Friday, October 14, 2011

Temporary Absence

It's been a long time since I've posted.  It's academic job season, and as a last year PhD student, most of my writing time has gone to professional materials and dissertation work.  Hopefully, once the applications start rolling out in early November, I'll get some spare time to do some more leisurely cultural analysis.

However, I couldn't help writing about my recent viewing of the 2011 Reel Rock Tour over at Girls Like Giants. Check it out for some thinking on class, race, gender, and rock-climbing.

Hope to write more soon...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Top Model; Pretty Little Liars; Talking TV at Girls Like Giants

Sometimes, I think all that you really need to be an academic is a highly honed sensitivity to contradiction and an ability to see both sides of any situation.  For instance, here's what I had to say in a recent blog post about feminism, self-identity, and America's Next Top Model:
I think we see in ANTM a desire to negotiate the contradictions of feminism and femininity in contemporary American culture.  In a time when the economy is increasingly unstable, when education is under attack, and when feminism itself can’t decide whether to dress itself in bustiers or muumuus, ANTM appeals by suggesting to girls that they can still have it all if they follow through on the values of their upbringing.  Fame and glamor are recuperated, no longer signifying a kind of moral depravity but instead signifying the end of hard work – the typical American mantra of, I earned this!  I deserve this!  [. . .]  At the same time, the recuperation of glamor and its recoupling with a work ethic makes glamorous dreams universally plausible: according to the show, girls from small towns and inner cities, girls bullied in high school, girls that are poor or not conventionally pretty are able to achieve a momentary pinnacle of success.  

This post is part of some recent blogging I've been doing with friends over at the awesome Girls Like Giants.  This week, I've dissected the most recent episode of Pretty Little Liars with the epically awesome Sarah Todd, along with questioning my profound love for America's Next Top Model.  Pop on over and check it out.  I'll probably be putting a lot of my girl culture posts up there and linking to them from this blog.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Carpe Contradiction: Teaching in America

I just got done teaching my morning writing class.  We're having a delayed burst of Oregon weather: the stereotypical rain, a hazy overcast smuffocating everything in fuzzy-looking gray.  And man, it was one of those mornings; I was amped up on coffee and sleep deprivation, having stayed up 'til 2:30 am getting papers graded; my students, on the other hand, looked as though they had barely managed to blob their way to school.  I was punching the air like a pep squad leader, yelling, "Counterarguments! Rebuttals! Burden of proof!" and they were looking at me as though I was yelling, "Slug sandwich!  Poop brigade!  Boredom for liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife!"  I was momentarily disheartened, but I've gotten used to working around these kinds of scenarios - apathy, or fear, or disinterest, or protective withdrawal, or exhaustion, or some cocktail of the above.  For my students, college does not seem to be the kind of engaged discussion or collision with ideas that college was for me.  And they have good reason to feel this way: ever-skyrocketing tuition; growing class loads, class sizes; the inescapability of college debt; the horror of the job market....Given the demands of school and the realities of life-post-education, we really don't have many pragmatic reasons to throw ourselves into self-cultivating study with enthusiasm.

So, I finally get that I was weird for a college student.  Sure, I went to a private school, so part of the different experience I had in undergrad came from small class sizes and teaching-oriented professors.  I was trained to be engaged and enthusiastic, and my active participation and cultivated opinion were learned behaviors, the product of my pleasant learning environment.  But I also think that I always had an unusual curiosity.  It's not that I'm some genius; it's just that I'm easily bored, and my parents taught me to take responsibility for making my life interesting whenever I got bored.  (My mom was famous for saying, "I can think of five things you could do right now!")  So, if I was bored in class, I logically deduced that it could possibly be my fault...and there were probably five things I could do about it.  Sure, great profs can make Slug Sandwiches interesting, but most of us are not that charismatic or quirky.  Far more likely than a Magic Professor of Endless Fun is the other avenue to good classes: A Group of Engaged Students Who Do Their Homework on a Semi-Regular Basis.  I learned quickly that if I didn't read or participate in class, discussion section was apt to be a drag where the professor had no option other than to state obvious, meaningless things in hopes of eliciting some spark of enthusiasm and participation.  If I did the reading and came to class armed with my convictions, I could help vault the discussion into Interesting Land.  Now I get why my teachers used to comment on how engaged I was - the way I looked the prof in the eye and nodded while they, say, outlined the major characteristics of Victorian literature.  It was weird. 

But we still grow up with fantasies of Teaching in America.  We dream about the Heroic Teacher Who Changes Our Lives.  We have this wonderful, Protestant-inspired belief in the Power of Education - something about intellectual curiosity and the cultivation of self that just feeds into our oh-so-American dreams of autonomy, individuality, mobility, and self-realization.  We will read our own Bibles!  We will form our own governments!  We are the dreamers of dreams!  And seems to have become one more ordeal on the path to a cookie-cutter adulthood, and we hate our teachers for it.  What's the disconnect? 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

HP7.2 - OR - Do We Fear the Power of Myth?

[don't worry - all spoilers are behind the journal cut]

When I gave a friend a copy of Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons, he later responded, "Thanks.  I like epic things." It shouldn't have taken me twenty-odd years of life to figure out that this statement pretty much sums up my aesthetic taste.  I grew up on The Lord of the Rings and The Dark is Rising and The Chronicles of Narnia.  When I finally saw the Star Wars movies at the age of 13, I was hooked - an addiction that only increased upon seeing The Power of Myth documentary, which featured some interviews between Joseph Campbell and George Lukas.  Yes!  I loved the analysis of myth, the understanding of the epic structure, the comparison of the symbolic and ceremonial qualities of religion and story-telling.  It was William Faulkner's epic novels that convinced me to go to graduate school.  And while my tastes may have expanded, I still have a proclivity for the epic.  Yeah, I love hip hop now - and Kanye's My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy has been my favorite album of late, with all its epic glory and its epic (epically strange?) short film companion.  I love TV now - and the TV to end all TV for me was Lost; I think the reason that this show and the other recent Abrams projects - Super 8 and Star Trek, in particular - appealed to me was because they capture that epic quality: the interlocking storylines from different time periods; the collision of worlds; the central quest that demands incredible heroism from a closely knit group of friends.  Even the Twilight series, for all its gender problems, is compelling to me.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day - about how when he was in film school, so many people were pushed towards more sit-com-y, rom-com-y films and shows.  For a while, the idea seemed to be (I have no sources for this, but I like it, so will go with it) that audiences wanted to be able to meet all the characters easily, to jump in and out of a storyline, to laugh and feel lighthearted without committing to the development of complex plotlines.  But the popularity of modern epics seems to belie this belief.  The explosive popularity of LOST, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, and of course, Harry Potter suggests to me that people are hungry for complicated stories.

I went to see HP7.2 for the second time today.  I was neither disappointed nor thrilled by the rendition.  I didn't expect to be wowed. I've been rereading the 7th Harry Potter novel for the past four years, since a friend left me his copy when he moved across the country.  I think this novel is a brilliant wrap-up of a complex and fascinating series; it's everything that the LOST finale should have been.  All the plot points are wrapped up; there are resonances that go all the way back to the first novel; yet the book has increased in complexity and sophistication in startling ways.  It's a demanding political and spiritual commentary as well as a riveting plotline; that's what great epics do!  My beef with the movie is not an entirely unexpected one: the film adaptation seemed to cut out a lot of the more epic, mythical, and spiritual moments from the book in favor of blockbuster battle scenes.  The consequence?  For a diehard fan like me, some of those scenes were actually less exciting on screen than in the book.  They had lots of visual wow, but none of the emotional catharsis from the book.  My thesis?  The movie adaptation was not only upping the visual stimulation and speed, but was skirting some of the sticky spiritual/emotional/political questions that came up in the book.  Not that I think this was like a hidden agenda or something.  Some of these plotlines make for bad movies.  But...what results is a shiny but semi-hollow story.  I'll rewatch this last film, but I won't take it to bed with me and reread it on nights when I'm feeling low.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Good Girls Gone Mad: Music Videos and the "Problem" of Female Rage

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my old Livejournal account about women and anger.  Specifically, I was responding to a fascinating article in the New York Times about film depictions of angry women.  In this article, brilliant critic Manohla Dargis argues that, "It’s tricky whenever a woman holds a gun on screen, even if the movie is independently produced and the director is female."  She continues, "I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no real representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay. The gun-toting women and girls in this new rash of movies may be performing much the same function for the presumptive male audience: It’s totally “gay” for a guy to watch a chick flick, but if a babe is packing heat — no worries, man!"

Whatever we think of women packing heat, I think it's safe to say that American media is still really uncomfortable with depictions of genuine female anger.  Giving girls guns may be fine, but don't let the girls fight male sexual domination; that's just uncomfortable.  (See this other great NYT article on how Pretty Woman ultimately defeated Thelma and Louise in our cultural history).  Just look at the controversy surrounding Rihanna's recent "Man Down" video.  After reading all the angry arguments against this video, I was expecting blood, gore, naked bodies, terrifying yet glamorous violence (like Kanye's recent "Monster" video.  Or Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi").  But no.  "Man Down" is a fairly tame if emotionally devastating video about a sexual assault and a woman's revenge.  What, I had to ask myself, made the "Man Down" video so wildly controversial?  I mean, it was in rotation on BET, not PBS; was it really any more violent than the usual rap video fare?  As one smart Twitter comment (quoted in the MTV article linked above) stated, "it's really ironic how women r always exploited n videos ... we watch women be raped & murdered. Now a woman flips the coin & look!"  The only thing, I concluded, that made this video uncomfortable was that it dealt with real female anger and the violence that can result from it.  And it didn't glamorize sexual violence in any way.  Is violence okay as long as it's between men?  Is sexual exploitation of women okay as long as it is covered up (barely) with rhinestones or push-up bras?  Unlike many music videos, "Man Down" showed not bravado but instead naked emotional vulnerability - a mix of vengeful anger and frightened regret -

paired with a gritty, unglamorous aesthetic.  Female anger?  Female violence?  That's scary.  To make it this real, in the words of the Parents' Television Council, "gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability." 

But while we fear such realistic representations of well-founded female anger, anger is such an important source of cultural bonding for women.  Why is it, I asked, that we swim in a musical sea of songs about broken relationships, betrayal, and unfairness, as well as female retaliation and sexual competitiveness, but few of these songs or their accompanying videos has the power to generate controversy akin to "Man Down"?  Musically speaking, this mix of feelings has become a classic in the form of what I'd like to call the "Angry Woman Anthem."   By looking at a couple of 'Angry Woman Anthems," I think we can see that many pop cultural representations of female anger negotiate female anger in ways both pathologically consistent with heteronormative dismissals or co-optations of feminine rage AND really subversive in their depiction of about anger and revenge.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

An Intro to this Blog. OR: Pop Culture is Fast; Getting a PhD is Slow

When it comes to reading texts, I have often lived two lives.

On the one hand, I'm a PhD candidate, a year away (hopefully) from finishing a dissertation on late nineteenth and early twentieth century American literature, with a focus on environmental representation. My fields are ecocriticism and cross-century American lit. I write about all kinds of mind-glazing words: constructivism, realism, anthropocentrism, and (most recently) biosemiotics. I can tell you things about the environmental ethical impact of different epistemological approaches to ecology...and I can find these impacts in texts you never heard of. So, in this life, I'm a professed "over-analyzer."

On the other hand, I spent a long time hiding my propensity for analysis outside of academia. Up until grad school, I'd tried to live that double-life I was talking about: read the shit out of literary texts, but keep your "over-analysis" under wraps when it came to movies, television, music..."It's just a movie" or "It's just a show" were the usual sidelong, muttered comments I'd hear if I tried to give a critical reading of the things I watched in groups.

But in grad school, these worlds have collapsed. While I'm a 19th and 20th century Americanist, many of my closest friends in grad school are film and new media scholars. They make a living off "over-analyzing" pop culture, and they are more than happy to analyze class, race, gender, sexuality, aesthetics, and political commentary in the television shows we watch over glasses of white wine. And personally, my long sojourn in academia has made me a voracious cultural omnivore, to steal a phrase I've seen floating around a lot lately - most recently in this NPR article. In high school, I was a stereotypical proto-grad student. Mainstream meant uninspired and unintellectual for me. I mocked my sisters for reading fantasy novels. I sneered at top 40 radio. I celebrated my family's untelevisual past; we were one of those rare American families that had the TV on for less than an hour a day, as per the mandate of Mom. I don't think the word "hipster" got tossed around as frequently in the late '90s, but that's surely what I aspired to be. I wanted to read philosophy in coffee shops; I wanted to listen to the indie college radio that popped through the static on my car; I wanted to watch old movies and avoid the contamination of the popular.

No more. In graduate school, reading became my job - I had to find things no one has ever found before. This is the goal of any hipster or hipster-aspirant, but suddenly it became my 9-5 (okay, 10:30am - 2am) task to dig up the rare and read it with a new spin. Coffee-shop-philosophy became a task, not an escape. And sometimes, given the poverty and long hours grad school provides, I needed escape badly. Enter the pop cultural. I opened the door a crack when Lost came on TV; I first watched it with a crew of other grad students as my attempt at socialization, but within weeks I was a shameless addict. The next social-textual item of consumption was America's Next Top Model, which I watched as guiltily as a spectator at a car crash or a house fire. But then I was having fascinating conversations with people about the gender politics and social training evident in that reality show. Since then, I have become a lover and critic of many things that would horrify my 18 year old self: Gossip Girl, Beyonce, Pretty Little Liars, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, the Go Fug Yourself website, Lady Gaga, the Twilight series, The Hunger Games. And I've kept the secret love I always had for action movies, though now I'm willing to speak my over-analysis out loud. I can both love and deconstruct the Fast and the Furious franchise.

This blog is my attempt to enter the critical conversation about pop culture, giving a little more rein to my growing fascination in teen girl television, action films, hip hop music, and YouTube music videos. But a disclaimer: pop culture is far too fast for me. While I'm hoping to guest blog occasionally on some friends' blog, one reason I decided to stick with my recently conceived plan to launch my own blog is because I like to write about things far too late to satisfy the blogosphere. I'm impressed with people who blog every day or week and are adept at hunting down the most recently happening media phenomena. This is not me. I'm a Luddite at heart, adapting to a militantly technological world. I finally turned in the 1997 Discman for a Sansa clip (no Ipod for me!) and the 2001 Dell Inspiron for a more portable and Internet-ready laptop (not a Mac, though; I'm poor). I'm getting dragged into the 21st century with all the reluctance of an old school literary curmudgeon. The point is...I am not particularly gifted at combing the Internet for the newest and hottest. I tend to be weeks, if not months, off-trend. But I still want to write about the interesting pop cultural things that I do find. So this blog will not be tracking with what's hot right now; it will be talking about music videos, TV shows, and movies that I've stumbled upon too late but still want to analyze in my annoyingly over-academic way or that I've been brooding over since I saw them, without then having a forum for this kind of discussion.