Archive | April, 2010

I Really Need to Stop Watching Real Housewives…

30 Apr

Image used under a creative commons license from flickr user kilgub

…because it is a horrible series, and I always feel bad after I watch it.

At this point, I’m not so sure that whatever schadenfreudelicious pleasure I get from watching these shows is worth it.  Reality t.v. is mainly enjoyable because it’s fun to watch people who are so out of touch with basic social mores, people who are unaware of what it means to really be human, get their comeuppance on t.v. It’s bizarre yet thrilling to discover that there are people in this world who honestly believe that competing with 20 other women to hook up with an aging rocker will bring them some measure of success or fulfillment, a reminder that no matter how questionable our own life choices are, we are still a few steps above a lot of people.  I think all reality shows have this awesome balance of tragedy and comedy, and they work because the producers do a great job of disguising the fact that in reality (pun intended) these are people whose erratic behavior signals their serious need of psychological help.

Which brings me to “The Real Housewives” series, which I started watching on the weekends after stress-filled weeks in college. Although there are four spin-offs in the series, (and a coming D.C. one)  I am partial to New York, New Jersey and Atlanta (I’ll talk about Orange County in a bit). When I started watching it, I used to claim that I was doing it for high-brow feminist reasons, which my friends quickly and brutally called me on. And they were right.  For all its entertaining qualities, “Real Housewives” also communicates some soul-crushingly awful things about money, class, gender, and race in this culture.  So because I respect you more than that, I’m not gonna try and sell it as “ground-breakingly feminist.”

But I will say that part of the reason I do like watching all the shows in the series is that for better or worse, they thrust us into the world of American women. Now, I’m not saying this is a world that is representative of a lot of women’s lives, but it is life as these women know it.  And perhaps I am completely deprived of depictions of women that I’ll take anything, but I get a huge kick out of watching these women’s friendships every week. Interestingly, while the series was named  “Real Housewives” to capitalize on the fame of “Desperate Housewives,” most of the shows feature women who are often fairly independent from their partners.  In fact, on most of the shows, the husbands take a back-seat to their wives,  as the central story is ultimately about the women’s relationships with each other. They laugh, drink, gossip, shop, cry and get Botox  with each other. Even when they fight (and boy do they), it’s almost never about a guy, but is instead about betrayed allegiances within the group itself. So there’s some stuff in there which makes it relatable and slightly redeemable.

That is of course, if you don’t watch Orange County, which at this point, has abandoned all the comedic elements of reality t.v., and is instead hurtling toward a full-on tragedy. I didn’t watch any of this season’s episodes except the last, but it seems clear to me that a lot of the people on that show are facing some very grave problems (controlling/abusive husbands, alcoholic children, disturbingly low self-esteem, bankruptcy) which makes the whole idea of Bravo filming it for our amusement  feel too exploitative (I know, I know, it already was). Unlike the other housewives–who are a little kooky at best– the women of Orange County, with their deeply dysfunctional family lives and severely overdone faces, have devolved into figures in a cautionary tale about the requirements of fame and femininity.

Increasingly though, I find that the other shows in the series, New York, Atlanta, and New Jersey; are no longer fun to watch as well. I have a basic rule about reality t.v. shows, which is that how good they are is inversely proportional to how famous the people on them get. Naturally, this means that the first season is the always best, because that is when people are least self-aware and the drama a little less scripted. By season two, everyone’s read the blogs and knows who the fan favorites are, and they’ve wised up and realized that they have to make a career out of it by selling something (like hilariously auto-tuned club tracks). So it just becomes about branding.  And I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in giving up an hour of my life plus the additional dignity every Thursday to watch the Countess “casually” mention her book, or Ramona claim that she hasn’t had surgery, but looks so young because she uses her own moisturizer.

And the drama’s not even that good anymore! I’m not saying that any of the shows were ever actually real, but they feel so obviously scripted now.  Every time I watch New York or Atlanta, (and I’m guessing I’ll have the same feeling  if I watch NJ this summer)  I always think: this doesn’t make any sense! Why would Kim go and meet NeNe and Sheree when they clearly don’t like her (and then get jumped)? Why are any of these people always going to cocktail parties at each others’ houses when they have had  so many serious disagreements in the past?  It’s so obvious that the producers are directing them to initiate arguments. Which makes the fights they have so pathetic, because you realize that these are grown women (and sometimes mothers) arguing about whether or not someone gets to sing on the other person’s terrible new disco song, called “Tardy for the Party.” Even worse, you also realize that at this point, even they probably realize how played out it is, and are just doing it because this show is the primary source of income that many of these women have.

That’s depressing, because in the end, they’re making fools out of themselves for a society that’s all too willing to hate on middle-aged women.  And we don’t need one more reason to believe that women of that age are desperate and pathetic. Which is why I don’t think I can watch Housewives anymore, because the reality is getting a little too real for me. So I’m going to stop.

But only after Atlanta comes on this summer.

My Obsession with the Chase Sapphire Commercial Couple

27 Apr

I’m obsessed with this couple from the Chase ads. I am fascinated by the little glimpses into their marriage that the series of ads give us. I don’t know, they just seem really happy (I assume that they’re real, so don’t ruin it for me).

But this particular ad just puzzles me.  I’m not married, but I assume that it’s not okay to just unilaterally spend your credit card points like that, and then announce to your spouse what you did after the fact. And she spent it on a dress, a dress!!!! It’s especially sad since the husband was hoping to use them for a romantic vacation for the both of them, (and actually asked her about it beforehand) while it appears that she just dropped a couple  grand on a designer dress that only she can fully enjoy.

But he doesn’t seem to be too upset about it, which is either  a testament to his good nature, or to the fact that he’s just used to her being infuriatingly self-centered. In any case, they seem happy, so keep on keepin’ on Chase Sapphire couple!

The Best Part of Waking Up…Is Your Complete Lack of Agency in Your Cup

26 Apr

Image of a 1963 Folgers coffee tote from flickr user Roadsidepictures

I watch a ridiculous amount of television, and I think it’s fun to make connections between all of stuff I consume and theory I’ve read (I sometimes do it out loud while I’m watching, which everyone else in the room loves). Sometimes, the connections make sense and other times, they’re tenuous at best. This post may be one of those “other times,” so I’m going to ask you to  be generous with me.

There is this Folgers coffee commercial which drives me absolutely crazy (WordPress wouldn’t let me embed it, but here’s the link). The first time I watched it, I was stunned by the old-school sexism of the ad, given that these days, companies at least try to dress up their patriarchy in girl power or ironic dude-broism.

But not Folgers coffee! They’re keeping it real old school, taking it back to those days when women had no agency whatsoever and were totally psyched about it!

The spot opens with a mid to late-twenties looking woman walking into the kitchen in the morning. Her dad is already in there making coffee and he greets her with, “got in pretty late last night, huh?” The woman retorts, “Dad, I’m not sixteen anymore,” but he’s not budging, and says “still, it was late.” Your basic  father-daughter banter, although it’s a little strange that a woman who is that old still has her evenings policed like that. But hey, you wanna live in Jesse Helms’ house rent-free because you lost your job during the recession, you will live by Jesse Helms’ rules!

The next part is so creepily  Helmsian (if that’s not already a thing, I just made it one) when it comes to women’s agency it’s not even funny.  The woman says, “well, you won’t have to worry about that anymore,” (“that” being her staying out late) and then flashes her brand new engagement ring. She almost seems to say, “See, my husband will be the one monitoring my behavior from now on!”

Naturally, the dad is sweet and happy, and says “Todd is a lucky man,” before adding, “that’s what I told him last week.” Oh, so he knew about it well in advance, and gave his permission! Tricky dad!

Which brings me to my strained connection of this nonsense to actual theory. In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman’s amazing book on personhood, patriarchy, and the social contract, she writes about the invisible sexual contract which serves as the foundation for the social contract on which Western societies are built. To simplify it (a lot), the sexual contract predates the social contract, and sets up the ownership of women by men. Pateman’s book was largely a critique of how this other contract has been left out of narratives of the social contract, which is particularly egregious since the ownership of women is what makes the social contract possible. She argues that once women were subjugated under the sexual contract, the ideas of equally free men which are present in the social contract became possible, since all men were indeed equal in their right to access to women’s bodies and labor.

To me, the Folger’s ad perfectly captures women’s lack of personhood and agency under the  social contract  (that was a fun line to type).  According to this ad, it is only right that male authority dominate every aspect of a woman’s life. Want to spend an evening away from home? Well okay, but just know that Daddy is going to be on your case about coming back at an unreasonable time, even if you are above 25 like the woman in the ad appears to be. And apparently, the only time it’s acceptable to stay out late is when you’re with your future husband/owner, who will soon be policing your every move with equal intensity (one wonders what the dad’s  reaction would have been if he hadn’t actually known in advance what his daughter spent the night doing).

Pateman wrote that, “individually, each man receives a major part of his patriarchal inheritance through the marriage contract.” The ad does a great job of illustrating how fraternal patriarchy and inheritance work. Recognizing that as men, only they hold true personhood, the dad and Todd the fiance essentially create a marriage contract in which the ownership of the daughter is transferred from the dad to Todd (via the practice of asking for the hand in marriage). The fact that this all happens without the  daughter’s knowledge is essential, as only actual people can enter into contracts.  As a woman, she lacks personhood, and can thus only be the object of the contract. So there was no need for her to be present when they discussed her impending marriage.

Thus, as Folgers demonstrates, under the marriage contract any sense of actual agency a woman may have will largely be fictional. When you make the one decision (i.e. deciding to marry someone) that in your mind, clearly makes you an adult–guess what– it was already decided for you!  Your dad and your fiance hammered out the details to this new acquisition ahead of time, so you needn’t worry about the complicated details like what you want out of life and who you want to spend it with.

In all, this  ad is simply icky in its resounding endorsement of rituals which effectively dehumanize women. But I suppose what makes this especially disconcerting is that even though they are rooted in the perception that women are essentially possessions, the rituals  represented in this ad are an integral part of our culture.   I felt a bit churlish at the end of writing this, because I realized that it might sound really judgmental given that most people do these things, and they don’t perceive themselves as participating in the enslavement of women. And reading this blog post by this woman definitely heightened the feelings of douchiness. But at the same time, it’s difficult (for me anyway) to deny that elements of ownership are, if not the defining characteristics of heterosexual marriage, at least a big part of it.  That makes me very uncomfortable. And if marriage is something that I want in some distant future,  I’ll be forced to grapple with all these issues at that time.  So I’m getting a head start.

A Qualified (And Ridiculously Long) Defense of Kanye West

21 Apr

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user Tara L. Conley

So unlike the rest of the world, I don’t think Kanye West is all that bad. Before you start listing his many offenses, let me just say–I know he’s an insufferable egoist and that he hurt Taylor Swift’s feelings, something which seems to be on par with dog-fighting and insulting Ronald Reagan in the litany of “unforgivable sins in America.”

In any case, while I don’t listen to his music as much as I used to for a number of reasons, I still think that Kanye is the rare compelling figure in American pop music, someone whose work and persona say something important about the culture that they are a product of. And quite simply, that is why we need to keep him around, in spite of all of his transgressions.

Like most people, I first became aware of Kanye after The College Dropout debuted and everyone rushed to hail him the new Savior of Hip-Hop (Nas was probably like, “hey, that’s my job!”).  Darryl McDaniels from RUN D.M.C claimed that  he hadn’t even bothered to listen to hip hop in the ten years before Kanye’s album came out, and in a typical review, Renee Graham of the Boston Globe wrote that The College Dropout “[gave] listeners an irrefutable reason to believe the hype.” Critics consistently praised his music for its emotional intelligence and wit, all of which  West had managed to convey without relying on the gangster persona as a crutch.

Back in those days, I recall reading a profile of West in Time which heightened my admiration of him. I particularly loved that piece because it focused on his relationship with his parents, which just came of as really lovely and normal. Despite the fact that his parents had divorced when he was younger, it still seemed like they had figured out how to be genial and create a healthy environment for their kid, the importance of which can never be overstated. I also loved that Kanye had some fabulous pedigree–his dad was a former Black Panther who had become a Christian marriage counselor, and his mom was an English professor.  It was especially interesting that these two arguably bougie people had produced a kid who had become a rapper, a notable fact only because lower-class roots (or the pretense of such) are almost required for rappers. In the piece,  his parents acknowledged their initial disappointment with Kanye after he dropped out of college, a feeling which ebbed after their eventual realization that their kid was immensely talented, and that he would figure out how to make it even if he didn’t get an education. All of this–Kanye’s disillusionment with the education system, the struggle between his earthly desires and his contemplation of Christianity, and his wry take on the politics of blackness in America–informed and enriched The College Dropout. Simply put: after years of mimicry and caricature in hip hop, Kanye was interesting because he was just so palpably human.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable segment of this essay, the part where we dissect Kanye’s humanity, which must include an acknowledgment of his flaws. You already know them; he’s arrogant, he often speaks without regard for others–in general, the dude acts like he’s all id. It’s pointless to list where these flaws have led him, there are so many undoubtedly egregious things that Kanye has said and done that even President Obama had to call the brother out.

But, if I may intervene on his behalf, Kanye’s egoism has always been part of his charm, and  he is keenly aware of that.  In the Time article, his mom described Kanye’s rhymes as a Whitmanesque reflection on the self, arguing that like Whitman, West asks,  “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” This “largeness” is what allows him to rap about religion, drugs, school, women and class all on one album. Unlike other rappers, he doesn’t limit himself to talking about the trappings of the high life; if anything, his work is about the insecurity inherent in chasing and achieving the high life. Of course, like Whitman, Kanye can be exceedingly self-indulgent, which is when he gets into trouble.

But I maintain that oftentimes, what we perceive as Kanye being inconsiderate or inappropriate is really Kanye pushing our buttons and exploring what it means to be famous, black, and male in a culture that is capriciously hostile to all of those things. One thing that always struck me about him is that he’s very aware of the necessity of performing celebrity well, and of the fact that his own persona is a useful construct.  As he says about himself, “I’m pretty calculating, I take stuff that I know appeals to people’s bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides.” That’s why I’ve never understood all the universal outrage which inevitably follows a Kanye incident.  Everyone acts as if Kanye is this out of control maniac who needs to be muzzled instead of what he really is, a sophisticated critic of celebrity culture who enjoys playing with our expectations of rappers and black men in general. Take the Taylor Swift incident, which perfectly illustrates how awesomely meta Kanye’s performance of celebrity is. If you’re not an avid consumer of pop culture, (or maybe you were not a member of the mortal world for a few months) “Swiftgate” occurred at the 2009 Video Music Awards, after Taylor Swift beat  Beyonce for Best Female Video.  Kanye decided to interrupt Swift while she was giving her acceptance speech, and uttered the now immortal words: “Yo Taylor I’m really happy for you and imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!”

I have two thoughts about this: One, is anyone going to really argue that Taylor Swift’s prosaic “You Belong With Me” was better than the global  phenomenon that is “Single Ladies?” Two, this incident arguably  helped Taylor Swift’s career A LOT.

How exactly did it help Swift to be humiliated in front of millions of people you ask ? It all makes sense when you look at Swift’s own persona, and the narrative she uses to sell herself. At this point, Swift has been all but crowned America’s official princess by marketing herself as a shy, naive girl who was a loser during middle school and just loves country music.  This is despite the fact that Swift has been in show biz since she was very young,  and if her many accomplishments are any indication, is probably more of a seasoned pro than the  neophyte she would have us believe she is. But I understand that she has to sell records, and vulnerable naif has more mass appeal than ambitious, uncompromising young woman (lest she be condemned to exclusively playing gigs at Lillith Fair).  Which is why whenever she gets awards, she acts hyper surprised and tells  some variation of the story of how she was always a dork who never imagined that anyone would listen to her music and that she would be on t.v.  A rather disingenuous thing for a classically beautiful woman who just released her third studio album to say, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

Anyway, Swift was in the middle of a typically saccharine speech when Kanye rudely interrupted her, creating a clash between two American archetypes; the pretty, innocent blond girl who just wants to sing her heart out, and the threatening black guy with a distinguished career in incivility. It doesn’t take too long to figure out who America decided to root for. Swift was defended by every person with a blog, twitter account, and the title Commander in Chief,  while West was rightly condemned for his vulgar behavior. All of which perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the Taylor Swift narrative, that she always be the underdog and damsel-in-distress. It felt good to come to the defense of this poor little helpless girl who was being attacked by this nasty rapper, and because this is a patriarchal world, we rewarded Swift for being the passive damsel by caring about her music and elevating her career. Similarly, it made us all feel good to be unified in the belief that Kanye West was a ridiculous person, someone our otherwise divided country could collectively dislike. It’s the same reason why reality t.v. is so great; it makes us feel superior to watch people who are completely oblivious to the fact that the world finds their values and actions completely abhorrent.

But here’s the thing, Kanye West consistently demonstrates that he’s keenly aware of his public image, and is especially adept at manipulating it. He’s not a reality tv idiot who thinks everyone will be impressed by his bad behavior. After all, it wasn’t even the first time he’d had a public outburst at an awards show. He’d done almost the exact same thing in 2006 when he didn’t win at the MTV Europe Music Awards, and walked on stage then to interrupt the winners. Since then, he has purposefully cultivated this image of himself as a loose cannon, speaking out at the most inappropriate times. Each time, he disappears for a while and then reemerges, contrite and charming as ever. Readers, if that’s not an intentionally scripted performance, I don’t know what is. I’m almost convinced that Kanye is doing us a favor with each outburst by giving us all an opportunity to bond over our shared disgust. And he doesn’t seem to mind playing that role, if only because he knows that his next album is still going to easily be the best hip hop record released that year, and that we all value him too much to completely desert him. It’s a mutually agreeable relationship we’ve entered into with Mr. West, one which satisfies our need for public enemies, and one which sates his perpetual need for attention. Win win.

I should end by saying that while I think Kanye is an interesting  figure, I’m not uncritically in awe of him. Performance or not, many of the stunts he pulls affect real people who probably don’t enjoy being bit players in  the Kanye West Show. And I think Kanye could rein it in a little, and be the guy he was when The College Dropout came out–the genius with a huge ego who still had enough of a sense of humor to let us all know that he was in on the ridiculousness of his own behavior. In 2004, West did another interview with Time, and when the reporter asked him how big he thought his career was going to get, West answered:

“Probably like Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably. I’m not going to say definitely I’ll be as big as Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably.”

It’s quintessential Kanye: arrogant and yet aware that he’s also a bit of a joke.  That guy needs to show up more often, like he did two years ago to be in this hilarious video with Farnsworth Bentley and Andre 3000.

Don’t judge me…

20 Apr

But I’m totally going to watch that new Jennifer Lopez movie, problematic “single career woman must have a child to be fulfilled” plot line aside . Despite the fact that she’s a sort of boring  actress, I’ve been surprised to find that I have inexplicably positive feelings toward J.Lo flicks. Perhaps I just have a case of early 00’s nostalgia, those days when J.Lo was still making questionable but highly danceable music and Ja Rule was the biggest rapper alive (I said, don’t judge me).

Besides, Sookie from Gilmore Girls is in it, and I’m glad to see that a girl has been able to find work since then.

I’m just sayin’…

19 Apr

While  perusing this month’s issue of Bust, which is their Men We Love edition, I read a profile of the electro-dance group Chromeo, made up of David Macklovitch (l) and Patrick Gemayel (r).  There was a lot of interesting stuff in it, including the sort of hilarious fact that  the two consider themselves “the only successful Arab/Jew partnership since the dawn of human nature.”

But of course, because I am me, I have to fixate on the fact that not only is Dave a PhD candidate in French literature at Columbia, he’s also an instructor at Barnard. Also, he claims to have read Our Bodies, Ourselves when he was 11, which is just too cute and precocious. So not only is he in a cool band–he’s cute, smart, and a feminist. Perhaps the women at Barnard are more mature than I remember my classmates and I being, but I’m pretty sure I would not have been a productive student in one of his classes.