen); sometimes they highlight a progressive one (Obama, Gaga).

Superstardom makes Brad Pitt easy to talk about.  But the way he arrived at superstardom was more than just marrying Jennifer Aniston and leaving her for Angelina Jolie — although that certainly has a tremendous amount to do with his seemingly everlasting appeal.  (That and the crinkled eyes when he smiles, but I digress).

Plainly put, actors become stars through two primary means:

1.) Playing “themselves” on screen, which is to say playing a relatively consistent version of their established image;

2.) Maintaining an extratextual (“private”) life that reinforces that image.

They’re reinforcing processes, but as long-term readers of this blog know, it’s all about constructing a unified and coherent image.  Sometimes that image can be summed up in a word (“cool,” “indie,” “All-American,” “girl-next-door”) sometimes it’s a combination of things (gravitas and sex appeal; hooker with the heart of gold, etc.).  Angelina Jolie is intense, dark, and sultry physical sexual energy; Brad Pitt is shining, golden, easygoing sex appeal.  That’s part of why their images go so well together: sex and sex.  (Sex and cute, not so much.  See Aniston and Pitt.  Sex and snotty, also not so much.  See Pitt and Paltrow).

The star also needs to not play himself from time to time, mostly in the name of proving that he/she can act.  There’s a fantastic academic article from the early ’90s on how Warner Bros. would use the times when Bette Davis played “against” her image as a means of selling the picture — “See Bette Davis play a husband-killing total bitch!” (See: Little Foxes!).  In these cases, playing against type actually functions to reinforce type.  Look at this star acting so different from their “true” image!  (these performances are also the opportunities for big stars to win Oscars, mostly because the “acting” is so on display).

Of course, the innate fallacy is the belief that a star’s image is not an act in and of itself.  A star’s image is no more the “real” star than any other performance. The image, however, is polished, consistent, and has the trappings of “authenticity,” despite the fact that it has been polished and practiced far more than any single movie performance.

Which brings us to Pitt.  Pitt’s dominant on-screen image (also known as his “picture personality”) is, to generalize a bit, that of a hot, charismatic guy who gets what he wants.  Sometimes this guy is more emotive, sometimes he’s less so, getting by on his charm.

Most of the time, especially in his recent films, he’s doing a lot of eating.  There are slight variations — sometimes he plays Brad Pitt-as-half-Greek-god, sometimes he plays Brad Pitt-as-assassin — but there’s nevertheless a strong centerline running through the performances.  We’ll call this:

“Pictures When Pitt Plays Himself”:

Thelma & Louise (establishing the persona)

A River Runs Through It

Legends of the Fall 

Seven

Sleepers

Seven Years in Tibet

Meet Joe Black

The Mexican

Spy Game

Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen (all three of these crystallize the Pitt image)

Appearances on Friends

Troy

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Tree of Life

Moneyball

Clearly playing "himself" in Moneyball

Then there are roles in which Pitt is clearly playing against type — and the spectacle of that “against-type-ness” is part of what draws the audience to the film.  We’ll call this:

“Pitt as Character Actor”:

Kalifornia

True Romance

Interview with the Vampire

12 Monkeys

Fight Club (the dirty underbelly of the Pitt image; absolutely fascinating)

Snatch

Babel (arguable whether performance belongs here or above)

LATE EDITION: Burn After Reading (I have no idea how I could forget this — SO, SO GOOD).

Inglourious Basterds

 

And, perhaps best of all, there are the films that play on Pitt’s existing star image, creating a text that’s sort of a palimpsest of existing images and what the film inflects on Pitt’s image.  Lots of big stars wouldn’t dabble in this, but Pitt partners with smart, savvy directors.  (Hitchcock famously did this sort of play with the images of Cary Grant and James Stewart).  We’ll call this:

“Pitt and Director Playing with Image”

Appearances on Friends

Being John Malkovich

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Full Frontal (appearing as “self”)

and, most compellingly, The Assassination of Jesse James, which uses the most famous actor in a meditation about fame, gossip, reputation, and the discrepancies between the image and the self.  (Which is part of the reason why I think the film is woefully underrated and totally brilliant).

I didn’t put years besides the films, but those of you who have been watching films for the last ten to fifteen years know when these films came out.  They weave together, almost tit for tat.  Every time he does a film that challenges his existing image, he has another in the pipeline that reinforces it.  It’s brilliant, and it’s why he’s been the biggest male star, both domestically and internationally, for more than a decade.  Brad Pitt opens movies, even when Brad Pitt isn’t playing “himself.”  Brad Pitt playing himself, however, as he does almost perfectly in Moneyball, can turn a film into a global (even if not domestic) blockbuster. (For those of you who disagree with me re: Moneyball, please see: hilarious eating, bonhomie, asshole-mixed-with-charisma, golden-boy past, lots of emotive staring-into-space.  No womanizing, but he makes up for it with the comedic timing and ubiquitous chin-ups).

I saw Moneyball this weekend.  It was fine.  There was something off about the pacing.  But I’d go see it again, if only because I love watching Brad Pitt play Brad Pitt.  It looks effortless, which actually means it’s probably pretty hard.  But because it seems so easy — because the charisma seems authentic, because it looks like he’s just walking out his real life and onto the screen — it makes it all the more appealing.  Someone who goes through life with that ease exists.  Or at least that’s the promise that “playing oneself” makes.  It’s a beautiful illusion to watch — and it’s the reason the film, no matter its merits, will make money, and why Pitt receives the paychecks he does. Moneyball may not have beat The Lion King in 3D, but few things get infrequent movie-goers to the theaters like a real movie star acting as such onscreen.  I could watch it all day.  And so could you.

Brad Pitt plays Brad Pitt in New Brad Pitt Movie

True Blood, Truly Bad?

wallpaper-do-bad-things-1600

Readers, we have an issue.  And that issue is the badness of True Blood — and our persistence in watching it.  Now, don’t get me wrong — I do think that True Blood has flashes of genius, most of them directly linked to Russell Edgerton, Layfayette, and Pam.  But the show as a whole is somewhat of an abomination, and I’m wondering how so many of us got so deep, so fast….and now can’t work our way out of the serial viewership hole.

So first things first: is True Blood actually bad?  I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I think we might need to agree that while the show has interesting, compelling, campy, and extremely entertaining parts, as a whole, it’s a disaster.  There are too many plot lines, none of which seem to coalesce into any realistic whole.  The tone is too mixed, with some parts — I’m thinking of Sookie in the fairy land at the beginning of this season, or the winter wonderland love scene about half way through — that are so barefaced cheesy that I’m embarrassed to watch.  As in the BF walks in the room and I have to turn off the television.  There’s cheesy that’s funny, and then there’s cheesy that makes you wince and kinda hate yourself, and TB is coming down on the side of the latter far too often.

So there are some good plot lines around good characters.  Jason Stackhouse with the evangelicals, for example, or Eric’s backstory with his maker Godric.  But there are far more bad characters with prolonged and tortuous plot lines: everything involving Tara; everything involving Sam; everything involving Hoyt’s mom.  I could obviously go on (and on and on) about how the show fails on a semi-regular basis, but I think we can agree on the simple fact that it oscillates between the plainly ridiculous and the truly, painfully bad.

So why do we keep watching? Over the course of its four seasons, True Blood has transformed from Alan Ball’s newest project, limping along with a small following, to HBO’s primetime flagship.  Part of its popularity stems from our generalized cultural vampire moment — I, for one, wasn’t into vampires, but then I got sucked into stupid Twilight, which led me to True Blood, and I’m sure I’m not alone.  Part of the popularity stems from people watching it for camp, which it obviously supplies, and many, many people watch it simply for the eye candy (HELLLLLLO, ERIC; hello Sookie’s boobs) and explicit sex scenes that would be at home on late night Skinamax.

Why most people watch this show.

But that shouldn’t be enough to keep so many people watching.  If it were just a trainwreck, most people would lose interest after a season or two, but True Blood‘s viewership only continues to grow.  Same for the eye candy and the sex; same for the vampire-ness, which, as the show’s guiding narrative metaphor, has only become increasingly muddled and confused.

Which leaves us with two heavily-linked options for True Blood‘s enduring popularity: seriality and romance.

Seriality, in brief, is the way that the show makes you want to see what happens with the narrative and the characters that inhabit it.  “Series” television is the type of show that you can enter at any moment and know what’s going on — most sitcoms, for example, or Law and Order – while “serial” television demands watching from the beginning to the end.  Most “quality” television on the air today is serial television, most network/”mainstream” television is series television.  (Many programs are hybrids, which chance viewers to enter in at any point, but also provide loyal viewers with serialized story lines that add nuance and context to individual episodes).

Soap operas are quintessentially serial television, and True Blood is, let’s be honest, a primetime soap opera with high production values.  Through its use of narrative arcs — whether arcs that have lasted all four seasons (what will happen between Sookie and Bill?), arcs that structure a single season (how will Jason escape the Christians?  Will Marianne take over all mystical creatures?) — we are pulled to watch the next episode even when we are disgusted with what we have just seen.  Viewer curiosity — seeing the narrative through to its end — trumps viewer frustration.

This happens with many series — I know that I followed Gossip Girl (another primetime soap opera) far past the point of actual interest simply because I wanted to see what happened with Chuck and Blair.  Lots of shows have similar pull, but few have been so successful in being bad and pulling people along. In fact, most shows start strong — see, for example, The O.C. — and then peter out, with fewer and fewer viewers feeling compelled enough to tune in despite badness.   With True Blood, however, the characters just keep getting hotter, and there’s just enough comic relief, just enough flashes of quasi-brilliance and turns of phrase to trump the narrative lulls and moments of absurdity when most people would throw up their hands and abandon the show.  While True Blood‘s good parts may not make a cohesive whole, those parts, on their own, provide enough pleasure and entertainment to foil viewer’s best attempts to abandon the show and its serial pull.

And then there’s the romance.  Romance is often a main (or only) serial hook — we continue reading or watching a piece of media simply because we want to know if the romance that has been put into motion at the beginning of the text will come to its obvious conclusion.  Serial romance usually takes one of two paths:

1.) Will the obvious male protagonist and female protagonist get together, despite situational and attitudinal struggles?  (See TB Season One).

2.) Now that the male protagonist and female protagonist have gotten together and satisfied audiences, what will happen now that one half of the couple has become an obvious drag and there’s another person, perhaps tall, Nordic, and f-ing BUILT, waiting in the wings?  (See every season of TB after Season One).

What’s somewhat weird True Blood is that Sookie obviously sucks.  Her character is annoying, her voice is annoying, she’s so inconsistent with her actions and choices, but the question of whether or not she will have very naked and very graphic sex with a.) Bill; b.) Eric; or c.) Alcide, complete with appropriately baroque soundtrack, again trumps the fact that her sole redeeming quality is her extensive sundress collection.  But the likability of the all three of her love interests keeps audiences interested in who she’ll pick, even if we don’t necessarily like her.  Or maybe we’re just willing her to pick who’d we pick?  Which was so obviously Eric until he lost his memories and became so lame I cover my ears when he speaks?  I feel the same way around memory-less Eric as I do around the letters from my college boyfriends, which is really saying something.  (Don’t worry; college boyfriends don’t read this blog, they’re all too busy fly-fishing and writing poetry and being earnest).

Even Layfayette can't believe you're still watching this show.

So there you have it.  You (and I) keep watching True Blood because Layfayette keeps saying “hooker please,” Alcide keeps taking off his shirt, and Sookie keeps hooking up with people and then changing her mind.  I’m still somewhat embarrassed by how little it takes to keep me glued to a show that is otherwise so truly bad.

Some Incredibly Mixed Emotions on The Help

the-help-movie-poster

This is a blog in two parts. The first part deals with the problems. The second deals with the (relatively) promising.

So let’s start here: this story is a problem. I’m not going to use the word “problematic” because it’s a grad student word that makes people roll their eyes. But shit this story is a PROBLEM. I read the book earlier this year at the prompting of several people, and for all of its feel-good-ness, it remains a problem. I could lay out all the reasons here, but I would not do it nearly as incisively or eloquently as those who have gone before me. To start:

*A fantastic write-up on the problems of the book alone.

*The official statement and condemnation from the Association of Black Historians, along with suggestions for reading that will help contextualized/correct understandings of what it was like to be a female domestic in the South in the ’60s.

And on the film:
*The most incisive review of the film I’ve read thus far.
*And a brilliant flow chart on which film (including The Help) will best help white viewers alleviate their white guilt.

(My huge thanks to Kristen Warner for directing me to all of these).

To summarize: the book uses a white woman to tell black women’s stories; the book uses dialect for the black women but not for the white women; the book (and film) make the villains SO INCREDIBLY VILLAINOUS that it’s difficult for anyone to see any of themselves in the characters who are clearly racist.

The book is also a piece of fiction — and this is what I feel like no one is talking about. It did not happen because in all probability there is no way that it could have happened.  Most crucially, a character as altruistic and likable as Skeeter could not have happened. It’s not that I don’t like her, but she’s not a real person from the South — she’s from a fairytale.

Racism isn’t something that you just decide you’re not going to acquire, even though all of your friends, family, and townspeople espouse it. It’s not something that goes away just because you love your maid, as evidenced by the vast majority of white women raised by maids who also grew up to be racist. The story is fiction, but it told in a way — interwoven with real life events of the civil rights movement — that encourages audiences to believe that it could have happened, or maybe even did happen. (Classic Hollywood Cinema, a style in which this film is made, aspires to mimesis, or recreating “real life” conditions as closely as possible — and thus encouraging audiences to “lose themselves” in the reality of the situation. The problem, of course, is that this was not a real life situation, but one imagined and marketed towards 21st century audiences who want to distance themselves from the atrocities of the 1960s).

Which brings me to my overarching issue with the book and film.  Both portray the situation in 1960s Mississippi as horrible. Atrocious. Racist. No question. But the book (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the film) also posit this historical period as an “unfortunate” time in our past that we have grown past.  And that’s what makes this text a problem: framing racism was something that happened in the past, but not today, because events like the (made-up) ones that occurred in this text helped eliminate it.

In these texts, racism is not a systemic and institutionalized problem, but something that takes place between individuals. This set-up suggest that if you, yourself, are not a racist, are not like the villain in this movie, then you’re doing your part to stop racism. Like other films that make white people feel good about the current state of race relations in this country (Crash, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, The Blind Side, the list goes on), the framing of racism as a problem on the individual level makes it easier to dismiss projects like Affirmative Action meant to counteract the very real systematic racism that manifests within contemporary American society.

Case in point: at the end of the film, one of the main black maids is fired from her job, and decides that she will leave her life as a maid and become a writer, having tested her mettle for the collection of stories published as The Help within the context of the film. But the film doesn’t account for how incredibly difficult it would have been for a black woman from Jackson to have her writing published, or even really gesture towards the fact that the only reason these women’s stories were told in the first place was because a white woman talked to another white woman in New York City. The movie ends on a seemingly positive note — one meant to make audiences go home thinking “That Abilene, she’ll do something with her life, she’s free!” — that ignores the material realities of a single, middle-aged, unemployed black woman’s life in the 1960s in Mississippi.

So. All that said. I was really, really expecting this movie to be sappy, saccharine, and extremely offensive in its subliminal racism. I was expecting it to be Freedom Writers. I was expecting to feel embarrassed for my girl Emma Stone for appearing in it.

But here’s the thing: the film is not the atrocity that it could be. That’s not to say that it’s not still a problem — it is — but it is not a bad film. While the narrative proper still has issues, I was somewhat astounded by how the actors in this movie essentially took an original text pained in bold, reductive strokes and injected it with verve and nuance. This is even more unexpected given that the film was released by Touchstone (owned by Disney) and produced by Chris Columbus (amongst others), a.k.a. the people who brought you Remember the Titans and the two lifeless Harry Potter movies. The director and screenwriter had never worked on a big Hollywood film. This film could have been SO. BAD.

But like David Poland from Movie City News, I think that the performances from Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Jessica Chastain are all pretty astounding. Even Howard playing the villain — Poland’s right; she does something a bit more complicated with it than meets the eye. And he’s spot with the comparison of Chastain’s year with Rachel McAdam’s breakthrough year. (It’s really a great read on the industrial realities — I highly recommend his follow up post as well, even if I don’t agree with it entirely). I also love what Allison Janney does with her role, which could have been much, much more of a caricature. (The bit on “courage skipping a generation” is not in the book). Plus True Blood‘s Layfayette (Nelsan Ellis) gets a three-line role, which I so enjoyed, if only to see him dressed the exact opposite of Layfayette.

(But here’s the thing, as pointed out by my friend Kristen and many others — these are some of the *only* mainstream roles for women as talented as Davis, Spencer, and Ellis. To be considered for an Oscar, they have to play asexual and and historically rooted in films directed by and marketed to white audiences.)

In addition to the performances, the film also shifts significantly away from Skeeter and her problems, including her dying mother and love life. Not only does this provide more room to focus on the lives of true hero/victims of the film, but also makes it seem like less of a melodramatic contrivance. Indeed, the feminist in me really loves the fact that Skeeter’s romance feels tacked on — this guy is so tangental to her life, she really doesn’t even mourn him when he decides that she shouldn’t be writing such things. He seriously has like four scenes in the whole film, which is pretty awesomely dismissive.

Some of the critiques of the film speak to the fact that the men in the film (especially the black men in the film, apart from Ellis’s character and a minister) are predominantly absent, or portrayed as deadbeats off-screen. I agree that this is a problem, especially since black men have been symbolically annihilated from so much of our nation’s social and cultural history. But I do love that this film passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors: women appear in scenes with other women NOT TALKING ABOUT MEN all the time.

I mean, this is clearly a women’s film. There are several moments calculated to make you — especially if you are a woman, and have ever babysat, or have ever had frenimies, or have ever had a mother who you loved/despised/came around to understand — cry. And so I did. I’m pretty sure I shed actual tears at six different points.

But does that make it good? I divide movie-crying into two separate categories: the first is from something that evokes some sort of incredibly evocative sensation of something real and tragic. A story that seems real because the film, both narratively and aesthetically, has done the necessary labor to feel emotionally invested in the characters and what happens to them. I put the crying that I do at Terrence Malick films, the crying that I did earlier this summer at Beginners, the crying that I do at Moulin Rouge, the crying that I did at Brokeback Mountain in these categories.

Then there’s crying that I do because I have been manipulated into investing in an unrealistic, hyper-melodramatic story. I feel this way about the way I cry in every Nicholas Sparks adaption (including The Notebook, because the McGosling storyline doesn’t make me cry; it’s the old people dying in bed storyline that makes me cry, and not because of the McGosling back story but because they’re old and “go away together,” which is totally cheap and unfair but damn if I’m not sobbing). This is “being taken advantage of” crying.

I’m pretty sure The Help took advantage of me. Sure, there were parts of the film that evoked my own real life experience as a full-time nanny of other women’s children. But then again, as a white, educated woman, I never had to deal with the Microsoft mothers who employed me accusing me of stealing the silver or telling me that I couldn’t use their bathrooms. So that’s a case of false identification: I cry because the movie encourages me to identify with the maid’s pain, when, in reality, I know nothing of the complexities of her situation, which include (as one of the above blog posts points out) much more complex emotions towards a white child that will most likely grow up to treat her just the same way that her racist mother does.

I’m also wary of my own tears, because crying — and the catharsis it offers — makes us feel as if afterwards, things are better. Both within and outside of the narrative. That hard/sad thing was tough, but now it’s over, and we can move on. And the neat way the film wraps up every story line only encourages that belief. This film doesn’t make me want to make sure that no vestige of this sort of discrimination, racism, and generalized hatred exists today; it makes feel like I can walk away from the movie theater thankful that that chapter in our nation’s history is closed.

So where does this leave us? In some ways, I do think that films like this are important if only to get readers, audiences, and bloggers talking. I wouldn’t have posted on race today if not for this film, and even bad films can start good conversations. I also like the few gestures towards a slightly more holistic view (again, in comparison to the book) of the discrepancies between the material living conditions of the white characters in this film (plantations; feeling sad over scratches in expensive oak tables) and those of the black characters (four children to a bed). More could have been done to address the class issues between whites (which are dealt with more extensively in the book) and how difference, in whatever form (curly hair, white “trash,” smart woman), is treated as a problem to be solved or ignored.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that mainstream Hollywood (and mainstream publishing, for that matter) and mainstream (read: white) audiences have always responded to these types of narratives, in part because they make us feel like the bad parts of our society and ourselves were historical, not contemporary. They’re feel-good the same way that so much of mainstream pop culture is feel good. But like so much feel-good material, the way it produces that feeling is by eliding what makes life so often feel so bad, whether that’s the persistence of class, racial, or gender divisions. I know that entertainment is our way of escaping those problems, but that’s a bull-shit excuse. The more we try to escape them — including by going to films that encourage us to believe that those problems have been overcome — the more they will persist.