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Reading the paper ‘The Gender and Media Reader’ by Judith Butler, one thing that I really found frustrating was how she critiqued the whole idea of ‘coming out’. Whilst I understand she is saying that you are merely placing yourself into another category by identifying as homosexual, I found her argument to be more a critique of the language we use to describe this process, rather than an argument regarding the actual process of what happens when one ‘comes out’.
Language is something that has developed over centuries, and been changed by various influences, it has not all been actively chosen to shun individuals into ‘boxes’ (although I have no doubt that certain parts of language has been developed with this intent). We cannot take things literally; we should, instead, associate phrases with ‘actions’ (for example, choosing to identify as a homosexual). Language is evidently an art, and Butlers arguement seems to undermine this by merely picking at the language we use, rather than what actually happens when someone chooses to identify as homosexual. I find myself so frustrated with this, I dont understand, whilst she was critiqing this use of language, why she didn’t suggest we use another terminology we could use to describe the process of identifying as homosexual. To me, it seemed that her argument was very incomplete; she didn’t seem to suggest any possibilities for change. We are in a society where actively seeking to change is possible, so it seemed to me she really left this issue at a loose end.
I found this as her first arguement really put me in a position where I was questioning the validity of her other arguments, and so really didnt enjoy this paper. It seems to me that she is so intent on finding the ‘absolute’. By this, I mean, she seems intent on finding an idea which cannot be ‘picked at’ to not be found true, which doesn’t seem possible, ever. There is always going to be different sides to every arguement, and different people picking holes in different areas of an argument. It seems she is after the impossible ideal.
I enjoy the premise Jane Walker presents in her article. I believe it is important to outline the deficiencies in typical patriarchal language and analyses which are rife throughout all levels of society including the creation of film and the dissections of such stories. As Walker outlines, other theorists are limited in utilizing patriarchal forms of psychoanalysis. Rather I align with Walker’s supposition that: “The concept of woman must be extended to a general, human category, without the loss of either the sexual or cultural specificity of femaleness.” It is beyond difficult, but by no means impossible, to fully empower things feminine in an inherently patriarchal hierarchical system. Unfortunately however, we do not have access to a new language which averts misogynist linguistic pitfalls. Rather all we can do is become aware of the constructs within language, culture, and power relations which were largely created prior to any real female empowerment in the realms of politics, business, scholarship, and art creation. Consequently, if these elements of interaction are to be under perusal, psychoanalysis should attempt as much as possible to generate theories which are not predicated on a female’s lack of a penis; but rather on psychoanalytical theory which is more reasonable and that which possesses a greater deal more common sense. As much as is possible, we should be evaluating gender representations in filmic productions with the realization that the female voice is much better appreciated in the contemporary era than much theory would lead one to believe.
Readings, Week 3:
So for the reading, yes it was very hard to read, but I kind of understand it. A lot of the articles we read in this class are fairly similar if not the same readings I had in Women in Art. Judith Butler is certainly a favorite amongst female artists.
As I was reading Butler, I kept thinking in my head, “to be or not to be is the question.”
What does it mean to be “lesbian” and how does a person become one? A lot of times in her article she mentions to “dress in drag” that it is a performance itself. Just because a person dresses like a man or woman doesn’t mean that they identify with that sex on the inside. She describes a woman as being “butch,” if she tries to take on a husband-like role, it does not mean that as a woman, she too denies herself affection from the same sex or avoids feminine desires. She also goes on to say that politically speaking, “gay” men are deemed as sadomasochistic pedophiles, but lesbians do not have the same association. (As for Robert Mapplethorpe- not sure if you’ve every looked at his photography, but even I feel uneasy looking at the way these children are posed naked from midriff down-art or no art). Lastly, Butler explains that she is the subject and she chooses how to perform her identity. It’s kind of confusing to understand.
Walker mentions different feminist perspectives. For Mulvey, the male is an active spectator while the woman is a passive object. Mulvey challenges this view in cinema, why does a man always have to lead and what would happen if a woman was a lead character? What would be her challenges and would this mean that she has to repress masculinity?
When we think of traditional art, men were only allowed to paint nudes and women were not allowed the same opportunities because nudes were meant for the man’s viewing pleasure/fantasy, therefore most women stuck to crafts and painting still-lifes for the longest time. Academia was for men only. Therefore, when we jump to Freud, his theories are based on male masculinity and how women compare to men physically, but the passiveness still remains the same. All in all, men have a penis, women don’t, therefore men are allowed the say so of what a woman can and cannot do. The essay then goes on to argue that what our differences really boil down to is hierarchy. Because men have huge achievements and because they are men, historically speaking and with artefactual proof of their intelligence and power, women are often excluded.
My husband and I like to buy seasons on DVD instead of watching them on t.v., so we are always behind a year on episodes, but we recently bought Elementary staring Lucy Liu and Johnny Lee Miller. For those of you that haven’t seen the show, it is based on a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes, except Dr. Watson is played by a woman, a role that is traditionally given to a man. For this role, she is an ex-surgeon that has now been hired as a companionship for recovering drug addicts. She has been hired by Holmes’s dad, because Sherlock is a recovering addict. Traditionally, Holmes refers to a known brother, but never mentions a living dad. Anyway, Dr. Watson lives with Holmes for six weeks monitoring him by giving him random drug tests. I like the show just because it is nontraditional and it gives equal appreciative attention to women as intelligent beings and of equal sex. It’s very interesting, check it out if you haven’t already.
Judith Butler’s (1993) text was difficult to read, annotate and comprehend because it’s such a dense article and uses complex language. However, I’ll attempt to extrapolate meaning from the reading in the context of the construction of gender in film and television. Identity is a fluid construct. No person’s identity is fixed or stagnant, and this is especially relevant when considering marginalized, multiplicative identities. I identify as a Black, U.S. American, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual, woman and I can never forefront one of those identities without considering how the others complicate the conversation and the performance.
What Butler (1993) calls to task is the labeling of a singular, emphatic identity without considering how it’s constructed within a scripted body. Butler states, “to claim that this is what I am is to suggest a provisional totalization of this ‘I (1993, p. 125).” It is impossible to address a singular identity or essentialist narrative when lesbianism or Blackness or womanhood can be performed in a myriad of complex ways. For women of color, misrepresentation or the usage of images to alter perception is especially problematic. In her text, Sister Citizen: Shames, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, political scientist Melissa V. Harris-Perry, Ph.D. explores misrecognition as a catalyst for shame for Black American women. When crooked rooms (or constructed images designed to oppress) are continually perpetuated in dominant media structures, Black American (and other marginalized groups) women begin to ingest and perform the construction. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in “Claudine,” a 1974 film starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones.
Carroll’s character, Claudine, is constructed as a welfare queen. This term was coined by Ronald Reagan, but has been continually presented in media. The welfare queen is the catalyst for all negative undertakings in Black American communities. She’s responsible for the government’s failure to balance state and federal budgets since she pilfers thousands of dollars from federal assistance that is then wasted on designer clothes and car rims.
The welfare queen isn’t married, so her children are assumed to be fatherless criminals who would pull up their sagging jeans if they had positive male role models in their lives. She is everything wrong in society, according to the Moynihan Report, Clarence Thomas and Ronald Reagan. No film personifies the welfare queen as much as “Claudine.”
Claudine is a single mother with six children. She receives government assistance to supplement her income, but she’s forced to hide her job in order to continue receiving federal funds. Claudine’s love life is impacted substantially by her financial situation. She hesitates before wedding her beau because that will cause a decrease in the assistance her receives. Of course Claudines’s deceiving the government, just like the shiftless woman welfare queens are supposed to be. She’s painted as a woman incapable of raising her children without government intervention and support. It’s a falsity that pathologizes single parenthood and single parents. Forefronting Claudine’s socioeconomic status without considering her other marginalized identities reveals a partial picture that can be distorted and used as a tool of oppression.
Acts of misrecognition can also cause an overperformance of a specific identity. This manifests in my feminist commitments and responsibilities. I identify as hip-hop Black feminist situated between the second and third waves. However, the ways in which feminism(s) was presented to me forced me to shy away from the label. I was first introduced to the concept of feminism in Sisters in Cinema, a course named after Yvonne Welbon, Ph.D.’s dissertation which focused on the absence of black women filmmakers in Hollywood. The course was designed to analyze historical media images e.g. the mammy and the welfare mother in modern television and film.
From the moment Dr. Welbon introduced feminism to me, I was against the concept. It seemed ridiculous to me because I was raised in a generation where women are perceived as equal. I did not see how I could be a feminist in a world where the leader of Liberia is a woman. Plus, I love men; from the top of their shaved heads to their dimples, beautiful smiles, and masculine nature. My boyfriend often refers to me as Sister Soldier, a title used to describe militant Black women. However, since I know feminism(s) have garnered a horrible reputation, I overperform femininity. My feminism(s) is complex, especially when it comes to my interpersonal relationships with men, but since I identify as a hip-hop Black feminist, I always insure I don’t fit into the atypical representations of feminism. I wear heels. I carry purses. I am heterosexual. None of this changes the perception of feminism. It’s an overcompensation, as is Butler’s (1993) acknowledgement and simultaneous shunning of lesbianism.
Last week I nabbed a triple feature of Black romantic comedies for $7.50. The set featured Deliver Us from Eva, Something New, and The Best Man. I spent the weekend indulging in these classics. Now, I’m depressed. The Black women characters in all of these films fit into archetypal stereotypes that have been continually perpetrated in media.
Let’s start with Sanaa Lathan’s “Kenya” character in Something New. She is the definitive independent, black woman who is “too particular” to find a man worth falling in love with. Kenya is emasculating, particular about her weave, fearful of the judgments of her peers and relatives, and so invested in her career that she often dismisses life’s simple pleasantries. I’ve seen this character before. Actually, it isn’t much different from Sanaa’s “Andrea” in The Family That Preys.
The characterization of Lathan falls directly into the intersection of the “independent black woman” stereotype, which is a spawn of the sapphire foremother. The historical sapphire depicted black women as exaggerated, cruel, and emasculating, using words and body language to berate black men according to Mia Moody, PhD. an assistant professor of journalism at Baylor University.
Dr. Moody analyzed the evolution of the independent black woman stereotype in her research work, From Jezebel to Ho: An Analysis of Creative and Imaginative Shared Representations of African-American Women and The Meaning of ‘Independent Woman’ in Music. What she discovered is that over time, the pendulum of the “independent black woman” has shifted from a positive connotation that was considered admirable to something we are swearing off in favor of mainstream acceptability.
For instance, Roxanne Shanté’s “Independent Woman” impressed the need for reciprocation in relationships. Even Urban Dictionary gets it. They define “independent woman” as “A woman who pays her own bills, buys her own things, and does not allow a man to affect her stability or self-confidence. She supports herself entirely on her own and is proud to be able to do so.” Now, independent black women are immediately connected to negative connotations that prevent us from finding and sustaining prosperous relationships. It is associated with neck-rolling, harsh words, and an untamable attitude. The perpetuation of this negativity in black romantic comedies isolates who we are from how we’re caricatured in media. It also ignores our complexities as black women. We’re too dimensional to be boxed in.
I found this week’s readings useful in terms of the methodological approach that I could while doing my research. I’m generally inclined towards doing a textual analysis of films, and reading Kate McGowan and Roland Barthes’ writings showed me an effective way of reading film texts.
The idea that a text is made up of signs and these signs have layers of meanings enables a more textured understanding of texts. In the research that I work on, that is, Hindi cinema, there are many films which are ostensibly made in the popular “Bollywood” format but are able to bring in subversive ideas as well. McGowan’s idea (based on the work of Barthes) that a detailed formal analysis “releases” the meaning of the text from its structural confines can be useful in unearthing the subversive elements (if there are any) of popular films. If there is a disruption in the “structure” of the text, then one can move on to asking why it is there, and possibly decode a subversion. It is also important to situate the work in its cultural context, as McGowan suggests, because signs acquire value from the culture in which they are used. Knowing the cultural context can be useful in figuring out the dominant/ subversive meanings in a text.
I also want to mention Foucault’s essay here – especially his views on the Panoptic device in prisons. Foucault mentions that this was actually Jeremy Bentham’s idea, who envisions it as an efficient mechanism to use in prisons. Out of curiosity, I looked up Bentham. I knew that he was the one who promoted the concept of “utilitarianism” and I expected to find that Bentham would be a rather fascist kind of man. I was surprised to find that it was not so, and actually he was in support of personal freedom and other similar causes. It was difficult for me to reconcile this man ideas on freedom and choice with this “Big Brother” type of surveillance device. I see the point about efficiency with the panoptic prison, but the way Foucault describes it was very disconcerting. It brought to mind reality shows such as “Big Brother” which put into practice this idea about being watched all the time. And how that can regulate a person’s behaviour. Bentham’s device is actually a mind-control device which made it all the more dangerous if put into practice.
Out of these week’s readings, I have to say that the ones I enjoyed the most were the ones that, for some reason, seemed to stick out: Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes and Discipline and Punish by Foucault. Maybe I liked these because I felt like they were the ones that I understood better. I found the others, particularly those dealing with language, very complex and I am looking forward to discussing them in class today because I’m sure I missed a lot of what the authors were trying to say.
I loved Camera Lucida because I love photography and because I was familiar with several of the photographs and authors that Barthes spoke of. I also find his reflections on photography and on being seen interesting, as well as his theory of studium and punctum, which actually made me think about other images and consider if they had punctum or not.
As for Discipline and Punish, I found it a fascinating reading, if a little frightening. It was the one reading this week that hooked me from the very first page, when he’s talking about the measures taken to prevent the plague from spreading in a small town. I had no idea where he was going with this or what the reading was even going to be about, but I could not put it down. I like how he talks about this society of surveillance in a book written during the seventies, and makes it sound so threatening, and, yet, when I think about it, it’s worse now than I think even he could have imagined.
I felt like these two readings somehow stuck out from the rest because they did not seem to deal with semiotics or language or poststructuralism, at least not in such an obvious manner. I felt like the articles by Kate McGowan and Catherine Belsey were helpful in trying to explain what the more complicated articles were about, so I was grateful for those.
As for how I could integrate these into my research practice, well, in the case of Barthes it’s pretty obvious, because he talks about photography and images, which is one of my main areas of research. Another thing I appreciated about that reading was that he talked about erotic photography vs. pornography, which is one of my areas of interest. I also find the idea of the punctum is something I could integrate into my work when it comes to analyzing images.
I believe I could integrate Discipline and Punish into my research, if I were to talk about power structures or the culture of surveillance and where it comes from. I find this to be even more relevant today when one thinks about cameras and how they are used to contribute to this structure, so I think it could be used when talking about technology and the role of video in our society.
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