Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Best Show That You Probably Don't Get on Your Cable

One of the advantages of teaching classes on U.S. popular culture is that you can order the extra-extra extended cable package with little guilt. It’s part of my job to know how race, gender, and sexuality are presented on television. When I sit on the couch with a bag of baked Snapea Crisps©, I am not being a lazy slug and a drain on society, I am actually working. These are the noble sacrifices that I make in the pursuit of knowledge. Too bad that I didn’t become a Professor of Media Studies, then I could have justified getting HBO!

If you’re like me – and I know that you want to be –, then you think of the Logo Channel as more or a less a failed enterprise. For those who don’t know, Logo (owned by Viacom) launched in 2005 as an all GLBT-content network. It’s located way, way up on your television dial. Well, if televisions still had dials -- and if those dials went up to channel 163. You know, it’s somewhere past the All Grouting Network and before the Fear Network. Logo might not be available in all cable markets, especially those ruled by a radical Christian theocracy.

Up until now, Logo mostly recycled mediocre GL(occasionally B&T) films and produced even more mediocre original programing. They have a sketch show that just isn’t funny; a news program that tackles hard hitting topics like the music careers of porn stars; and a trying-too-hard stop-action show with a cast of generic Legos. The only bright spot was the short-lived Noah’s Arc (which deserves it’s own post at some point). Inexplicably, that was canceled while Rick & Steve lives on and on. At one point, I began to wonder if the Christian Right had funded Logo as a secret program designed to bore the gay out of us.

Recently, though, Logo stepped out of their usual dead-end programing with television genius: RuPaul’s Drag Race. Okay, we aren’t talking about Cervantes here. Still, it’s more than a little entertaining.

If you have seen any other reality competition show, then you basically know the formulaic premise behind RuPaul’s Drag Race. Probably they borrowed mostly heavily from Project Runway (so much so that one of the former contestants, Santino, is one of RuPaul’s permanent (nonvoting) judges). The contestants, in this case aspiring Drag performers, are given a short time period to complete one or two challenges each week. They then exhibit their hard work in a runway show for RuPaul and the panel of (nonvoting) judges. The two lowest ranked contestants of the week must then “lip-sync for their life” in a final performance. RuPaul, after asking the advice of the judges and her housekeeper, then decides their fates. A winner of the week is declared, while a loser must give a teary goodbye.

Like most other exploitation t.v. reality competition shows, the producers clearly hope that the time constraints and close working conditions will lead to dramatic tensions between the contestants. Like Project Runway, they have also abandoned any pretense of subtlety in their product placements. From Drag Race, we learn that serious Drag Queens only use Mac Cosmetics! And Absolut Vodka has been clinically shown to make you even gayer!

Despite copycat borrowing and corporate shilling, RuPaul’s Drag Race offers a bit more than most. First, it is probably the most racially diverse cast in any television program, reality or scripted, on the air today. The show’s nonwhite-majority cast includes African Americans, a Cameroon national, a Filipino American, and multiple Puerto Rican contestants. What other show can you think of that draws that much from the real diversity of this nation?

This isn’t to say, of course, that other scholars would agree with my rosy view of the show. There is actually a lot we could critique. In other contexts, bell hooks has been remarkably critical of representations of African-American drag queens, particularly RuPaul. While hooks acknowledges the potential for drag to subvert assumptions about gender, in her critique of Paris is Burning, she nonetheless states that “the subversive power of those images is radically altered when informed by a racialized fictional construction of the ‘feminine’ that suddenly makes the representation of whiteness as crucial to the experience of female impersonation as gender.” In other words, she worries that the representations of African American drag queens more often shows them to be fetishizing whiteness than longing to impersonate black women. She has also offered a stiff critique of RuPaul in particular, stating “It’s a deep thing to live in a culture where folks get off on the image of a big black man trying to look and act like a little white woman (a version of Dolly Parton’s petite retrograde femininity complete with big blond hair).”

While I might quibble about some of hooks’ assumptions, it is worth pausing to wonder why that same racial diversity that I celebrated earlier seems to only be possible on a show about Drag Queens. Race, gender, and sexuality are at play here and I have little faith that Logo’s programming managers have spent much time pondering critical theory.

Still, even though I worship at the altar of bell hooks (and I am totally onboard with her critique of the voyeuristic Paris is Burning), I can’t help but see Drag Race as offering a bit more. Of course, I also think Dolly Parton herself offers a bit more than “retrograde femininity,” but that might be why bell hooks is bell hooks and GayProf is just some obscure (though totally hot) guy with a blog.

Certainly Drag Race draws on voyeuristic impulses to see a supposedly “hidden” drag culture. The show includes pop-up definitions of terms and phrases that the drag contestants use throughout the show (e.g. “Ki Ki – When two drag queens have sex”). As mentioned, it also veers uncomfortably around questions of race, including a near miss that might have escalated into a black face performance.

Even with the producers' baiting for cattiness and the unexplored racial dynamics between the contestants, there are also unexpected messages about remembering a sense of community and maintaining your self respect. The contestants often offer each other advice, show their affection for each other, and support each other more than any other reality show that I have ever seen. RuPaul frequently reminds contestants “If you can’t love yourself, then how the hell are you going to love someone else?” Drag Queens’ reputation for sliding into Drama Queens is not shown in force here. There has been relatively little catfighting so far (I am sure to the chagrin of the producers). Moreover, I think that the drag performances can offer a challenge to assumptions about gender and race, too.

Yes, I am going to have to drag out (no pun intended) the ol’ Judith Butler (Not since Susan Sontag made her name off of “camp” has another scholar rode gay culture so hard to make themselves famous). Butler’s now famous argument is that all gender is performance and, therefore, drag performance reveals the disjunctions between anatomy, gender, and gender performance. “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency,” Butler writes, “Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of causal unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary.” Or, cutting through the academic clutter, RuPaul put it more succinctly: “You’re born naked, the rest is drag.”

For me, there is more at play with RuPaul and Drag Race than a fetish over whiteness. Instead, I see the mixing and matching of racial and gender signs as intentional play and potentially challenging (btw, this isn’t to say that I have agreed with everything RuPaul has ever said about race and gender, either). Rather than fetishizing whiteness, RuPaul merges together multiple symbols of racial and gender difference in unexpected ways that many would expect to be impossible. At the site (sight?) of that impossibility, the performer then demands acknowledgment of their unexpected beauty. Indeed, RuPaul moves between various drag personas, wearing either the blond wig and high-heels, or appearing bald and in a stiff suit and tie.

In the end, it is RuPaul who necessarily makes Drag Race something to watch. She controls all aspects of the show in true diva fashion. RuPaul (in woman drag) serves as the Heidi Klum figure who introduces the challenge; (in man drag) as the Tim Gunn figure who offers kindly advice as the contestants work on the challenge; and (in diva drag) as the only judge with an actual vote on the show. RuPaul is so much the center of the show, that her face even serves as the clock in the workroom.

Mixed between zingers and critiques, RuPaul also seems to genuinely care about all of the contestants. She sets an unusual tone for such a competition, recently reminding the divias-in-training, “You all are sisters. We are family. If one of us is in pain, we are all in pain, we are all in trouble.” Even when drag- diva RuPaul tells a losing candidate “to sashay, away,” there are words of encouragement and a reflection on the unique attributes of the parting contestant.

Like the best drag performance, Drag Race offers an entertaining spectacle that also happens to expose the artifice of all reality television. My hope is that RuPaul will “chantez and stay” to make Logo a network that we will actually want to watch.

Friday, February 13, 2009

GayProf, The Irritated

Many have asked about this phantom post. It shows that you still care!

GayProf, irritated by some local shenanigans, hastily posted before reclaiming his zen. After spending some time meditating, I remembered, “Nothing really matters.” Never blog irritated. Besides, I become so much more mysterious and interesting this way.

In place of that silly grumble, I decided that we can talk more broadly about things that irritate me. I happen to have a running list:

    Creepy and crooked treasury secretaries who should never have been appointed, much less confirmed.

    President Obama's willful obliviousness to the fact that the American public will never trust a word coming from his creepy and crooked treasury secretary, who should never have been appointed.

    Governors who make New Mexico look bad.

    A BBC commentator who confused Arizona with New Mexico a month ago.

    That idiot who backed into my car in the garage with enough force to seriously dent my bumper, but drove away without leaving any note or even an apology.

    Waiting at the barbershop to get my haircut.

    Getting my haircut at the barbershop.

    The movie Barbershop.

    Ear hair.

    The fact that academic events are at the mercy of the football schedule at most universities.

    Dirty dishes stacked in the sink.

    People who don't know that there is an obviously right way to load a dishwasher.

    Corporate CEO’s who imagine that they should receive bonuses and fabulous vacations as a reward for running their companies into the ground.

    The refusal of a creepy and crooked treasury secretary, who should never have been appointed, to make the termination of existing CEOs a precondition of taxpayer aid.

    Republican Senators who agree to work with Democrats, but then turn out just to have intended to embarrass them.

    Democrats who overestimate Republicans’ trustworthiness.

    Republicans who continue to demand Reagan/Bush/Bush style economic policies that favor the wealthy despite ample evidence of the destructiveness of such policies.

    People who erroneously imagine that my cat desires their attention.

    People who erroneously imagine that I desire their attention.

    The remarkably cheap laptop provided by BMU that crashes if I attempt to play any music or watch any video.

    Knee-jerk recommendations to switch to Apple.

    Claims that the movie Che provides a stunning new interpretation of the titular character when, in reality, it is just four hours of watching the revolutionary walk, pause, wheeze, and then walk some more.

    The fact that U.S. movie theaters don’t serve liquor.

    Lame plot devices that turn Diana Prince into a mortal simply because she isn’t wearing star-spangled panties.

    Commercials for cleaning products that lead me to believe that flesh-eating bacteria is lurking on every surface in my home.

    My irrational fear that two British women are randomly going to show up at my door, critique my level of cleanliness, and reveal that flesh-eating bacteria is lurking on every surface in my home.

    Guests in my home who request a cocktail, but then don't drink it.

    The Bee Gees.

    The fact that, despite having mastered the Bewitched nose-twitch years ago, I still can’t get my couch to fly around the room.

    Graduate students who don’t do their work, but nonetheless have egos so sizable that they imagine themselves as junior-junior professors.

    The fact that I still mourn the loss of my Braun FlavorSelect© Coffeemaker which died after a decade of loyal service.

    My shitty Krups coffeemaker that is no replacement for the Braun FlavorSelect©.

    Peanuts contaminated with salmonella.

    Job candidates who don’t do their homework before arriving on campus and, thus, ask really obvious questions that could have been answered had they taken two-minutes to consult the department webpage.

    Heteronormative and consumer-driven Valentine’s Day.

    Accusations that I only dislike Valentine’s Day because I am single, even if it might be true.

    Wasteful construction of new buildings when architectural treasures are left abandoned and crumbling.

    The nation’s airlines.

    People who refer to Wonder Woman as “Superwoman.”

    Bloggers who retract entries only a few hours after posting them.

I’ll leave it to you to decide my level of rationality.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Break the Code

My last post exposed some ambivalence among faculty about the role of “official” teaching evaluations from students. Most of us do want feedback on content, but there also seems to be a general consensus that the weight given to student evaluations is out of kilter with the actual hard work that goes into teaching. I also believe that most students are not well informed about the purpose of evaluations.

As many of us are seeing last semester’s teaching evaluations return to us, let me help you read between the lines of those anonymous student comments that aren’t really about your teaching at all. It’s time for one of my favorite segments at CoG, “What They Say and What They Really Mean.”

    What They Say in the Written Evaluation: “This class was one of the best classes that I have ever taken.”

    What They Mean: “This class was one of the best classes that I have ever taken.”


    What They Say: “This is the worst class that I have ever taken.”

    What They Mean: “This class challenged many of my most basic assumptions and required me to work hard.”


    What They Say: “This professor was really condescending.”

    What They Mean: “I can’t take criticism.”


    What They Say: “This class required too much reading.”

    What They Mean: “To pass this class, I actually had to crack a book on my own time.”


    What They Say: "This class was so easy it was a joke."

    What They Mean: "After years of reading student complaints in evaluations, this professor has simply given up."


    What They Say: "This professor is a leading scholar in the field."

    What They Mean: "This professor assigned hir own book as required reading."


    What They Say: “This was one of the funniest professors that I have ever had.”

    What They Mean: “I didn't learn a damn thing, but the professor should be given a late-night talk show.”


    What They Say: “This professor was filled with lots and lots of energy.”

    What They Mean: “I think that this professor might have a cocaine problem.”


    What They Say: “The professor should post the lecture notes on-line so that we can have something to follow in class.”

    What They Mean: “The professor should post the lecture notes on-line so that we won’t have to go to class at all.”


    What They Say: "This professor is a fool."

    What They Really Mean: "My hubris as a first-semester freshman leads me to believe that I know more than the people who spent the past twenty years studying this topic."


    What They Say: “Discussion during class was often filled with awkward silence.”

    What They Mean: “My classmates didn’t do any of the reading and therefore had nothing to say.”


    What They Say: “The professor has the worst taste in clothes that I have ever seen.”

    What They Mean: “I have no idea about what constitutes an appropriate professional relationship and will probably be fired from my first job.”


    What They Say: “This class should have had more films.”

    What They Mean: “I was often too drunk to pay attention to the lectures.”


    What They Say: “This class had a lot of films.”

    What They mean: “The professor was often too drunk to lecture.”


    What They Say: "This class involved a lot of discussion of the cultural significance of Wonder Woman."

    What They Mean: "This class was taught by GayProf."


    What They Say: “Grading for this class was totally unfair.”

    What They Mean: “I am getting a ‘F’ in this class.”


    What They Say: “Grading for this class was totally fair.”

    What They mean: “I am getting an ‘A’ in this class.”


    What They Say: “There was too much reading about women in this class.”

    What They Mean: “I think women should be chained to the stove.”


    What They Say: “This class was so unfair. I passed the AP test in this topic and yet I still ended up with a ‘C.’”

    What They Mean: “I have confused high-school competence for university-level work.”


    What They Say: “I was really disappointed that we didn’t talk more about battlefield strategies in this history class.”

    What They Mean: “I get most of my information about the past from the History Channel.”


    What They Say: “I was really disappointed that we didn’t talk about more contemporary novels in this literature class.”

    What They Mean: “I think John Grishman is the pinnacle of American literature.”


    What They Say: “This professor was too strict.”

    What They Mean: “I had fantasies about this professor spanking me.”


    What They Say: “This professor had a political agenda.”

    What They Mean: “This professor didn’t allow me to spout off about my political agenda without evidence to support my point.”


    What They Say: “I shouldn’t have to read about gay people in a class that is required for graduation.”

    What They Mean: “My religion teaches me to think of gays and lesbians as less than human.”


    What They Say: “The attendance policy for this class treats us like we are children.”

    What They Mean: “I had to cancel a two-week vacation in Paris because attendance was required for this class.”


    What They Say: “This class would have been better if taught by an American.”

    What They Mean: “I am a member of the KKK.”


    What They Say: “The lectures were monotonous and boring.”

    What They Mean: “I have confused attending university with watching television.”


    What They Say: “This woman (or African American, or Latino/a, or Asian) professor clearly favored women (or African American, or Latino, or Asian) students.”

    What They Mean: “I don’t like taking classes that aren’t taught by a white man.”

    What They Say: “This professor didn’t care at all about students and was really detached.”

    What They Mean: “This professor expected us to be adults and do our work.”


    What They Say: “This class really stimulated my interest in this topic. I frequently went to office hours just to talk more about the material. I have now declared this topic my major.”

    What They Mean: “I am secretly in love with this professor.”


    What They Say: The professor was often late to class.

    What They Mean: This professor secretly fights crime on the side.