I’ve written about postfeminist dystopia before — specifically, as it applies to Revenge, which now seems to be withering on the vine in its second season on ABC. But just because Revenge isn’t succeeding doesn’t mean that the dystopia it manifests isn’t alive, thriving, and doing some very complicated ideological negotiation.
Here’s what I said about postfeminist back when I wrote about Revenge:
Postfeminism is, most explicitly, the idea that feminism is no longer necessary. Feminism accomplished its goals in the ’70s and ’80s, and we’re ready to move on and just “be” women, whatever that means. (Suggestions that we live in a “post-race” society often hinge on the idea that a black president means that racism is no longer an issue in our society, let alone a defining issue). We don’t need feminism, we just need “girl power” – a very different concept than the “grrl power” that undergirded the Riot Grrl movement of the early ’90s (which was, itself, a response to the rise of postfeminism). Postfeminism is forgoing freedoms or equal rights in the name of prettier dresses, more expensive make-up, and other sartorial “freedoms” to consume. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is postfeminism manifest — a self-sustaining (sex worker) who meets her prince, who will allow her to consume (and become her “true” self). Sex & the City is postfeminist. Bridget Jones is postfeminist. 27 Dresses is postfeminist.
In short, the idea that consumption and self-objectification (which usually leads to romantic monogamy) = equal rights and equal treatment is postfeminist.
In text after text of the last twenty years, postfeminist philosophy, for lack of a better word, is portrayed as the path towards happiness and fulfillment. Until, in a text like Revenge, it doesn’t.
Since I wrote that post last year, I’ve come to seem postfeminist dystopia all over the place, perhaps most poignantly in Girls (see also: The Mindy Project). Here’s what it’s like to live in the world that postfeminism brought us, Girls suggests, and shit if it’s not a mix of impossibile contradiction, the impossibility of being both a sex object and a self-respecting woman attempting a career, ostensibly independent yet wholly dependent upon the validation of societal structures that privilege very specific types of bodies, attitudes, skin colors, and attitudes towards consumption.
Here’s the implicit, if never explicit, message of these dystopian texts: if this is what first and second wave feminism was for, if this is what our REJECTION of feminist was for — this SUCKS.
Crucially, however, these texts are never explicitly feminist. They’re not didactic. They might not even mean to project the message they’re projecting. But it’s like a great New Yorker profile that never tells you what to think about the subject; rather, they just let the subject live his life, say his piece, transcribe it, shape it, and let you make the devastating judgment yourself.
Your eyes, however, need to be open. Otherwise, it just seems like “real life,” and we all tell ourselves all sorts of stories to justify and perpetuate the way “real life” operates. In other words, our media projects ideological norms — and sometimes they do it in a way that suggests that everything’s working well (see: postfeminist fantasies, enumerated above), but at some point, the seams of these productions began to stretch and fail. Postfeminist is an ideology of how women should be in the world, and all ideologies are contradictory, impossible, unlivable, and impossible to replicate in real life. But we still like to consume things that suggest that they are achievable — hell, that’s how aspirational, capitalist-based media culture works.
At some point, however, they stop working. The veneer begins to crack, with the unseemly underbelly emerging. You see this in occur in the form of noir in the ’40s and ’50s, a clear counterpoint to the glossy depictions of post-World War II consumerist culture. You could even say that postfeminist media itself was a response to the ways in which feminist media, at least in its fractured 1980s manifestation, failed to adequately address the lived realities (and fantasies, and desires, and struggles) of women’s lives at the time.
People throw a tremendous amount of criticism at Girls (some of it very earned, re: privilege/race). But some is rooted with general disgust at the depiction of sex, relationships, living conditions, struggles with career decisions, etc. Girls’ picture of life is not pretty: it is uncomfortable and fucking rough. And that’s part of the reason I love the show: it’s honest, if not always holistic, about what it’s like to be a 20-something (straight, white, privileged, educated) woman in the world today. Because I am a straight, white, privileged educated, woman, I feel a tremendous amount of identification with the characters; the shame, the humor, the competition, the difficulty of maintaining female friendships, all of it. But that shit is ugly. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that its primary artistic force is a smart woman with an “untraditional” body shape, simply because she has investment in portraying the destructive disconnect between how we wish postfeminism manifested and how it actually does.
Bachelorette, too, is ugly. It is also the product of a woman – Leslye Headland — who apparently has not yet produced enough (save, oh, a cycle of seven plays) to merit her own Wikipedia page. The plot is straightforward: four girls were bestfriends (or frenemies, depending) in high school. They called themselves the B-Faces which, by all accounts, seems appropriate.
There’s The Off-Beat One (Lizzy Caplan), The Ditz (Isla Fischer), the Ice Queen (Kirsten Dunst), and the Fat One (Rebel Wilson). (I’m not trying to be offensive here — that’s how they’re defined for us). Each has grown up into the adult version of that stereotype: Caplan is a bit of a fuck-up who hooks up with random dudes that she loathes; Fischer works at Club Monaco and inadvertently insults the customers; Dunst is ostensibly living the perfect life, complete with med school boyfriend, but is a pile of passive aggressiveness, flat out aggressiveness, and discontent; Wilson, the bride (and the unfunniest of the lot, here) is concerned that everyone thinks she’s too fat for her hot husband-to-be.
They come together for the wedding, which includes an impromptu bachelorette party the night before. But even before the bachelorette party, it’s clear that life is complicated and shitty for all of our postfeminist bridesmaids:
Gena (Lizzie Caplan): She fell in love in high school (with Adam Scott — dude, I can get behind that); they had sex; she got pregnant; she needed an abortion. Scott’s character didn’t show up to the abortion, so she had to have her best friend take her — a moment that traumatized her, led to the demise of her relationship, and has stuck with her since, with the implication that she can’t invest in a serious relationship because of the trauma. Instead: she does a lot of drugs, wears short dresses, and eats very little. Postfeminism encourages women to think of their bodies, and the objectification and sexualization thereof, of a means to power — and, of course, romantic coupling. Feminism sought to give women control over their bodies and reproduction — which is why Gena could a.) have sex before marriage without ‘ruining’ her life and b.) have an abortion — but living with the realities of abortion in postfeminist culture, that’s fraught: you’re expected to move past that moment and resubmit yourself to the male gaze in order to gain power. And so Gena does — she regiments her body, she wears short dresses, she does all the things you’re supposed to do to get guys. And she gets them, but she hates them, and hates herself. She’s figured out how the contemporary romance economy works, but it’s utterly unfulfilling to her. But she’s also internalized it: when grown-up Adam Scott tells her that he loves her, he’s so sorry, he was a coward and was too sad to come to the abortion, she’s still reticent to believe him….in part because she’s become so accustomed to a certain type of behavior from men, a type of behavior instigated by her own self-objectification. Also: no apparently job, because her sense of self-worth has, understandably — given the ideology in which she resides — become secondary to how she looks and her ability to attract men.
Katie (Isla Fischer): WHERE DO I START. As becomes clear over the course of the film, she has creative skills — she can sew, she understands tailoring, she has an eye for design. Where she’s accumulated that skill is unclear, but now she’s using it half-assedly working retail at Club Monaco and maxing out her credit cards. Actual skill — and a vocation that might give her pleasure — has been traded for a service job, helping other women max out their credit cards in an attempt to keep up with the dictates of fashion. Women’s fashion sells a version of what femininity should be: in the case of Club Monaco, that version is svelte, put together, feminine, intended for a closely regimented body, and expensive. The irony, of course, is that Katie can only afford its fashions — and its version of femininity — because she receives an employee discount; what’s more, she’s so in debt that she’ll never be able to quit her job and actually investigate her talents. It’s the double-bind of postfeminism: empowerment through consumerism turns into stifling debt that ensures docility and dis-empowerment in the work place.
Katie’s guy issues are laughable, if they weren’t so plainly reflective of the realities of postfeminist dating. She’s self-objectified, and expects to be treated accordingly. When the “nice guy” former-nerd who’s had a crush on her since high school takes her back to the hotel and declines to have sex with her — because he likes her TOO MUCH and doesn’t want to have sex when they’re both drunk — she feels rejected. Postfeminist sex culture in a nutshell: self-objectification leads to objectification, e.g. hook-up culture. On every campus where I’ve taught over the last seven years, I’ve heard (mostly female, also male) students bemoan “hook-up culture” and the sort of behaviors it requires, but REAL TALK: hook-up culture is, at least in part, the legacy of postfeminism. Sexual freedom + sexual self-objectification = hook-up culture. That sort of sexual freedom can certainly be empowering, but it can also, especially after several years immersed in that culture, be profoundly empty. I’m not a prude; I’m not suggesting that everyone my age should be married (I’m certainly not) — but I am suggesting that the lack of intimacy “liberated” by postfeminist culture is unsatisfying, as clearly evidenced by Katie’s tears. Hooking up, and the implicit validation from male’s, is the measure of validation — not actual pleasure (see: Girls).
Regan (Kirsten Dunst): Regan’s postfeminist dystopia is the most stereotypical, and the most stereotypically horrible. She has a “perfect” boyfriend, she has a “perfect” volunteer diversion, she has “perfect” party-planning abilities. But she’s also soul-less, mean, hates her boyfriend, doesn’t really like her friends, and resents her best friend for getting married before she does. She has power, but its a power built on divisiveness. She’s willing to sacrifice friendship (and the potential for feminist coalition) for her own reputation. She helps her good friend plan her wedding, but only because she’s so bitter that she’s not the one getting married first. Her postfeminist fantasy is in stark contrast to those of Katie and Gena: she’s fulfilled the domestic, the passively feminine, the body-regiming qualities required of her, and she’s so unfulfilled that she’s PISSED. Regan’s anger is just on the surface throughout, and periodically bursts forth — in moments that we, as an audience, are supposed to consider humorous or, alternately, just bitchy. But she’s a bitch because ideology is fucked: she’s done what her culture, her media, her resultant ideals told her to do — and it SUCKS. She’s so unsatisfied, so angry. We don’t even know what her job is — because it DOESN’T MATTER, because postfeminism could give two shits about your job.
Like Marnie in Girls, she wants a guy who’ll just have sex with her and “show her her place” — but that sex proves ultimately unsatisfying, in part because both Regan’s and Marnie’s potential and sense of self make that type of sex feel good in the moment but sour in the aftermath. Postfeminism suggests that passivity and the endurance of patriarchy is AWESOME; in the moment, that may be true, but over time, it makes you feel approximately the same way I feel after eating a quarter pound of candy corn. In other words: barfy, hollow, horrible.
Ultimately, I’m fascinating by what I’m labeling as a new genre of postfeminist dystopia — a genre to which the makers of these films may or may not ascribe. It matters little whether these filmmakers or actresses know what they’re doing, though. Instead, what matters is how clearly they’re articulating the various dystopian valences of postfeminism. Whether they realize it or not, they’re poking holes in the ideology — and that, and the conversations it engenders, including this one, are what matters. Bachelorette isn’t a perfect film. It’s very funny, but it’s also terrifying. My hope, then, is that you’ll be able to watch it — and other texts that speak to the postfeminist dystopia — and experience both.
YOUR PERFECTLY LIT RAYNA/DEACON SHIPPING PHOTO:
YOUR ESTEEMED PARTICIPANTS:
AHP: First off, I’d like to acknowledge that the show has finally hit a bit of a stride. There was a period there — oh, about seven episodes ago — when I was just like SEPARATE ALREADY. And then Rayna went two-stepping with Liam and had to have that moment by herself in the bathroom [BEEN THERE, RAYNA] and things just started rolling. At last.
Jia: I am trying to think of a better way to phrase this, but… Gunnar and O.C. Luke are totally going to bang. In my mind at least. That scene when they cheat death and get all ecstatic and screamy as the train rolls by?
Jorie: They are for sure going to bang.
Jane: Homosocial bonding! (And all those scenes from old films where a passing train so obviously signifies pent-up erotic desires.) (AHP: Good Hitchcock call, Jane.) (Jane: Yes! Hitchcock, Renoir, and my favorite BRIEF ENCOUNTER.)
AHP: O.C. Luke! THAT’S WHERE HE’S FROM!
Jia: He is 33 and does not look a day older than 33. Luke, actually, is a helpful reference for me (in terms of characters getting rewritten out of left field) as I process Dante’s INSANELY QUICK and HIGHLY HILARIOUS character transformation from Mild, Reasonable Sober Companion to High-Powered Major Label Pop Star Manager. Over the course of the last episode, Dante’s hair got 500% greasier as he fully inhabited his new Addicted 2 Biz life. I cannot wait for this very unrealistic storyline to just explode all over the place, although I am sad for Juliette, because she has regressed back to her Toddlers & Tiaras persona. (Allison: I like to think about character consistency from one role to the next, so the same Jay Hernandez who was Brian Chavez in Friday Night Lights has somehow become Dante. And the same Chris Carmack who was Luke Ward in The O.C. has made it to Nashville. And obviously I think of Juliette Barnes as an extension of Claire Bennet from Heroes.)
I am also sad for Scarlet, even though Gunnar is being nice to her, because in the last few episodes she has reached new heights of drippy milkmaid passive “I’d be much happier if I could just make you dinner and clean the house” bad-accent Wig Madness. I hope she gets an assertive hair-wardrobe-and-attitude makeover on Rayna’s label (YAY THAT PLOT).
SE: Scarlett kind of reminds me of a Lifetime movie lead, but I can’t decide if she’s the Lifetime movie lead who boldly remakes her life in a “becomes the man she wanted to marry”/Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves kind of way, or in a “Lifetime as the ‘Women Having A Hard Time Channel’” kind of way, like at any moment she could say/warble, “But he’s a GOOD MAN!”
Jane: Oof, Scarlett’s character is almost painfully stock Sacrificial Maiden, and while I’m excited for the Gunnar/O.C. Luke (aka Nashville Will Lexington), I wish it wasn’t at the sake of Scarlett. (That knowing look on Gunnar’s face when Scarlett flounces away, happy that Will has been a “good influence” on him.) Like, very many levels of character sacrifice here! And I want to trust Khouri, but, yes Jia, Scarlett makeover a la Thelma — anytime now.
KP: I’m concerned about Scarlett/Gunnar in that I actually prefer them singing together (they are sort of making me feel better about the break-up of The Civil Wars). The music is one of the best parts of the show, so if that is ever threatened by plot, I sort of get annoyed. (AW: Yes, Civil Wars! I heard a rumor they’re getting back together. Fingers crossed.)
Also, does anyone else agree that Panettiere is becoming a much better singer? Seems less nasal now.
AHP: I feel like she’s still nasaly and a bit too Carrie Underwood on the power ballads, but I love it when she’s doing the quiet Deacon-inspired stuff — “Consider Me” is gorgeous. They’re also doing an okay job with getting around the, er, frailty of Connie Britton’s voice (see: “Stronger than Me.”)
Jorie: I think we mentioned this last time, but the frailty of Connie Britton’s voice is actually kind of destructive to what is ostensibly the central conflict of the show. Cuz Juliette is actually better than she is. Especially, as you said, when she sings with Deacon.
KP: I’m gonna step in here to ask if country singers need good voices. I know Carrie Underwood has us all thinking that, but isn’t frailty a great attribute in a country singer. I know she’s Mrs. Coach, so I’m likely super biased, but I sort of love Connie’s voice. It is much more vulnerable and poignant. Her singing (like her acting) requires risk.
AHP: My subjective opinion based on nearly two decades of country music listening: yes. In fact, I can’t think of a single female country star (or male star, for that matter) without a powerhouse voice. Taylor Swift, maybe, but that’s another story. The problem is that Britton’s supposed to be the Faith Hill in this equation battling it out with Carrie Underwood, and Hill has effing PIPES.
KP: I liked that Juliette fired her manager. I think that could have been a good way to go — how does a child star grow up (important, useful topic for the actual world), but instead they’ve chosen to go down a less satisfying track.
Jorie: Can we discuss why Scarlett wears a wig? She has hair. WAIT. The Civil Wars broke up?!
KP: What does her actual hair look like? … Oh, sorry to break the news, Jorie. It is pretty tragic.
Jorie: I have no idea what her real hair looks like, actually.
Jia: (I am doing some Clare Bowen research right now and A. her Twitter is actually 50% cupcakes [that is a joke I would have made up about her but it’s true] and 50% adorable photos of her and her menagerie of animals, B. she was the lead in an Australian production of Spring Awakening, with Cate Blanchett as the artistic director! I hate musicals! But I would have LOVED to see that!)
Jane: Compulsory Defense of Musicals Interlude: WOWWWW. I would love to see that, and if Bowen played Wendla (originated by Lea Michele of Glee fame) then we know she can handle nuance. Can someone please make Scarlett’s character just a wee bit more round, and not on the verge of tears all the time? (Also recently learned that Spring Awakening is a DUNCAN SHEIK production, but that makes soooo much sense. “The Mirror-Blue Night”? So Sheik.) (Jia: She was Wendla! [And my hate of musicals comes solely from having spent my entire childhood putting my hair in sausage-curl rollers for them.] And I actually love that Spring Awakening was Duncan Sheik — if there was a more naturalistic pop sensibility to contemporary musical theater, i.e. Nashville basically, everyone would get on board. I think the band Fun. is a flop sophomore album away from writing a decent musical. ALSO, ALSO, the actor who plays Gunnar is British – so Scarlett, the accent, PLEASE!) (Jane: FUN IS WRITING A MUSICAL? That makes so much sense; the lead singer’s voice screams musical theater (no pun intended), and I think his uncle has roots there? OK, Jia, the next time we meet, we will have a Musicals With Pop Sensibilities marathon. You will be converted; I can already tell. Aaaand Musical Interlude Scene.) (Jia: Sadly that is just my Fun. fantasy. Let me conclude my off-topic interlude here with THE MOST FUNNY clip of O.C. Luke dancing to Rooney and singing very terribly – hiding, clearly, the polished country twang that he unveils on Nashville.)
KP: The thing with the hair is that it reinforces the whole unrealistic Disney Princess nonsense. Disney Princesses are faux feminist, so the idea that Scarlett has to be fragile, beautiful, and soft (as represented by the hair) bums me out.
Jia: DO we think that Scarlett is going to hook up with Luke? Whose name is WILL, I keep forgetting, but he will always be Luke to me. I feel like such a complication is inevitable–they are inserting him into the Scarlett-Gunnar relationship in a very direct way. I would like to see Scarlett do something selfish and bad, is why I’m asking this.
Jorie: Do you not think he and Gunnar are going to do… something?
Jia: I WISH! I wish they would just all have a threesome, to be honest, and Luke and Gunnar have more intense chemistry than a lot of other couples on the show! But, you know… doubtful.
Jorie: I live in a delusional world where, until it doesn’t happen, I believe network television will do things like put the two hot guys with great chemistry in bed together and have the milkmaid come in with breakfast and just join them. But yeah, probably not. And in that case, I would say she would hook up with Luke, but this show is SO BAD at making people who should be having sex (for story’s sake, for melodrama’s sake, for entertainment’s sake) have sex.
Jia: Definitely. I also wonder if Luke is a sign that Avery is getting written off soon. That was a bit of a low point for me in terms of plausibility, when he burned those master tracks in a trash can like he was Taylor Momsen on Gossip Girl or something — I don’t think the writers really know what to do with him. (AHP: JIA I AM DYING)
Jane: I was wondering why they were still keeping Avery around — I mean, they show even had the out of firing but, but they’re keeping him so… I think there’s some dramatic criss-crossing left to happen there.
SE: It’s because he wears a leather thong necklace.
AHP: Well that’s it Simone, now that we’ve discussed the leather thong necklace, this Roundtable is Complete.
SE: Kill your idols, etc etc.
Jorie: But wait: Avery might turn back into a human now that he is forced, Tyler Perry style, to face good clean working class work. (Jia: TYLER PERRY STYLE *faints happily*)
KP: Yeah, I think they know they have a good actor as Avery, and he has a lovely falsetto. So if they can find a way to redeem him, he can someday sleep with Juliette (cause this show ultimately has the personal goals of all characters subsumed by sex).
Jorie: It claims to have all the personal goals of all the characters subsumed by sex. But then it doesn’t do it right. I couldn’t care less who Juliette sleeps with, since she clearly will sleep with every male cast member eventually. But either put Rayna and Deacon together, or move on. Make something actually shocking or interesting happen. Be more like Scandal. I’m frustrated with the show. I agree with AHP that it’s hit its stride more, but still could be so much better.
Jia: I have a feeling, though, that the sustained and excruciating separation of Rayna and Deacon is going to carry this show from season to season, as much as I wish it wouldn’t.
Jorie: But it’s not excruciating. That’s the problem. It’s gone on so long I don’t care. Although I am happy to see Deacon happy. Poor guy never catches a break.
KP: (raises hand) I care about Rayna and Deacon. Though a flashback episode (please, done better than #TVD and that one Gilmore Girls episode) would be sort of awesome to fill that out–why Rayna betrayed her lover of years to find security with the most boring man on the planet.
Jia: True. They’ve lost a lot of momentum. And gained a Labrador puppy. I was quite pleased at the shamelessness of that. “Meh, let’s just give him a puppy or something,” said some writer in response to “How can we keep the audience interested in Deacon now that he has a girlfriend that people will like but not root for because she ain’t got that Tami Taylor steez.”
Jane: I find this genre of character so interesting, Jia! The romantic obstacle between the two fated lovers that isn’t captivating or interesting enough for us to hate (or love).
AW: I really hate that Deacon’s girlfriend is also the CIA agent’s wife on The Americans. Like, cannot handle it. She doesn’t have a big role in either, but it still freaks me out. If the shows were not on at the same time, I would apply my rule of linear progression referenced above and just say that the CIA agent’s wife became a veterinarian after divorcing him–or she entered witness protection and this is her new life — but the concurrent viewing precludes that.
Jane: But she does have the sort of Semi-Clueless Significant Other vibe in both roles, at least!
AW: True–she is consistent. Which makes it even easier to believe it’s all the same person.
KP: I loved the scene with Deacon and Rayna in the hospital. Yes, the elevator kiss was super hot, but I prefer these two as friends nevertheless. For a woman as confused as Rayna, it is nice to have one person get her. Speaking of, the sister is getting redeemed a bit, too. I wish they could pull that off with the father — give him something more to do than laugh evil-y.
Jorie: YES. I loved that scene. It was tortured and nice and appropriate. While the sister’s turn around is abrupt, I get that your dad having a heart attack could soften your edges temporarily. Plus, it seems like she’s going to take his place as schemer in chief. Which brings me to AHP’s topic list: Powers Boothe acting like he’s on Deadwood. Yes. What’s up, Powers Boothe?
Jane: When Boothe sat down in his leather armchair — glass of whiskey in hand — before his blazing fireplace, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of Don Draper’s future.
KP: I am not familiar with Powers Boothe, but everything I read tells me he is a great actor. Wish the show knew that.
Jorie: I wish the show knew that about the whole cast. See above re: Scandal. There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL. It just doesn’t have the writing chops. There is a moment or two in each episode that I really like, and the rest, meh.
AHP: Here’s what I like about what’s going on with Deacon and Rayna: it’s what actually happens when you’re friends with someone whom you’ve loved and lost. They’re best friends, and they know and understand each other in a way that no one else will. Rayna is seriously lonely — her sister is suddenly offering all sorts of insight and Rayna is suddenly heeding it — but, as is all too typical on network television, here’s a lady with NO FEMALE FRIENDS.
KP: Postfeminist BS Bingo. No female friends.
Jia: No kidding. Scarlett, too – that brief gesture towards female friendship when Hailey bought her a Cleavage Dress and took her out on the town was so quickly stifled by Gunnar’s Boner of Rage, which was my least favorite Gunnar moment in the show to date. Actually, it might be a more general failing that people on this show – aside from Rayna, who is good at warmly insinuating history in brief moments of interaction – just do not appear to have many friends, period. Fame and power are isolating, sure, etc, but that’s not enough of a justification – it’s like in literary fiction when characters ostensibly don’t hold jobs.
KP: So here’s the show’s dilemma — some real potential, and from what I can tell, reasonable success with the music. So how do they get more viewers? Do they want the country folks, and if they do, what makes them happy? I hate when a show is in search of an audience, because they just throw pasta on the wall without realizing they forgot to put the pasta in the water in the first place.
AW: Speaking of tension with Deacon and Rayna, how long are they going to draw out the paternity issue? Deacon rescues Maddie (the older daughter?) during the stampede at Juliette’s concert, he hangs out with her (and the new girlfriend) during Rayna’s concert, acting all fatherly. When is the big reveal? (Jane: Oh man, during that hug, I thought Rayna was going to look down and have a moment of “that’s the family I could have had” and stumble through the performance or something, but it was very much taken as a given! And Rayna’s tears by her father’s bedside at missing all those years they could have had? Is Rayna going to hint do the same with Maddie?)
Also, I wonder how everyone consumes the show — do you have TV, watch it live, DVR it, wait until it’s available online, etc? And do the answers to this question get at KP’s question re: increasing viewership?
SE: I watch it in Hulu binges when Grey’s Anatomy and SVU both have an off week. (Those are the weeks when I think, “I really miss my friends.” Which.)
Jane: Same! Hulu binges, so it’s not at the top of my list, though I am haaaanging on. (I missed a few episodes during that deep lull and might even recommend that to future viewers?)
Jia: I do not have a TV, but I solicit TV access from a friend for this show – Nashville and basketball are the only two things that I will get in front of a real TV for. I will say, though, I have a sense of this show as having a much broader audience than I would have expected – or maybe my college best-of-bro friends are just anomalously broadening their taste from Workaholics and the like – but I’ve been surprised at the demographic variety of the people I know who watch it.
AHP: I watch it via Hulu on my iPad, but almost exclusively while exercising. It is the PERFECT exercising show. I’m also somewhat surprised by how many of my (female) students watch it — probably because a.) it’s on Hulu and b.) I got them all addicted to Friday Night Lights last semester. NOTE TO ABC: YOUR 20- AND 30-SOMETHING AUDIENCE IS WATCHING VIA THE HULUS; DON’T GIVE UP ON THAT PLAN.
KP: Hulu but not so much a binge. My partner watches with me, but he’s not really that into it. If I didn’t make him, he wouldn’t watch. And is that a possible issue, too? Is there a reason for guys to watch this show? I mean, Deacon is sorta manly, but while we complain about Scarlet, at least the other females are relatively in charge of their lives. Are there any 3D male characters on this show?
AW: I have been wondering the same thing about Girls, though my question there expands to include what men who watch that show (if there are any) think of the representations of themselves vis-a-vis dating. I’m not sure there’s a similar question to be asked here, though maybe there is and I’m just not ferreting it out. (AHP: I don’t know where it’s sourced, or if it’s just internet legend, but apparently 60% of Girl’s audience is male. Fascinating).
SE: I think this is an important question but I must first insist that we introduce Lean In analytic. WHICH LADIES ON THIS SHOW ARE/ARE NOT LEANING IN? Part of me thinks all of them are. Like, Juliette, for all her rebel bullshit, is leaning in, right?
Jia: Juliette leans in so hard all the time. Every morning Juliette wakes up and tells herself to lean in at such a deeply acute angle that her powerless childhood (which here can be pictured as a congealed bowl of trailer pink mac-and-cheese) can never again haunt her in the present. Rayna’s hair is the ghostwriter for Lean In so there are no issues there. However, Scarlet only leaned in for this solo contract because her Authoritative Man gave her approval to do so. (SE: Connie Britton’s hair: never not leaning in. Also, congealed mac-and-cheese is kind of the best, so you CLEARLY MEANT Tuna Noodle Helper.)
AW: Scarlett totally leaned in once she got the head nod from Gunnar!
SE: Isn’t that the real problem with Lean In, that the Leaning Lady has to have always already had a dudely head nod before shit takes off?
KP: Dude(tte), that is so troubling. Could Sandberg only lean in when that little pipsqueak Facebook founder let her? The parallels there are troubling (yet apt). Scarlet needs help, STAT. Like, cutting off her hair, Felicity-style, help. Like, being killed and having her twin sister take over, unbeknownst to everyone around her. Like, is there any help for this character other than her voice (which hides a great chest voice most of the time)? How about this–let Deacon and Rayna be starcrossed forever (that’s fine with me–the tension works). How about letting Deacon mentor HIS ACTUAL NIECE? Now that could be interesting, and there would be no nonsense about his trying to sleep with her, like every other storyline on the show.
SE: Can we talk about what this show does with/about addiction? I say this mostly because I am “watching” Elementary while I work and that show ALSO has a “sober companion.”
KP: Really enjoying Elementary (though not sure why Angelina’s ex always seems to be shouting). That is all.
AW: I have not seen Elementary (I have also not seen Deadwood, which I realize is a travesty that must be remedied immediately) but I do watch Nurse Jackie and Californication, two shows that very clearly address addiction. This seems like the Disney hand-holding, didactic version. Of course, it’s network compared to Showtime. How many characters struggle with addiction? Deacon, Coleman, Juliette’s mom. Anyone else? Juliette’s mom seems to struggle more than Deacon and Coleman, at least in the present. Are we to make anything of that? (I’m trying really hard not to make it about gender and/or class, so mostly I want y’all to save me from myself here.) (SE: You are perfect and beautiful.)
KP: Ways to improve this show: 1) no more sex. For any characters. Only longing, which is more dramatic anyway. 2) Scarlet is only allowed to sing with Gunnar, though in all other aspects of her life she must make her own choices. In fact, she should start telling him how to live, cause his choices are crap. 3) Avery needs to be redeemed. That actor is too cute not to be on the show. And I’m sorry, Annie, but “Kiss” is a damn hot song. 4) More about songwriting, performance anxiety/mechanics, and the business of music. The damn thing is set in Nashville, so let’s get some insider dish (beyond dumb guest star spots that give the guest stars nothing to do). 5) More scenes with Rayna and Juliette, as long as they never cat fight or enact any other cliches. Genuine jealousy, competition, understanding, achievement, collaboration only. 6) More of Rayna’s sister being a real person, not a cartoon. She can be conflicted (but I’m a business woman, too, and therefore must make money!!), but she still needs to be, you know, a human. 7) Dad should have died. Sorry, but the character was never developed beyond the twirling mustache. He and Teddy should accidentally shoot other in a twisted sex game.
AW: Booth should have died, YES. Great idea to have Deacon mentor Scarlett, though I want to see Scarlett and Rayna write and sing together. And I want to see Scarlett leave Gunnar and live alone. Figure your shit out, girl. I wonder if the writers are shying away from the music industry in an effort to appeal to a broader audience in the same way that FNL writers avoided too much football talk. “It’s not really about football” (except of course it was).
KP (cont):I actually really, really, really like Nashville. I think Mrs. Coach has a character with interesting conflicts and a great acting partner in Deacon. Juliette has redeemed Panettiere, which is pretty much all I need to say about that. Gunnar and Scarlet have great (musical) chemistry. How albums are made. What are the challenges of the business. How hard it is to balance work and home. All of that is awesome. So just go do that and cut the silly melodramatic. I’m a girl, and I like romance, but I don’t need dumb. [Oh, and Ms. Khouri--you are working with your husband. I imagine that is an interesting relationship. So put Rayna with Deacon, and let them act out your life for us. That would be a damn good show]
AHP: [DROPS MIC; PICKS IT UP AND PASSES IT TO THE REST OF THE INTERNET]
I love J-Law; you love J-Law; everybody loves J-Law. Or so seems to be consensus following last week’s Academy Awards, where she tripped up the stairs, made a self-deprecating speech, performed authenticity and humility without seeming tri-hardy, reacted amazingly to Jack Nicholson in the awards press, and gave the best responses to banal post-award reporter questions in the history of banal post-award reporter questions. She was, in a word, charismatic. And she differentiated herself from Anne Hathaway, who seemed, according to whom you ask, calculated, too happy, ingenuous, too performative, etc. etc.
In the week since the awards, the battle between these two types of contemporary female stardom have battled it out in the pop culture opinion blogosphere. If you’re interested, check here, here, and here. Posting these arguments to this blog’s Facebook page, I was impressed with the reaction, characterized by a recoil at the idea that both types of stardom, and the negotiation of femininity they represent, can’t co-exist. TRUTH, READERS, TRUTH. As several of you pointed out, no one is comparing Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz or Ben Affleck and Ang Lee — there’s room for plenty of men at the top. But when it comes to women, we’ve got to pit them against one another. There’s a long tradition of this “women against women” strategy: see, for example, the crazy, entirely-press-fueled “war” between Garbo and Dietrich, or, more recently, the enduring attempts to pit Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, both powerful women in Hollywood, in a fight to the death for Brad’s affections.
To be clear, I have zero problem with articulating one’s dislike or like for a particular star. When we talk about the stars we like and dislike, we’re associating their images, and what they represent, with ourselves. The things we like — television shows, music, stars — are signifiers of our own personality. To like Jennifer Lawrence, to like Anne Hathaway, is to say volumes about the type of contemporary femininity you admire and with which you would like to associate yourself. With that said, I don’t think that lambasting the person with whom you don’t want to associate yourself is very productive. Be a fan all you want, and articulate why you don’t like another star, but don’t be an ass, and don’t frame it in terms of “there can only be one!” There can be many. The more, the better. Anne Hathaway’s image is not one to which I do not cotton, but that doesn’t mean that I think she’s a bitch, worthless, or should retire. In fact, she’s really f-ing talented. But just like you can admire an argument and not agree with it, I can admire her and not “like” her.
But I do want to unpack the unadulterated affection for Lawrence, whose “star” performance has been framed as wholly natural, authentic, and unperformative. Hathaway molds her image; Lawrence just is. In truth, Lawrence, with the help of her publicist and agent (who have been lauded all over the place in the trades) is just good at appearing to not perform. She shares this attribute with the most enduring stars of old — Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, early Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts. In our current moment of hyper-manipulation, we cling even more to those who can seem wholly unmanipulated. And I’m not trying to be a asshole when I suggest that Lawrence understands that what’s she’s doing, in terms of madcap honesty, will further her career and brand. She’s smart. She’s savvy. I don’t think she’s a conniving, manipulative star, but I do think that she is very much cognizant of what she’s doing.
Lawrence’s particular negotiation of “naturalness,” skill, emotion, and femininity wouldn’t be popular at any given moment in time. It’s very specific to our current cultural moment, in which the “cool girl” fills a specific ideological function, adhering to a paradoxical understanding of what a woman should and should not be, a peculiar negotiation of feminism and passivity.
The best articulation of the “cool girl” comes from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I have some serious problems with this book (is Flynn a misogynist? DISCUSS.) but as Mallory Cohn, one of the smart commenters on one of the Facebook posts about this topic, astutely pointed out, Lawrence is the embodiment of the “cool girl” persona perfectly described by Flynn’s heroine. Here’s the passage in full:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
Again, I’m unsure if Flynn hates women or if this protagonist hates all women, but the outlines of this “cool girl” resonate, do they not? That’s because it’s a product of ideology, and ideology is always super contradictory and falls apart under inspection. The cool girl is a guy’s girl who also loves sex. She’s masculine yet super feminine. She’s all the “good things” (read: amendable to contemporary patriarchy) about girls and none of the “bad things” (read: ball busting, interested in her own destiny, willing to advocate for her own rights). But that’s how the media, and more specifically, stars, work: they provide us with examples of “real people” who are proof positive that images like “cool girl” exist.
Lawrence is a powerful, beautiful woman who also thought that Seth McFarland was “great.” This infuriates me, but it works perfectly with her image: she’s no ball-busting feminist. She’s chill. She can take a joke. She is, as People Magazine recently declared, the woman that all women want to be like and all men love. She’s the effing cool girl. Only time will tell if she has to hew to that image or breaks out of it entirely. For now, however, we need to think about what our adoration of that image represents — and complicate our unadulterated affection. I still love her, but I need to continue to think about why.
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:
…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….
…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.
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.
(vis-a-vis Taylor Swift’s Red)
Has blue eyes (“State of Grace”)
You never saw him coming (“State of Grace”)
Is your achilles heel (“State of Grace”)
Took your virginity (or some approximation thereof) (“State of Grace”/”Red”/”Treacherous”/”Trouble”/”I Almost Do”)
If you have feelings for him, they will take the shape of metaphors involving colors (“Red”)
Is good with his hands (“Treacherous”)
Is trouble (“Trouble”)
Clarification: is trouble when he walks in (“Trouble”)
Has a new girlfriend (“Trouble”)
Wears belts with notches (“Trouble”)
Has a plane? To fly you places you’ve never been? (“Trouble”)
Still has your scarf in his desk drawer. That smells like you. (“All Too Well”)
Played t-ball (“All Too Well”)
Has a sister (HOLLA, MAGGIE G!) and a mother who tells stories about him (“All Too Well”)
Also glasses and a twin bed and a refrigerator with a light. (“All Too Well”)
Dates 22-year-olds. (“22″)
Has a chair by the window, looking out at the city (“I Almost Do”)
May or may not wonder about you (“I Almost Do”)
Has a telephone that you almost call almost every night (“I Almost Do”)
Is very active in dreams as concerns the touching of faces (“I Almost Do”)
Likes to break up and get back together like a 14-year-old boy (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Is one of those awesome guys who needs space after a month apart (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Music tastes: Indie Records > T.Swift (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Just to be clear, is never ever ever ever getting back together with you (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Adorable fight resolution tactic: put on a football helmut while fighting (“Stay Stay Stay”)
Carries groceries; finds 22-year-old amusement endearing (“Stay Stay Stay”)
Repeated, sad-faced refusal to put you on the top of his list (“The Last Time”)
Responds positively to jokes on the door (“Holy Ground”)
Fits poems like a perfect rhyme (“Holy Ground”)
His face = in every crowd (“Holy Ground”)
Has love as big as New York City (“Holy Ground”)
Dancing is not worthwhile without him (“Holy Ground”)
Has long handwritten note in pocket. Right now. (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”)
Incites sadness, beauty, tragedy (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”)
Has green eyes? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Has freckles? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Has a simple name? (Everything Has Changed”)
Eyes look like coming home? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Doesn’t like it when you wear highheels (“Begin Again”)
Doesn’t get that song (“Begin Again”)
Unchivalrous, untimely (“Begin Again”)
No really: doesn’t think you’re funny (“Begin Again”)
Probably is listening to this album on repeat just as much as I am (“Annie’s Deep Thoughts, 3 pm, Day After Thanksgiving 2012″)
What do you know about Denzel Washington? Outside of his film roles — varied and classic — what do you know? Did you know that he’s been married to his (first, only) wife since 1983? That he has four children? That his father was a preacher, that his parents divorced when he was 14, that he went to private high school and nearly flunked out of Fordham before he discovered acting? Did you know that he’s been possessed by the Holy Spirit, that he considers going into pastorhood, that he prays every day?
Unless you’ve read the six articles — from GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Grantland, and The New York Times — that I just read, chances are you did not. He’s the biggest star you know the littlest about.
But you do know who Denzel Washington is. You know what he represents: a blend of charisma and honor, save when he “goes bad” and plays the amoral, the stubborn, the angry. He’s a master of historical ventriloquism, the first choice for any bio-pic of a black man. Yet he’s also dexterous, racially speaking, in the same way that Will Smith is: if a role is written for a white man, he can play it. Which isn’t to say that his image isn’t inflected with racial awareness — see, for example, his three collaborations with Spike Lee, including Malcolm X, along with his role as “The Hurricane” and various other racially specific roles. His image is not a-racial, but he can play a-racial — and that’s part of what has made him a star. (Apocryphal legend has him adament about decreasing, or altogether cutting, storylines and/or scenes in which he appears, romantically speaking, with white women: white men don’t want to see me go home with their women, he’s said to have argued. Whether or not this is true, the principle holds true: all the way back in The Pelican Brief, when his character played it chaste with Julia Roberts (despite the romance depicted in the filmic adaptation) through last week’s Flight, when he fools around with a beautiful, very white love interest….but never more than a kiss, and very fleetingly onscreen).
Point is: Denzel is, economically speaking, one of the most powerful and resonant stars working today. He is, however, as I like to parse it in my stardom classes, a star purely in terms of picture personality and capital. People like the type of role he plays, and they like it well enough that they actually go and see his movies. He is not a cultural star, per se — his image is limited to his roles, and what they seem to represent. What they represent is something powerful: his picture personality is that of an eloquent, persuasively charismatic man capable of manipulating and transcending the environment in which he finds himself. On the street, in the boxing ring, in the courtroom, amidst gangsters, in the air — he dominates. Sometimes he’s a bit nefarious and morally dubious; most often, however, he’s righteous and affable. Like Tom Cruise or Matt Damon, he is, let it be said, a pure pleasure to watch on screen.
Which is why audiences flock to his movies. His track record is nearly without fault. He doesn’t do risky independent films; somewhat humorously, his lowest grossing films are the ones he chose to direct himself. He plays big men, leading men, and he plays them at least once a year. He’s not Nicolas Cage, taking anything that comes his way to pay off the mortgage on his 52 houses, but he’s not Daniel Day-Lewis, or even Will Smith, either. He works. And it’s not as simple as a “one for me, one for them” industry algebra — the type of visible rotation you see in the careers of Clooney and Damon. There’s a fine line between his plainly populist works and his prestige ones, usually marked by the extent to which he’s willing to play up the moral ambiguity of his character. And this most recent turn, as an alcoholic yet valiant pilot in Flight, is in the later camp. He’s marvelous in it, but he’s also very easy to despise.
Such dexterity is central to Washington’s picture personality, with its dominant themes of charisma and skill. I’ve never seen Washington not charismatic: whether he’s evil or good, broken or whole, he’s always charming. You can’t take your eyes off of him. You see that he deserves whatever splendors he’s achieved, and if he hasn’t achieved them, then he deserves them anyway. Even in Flight, when his character is (no spoiler) a huge drunken piece of shit, there’s a moment when he comes out of the hotel room, captain’s uniform on, Rolling Stones soundtrack turned to 11, and you’re like DAMMMMMMMN, I can totally forget he was just sniffing lines at 7 am! Before flying a plane!
Why? It’s a nifty editing trick — and the soundtrack, jeez, you put that soundtrack on behind anyone, have them walk in slo-mo, and suddenly they’re charisma manifest. But it’s also a pure Denzel moment — a moment you see in almost every film — when he takes the movie by the horns and let’s you know he’s in control. Not because he looks good walking down the hallway, but, in the case of Flight, because he’s evidenced that he’s got this character down: schlubby and hungover in one scene, on top of his game the next. That’s theme #2: the talent. The Oscar-Winning, the every-famous-figure-playing, the I don’t talk about my process guy. He just does it; it’s just natural. It’s real, unadulterated talent.
What I’m interested in, then, is how Washington has participated in the cultivation of this second discourse — a discourse that simultaneously bolsters his masculinity and appeal to a certain movie-going demographic.
He’s done it in two ways:
1.) Naturalizing Acting
Because Washington’s life is seemingly without scandal, interviews tend to focus on his actual films — and many of them, including a lengthy NY Times profile from last month, focus exclusively on it. The profile begins with a key quote from Washington:
When he was young, “being a movie actor wasn’t on my radar at all,” Mr. Washington said. “I took an acting class at Fordham, and it was kind of easy, or I enjoyed it, I should say, and people told me I was good. When I started out, I was just thinking about the stage; it was never my goal to get to Hollywood. But here I am.”
So humble, so un-meditated! He didn’t try to be good, he just was. And while he put in his time — the stage, then commercials, then television, and finally the big-time in late ’80s — the talent was always there, just waiting to shine.
He says that his process is a combination of “inside out” (meaning finding the psychology of the character and then going from there — a Method tactic) and “outside in” (more in the Laurence Olivier school, in which you analyze the character and consciously “play” him, as opposed to “becoming” him). In other words, he uses a few tricks — he learned to box for The Hurricane, he learned the sax for Mo’ Better Blues, he spent a lot of time in a flight simulator for Flight — but he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix. He prepares, but he doesn’t overthink it. In the interview with the Times, he uses the metaphor of the pilot: the director, crew, and other actors need to trust what he’s doing. He’ll surprise them, but they need to trust that he’ll get the plane, er, film, on the ground safely. Indeed, Washington’s acting is always confident; there’s a swagger there. His characters have swagger, but his acting has swagger was well, if that makes sense.
But as Washington and his profilers also emphasize that he doesn’t exactly know how he does what he does. Again, the pilot metaphor is yet again apt: as the passengers on the plane, you don’t know exactly how you get on the ground; you just do. Even the pilot might not understand exactly how he nails a difficult landing. But he does, and it’s better not to ask questions how it happens. You could transwer this metaphor to that a chef: it tastes good, doesn’t it, so don’t ask questions!
Or: Hey fans of Denzel, stop asking questions about why he’s so good: he just is! You’ll ruin it if you think about it too hard! Washington uses these metaphors himself. He’s reticent to talk about process. The proof of his skill is on the screen: why complicate it?
It’s a masculine conception of acting — how it happens, why it works. It distinguishes him from the feminized, emotional method actors; the weirdos and the drama nerds. Washington loves acting, but he doesn’t overthink it — or least that’s the image he’s cultivated.
2.) “I Don’t Know How to Be a Celebrity”
Which brings us to Washington’s own cultivation of non-celebrity. He only gives interviews to promote new films, but he’s not a cagey interviewer. In the four major profiles I’ve read, all of them given over the last four months, he’s talked openly about his parents’ divorce, his own history with his father, his children, even his relationship with his wife (and how she feels about Michelle Obama thinking he’s hot). Some actors cultivate anonymity by keeping interviews focused on their craft, but Washington seemingly answers any question he’s asked.
Because Washington’s life is scandalous/gossip-worthy, however, the focus remains on his acting. Interviewers also love to emphasize that he’s a non-celebrity: GQ told him “In some ways, you’re a cipher. There’s not much you put out there.”
Washington’s answer is just so perfect:
But that’s not my job to put stuff out there. Sidney Poitier told me this years ago: “If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend, because they feel like they’ve seen you. If you walk by the magazine section in the supermarket and they’ve known you all their life, there’s no mystery. They can’t take the ride.” My professional work is being a better actor. I don’t know how to be a celebrity.
“I don’t know how to be a celebrity!” Seriously, that’s perfect. What a way to endear yourself to your public, especially to men (and/or women) who dislike celebrity culture, then to say that you literally do not know how to do it. He also demonstrates his business acumen: even if he knew how, it’d be a stupid move. People wouldn’t like him. [Sidenote: His logic is faulty. Some stars on the covers of magazines do great business. But he's correct that just being on the cover of a magazine, aka gossip-worthy, doesn't mean that your movies will do well.]
Now what’s remarkable about this statement is the fact that it is embedded in an interview with a popular magazine. His picture was, in fact, on the cover of that magazine, which could be found in the check-out aisle just last month — only the magazine was GQ, not Us Weekly. He talks about his family and personal life, it’s just that they’re not scandalous enough to merit continued coverage. It’s not that he’s cagey, or an asshole, or annoyingly private — all characteristics that actually make people dislike a star when they hear about them. He’s forthcoming and wholly affable in interviews. He loves to talk sports. He loves the Yankees. He loves his kids. He is such a Dad, a Grown-Up Bro. He doesn’t have a cell phone and is only mildly annoyed that someone is running a Facebook page pretending to be him. He’s a purely analog star, a student of the Hollywood old school. But it doesn’t make him look stodgy or behind the times, the way that Tom Cruise’s fumbling Twitter efforts do. He’s outside of the game. He’s above it. He’s just doing what he does, being with his family, giving interviews, speaking truths. His daily code of life: read the bible. His advice to black men: put your slippers under the bed so you have to get on your knees in the morning.
I talk a lot about star production on this blog — about how stars and their teams work really hard to create images that resonate, that matter. The brilliance of Denzel is that his incredibly resonate image is posturing as the complete lack of one. He’s the anti-celebrity, the devoted actor, a model of masculinity. A star who says he doesn’t know how to be a celebrity. As our lives become more and more saturated with obvious manipulation — aesthetic, rhetorical, political — Denzel’s anti-image is increasingly refreshing. But as I tell my students, being apolitical is a political position; the absence of politics is a political statement. So too with images: the anti-image is one of the most potent images of all.
So, I’ve been looking forward to Nashville ever since I first saw Connie Britton’s face attached to it. When I found out that T. Bone Burnett was running the music, and that Callie Khouri (she of Thelma & Louise fame) was running the show, things just seemed to get brighter and brighter. The production values are high; ABC seems to be wholly behind it; GOD THE MUSIC, I LOVE IT, IT IS CONSTANT ROTATION IN MY SPOTIFY.
But it’s also super soapy, following in a long tradition of primetime, Southern-based soaps (think Dallas) and, as someone suggested in my Twitter feed today, regressive, at least in terms of feminist sensibilities. Or at least a “step down” for Connie Britton. Or is it?
I’ve asked a bunch of people who a.) love Nashville; b.) write on the internet in some way; and c.) come from some sort of background that is not identical to mine to chime in on the specific appeal of the show. We’ll see where this goes.
I kinda can’t stand Hayden Panetierre, but this show has somehow endeared her to me in some weird way. What do we do with that?
LET’S GO! LIKE A TELESCOOOOOOOPE!
Jia: I have the same reaction to Hayden Panetierre (or, more specifically, her acting). But I too have come around to her, in this part, on this show. First, I think there’s a sort of January Jones as Betty Draper thing going on: a bad actress playing a bad actress works well. In Ms. Panetierre’s case, an actress who comes off a little too cutely insincere/self-conscious at best (and wholly narcissistic and hate-able at worst) can play her country-music analogue pretty seamlessly.
Also, re: the idea of this show being “regressive,” of course it’s not Louie or Portlandia or something that struck people as formally or structurally new. But I like the straightforwardness of a good soapy drama, much prefer it to the fake “progressive” veneer of a show like Modern Family. (And some soapy shows–like my current kick, the O.C.–make room for some fourth-wall innovation, etc, anyway.)
AHP: Yes yes yes — I love it when people get on the “Betty Draper is a bad actress at life – that’s why January Jones is so perfect” train. I mean, Hayden even kinda looks like January Jones, and they both seem to be straight off of the “casting couch,” if you’re putting up what I’m putting down. I think what resonates with me about Panetierre = the fact that she’s constantly putting up an image to cover up for her tragic/classed background, and what we’ve seen in the last few episodes is the puncturing of that image — the vulnerability and fragility that resides beneath all star images. In some ways, Nashville is, at least in part, a meditation on image: what Rayna and Juliette culturally/socially “mean” and how that fits (or doesn’t) with their “real life” actions, desires, pasts, etc.
Jia: PS, the rumor that Hayden Panetierre is a Hollywood escort–have you read that/written about that? Her and Amanda Bynes both? I read it once and I thought, “Oh, sure,” because that is very much how she comes off, casting couch-esque, and it’s interesting to think about how there’s nothing specific to telegraph that except (I would like to think this is what shapes most of my judgment about her) a lack of nuanced talent. But honestly, she’s pretty good on this show! Or at least, this character is a pretty decent absorption for the things about her that normally irritate people. (AHP: And she’s a much better singer than Connie Britton, right?!?) (Jia: YES. Which is unfortunate, I wish they were equal musically for the show’s sake. Also, Hayden has some hilarious musical efforts in her past. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rsZasAQJ06I song she did for “Cinderella III: A Twist In Time” omg and also that awful “Stars Are Blind” esque song “Wake Up Call” ) (AHP: Although I will say that my favorite song of hers is the one with Deacon — “Under Mine.” The other stuff is too Carrie Underwood.)
I agree with you completely on the image thing. It’s interesting that Juliette and Rayna are both trying to reach for the middle in a way: both of them trying to shed their pasts at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in order to achieve mainstream stardom and not be hassled by the accusation of either end (the “Lana del Rey, son of a Jersey millionaire” thing or the “Britney Spears, trailer trash forever” thing).
Alaina: I am probably going to be watching this show after everyone else have given up on it (whether that is in one season or five) because that’s how much I love Tami Taylor. But a couple things are bothering me. One, I keep struggling with the Rayna/Teddy have no money plotline. I TOTALLY buy her mid-career/middle-aged slump, but if she really was a Faith Hill or Reba like she is supposed to be, wouldn’t she have more money? One bad deal and they don’t have any liquid assets?
The bigger thing that’s bothering me is Rayna’s inaction. Both she and Juliet are struggling, but I am actually finding Juliet more enjoyable to watch (Hayden, what have you done to me) because her impulsive decisions – bouncing from one thing/person to another to try to make herself feel better is at least active.
But, now that I write this, I wonder if it’s a reflection of what hinders you at different ages. In your 20’s, you can fall prey to bad decisions – in your 40’s, it’s much more likely to be in-decision that holds you back.
AHP: Okay, yes: it’s one thing if you have some money and then your husband is a real estate dufus that you’d still be getting mad residuals every time country radio played your version of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” (btw, I hate late Faith Hill, which is part of the reason I’m having problems reconciling Rayna James as a character with my unadulterated love for Connie Britton). Also, side note, but I love the suggestion that Powers Boothe (Rayna’s dad) is acting in a completely different (far more melodramatic) show than the rest of the cast. It’s perfect. (Jane: I want to talk more about Boothe! That delivery! that growl. I have to admit here that I never made it past a few episodes of FNL, but I made it to the end of Deadwood, and while I have few associations between Tami and Rayna, I do have very sharp Cy-flashbacks whenever I wash Nashville. He is a lot more melodramatic than the rest of the cast — which tips it into some weird hybrid of HBO’s best and schmalziest soaps. I don’t know what to do with it, but I feel like such acting cannot be put to Pure Evil. I’m waiting for Cy (who seems much smarter than most of the other characters) to surprise us, and, hopefully, surprise Rayna as well. But it’s true, he could also just be as awful as Rayna keeps emphasizing.)
Karen: This is gross, but if they had money, it would “solve” too many problems–like why she won’t just leave him, or why she’s rude enough not to love him. If they have money, Rayna isn’t vulnerable, and they need her weak right now for various reasons. And let me be clear–she’s not weak financially like most people. Lady has plenty of money, she just doesn’t have rich person money. Big difference. Rayna is a pretty dang selfish character, and that’s a good thing. All these characters are deeply, deeply flawed, and that’s something I like about it. It is amusing that Juliet is the more active person (I’ve only seen through the episode where she steals the nail polish), and I am sort of rooting for Deacon to leave Rayna behind (you know, until he finds out she had his baby years ago–nah, if that were the story, we’d probably have to watch her kid with some dumb storyline). I see a show where a creator likely had to postpone nuance to sell the show to executives–two women, who hate each other, who love the same man, and there’s an evil father, and an evil mother and a shady business deal, and a random ingenue, and on and on and on… I’m hoping she has the know-how to make more of this–and I’m willing to wait patiently (through season 1) to see if she can get there. Oh, and I like the music. Enough that I would buy the album.
Alaina: I LOVE the music. I’ve been listening to it, a lot. Hayden’s voice is in my head, in my head. How did she DO that? Karen, I too am hoping for more subtlety as time goes on. I also hope Teddy dies, or something, because that actor has no charisma. The scenes with him and Powers Boothe are like Powers talking to a green screen. (Jane: Love the music so much too, but my favourite pieces are actually more Gunnar/Scarlett than Panetierre’s character. “Fade Into You” is absolutely astonishing, but the part of me that loves Tay also appreciates what Juliette is doing with that persona–aka dirtying it up.)
Jia: Teddy does need to die! Or something. The unfolding subplot about fraud appears to be leading him into an out-of-the-picture future (hopefully). My biggest character problem is Scarlett. I think it’s a really powerful representation of a young, abusive relationship, but her accent is just absolutely like an improv troupe’s version of a Southern milkmaid idiot (she is Australian though! that is why. very Claire on LOST-esque in general) and yeah. She is disgusting in terms of this one-note innocence and servitude; I get the picture that whoever conceived of her character might be like “This is a girl who really just wants to make her boyfriend dinner at the end of the day, really truly”–as if that made it better, more complex, rather than the absolute opposite. The way she is around the house with Avery is so saddening. (Jane: Does anyone else think that Eric Close just has the perfect face to portray Teddy? It is intensely dislikeable, and he always seems to be cringing. Like, oops, is it me again? It’s a prime Awful Character look, and, yes, I’m just waiting for his ruse to fall apart. What I find hard to believe is how Rayna still seems to trust him so wholeheartedly? I guess that’s the point though — to feel for Rayna’s innocence, as she dumps Deacon from her band and ignores his calls, etc.)
AHP: First thing: yes, Teddy, GAWD, so bad. As Jia gestures above, I think they’re trying to give us a way to root for Rayna to leave him. Because if there’s no ethical justification, then it just makes Rayna look like a bad mom. But if Teddy’s bad — entirely different story; she’s leaving to keep her kids safe.
Second thing: SCARLETT, EFF-ING-A, SHE IS THE MOST REGRESSIVE PIECE OF SHIT. I’m sorry, I don’t mean that misogynistically, but her reticence and, as Jia notes, the ACCENT! just drive me nuts. “Southern Milkmaid” is spot-on. She moved to Nashville “just to support” her boyfriend?
Karen: Um, ladies, don’t you see her boyfriend? He’s Lucky from General Hospital. She would crazy not to love Lucky Spencer, the kid who should have been Anakin Skywalker. Accents don’t bug me cause I’m from St. Louis, the land of no accents. All accents are therefore exotic and accurate as far as I can tell. The bigger issue is the dude she is singing with–does he have any personality at all? At least the abusive boyfriend has a dream, and a look (sort of skeevy, oily guy trying to hide how gosh darn cute he is).
Jia: (I totally think the guy she sings with is cute–can’t help it! NO ALMOST-ANAKIN THOUGH) AHP: Um, I’m digging him, but that’s an opinion almost wholly built on his singing ability. And his ability to wear plaid shirts with snaps. But where is this weird assistant-to-producer relationship going? Pure narrative device to make Scarlett jealous/realize she needs to be with someone who is not a jealous ass?
Alaina: I wish they hadn’t cast Lucky, because it makes me worry more that this will turn into a soap. That aside, I see Scarlett as totally insecure, yes, but there are actually a lot of women out there who are like that. Who, when asked what they like about their boyfriend, say, “He treats me well.” Like that’s a bonus. I am rooting for her to snap out of it, but then have singer boy (none of us know his name!) be busy with Hailey so she has to stand on her own two feet. Or for her to write with Rayna? I want the plotlines to intersect more. Also, Bunny from The Wire is distracting me with his past character lives. They need to give these people more character traits so they can fully reincarnate.
Jia: It also does not help that he is Mayor Coleman, formerly Major Colvin, right? AHP: Wow. Wow.
Alaina: On another note, Stephen and Elena are writing in their diaries on The Vampire Diaries. Why am I still watching this show? Oh, that’s right: Damon. (Karen: Damn straight, Damon.)
AHP: So what do we see as a progressive development in the Scarlett storyline? Is it getting together with singer-partner-cuteness? Is that just trading one sort of dependency for another?
Alaina: See my comment above about her being on her own. AHP: Ah yes, write with Rayna — that would be amazing. And actually enact what happens a lot in Nashville, when female writers write for more visible female performers. (Jane: AHP, I didn’t know that! But it’s also a nice reflection of the female writing that goes into Nashville as a show.)
Jia:Agree that that’s where Scarlett is going. I also think that, eventually, if we’re thinking multiple seasons, she could be a challenger. And write with Rayna is the best idea! They are just talking, in the fifth episode (which I’m watching right now) about how she needs someone; she (Rayna) was like, “Maybe I should try it, to write on my own” and her manager was like ha ha ha. Also Teddy more and more reminds me of like, Jason Bateman’s boring boring cousin
Karen: The trouble with Scarlett is that she has NO point other than to be the more authentic young girl to Juliet’s false star. She’s a plot device, but we don’t yet know in what way she will shape the plot. Other than that, she just has a pretty voice.
AHP: Interesting — especially since Scarlett doesn’t actually “do country” in a traditional sense. But she is descended from royal country stock — which is why her boyfriend loves/hates her.
Jia: There are so many “descended from” problems in this show!
Alaina: Or, Scarlett could stay in this relationship until it really gets ugly, and then turn to Rayna (her writing partner) and we could learn about just how bad it got with Rayna and Deacon before he went to rehab. It would be interesting to see them spin this relationship out in a meaningful way.
Does anyone like Mrs. Coach in this role? And isn’t that the biggest problem of the show?
Alaina: I like her in it. I buy her as selfish and spoiled. I don’t “like” her as-in I wouldn’t be friends with her – but I think that’s the point. She is isolated, just like Juliet. She doesn’t seem to have real girl friends, and has poured her energy into herself and her relationships with men. They aren’t that different, when you think about it that way. If they are brave enough to explore this (instead of just asking us to be sympathetic to her plight) I will gladly come along.
Jia: I would watch Mrs. Coach do literally anything. She is dead-ending all over the place plotwise, but I think once she does the one thing she’s obviously going to do (sleep with Deacon) or just otherwise loosens her restraints, does something unpredictable, I think she’ll be likeable. I also think that Connie Britton has a really powerful appeal when she is attached to a likeable man; she plays best as part of a partnership. Which is weird. And interesting.
AHP: Also I’m jonesing for her to become a mentor to Juliet — of course, that’s the narrative tension driving the show; as soon as they have them become friends, then the tension is over. Or is it? I mean, think about FNL: the primary narrative tension was always ostensibly will the football team succeed? but it wasn’t really, or at least that was never what I was concerned about. I liked that FNL was willing to give us established, healthy relationships and let the narrative tension play out in how they would negotiate problems that arose.
Alaina: I want them to go on tour together, but have her mentor Scarlett.
Jane: I love all the narrative predicting that’s happening in this thread! That’s the magic of television that is just starting out, and still really finding its groove. As much as the audience is adjusting to this world, so are, we should remember, the writers, directors, and actors. I have to disagree a (little) bit with what has been said prior about Scarlett’s cardboard passivity, because, as someone mentioned, we see her push back against Avery in “Move It On Over.” She acknowledges some real truths about the hierarchies in their relationship, and a break up is definitely on the horizon… But, this is all to say that this show is developing and making character reveals in every episode, and multiple ones at that. What we’ve been saying prior about Scarlett’s character needs to be continuously adjusted, especially when we’re at something like Season 1, Episode 5. This is all to say that I wonder if someone can even personally write off a show until they’ve given it at least a dedicated first season viewing.
Elizabeth: Anne, I agree with you about the role of image with not just the characters, but the image of country music. Much in the same way that NYC was the 5th main character of “SATC,” I am enjoying how Nashville the city is utilized a reflection of the current state of country music. I acknowledge that this reflection is absurd and forced at times (the lakehouse belonged to Patsy Cline?), but when the woman asks Rayna if her new CD is available at Starbucks I cracked up- because yes, the new Taylor Swift album is being sold there. On the other hand, do songwriters that sign deals with publishing houses REALLY get that kind of luxurious creative space, complete with fully stocked kitchens?
The timing of this show is very interesting to me as well; without the shift from traditional country to country-pop (to pure pop in some cases- looking at you again, Taylor), this show wouldn’t have been embraced. I’ve been pondering whether this show, with these narratives, would have worked in the 1980s. I think not because of how much class and conspicuous consumption is represented in the show as a natural influence in country music. From my limited knowledge of the scene in the 80s (Willie Nelson! Oak Ridge Boys! The Judds!), country music was still viewed as the most humble of genres. In the previous episode Rayna is nervous about performing at the country club in front of the wealthy socialites and utters “these are the people that made fun of me for liking country music!”
Lucia: Okay, sorry, am deadline/work swamped today, but I did want to bring up one thing in re: Mrs. Coach that was triggered for me by the prompt and I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet, which is that this is the woman who did American Horror Story last year. (Which is a huge draw for biggish name stars, it seems, even this year.) This is the woman who had sex with a ghost (?) in a gimp suit. So let’s not pretend that she isn’t up for anything and that, all things considered, Nashville represents a step up in character development from that particular moment in Connie Britton’s career. (Which isn’t to say she wasn’t brilliant and that show isn’t its own type of awesome, rather that she went from 4D Tami to 2D horrorshow heroine and has swung back up to a woman who behaves, IMO, in a plausible, human way.)
As far as Nashville goes, imma just say for the moment that it just occurred to me that I’d like it a lot more if it were purely populated by women of a certain age, rather than the youngs vs. olds we currently have. Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which is totally not where I was going with it, but it’s as apt a representation of women of more or less the same age going at it, though the power balance leaves a lot to be desired in terms of conflict. POINT BEING: I’d rather see a Faith Hill vs. Shania Twain struggle for the ages than Faith vs. like, I dunno…Taylor Swift.
Jane: Lucia! “Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” That is perfect. I agree that that would be wholly more interesting (though also more difficult to pull off and sell, I’m guessing), and perhaps difficult for the 18-20-something TV-watching crowd to relate to. It does feel like the show is feeding the mainstream public a version of “country music” that is based around loosely, but at least visibly popular, country stars. I don’t know what’s happening to pop country, but is the future Taylor Swift?
Side-Question: How much do you think Panettiere’s character is really molded after Swift? I definitely see some resonances, but Panettiere just does not seem like a sweet, fun person to hang out with. But that’s definitely the reference, right?
AHP:I’ve heard lots of references to the fact that she’s supposed to be a mix of Swift and Carrie Underwood, who is supposedly a class-A snob/piece-of-work. Although the songwriting piece definitely seems to be influenced by Swift.
I’d also be interested in women-of-a-certain age, but I do think that the two generations do represent two strains of country that do seem to continue to battle it out. There’s a great piece by Ann Powers (music critic for NPR) about the long legacy of country duets, and she points to all of the different “strains” in country that each of the characters represent — Scarlett and her singing partner are in the Civil Wars alt-country strain; Scarlett’s boyfriend is supposed to be punk-country a la Jack White, etc. etc.
Lucia: HP doesn’t seem like a fun person to hang out with, but at least she can sing in tune. And OMGOMG I did NOT know that about Carrie Underwood, that is amazing. My money would be on the “talentless but why does no one notice oh right she’s hot” part of the character being a representation of TSwift, and the rest going to another well-known behind-the-scenes pain-in-the-ass, Underwood or otherwise. (Jane: marriage of Swift & Underwood actually does sound like a mess/nightmare.) (Jia: I also see a little bit of Britney Spears, maybe a little more than a bit, in the whole family meltdown/rehab storyline with her mother. I like that storyline, because I think the actress who plays her mother is really compelling). (Jane: People have also compared Nashville to Smash, and there’s definitely some Marilyn Monroe in Juliette.)
Question: I’m loving the female networking primed to happen in this show (as Alaina said above, they need to intersect more, and I believe they will). But can we talk about male networks? What are these treacherous men HIDING from women, and from each other (this is why I want Lamar & Rayna to have some sort of memo against Teddy, eventually)? I think even if Scarlett is (as yet) a little disappointing to the show’s feminist message (I mean Callie Khouri!), then we should think about how all the men are portrayed. They are all sort of icky, no?
AHP: RIGHT, especially Powers Boothe and that weird relationship with both of his daughters, and the amount of hate he displaces onto Rayna because of the apparent actions of her mother. I think Alaina said something to me earlier this week about how these are all WEAK men — lacking confidence, gumption, legitimate power, morals, etc.
Jane:So weak! And SO CREEPY? Whenever Avery hugs Scarlett and gives that side-eye, I shiver. When they started making out, I guess, “passionately,” in episode 5, it felt incredibly dark, and somehow violent. And even Deacon — the “good one” — is getting naked with someone maybe at least 20 years younger than him? The show seems to want to portray Deacon as weak, out of control, needing female support, but again — MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE need to be taken into consideration here too.
Ok, last question from me–and this bounces off some of what has been said earlier about Scarlett–but while I’m really enjoying this show so far, I’m afraid that it’s going to turn into this thing where all women are plot devices and sources of emotional clarity in order to save damaged men. Scarlett seems mostly a pristine mirror through which to reflect everyone else’s complex interiorities, and I want her to have her own. I don’t want all these women to end up saving the men in their lives, financially, emotionally, or otherwise. But as it stands, from a narrative perspective, the women are not intersecting right now and almost all relationships are being mediated via men. AKA the men are necessary.
Elizabeth: Lucia, great suggestion re: shifting the focus to Rayna’s contemporaries. After all, Rayna was compared to Martina McBride so surely she has another female singer who has also had similar success. All I ask is that they NOT make said female singer part of another damn love triange (trapezoid?). I also see Juliette as a hybrid of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and some Kelly Pickler thrown in for good measure.
(And on a less serious side note, I can’t read “Scarlett” without thinking of the infamous Lindsay Lohan graffiti)
Allison: Okay, I am uber-sorry for coming in late to this wholly awesome thread, but someone has to spend her Friday mornings talking about Friday Night Lights with UVa undergraduates, and that someone is me.
Now, a couple of things come to mind after reading the above:
1) While I have no doubt the creators want Panettiere to be an amalgam of Swift and Underwood, since we’re talking about past-character lives, I see her as an extension of her Heroes character, Claire Bennet. That scene where she throws her mother’s junkie partner out of her house and is standing on the doorstep of her (original) house? It would not have surprised me if she had taken flight a la Claire. Similarly, the woman makes one face.
2) Scarlett’s accent is killing me. Killing me. I don’t buy it for one second. Also, everything that’s been said about her regressive and potentially abusive relationship? Yes. I am giving Avery the side eye. I don’t trust that guy for a second. But I want her to write with Rayna and I think that’s where the show is headed. Or Juliet will write with Rayna. Or with Scarlett. There is a collaboration coming. (Jane: Triangulated female relationship? Are Rayna and Juliet going to stop fighting over Deacon, and start for Scarlett soon? It seems, though, that in the show’s diegesis, Juliet is the worst singer, Rayna the better [not true in reality]. But the show also seems to emphasize that Juliet has the better songwriting chops, and it seems, at least from Episode 5, to suggest that Rayna probably doesn’t have much experience writing songs. But who knows!) (AW: Ep 5 definitely suggests that Rayna hasn’t written before, and then makes this leap to her having completed a song worthy of recording almost immediately, right? Or did I misread that?)
3) I would watch Eric Close do *almost* anything, but that is a personal preference and neither here nor there. However, I want Kimberley Williams Paisley off the show. Ugh. (Jane: She reminds me of Bambi.) (AHP: Bambi with too much make-up). (Jia: All I can think of is that stupid Father of the Bride scene where she’s playing basketball with Steve Martin) (AW: I don’t want to hate her but I do. And I sort of resent the initial are-they-having-an-affair-or-aren’t-they way we’re introduced to her. Soapy, yes, but what would it have done for her character, for the storyline, for the larger representation of women if she had been portrayed less as someone’s wife (“I go by Margaret Kinter now” — “Robert’s wife?” or whatever) than as a businessperson who aided in a felony?)
The characterization of men is fascinating. How do you reconcile the different places we’ve seen the male characters v. the female characters–public/private, alone/surrounded by others, etc.?
AW:For instance, and this isn’t yet a fully formed thought, so forgive me, but it seems like Lamar is almost always buffeted by his daughter, or meeting with individuals alone in an office or well-appointed room. In the last episode we saw Teddy meeting with Peggy in the dark, or in a car. I would say it’s a function of the women-as-performers trope that allows the women on the show to be seen in well-lit, more crowded scenarios, but what about Deacon? Or Avery? Or even Gunnar? They’ve been alone, or solitary in some way as well.
Jia: To me, the biggest difference I’ve noted in the men/women of Nashville is that everybody seems to be chasing the same fame/wealth/power/sexual dominance, but the women perform these ambitions out in the open (as you note, a function of the female roles in the show) while the male characters’ ambitions are more of the underhand, secretive, mediated, layered type. (AW: Yes, exactly. And of course the men need the women’s support, because there are ways in which this version of success wants to happen within an idealized mid-twentieth-century world. Hence, Scarlett/Avery. Rayna playing at Teddy’s benefit, pulling her support from Coleman)
AHP: Alright, I’m calling it — I want to thank everyone for writing (people reading this have no idea how much fun it is to watch others write in Google Docs; it’s like a ghost using your computer) and hopefully we can do this again sometime soon….maybe we Scarlett bucks the eff up and Teddy’s out of the picture? Fingers crossed?
Outro to “No One Will Ever Love You……” (Can we get some of that tension back, please?)
You may have seen this story making the gossip rounds: at Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s wedding, Timberlake’s longtime real estate agent made a congratulatory gag video, featuring footage of homeless people from L.A. giving the couple their congratulations. Gawker went public with it yesterday, and their write-up covers its “greatest hits,” as it were:
After the guests at Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s wedding were whisked to southern Italy via private jet last week, they were greeted by a video produced by Timberlake’s longtime pal, L.A. real estate agent Justin Huchel. The video had a gag: Huchel hit the streets of Los Angeles and asked a bunch of homeless people, street musicians, and transexuals to wish the multimillionaire newlyweds well. Funny, funny stuff.
The 8:30 video featured street interviews with ten people, many of them obviously homeless, premised on the idea that they were friends of Timberlake and Biel’s who, for whatever reason, couldn’t quite swing the trip to the Borgo Egnazia resort in Puglia for the nuptials, which were reported to cost $6.5 million. “Greetings from Your Hollywood Friends Who Just Couldn’t Make It,” reads the opening title card, “Featuring Sid, Chuck, Robert, and More!” Sid, Chuck, Robert, and others appear to be penniless and living on the street. Some of them are obviously intoxicated, mentally ill, or both, and at least one of them is entirely incapable of speaking.
“Justin and Jessica, I haven’t seen you for a long time,” one toothless man tells the camera. “I hope the wedding goes fine for you. My gift is in the mail.”
A male off-camera voice, apparently Huchel’s, asks the man when he last saw Timberlake and Biel, adding, “Did you and Jessica mess around?”
At one point, after commentary from an apparently transexual man, Timberlake’s “SexyBack” is played in the background.
Another glassy-eyed apparently homeless man woozily tells the camera, in a lengthy and rambling monologue, “Jeez I miss you so much. I wish I could be there.” (“There” being the $1,000-plus a night Italian resort hanging out with guests like Jimmy Fallon and Andy Samberg. “Here” being behind what looks like a McDonald’s.) Others mumble unintelligibly in response to questions about when they last hung out with Timberlake and Biel. When one shirtless man says he saw them at the L.A. Coliseum, the male voice asks, “were you performing with them?”
I’d also suggest watching the video yourself, available at the top of the Gawker post.
So there we go.
For much of my life, I had no idea what white privilege was. Because I lived in a town where white privilege went unquestioned, it was invisible to me. I don’t blame my parents for this; I don’t even (entirely) blame my education for this. My high school was operating within the system of white privilege, which works very, very hard to make white privilege invisible. If it were visible, then it would be questioned. In my school district, one of the junior highs had the mascot “Sacajawea Braves” — which, until about ten years before, had been the Sacajawea Savages. And no one ever said anything about it. The fact that a school governed by white people, in a predominantly white town, could get away with calling the people associated with Sacajawea “Savages,” or even “Braves” — that’s white privilege. That I never was made to think of my own race an actual race — that’s white privilege. There’s a privilege inherent to not having to think about your own race, to not having to think about not offending other races.
One of my favorite distillations of white privilege comes from the work of Peggy McIntosh, who authored a clear list of all the things that white people don’t have to worry about. I copy it in full because it is just so f-ing incisive:
As a white person….
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
That is white privilege, and white privilege is real. We have a black man as president, but that doesn’t mean that these assertions don’t hold true. To be white in America means to be privileged; to deny as much is to deny the realities of lived race relations in the world today. I am not saying that this is awesome. I acknowledge that I benefit from white privilege every day of my life, but that doesn’t mean that I think that this is the way things should be.
And no where does privilege manifest itself as overtly as celebrity culture. Now, I anticipate the initial counter-arguments: lots of non-white people are celebrities! Indeed, some of the *biggest* celebrities are, in fact, non-whites! Obama! Beyonce! Jay-Z! Kanye West! Denzel! Crucially, the concept of “white privilege” doesn’t mean that people who aren’t white can’t be celebrities. It just means that those people don’t have the behavioral latitude as white celebrities. Take, for example, the backlash against Obama’s First Debate, when he didn’t bring the “anger” — as Chris Menning explains, ”When reading articles that laud Mitt Romney for winning, keep in mind that they’re celebrating the fact that Mitt Romney can get away with behaving like a white man and Barack Obama, the President of the United States, still can’t.”
In short: white people can get away with all sorts of egregious shit because they are the ruling class. Non-white people (an overarching conflation I hate, but that works here) cannot. White privilege has been all over the rhetoric attached to this election: Mitt Romney has connections to the company that controls voting technology, which is, overall, okay; imagine how people would deal with that if Obama had such connections…..or imagine how differently people would treat an “underage” pregnancy on the part of a white candidate and the same on the part of a black candidate. Privacy, indifference — that’s what white privilege grants.
And that’s what’s in overt display at Justin Timberlake’s wedding to Jessica Biel.
I’ve been public in my celebration of the boringness of this wedding. It’s a “secret” wedding that somehow managed to garner the cover of People — I call bullshit. This was a highly orchestrated, ostensibly secret wedding primed to promote its two stars, both of whom are struggling with their Hollywood careers. (Biel is tanking; Timberlake, who’s made it very public that he’s concentrating on acting, will make or break his career with his turn in the Coen Brother’s next film). Fact is, the wedding was a classic celebrity affair: public event masked as intimate affair.
Which makes the video mentioned at the beginning of this piece all the more egregious. Justin Huchel (who is white and privileged) put the video together. Sure, it’s humorous. Sure, it’s possible that Huchel paid the partipants, thus (ostensibly) negating complaints that he exploited them. But the fact remains: at a party full of (almost entirely) white, privileged people, this video was presented with the specific purpose of amusement. People of color, people of ambiguous gender, people of explicitly lower class — employed for amusement. It’s a white person’s privilege to produce this video, and it’s a white person’s privilege to think that this is funny. To be blunt, it is privilege that allows these testimonies to be funny. Absent that privilege, they are singularly tragic.
You might think I’m overreacting, or too sensitive, or need to be reminded that this was all in jest. To repeat: the idea that this sort of action could be “all in jest” is a product of white privilege. It is, plain and simple, exploitation, and exploitation of the disenfranchised. Arguing that it’s “just a joke” is tantamount to arguing that systemic race and class exploitation is “just a joke.” This sort of behavior is a symptom of the greater, systemic disease. That’s the sad, totally shameful truth.
Generally speaking, I like Justin Timberlake. I don’t like Jessica Biel, but that’s because I think her image is boring — not because, to this point, I thought she was a racist. I understand that Timberlake and Biel did not spearhead this video. But they have spearheaded its cover-up, as clearly illustrated in the letter sent to Gawker upon its publication of this information. This was, as the lawyer explains, intended as a “private joke” at Timberlake’s wedding, and not meant for further distribution. Again, that’s white privilege: the idea that you could create an explicitly racist, classist, exploitative text and assume that it would go no further, and that if it did, that you could shut it down with a letter to the editors of Gawker. Critique Gawker all you will, but you must admire its defiance. Granted, Gawker is headed by a white male, and that’s part of what has made the site historically viable. This post undoubtedly garners a lot of page views, but it also speaks truth to (white) power…and in a way that white people can’t possibly disavow.
This petite-scandale won’t do much to Timberlake/Biel’s image. They weren’t responsible for it, per se, although they are, without doubt, responsible for cultivating an environment in which this sort of behavior would be considered okay/humorous. I don’t know how, or whether, we should blame other attendants of this wedding for calling attention to it before it went public. Would Jimmy Kimmel make a public statement about this sort of thing before it was made public? No. Again, that’s white privilege: the ability to ignore.
But I hope that this incident has the same effect on you as it does on me: reminding me how insidious white privilege can be while reminding me to call attention to it in our own lives, whether we’re white or not. The only way to interrogate and, eventually, challenge privilege is to make it visible. That’s the goal of this post, and hopefully it will become yours as well.
“One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. I learned that on the campaign.”
Barack Obama has a star image. The quote above should make that clear. There’s “the real” Obama — the living, breathing, guy with bodily functions — and there’s BARACK OBAMA, the public image, the thing Obama talks about above. And that image is an ideological construction: an accumulation of photo ops, statements, sound bites, and things we, as a public (American or otherwise) need/want him to be.
His star image also includes “exclusive, all-access” profiles of him published in Vanity Fair – profiles that acknowledge the presence of a star image. And this is key: just because it acknowledges Obama’s star image doesn’t mean it doesn’t participation in its reification.
So take a look, then, at the opening to Michael Lewis’s recent “exclusive, all-access” (read: authentic) time with Obama:
At nine o’clock one Saturday morning I made my way to the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the ground floor of the White House. I’d asked to play in the president’s regular basketball game, in part because I wondered how and why a 50-year-old still played a game designed for a 25-year-old body, in part because a good way to get to know someone is to do something with him. I hadn’t the slightest idea what kind of a game it was. The first hint came when a valet passed through bearing, as if they were sacred objects, a pair of slick red-white-and-blue Under Armour high-tops with the president’s number (44) on the side. Then came the president, looking like a boxer before a fight, in sweats and slightly incongruous black rubber shower shoes. As he climbed into the back of a black S.U.V., a worried expression crossed his face. “I forgot my mouth guard,” he said. Your mouth guard? I think. Why would you need a mouth guard?
“Hey, Doc,” he shouted to the van holding the medical staff that travels with him wherever he goes. “You got my mouth guard?” The doc had his mouth guard. Obama relaxed back in his seat and said casually that he didn’t want to get his teeth knocked out this time, “since we’re only 100 days away.” From the election, he meant, then he smiled and showed me which teeth, in some previous basketball game, had been knocked out. “Exactly what kind of game is this?” I asked, and he laughed and told me not to worry. He doesn’t. “What happens is, as I get older, the chances I’m going to play well go down. When I was 30 there was, like, a one-in-two chance. By the time I was 40 it was more like one in three or one in four.” He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.
Basketball hadn’t appeared on the president’s official schedule, and so we traveled the streets of Washington unofficially, almost normally. A single police car rode in front of us, but there were no motorcycles or sirens or whirring lights: we even stopped at red lights. It still took only five minutes to get to the court inside the F.B.I. The president’s game rotates around several federal courts, but he prefers the F.B.I.’s because it is a bit smaller than a regulation court, which reduces also the advantages of youth. A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can. “How many of you played in college?” I asked the only player even close to my height. “All of us,” he replied cheerfully and said he’d played point guard at Florida State. “Most everyone played pro too—except for the president.” Not in the N.B.A., he added, but in Europe and Asia.
Overhearing the conversation, another player tossed me a jersey and said, “That’s my dad on your shirt. He’s the head coach at Miami.” Having highly developed fight-or-flight instincts, I realized in only about 4 seconds that I was in an uncomfortable situation, and it took only another 10 to figure out just how deeply I did not belong. Oh well, I thought, at least I can guard the president. Obama played in high school, on a team that won the Hawaii state championship. But he hadn’t played in college, and even in high school he hadn’t started. Plus, he hadn’t played in several months, and he was days away from his 51st birthday: how good could he be?
The president ran a couple of laps around the gym, then shouted, “Let’s go!” He himself divvied up the teams so each one had roughly the same number of giants and the same number of old people. Having put me on his team, he turned to me and said, “We’ll sit you first, until we get a little bit of a lead.” I thought he was joking, but actually he wasn’t; he was as serious as a heart attack. I was benched. I took my place in the wooden stands, along with a few of the other players, and the White House photographer, the medical team, the Secret Service, and the guy with the buzz cut who carried the nuclear football, to watch the president play.
Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. Guys on his team dribbled past him and ignored the fact he was wide open. When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.
“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.
I thought to myself, It must be hard not to take it easy on the president.
The point guard laughed, turned to another guy on the bench, and said, “Remember Rey?”
“Who’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey pump-faked, turned, and just connected with the president right in the mouth,” the other guy said. “Gave him 16 stitches.”
“Where’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey hasn’t been back.”
Obama could find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star, but this is the game he wants to play. It’s ridiculously challenging, and he has very little space to maneuver, but he appears happy. He’s actually just good enough to be useful to his team, as it turns out. Not flashy, but he slides in to take charges, passes well, and does a lot of little things well. The only risk he takes is his shot, but he shoots so seldom, and so carefully, that it actually isn’t much of a risk at all. (He smiles when he misses; when he makes one, he looks even more serious.) “Spacing is big. He knows where to go,” said one of the other players as we watched. “And unlike a lot of lefties, he can go to his right.”
And he chattered constantly. “You can’t leave him open like that!” … “Money!” … “Take that shot!” His team jumped ahead, mainly because it took fewer stupid shots. When I threw one up I discovered the reason for this. When you are on the president’s basketball team and you take a stupid shot, the president of the United States screams at you. “Don’t be looking to the sidelines all sheepish,” he hollered at me. “You got to get back and play D!”
So what do we have here? A president who likes to play basketball? Well, sure. But it’s also a powerful contribution to Obama’s image, structured, as it is, by strong lines of competitiveness, fairness, tenacity, and vivaciousness. The metaphor, of course — and the reason Lewis leads with this anecdote — is that Obama lives his life, and leads the country, the same way he plays basketball: with integrity, verve, humor, the sort of skill that characterizes those who can play at any game they put their mind to….even against those with better training, longer pedigrees, and stronger natural skills.
Let’s do a little decoding:
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back.” = He hates sycophants, suck-ups, and others who aren’t honest about him/his skills
“No one held back, no one deferred.” = Obama craves a level playing field; always wants to bounce his ideas and skills against those who are his equal or better.
“You got to get back and play D!” = Hey Famous Writer, I hold you to the same standards of play, authenticity, and effort as I hold myself.
“He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.” = Duh.
None of this symbolism is too hidden. But the best part of the section is what’s hiding right in plain sight: the basketball itself. Sure, the way Obama plays basketball is a metaphor for his political life. But the fact that he plays basketball at all — it’s difficult to overstate how important that is.
Because if you know anything about Obama’s image, you know he plays basketball. You know he loves sports. You probably know that he used to unwind by shooting hoops with his “body man.” You know that he does his own Final Four bracket, that he proposed to revamp the College Bowl system. That he’s a White Sox fan. And while many presidents have been sports fans — hell, W. even owned a team — Obama is the first contemporary president with an image cornerstone of sports.
And not just any sport. Obama seems to like baseball and watch football, but basketball, that’s signifies something different:
- Intensely physical
- Demands a different sort of stamina
- Dominated (currently) by black men…
- …within an infrastructure run, owned, and funded by white, upper-class men of privilege.
- Heavy on the shit-talk: the best at the game are true wordsmiths
- Associated with a physique that is not threatening
- Born and popularized IN AMERICA
Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Put differently, are you understanding why Obama’s team would be keen to associate the president with sports in general and basketball in particular?
Am I reading too much into this? Did Obama’s team say “hey Barack, play more basketball?” No way. As Obama himself is keen to emphasize in the interview, he can’t fake sentiment or passion — when he does, it comes off as fake. I think he loves basketball. But I think that it’s no accident that Lewis was invited to this game….or, even more importantly, that Lewis decided that the sentiments and characteristics manifest there would work perfectly in the start of the most high-profile piece of the President in the last weeks leading up to the election.
Finally, the brilliance of a basketball game — and Lewis’s self-effacing participation in it — is that it doesn’t seem like publicity, or image-building, at all. It seems like a window into the authentic, all-access Obama. And the very best publicity, of course, is the publicity that convinces us it’s no such thing.
1.) Princess Kate, aka HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, takes off her top while sunbathing in a private villa. (A HUGE private villa near Aix-en-Provence).
2.) A paparazzo, supposedly standing on a public road, takes photos of Kate sans top. This road is at least 500 m away (1640 feet) and would need a super high-powered zoom lens. The photos are grainy, but her top is gone.
3.) French and Italian publications (both owned by that upstanding dirty bird Silvio Berlusconi) publish the photos, which soon proliferate across the internet/other publications. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that the understanding is that any British publications who reprints them will be in “big trouble” (an Irish one already is).
4.) The Royal Family calls foul. On Monday, September 17, the royal couple files a complaint and a request for an injunction against Closer, the French (yet Berlusconi-owned) publication that published the “full suite” of photos. To wit:
The duke and duchess have asked for the injunction order to be accompanied by a warning that the magazine would be fined €10,000 (£8,000) for every day that it did not comply with an injunction and fined €100,000 if it tried to resell the photographs. The judges will rule on the case on Tuesday at lunchtime.
I’m writing before the verdict comes out, but here’s what you need to understand:
1.) French privacy laws are much, MUCH more protective than American ones. That’s why Brangelina has a house there; that’s why (until recently) Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp lived there (that and Paradis was, well, French). It’s much easier to be a celebrity there, in part because the invasion of privacy laws are explicit and carry heavy fines: you cannot “take, record, or transmit, without his or her consent, the picture of a person who is in a private place.” In other words, invasive paparazzi = illegal. The question remains, however, whether this giant villa (with photos from a “public” road) was a public place. If it is, then these photos are, indeed, illegal.
2.) IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER. Because whether you think that the royal family has made this worse by pressing charges, that “it’s a private issue,” or even that Kate showed a non-characteristic lack of media savvy, the point is that the war is won: the scandal isn’t Kate’s; it’s the media’s.
Put differently, her actions are not, in fact, scandalous. No one in Europe — and her “subjects” in particular — are scandalized by the fact of a 30-year-old woman taking off her top (presumably to avoid pesky tanlines, the very manifestation of low-classiness) while sunbathing. Scandal occurs when someone trespasses on the fringe of the status quo, or challenges the popular understanding of his/her image. Princess Kate may be classy and wear sleeves at her wedding, but topless sunbathing is not outside the realm of her expected behavior — in part because she is, as many are keen to remind, not royal-born. Yet any objections over her lack of royal born-ness were aired leading up the wedding. Now, that’s old (and out-of-touch) news: she’s the new people’s princess.
And she’s not the first people’s princess — a point the couple’s lawyer’s have been keen to underline in their case, highlighting the fact that Prince William’s mother was victim to similar “invasions of privacy” that led to her death almost 15 years ago to the day.
Which is all the makings for a perfect MELODRAMA:
The villains: the same paparazzi forces that killed the beloved Princess Diana.
The victims: the privacy-seeking “first couple” of Britain; son of Diana + heir to her popular “title.”
And once you successfully frame a gossip story in terms of melodrama, it essentially takes care of itself. The conversation suddenly has nothing to do with Kate’s nudity and everything to do with rights to privacy, special rights of royals/political officials to privacy, and the general exceptionalism of a beloved people’s princess. No matter what happens in court, it seems clear that the entity “behaving scandalously” is not the Duchess of Cambridge, but the photographer and, more to the point, the entities that would publish those photos (hence the suspension of the head of the Irish Star-Times).
Society, working with the help of media outlets, works to censor those at the center of scandal. Fascinating, then, how various media outlets have become the locus of that scorn….even when a Princess’s breasts are involved.
UPDATE: The French court has found in favor of the Royals, and will be forced to hand over the original photos and pay a $13,000 every time the images are republished.
Victory: Kate and Wills.