Have a Good Time

December 13, 2011

Homonationalism’s Christmas effects

[Transcript: Rick Perry strolls down a green forest path, to loud faux-Copland music, and says: “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian. But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas, or pray in school. As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion, and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again. I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.”]

When Rick Perry releases a campaign ad like this, we’re told, it’s little more than a sign of desperation, recognized as such by almost everyone. There are already countless parody videos. Viewers have seized on a resemblance between Perry’s jacket and the one worn by Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (a character whose desire is suffocated, whose lover is murdered, whose life is made unlivable—and, more importantly, still the universal reference point for insinuations that a man who pretends to be straight is totally gay). It’s become important to people that Perry’s video should receive more dislikes on YouTube than Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” because of course a perfect way to disparage a male American politician is to rank him visibly lower than a fifteen-year-old girl whose ambitions are agreed to be excessive. In a word, Perry’s video is seen as a failure; and not only, or not even mostly, because of its crypto-racist warnings about “Obama’s war on religion” (with the familiar hint that Obama is somehow both an atheist and a deceitful Muslim), but rather because it wants to reverse the seemingly irreversible neo/liberal consensus that “gays” should “serve openly in the military”—i.e., that queer Americans belong on the battlefield, and in front of the computers that run the drones, around the world. In this sense the ad is identified as belonging to a cultural moment that has passed.

And my reason for writing about it isn’t only to reiterate something I’ve said before, to disclose maybe the one feeling Rick Perry and I have in common, though we arrive at it from opposite corners, namely that the embrace of “gays in the military” makes both of us sad. I also want to say that the release of this video, in early December, with this constellation of key terms—

strength / faith / America / children / family / Christmas [ / gays ]

—reminds me of one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite essays by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (which I remember stopping to read aloud to myself several times, at the first encounter, because I was so in love with it). And that the link between “America,” “Christmas,” and “the gays” also turns out to have resonated with Stephen Colbert and the writers of The Colbert Report, in ways that make Sedgwick even more interesting to me. So here’s the beginning of the section titled “CHRISTMAS EFFECTS” in Sedgwick’s “Queer and Now,” first published in 1993:

What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it? —is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all—religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy—line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing?…

Since this passage is at least as accurate a description of the Christmas season as it was twenty years ago, one thing it does is to make even more obvious the absurdity of Perry’s claim that American kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas. (“You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday”—exactly, Rick. Exactly!) Since it’s a passage from an essay by Eve Sedgwick in 1993, another thing it does is to make way for an elaboration on the idea that “queer” can signify, precisely, a tendency or a stance beautifully in opposition to everything meaning the same thing, a kind of resistance to Christmas effects, or a celebration of “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” that may constitute gender and sexual identity—but not necessarily only those.

Which still sounds utopian to me, and leaves me feeling, still, profoundly troubled at the extent to which, twenty years later, the most prominent movements for “gay rights” in America stand for an uncomplicated desired absorption into “religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy.” And I think this is why I’m fascinated less by a campaign ad that could basically have come from 1993 itself than by Stephen Colbert’s satirical response, which makes a cheerful joke out of Perry’s paleoconservative homophobia and his delusions of anti-Christian persecution by transposing the rigidly codified American rhetoric of gay equality (not a choice, born this way, just as good a soldier, get used to it) into a discussion of those who embrace “the Christmas lifestyle”…with the probably inevitable climactic tableau of two Santas (white and male—naturally!) locked in a gay kiss.

colbert

[Picture links to video. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

Now of course I don’t begrudge these two big gay Santas their happiness! Nor do I want to be bitter about the easygoing tolerance that’s couched familiarly in Colbert’s performance of its opposite. But what strikes me is just how close the segment comes to a powerful critique of homonationalism and normative American cisgender/gay identity, seemingly without anyone realizing it.

“They don’t understand that, unlike being gay, loving Christmas is not a choice,” Colbert says. “I was attracted to Christmas at a very early age.” Surely the joke is that the audience knows that this both is and isn’t true. That “Christmas” is an utter cultural construction: dependent, yes, on certain inclinations or orientations (toward, say, gifts), but also spectacularly expanded beyond them, and shaped by history and ideology in such a way that a set of weird, even oppressive rituals and pageants of capital can come to feel impossible to think outside of (just as Sedgwick says): it couldn’t be any other way. “I didn’t totally understand it, but it got me very excited.” I hear these jokes and think, If only we could actually follow this logic through! But then, by the time Colbert gets to the image of “the Macy’s Pride Parade,” it’s as if a complete synthesis has been reached between the Christmas effect he’s describing and the movement whose language he’s jokingly using to describe it. And it isn’t really a joke. In Colbert’s speech the parade of American capitalism has swallowed the march of gay rights without missing a step, and, thus fortified, it heads in the direction of Afghanistan, to keep order, and to keep the world safe for the Christmas spirit. Everything means the same thing.

UPDATED TO ADD: I’ve been following a really helpful and important exchange in the comment section from this recent Jadaliyya article by Maya Mikdashi, which includes some remarks by Jasbir Puar that make me think a better title for this post would have been “American Homonationalism as Christmas effect” (and even that’s not sufficient, probably). I would recommend the whole conversation to anyone interested, but Puar writes:

What I appreciate very much about the article is the recognition that homonationalism is understood as part of a larger structure of neoliberal accommodationism that encompasses shifting and unstable constructions of “Others” and citizens. So as the author writes: “Homonationalism is not the end goal of a conspiratorial “gay international,” rather, it is only one aspect of the reworking of the world according to neoliberal logics that maintains not only the balance of of power between states, but also within them.” As I have been watching homonationalism become part of many different national organizing agendas against co-optation by various states, and also watching queer organizing “against” homonationalism, I am reminded that, for myself anyway in my original thinking, that homonationalism is not a position, an identity, nor even an accusation, rather it is an assemblage of state practices, transnational movements of capital, bodies and ideas, political and intellectual practices, and geopolitical relations. it is not something that one is either inside of/included or against/outside of–rather it is a structuring force of neoliberal subject formations. As such, homonationalism is not a synonym for gay racism, rather a deep critique of liberal attachments to identity and rights-based discourses that rely on identitarian formations. In Terrorist Assemblages, I do focus not only on the places/sources/events/people that homonationalism might be expected to proliferate, but also places where a resistance to state racism might actually result in forms of homonationalism–for example South Asian queer diasporic organizing. So the question becomes, for me, not so much who can or cannot be called homonationalist, or which organizing projects are or are not homonationalist, but rather how are the structural expectations for homonationalism–which the author notes is becoming hegemonic–negotiated by groups who may well want to resist such interpellation but need to articulate that resistance through the very same logics of homonationalism? How is homonationalism working/being strategically manipulated differently in different national/geopolitical contexts, and are there homonationalisms that become productively intrinsic to national liberation projects rather than national imperialist/expansionist projects? I am still very much thinking about these questions, but I appreciate the article tremendously for bringing up these difficult issues.

[The Colbert Report segment transcript.

Stephen Colbert, at his desk: Welcome back, everybody. Nation, the race for the GOP presidential nomination is far from over. Newt Gingrich may be the frontrunner now, but, by the looks of him, he might get winded if there are stairs involved. The point is, it is still anybody’s game here. Because my man Rick Perry just released a great new ad.

[A portion of the ad plays.]

Colbert: Yes…I agree…Governor Perry is right. Thanks to the gays, our children can’t openly celebrate the birth of our savior in school—and yet these gays in the military can openly celebrate their favorite holiday: being away from their family risking their lives in Afghanistan. Well I for one am offended by those who would condemn the Christmas lifestyle. They don’t understand that unlike being gay, loving Christmas is not a choice. I was attracted to Christmas at a very early age. I didn’t totally understand it, but it got me very excited. I remember looking at a present and just aching for it. I saw a gingerbread man and I wanted him in my mouth. Folks, it wasn’t until I moved to New York and saw the Macy’s Pride Parade that I had the courage to throw on my thigh-high candy-cane stockings and proudly chant, “We’re here; we like reindeer; get used to it.” I just pray for a day when Kringle-Americans feel free to ‘don we now our gay apparel.’ Well, nation, like Rick Perry, around here we are not ashamed of who we are. We at the Report want the world to know just how much we truly love Christmas. Boys, get out here!

[Two men dressed as Santa Claus appear onstage.]

Colbert: Look at that! Not one Santa’s helper, but two. All right, fellas, are you ready to get your sleigh bells jinglin’?

Santa: Oh, certainly.

Colbert: Jimmy, drop the mistletoe.

[Mistletroe drops from the ceiling. The two Santas embrace, funky music plays and the audience cheers.]

Colbert: Oh yeah. Somebody’s sugarplums are dancin’. In your face, gays! Governor Perry, you’re welcome. We’ll be right back.]

June 28, 2011

Coined sovereignty, brought justice, promised joy

“Derrida made clear in his short book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realised would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed).”
—Judith Butler, “Jacques Derrida”

“No, they cannot touch me for coining; / I am the king himself.”
King Lear, IV.vi

A year ago, Daniel wrote here about the Israeli military’s conclusions regarding the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, and the verdict of a Los Angeles jury in the trial of Oscar Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle (who, two weeks ago, walked free); and, following a line of thought traced by Jakada Imani, asked: “What would justice look like?”

I just want to ask that question again in the middle of 2011, a year that seems fated to be widely remembered as a special year for justice, or even as the year in which justice was done. Announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, President Obama used the word “justice” five times: once, at the end of his speech, in an effort to situate this assassination as a marker of the blessed utopian potentiality of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (on which suggestion, see Kai Wright’s “The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great”); once to pay tribute to the American intelligence community’s “pursuit of justice”; once, of course, to assure the families of bin Laden’s victims that “justice has been done”; and twice, elaborating on and deepening that same point, in reference to the fulfillment of a promise made ten years ago—that the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks would be “brought to justice.” One detail that these references conceal, but that the video I’m posting below recognizes and illustrates, is that the promise fulfilled on May 1 was not (literally) that promise. It was George W. Bush’s assertion on September 20, 2001 that “[w]hether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

This is an instance of antimetabole, a term defined by Wikipedia as “the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed grammatical order,” and etymologically based in the combination of the Greek anti (“opposite”) and metabole (“turning about”). It’s the kind of rhetorical flourish that tended to be put forward admiringly as evidence that, when the occasion demanded it, President Bush could get serious. Is there any other recent moment of American political antimetabole at once so meaningless and so plainly, terribly significant? To speak of this alternative possibility of “bringing justice to our enemies” is to speak not just to the belief that, in Butler’s words, “one has already arrived at justice,” but to the unspoken faith that justice is proper to the United States, that it has no authorization or meaning beyond the reach of the United States. In other words, I would argue, it only indexes in the most explicit way what was already present in this specific invocation of the act of “bringing our enemies to justice,” heralding as it does the Global War on Terror. It clarifies what kind of “justice” this war will entail, and in what spirit it will be pursued. It might not be adequate to say that “bringing our enemies to justice” (with its air of righteous self-assurance—and maybe, when spoken by Obama instead of Bush, of convincing ethical seriousness) and “bringing justice to our enemies” (with its suggestion of a vengeful, far-reaching violence, inflicted on bodies to whom justice itself is foreign) are two sides of the same coin. They might be more like the same side of the one-sided coin of imperial American power. Which is why I would say that right now it’s possible to know exactly what justice looks like, or at least what this justice that has just been done looks like.

[A TV ad for The Justice Coin. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

One expectation we might have of any reference to justice figured as a coin, a “justice coin”—an expectation which I think this ad helpfully overturns or turns about—is that it would necessarily come in the service of a recognition of some sort of inherent doubleness: a tribute paid to what Henry James said he was looking for in What Maisie Knew, in his pursuit of “themes” that would “reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong.” Jamesian passages like this one, as Phillip Barrish notes, are often taken to indicate an ideological overlap between literary realism, with its portrayal of “a complex world where actions always have multiple ramifications and effects,” and a political “realism” according to which justice must always be sought and paid for in compromises with injustice and violence. In this view, true maturity comes with a kind of happy acceptance that it was necessary for the U.S. to kill bin Laden and that in the pursuit of such justice it was necessary to get our hands dirty: by, say, extracting evidence through torture, or killing untold numbers of civilians with drones and bullets, or shooting our extrajudicial enemies in the head and burying their bodies in the sea.

Now, with respect to James and his work, this is why I basically prefer to agree with Eve Sedgwick that the most interesting content of such passages isn’t related to justice at all, but rather to the shameful pleasure of queer sex. (Which puts the “bright hard medal” in a long and broad history of literary queer money, bearing in mind that one of the earliest meanings of “queer” is “counterfeit.”) But it’s also exactly why I think something like a TV ad for “The Justice Coin” is a valuable document. It seems to reveal something about the counterfeit nature of the maturity of realism—about what Jodi Dean, in her post on obscenity and assassination, identifies as an infelicitous attempt to cover “an obscene enjoyment of violence and arbitrary power” with “the big Other of justice.” (As Dean goes on to say, “we remain stuck in a realism of the worst, excusing our worst impulses as ‘realistic.'”) The “bliss and bale” of the United States alone mark each face of this coin, respectively: one side shows the Navy SEALS who “carried out Operation Geronimo” and the words “YOU CAN RUN / BUT YOU CANNOT HIDE”; the other side shows the spectral twin towers, the signs of a horror that everyone remembers, but already overlaid with the words of both President Bush and President Obama, promising first that justice will be done and then that it has been. In what looks like a material answer to zunguzungu’s question as to whether bin Laden’s death marks “the conclusion or the final normalization of ‘9/11’,” ten long years (in which of course bin Laden did hide, and in which a totally incomprehensible number of people who weren’t bin Laden were killed, maimed, tortured, and displaced) are collapsed into one moment of trauma and resolution, to be commemorated forever—in this case through the purchase of a collectors’ item, valued at $99, which could be ours now for $19.95. That seems obscene, and I think it is. But I also think it might be a mistake to regard the obscenity as merely a counterfeit addition to the justice that has been done, like a layer of gold on a brass coin. On the contrary, I think a text like this ad—weird, upsetting, straining so hard and so unsuccessfully to convey authority and legitimacy—is what does justice to these events.

“When celebrants chanted ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ and sang “God Bless America,” were they not displaying a hateful ‘us versus them’ mindset?

Once again, no.”
—Jonathan Haidt, “Why We Celebrate a Killing,”  The New York Times

I had just finished thinking about this post a few days ago, on June 24, when the New York state legislature legalized gay marriage: an impressive victory in a fight which—to make this clear quickly—I, as a queer person, have felt for a while not to be mine. (See Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the violence of assimilation, Sassafras Lowrey on priorities and the queer homelessness epidemic, Kenyon Farrow on racism and the marriage movement, or “Beyond Marriage.”) It was my last night in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I’d been working for three months as an anti-Walker “field organizer” (but not really—more on this later, maybe), and I was sitting in a coffee shop looking at Twitter, when suddenly my feed went into overdrive and almost everyone was ecstatic. I saw that Amanda Marcotte had written, “I love the USA chant. Exactly. That’s what it should be for,” and I realized that for the second time in as many months there was a public celebration of justice in New York, with that chant in the air. Implicit in Marcotte’s remark is a normative distinction between the celebration of marriage rights and the celebration of a killing that the chant shouldn’t be for—which, of course, is a distinction that really matters, and I don’t want to imply that these are similar events. Part of me wants to express nothing but solidarity with my gay American sisters and brothers who want to get married, and happiness at their ability to have intimacy publicly recognized and respected in the ways they want and need. But another part of me wants to add, hegemonic American nationalism is hegemonic American nationalism, and sometimes it’s homonationalism; which is to say that the spectacle of “USA!,” in the wake of a decision to expand a circle of privilege for one subset of New York state’s queers, can’t be abstracted from an ideological environment that privileges the “tolerance” of states like the USA, the UK, and Israel while systematically and violently conflating Orientalized bodies and cultures with homophobia and queer death.

 

So I just sat for a while at the coffee shop in Appleton considering these two photos—one taken just after the New York legislature’s announcement, the other taken on the night of bin Laden’s death and shared by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore—and remembering the night, two months earlier, when I was at a bar down the street with Ben and other members of our campaign team, and suddenly the music was turned off, the TV volume was turned up, and everyone at the bar, including others at our table, was loudly toasting the death of bin Laden. I realized that in reaction to each of these very different experiences—sitting in a bar that had become a space to celebrate a killing, and sitting in a cafe reading endless online expressions of joy, over victory in a struggle I felt pressured to be invested in, but wasn’t—the shape of my feeling was approximately the same. I remembered Sara Ahmed’s recent work on moments when we become “affect aliens,” in her book The Promise of Happiness and more briefly in the great essay “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” recently shared on Twitter by SubaBat. As Daniel helped me see, there’s something here—in Ahmed’s “We are not over it, if it has not gone”—that could be akin to a rewriting of Derridean justice into the affective sphere: where, at least for a certain kind of willful subject, (political) joy is fully conceivable only as spectral, as to-come. This possibility is obviously there in the title of her book: maybe I’ll report back soon, when I’ve actually read it. In the meantime, in the language of the infomercial, I’ll try to sum up my feelings about these two moments of justice by saying I’m not sure I buy it, and I’ll end this post by reframing it as a quiet invitation to join me in feeling like a justice killjoy.

[Ad transcript.

Narrator: September 11, 2001.  The terrible events of that day will live in infamy.  But the United States would ensure that those responsible would pay the ultimate price.
President Bush: Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
Narrator: Finally, after ten years, our nation savored the taste of justice.
President Obama: Tonight, I can report to the American people, and to the world: […] Justice has been done.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. [Gunshot] We give thanks to the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. 
Narrator: And now the Historic Coin Mint is making available this rare commemorative coin paying tribute to the Navy SEALS who carried out Operation Geronimo—featuring SEAL Team 6, with their distinctive trident and their classified stealth helicopter.  On the other side, the tragic reminders: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, along with the powerful words of our presidents.
President Obama: Justice has been done.
Narrator: A collectors’ item, it’s forged from brass and coated in magnificent 24-karat gold.  It’s valued at $99, but for a limited time is now available for just $19.95.  You’ll also receive this acrylic protective case to preserve it and this certificate of authenticity.  But wait: be one of the first 500 callers and you’ll also receive this distinctive SEAL Team 6 lapel pin to wear with pride, and the Operation Geronimo military briefing packet.  With photographs, maps, and operational details, it’s a $79 value.  Today, it’s yours free—just pay shipping and processing.  Altogether, an over $200 value, still for only $19.95.  You’ll even have a 30-day inspection period to get a full refund of your purchase price.  This offer won’t last long, so order right now.]

February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

January 14, 2011

What Mother Gothel knows, and what Rapunzel sings

[Spoilers are below, but if you were going to see Tangled you’ve probably seen it already.]

Growing it out

Lauren Berlant has recently been publishing an amazing series of posts on combover subjectivity, and one (inadequate) way to describe the project would be to say that, if we’re approaching the anima in a certain way, then what people do with their hair can be especially helpful in allowing us to think through its incoherences and how we try to smooth them out and cover them up.  Hair and heads are hard to animate.  They are also hard to draw, color in, and set in motion on film—and so it seems worth noting that the most expensive animated movie ever made is one released at the end of 2010, the last Disney princess movie, whose narrative and affective strategies are woven around strands of impossibly long, impossibly blond, gorgeously rendered flowing hair.  It’s always interesting to see what artist-technicians reserve their energy for, what they’re waiting for their machines to be able to give them.  For James Cameron, it was aboriginal blue aliens who had breasts even though they weren’t mammals.  The less said about what it was for George Lucas, I guess, the better.  For Disney’s animation division it was Rapunzel.

I saw Tangled over the holidays at the same multiplex where the rest of my family (who are half English, if that’s relevant) were going to see The King’s Speech, a movie that stood out for me in the extraordinary, almost visceral lack of interest it inspired.  I’m sure it’s not out of the question that The King’s Speech has some valuable things to say about non/sovereignty and dis/ability, and that’s not a possibility I want to dismiss.  But still.  I just couldn’t get psyched, at that moment, about a film asking us to give two hours of full attention and sympathy to the English royal voice, when we can hear the voice and feel its effects whenever we want to, and often it’s more than a voice, it’s (say) a truncheon smashing the brain of Alfie Meadows.  So I decided to see Tangled mainly for three interrelated reasons.  First, if I was going to see a royalist fairytale, I wanted to see one that had no pretensions of being anything else.  (There are, intriguingly, a king and a queen who have a substantial amount of screen time in Tangled—and literally no lines: the silent sovereign might be what The King’s Speech fears most, but Tangled knows what kind of power can reside in that silence.)  Second, this royalist fairytale had anthropomorphized animals and opulent animation and the voices of Mandy Moore and Donna Murphy, come on!  And, third, I was curious about the way Avatar, released a year earlier, had been immediately seized upon and widely and insightfully written about as an ideological symptom, whereas Tangled—which, in addition to being the avowed final entry in a long and fascinating series, is in fact a more expensive movie than Avatar, costing a total of 260 million dollars (260 million dollars! 260 million dollars) had not to my knowledge received anything like the same kind of attention.  A brilliant pre-release post on white femininity by Renée of Womanist Musings (with a follow-up post addressing reader comments, and more on this shortly) was about all I had seen.

I’m sure part of it is that there are just plenty of great critical blogs I’m unaware of, and part of it is that Avatar was a more obviously exigent target in presenting itself as a “leftist” film, and part of it is that people have had a lot of other things on their minds.  But I did find myself also wondering if one reason why I’d heard about Tangled only a tiny fraction of what I remembered hearing about Avatar (or even Toy Story 3) was the same reason why the movie itself was retitled by Disney, after years of development as Rapunzel: you know; it’s for girls!  In any case, I’m here to report to anyone who cares that Tangled is stunning and complicated and, in its engagement with the Disney tradition and that tradition’s legacy of hegemonic white patriarchy, something like a disturbing national combover fantasy.  Like Lauren Berlant herself, I should say, I’m not uncritical of combover subjectivity as a sufficient model for thinking about how persons operate; but I’d like to suggest that part of Tangled‘s interest lies in the way it simultaneously relies on such a model for its characterization and its narrative maneuvers, and exemplifies it in the ideological work it can be seen to perform.

I. Gothel

A woman

who loves a woman

is forever young…

Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel”

While the hair in question here is Rapunzel’s, the actual over-comber, and as such the site of most of the film’s anxious projections, is Mother Gothel.  My first real post for this blog, which set Coraline and Avatar side by side back in March, was an underdeveloped attempt to suggest that something was going on with the rapid rise of the 3D computer-animated fantasy and the fixation, in the imaginations of the movies themselves, on alternative maternities that wanted to absorb you whole.  The role was played benevolently in Avatar by Eywa, the divine supplement for a Mother Earth who had been “killed,” and in Coraline, less benevolently, by the otherwise unnamed Other Mother, a 3D computer animator ghostly dollmaker who wanted Coraline to stay with her forever, at the cost of her eyes.  (Stay tuned later this year for Mars Needs Moms, in which aliens kidnap Joan Cusack because they need to “steal her mom-ness.”Tangled gives us a remarkably queer new entry in this tradition, in the form of a Gothel portrayed by the great Donna Murphy as a sort of Rose Thompson Hovick in reverse.  Utterly consumed by narcissism, this Gothel (as distinct from the Grimms’) kidnaps the princess from her crib and raises her as her own, in total  isolation, for the sole purpose of exploiting the magical healing and age-reversing properties that have been transferred from a flower into the infant’s hair.  18 years later, Rapunzel has grown into a thoughtful young woman who’s ready to see the world; Gothel, continually renewing herself through Rapunzel’s hair and voice, has blossomed into a campy, superbly passive-aggressive undermining stage mother whose stage is the cramped chamber at the top of a tower no one else ever visits; she fawns over an innocent stolen “daughter” while sucking her life out through the roots.

Mother Gothel’s narcissism is fascinating in its naked lack of any external motivating object, any audience other than Rapunzel and herself: before her princess leaves the tower and the story really kicks into gear, there’s no indication that she has any interest in relationality with anyone else in the world.  She wants only to hang onto youth, and she wants it only for Rapunzel and for herself.  The pathos of which is hard to ignore, and, at least in the first half of the movie, there isn’t a total absence of imaginative sympathy for Gothel, and so I was surprised and dismayed to see her meet a violent end, and in a familiar Disney manner: she’s wicked for wanting to be beautiful, now her true face is revealed; she sure is ugly, and it sure is a sign of her wickedness! The one character in Tangled who does win the audience’s sympathy after a fully dramatized critical-ethical transformation, a realization that he has been an unquestioning participant in an oppressive normative system and that his behavior can change for the better, is a white horse.  More on that whiteness in a moment.  What I mean to say about the relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel is just that, first, as an addition to the “Wait, Are They Really Mother and Daughter?” canon, Tangled arguably ranks right up there with Desert Fury (to say nothing of Sexton, whose “Rapunzel” is an ode to stolen mom-ness that resonates with Tangled in some striking ways); and, second, that I suspect this serves to make Gothel a perversely perfect example of the combover subject, as described by Berlant:

The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially[,] confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.

No active relationality.  Compare this with the barely restrained desperation in Gothel’s eyes when she realizes that it’s time for another song and another combover to make her younger … and then her blissful, other-negating relief as, afterward, she stands in front of the mirror with her companion.  “Rapunzel, look in that mirror.  You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady.  Oh look, you’re here too!”  At moments like this I could feel the audience bristling around me in an ecstasy of indignation, and I could feel the same thing in myself: we were upset because Rapunzel wasn’t being given her due, and because we knew that, title aside, this was her movie, and Gothel’s exquisitely captured and all-too-relatable just-so was taking it away from her.

II. Rapunzel

But why is it her movie, exactly?  Why Rapunzel and why now?  Why are we at the Mandy Moore tour?

I hope it’s clear I don’t mean any disparagement to Moore herself, asking that.  She really does act and sing beautifully in Tangled, and I’m glad she keeps getting better roles than Sadie Jones in License to Wed.  Moreover, for whatever it’s worth, I wouldn’t by any means say that her part in Tangled amounts to faux-girl-power posturing; Rapunzel really does wield her hair like a badass (and not just her hair, but also a frying pan, throughout virtually the whole film—a nice touch, and the source of lots of satisfying kongggs).  She really does get her friend and partner, the thief Flynn Rider (née Eugene Fitzherbert), out of as many scrapes as he gets her out of.  And she’s smart … or, as Bruce Diones of the New Yorker puts it, she’s “given a sharp wit and intelligent concerns: she doesn’t sound like a nattering teen-ager.”  (I’m sorry, but give me a fuck-ing break.  The social war on teen girls and the descent of much of the New Yorker into willfully archaic gendered awfulness continue hand in hand.  One of the things about I liked best about Tangled, actually, was its capacity to give Rapunzel both a sharp wit and a tendency to, you know, “natter,” or whatever, like a teenager who has thoughts that are hard to articulate and wishes that aren’t being met.  Not mutually exclusive, Bruce!  I’m also thinking here of Isabel’s guardedly sympathetic reading of The Little Mermaid at Feministe, one of my favorite blog posts of 2010.)  It could even be argued that Tangled adapts the story of “Rapunzel” specifically in order to give eloquent voice to a certain strain of girlie feminism: maybe you see my hair and think it’s only an imprisonment, but I’m attached to it, and you’re not, and it’s also a weapon, a ladder, an escape, a thick rope to tie up the  stranger who breaks into my house

Yet it’s at just this juncture that I think some points about how a particular kind of corporatized girlie attitude can get tangled up in whiteness most urgently need to be remembered.  Annalee Newitz kicked off the online discussion of Avatar at the end of 2009 by asking when white people would stop making movies like it; you could also ask when white people will stop making movies like Tangled, and the answer is probably that we just did.  Within the last two years, in fact, Disney has triumphantly released its first film with a black princess, and triumphantly said goodbye to its fairy-tale sequence altogether with a crowning 50th animated feature, widely heralded as a return to form, celebrating a young woman who faces all kinds of external pressures managing her hair.  These two gestures were not consolidated.  Which is why I think Renée is spot-on when she says the return to form really has to be understood as a return to color, or rather to the normative “non-color” of whiteness.

Nonhuman creatures become essential here, lateralizing characters’ attributes and defining a space where hair is something between dead and animated.  Among the problematic aspects of The Princess and the Frog itself, as Renée also observes, was that Tiana the black princess not only had hair that was decidedly less than kinky, she spent a good part of her own movie as a frog, and it doesn’t get much more hairless than that.  In contrast, Tangled‘s adorable chameleon, Pascal, is fully an extension of Rapunzel’s hair, the daemon to the golden compass that’s on her head: he’s constantly stepping in to finish what the hair has started, he changes color as swiftly and as completely as we might wish our hair did when we dyed it … and he bears additionally the reptilian trace of an archetypal, murderous, unmanageable female rage-in-hair that is, in this film, predictably, invoked only to be projected elsewhere, onto the one character who can safely be killed off.  As a hair extension, the chameleon is also, like the king and queen (and the whiter-than-white mime who plays a key role), voiceless.  It’s a marked change both from the frogs and fireflies of The Princess and the Frog, and from Sebastian of The Little Mermaid, and that’s arguably the kind of Pascalian wager on which this movie’s aesthetics depend.  “We have nothing to lose by making the companion creature a silent creature this time; maybe in twenty years our movie will look less racist!”

Even without Pascal’s help, though, the blondness of Rapunzel’s hair is so formidable as to be unsettling.  People get mixed up in hair here, but hair qua hair never, ever gets tangled.  We see Rapunzel brushing it more than once but it always looks perfect anyway.  At no point is it anything less than a supernaturally potent substance, somewhere between sturdy rope, honey, and lava, with the ability to untangle any problem that presents itself.  The mournful incantation Rapunzel repeatedly sings to activate the hair’s charms—first to restore Mothel Gothel to youth, but also, crucially, as a blonder-than-blond way of getting herself and Flynn out of a tight spot by lighting the way underwater—turns around the line “Make the clock reverse; bring back what once was mine“; and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that with these lines Disney unconsciously ventriloquizes the segment of white America that was raised on Snow White and Cinderella, would never see The Princess and the Frog, and wants its country back.  The open secret: the seams, the lacks.  If this sounds like an overreading, I would say it really is remarkable that Tangled should take place in an ambiguously medieval European fairyland that is (of course) anachronistic in every way, except (of course?) not quite enough to include a single character of color.

The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness.  Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel.  At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity!  Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations.  (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on.  Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?)  They go on to help Rapunzel and Flynn escape from the tavern, return at the climax to offer their services again, and, at the end, realize their big gay dreams in a kingdom restored to proper royal order.  My first reaction to all this was to appreciate how ostensibly hypermasculine supporting characters had been queered; reflecting more on it later, I realized how queer they’d been from the beginning.  Their menacing costumes were really always just so much S&M gear, and the all-male space of the tavern (which is named The Snuggly Duckling) reminded me of something a friend had once said to me about a Christopher Marlowe play that was “very, very homosocial—no, wait, never mind.  Just gay.”  What we watch, then, over the course of Tangled, is the full recuperation of these white queers into a comic story that resolves itself with the necessary murder of a woman who has darker hair, darker skin, a shawl that sometimes looks something like a veil, and (in her monstrously narcissistic devotion to the girl-who-is-not-her-daughter) the wrong kind of queerness.  The gay ruffians “have some humanity” even before Rapunzel urges it on them, and then they’re happily absorbed into the royal state; the only figure who is finally denied humanity and thrown from the tower of the film’s sympathy is Gothel.  In this sense, Tangled demands to be considered in light of Jasbir Puar’s work on the rise of “properly homo” subjects in Terrorist Assemblages, and it starts to look more and more like the perfect major film release to cap off a year that saw the celebrated repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the resultant guarantee that, as Giovanni Tiso put it on Twitter, “[b]rown people worldwide can now look forward to being butchered by more people who are comfortable with their sexuality.”

 

 

To ask who gets to be counted as fully human, in this context, is to ask for whom the combover works; or, as Berlant says, “[f]or whom is there give in the system of norms?”  These are questions that haunt Tangled in an odd intertextual way at its dramatic climax, when Flynn Rider—separated from Rapunzel, trapped in the royal castle, and about to be executed—sees a miniature unicorn sculpture in the corner of his chamber, and takes it as his cue to realize that his friends from the Snuggly Duckling will rescue him after all, allowing Rapunzel to be saved by a traumatic, liberating haircut and Gothel to age a thousand years in a minute before plummeting to her death.  A tiny unicorn left as a calling card, as a sign that your life will have the fairytale ending you didn’t dare expect: if only for an instant, the voice that seems to echo silently across Tangled‘s landscape is Edward James Olmos’s, asking, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” and reminding us of the difference between the original release of Blade Runner and the director’s cut that excised the fairytale ending, and of all the differences that cuts can make, not least to our sense of whose story is being told, for what reasons, what’s excluded, for whom there’s give.  It’s too bad Gothel won’t survive the Rapunzel story…

These are also related to questions that I’ll try to take up in another post soon, on some of my favorite filmed things from the last year, and in particular a couple of short films that pose questions of their own about “humanity” and even what it might have to do with the humanities.  In the meantime, I’ll wrap this up by suggesting that in many ways, after all, maybe the more satisfying “Rapunzel” update of 2010 is “Whip My Hair”—the work of another young person whose power derives from some obscure alchemical combination of hair and music, who’s trapped in a classroom instead of a tower but who’s keen to transform it, and whose song, instead of looking back toward (or seeking to recreate) a kind of dubious fantasized coherence that’s felt to have been lost, is deliriously happy to go back and forth, in full acceptance and celebration of what is “fugitive and unraveled in ordinary affectivity and self-performance”—incoherence and hair’s part in it, a riot of blurred vision and color everywhere.  Whether it’s long or short.

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