Monday, August 15, 2011

Drunk Girls

Given my penchant for seventies television references, it might not surprise you that I am often a bit out of touch with contemporary popular culture. Still, because my gym pumps in the current top 20 on an endless cycle, I am able to at least identify songs that are circulating widely. Over the past few months, I have come to two conclusions. One, Fox is making a fortune off those Glee kids. Two, this country seems to prefer our young women to be drunk and reckless.

Numerous songs en vogue right now celebrate women consuming alcohol to the point of blacking out, hooking up, or hurling (not always in that order). Hadn’t thought about it? Take just a few examples off the top of my head. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” opens with lines that would make even the most seasoned AA sponsor grimace: “Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack/’Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back.” Drinking beer, Ke$ha later sings, gets the “dudes...lining up.” Only police intervention ends that girl’s good times.

One of Lady GaGa’s earliest hits similarly recounts being so bombed that she has little idea of where she even is. In “Just Dance,” GaGa has had so much to drink that she “can’t see straight anymore” and has little idea how her “shirt got turned inside out.” If one of my friends reached this state, my advice would be to return home and sleep it off. GaGa, however, suggests that it might be the perfect time to hook up with somebody dancing in the club “And now there’s no reason at all,” she warbles, “ why you can’t leave here with me.” Well, no reason except that the previous stanzas suggest that she is entirely likely to puke on whatever guy she is taking home. Some people are into that, I suppose.

Not surprisingly, Katy Perry most happily jumps onto this bacchanal bandwagon. After all, her first major hit “I Kissed a Girl” more than foreshadowed this trend. In that song, Perry implied that sexual desire between women need not be taken more seriously than bar flirtations and pillow fights. It was fun, the melody told us, for women to kiss each other as an “experimental game” as long as there was a boyfriend waiting in the wings. Of course, a stiff cocktail got things rolling as the first stanza informs us, “This was never the way I planned/Not my intention/I got so brave, drink in hand/Lost my discretion.”

One of her most recent hits, “Last Friday Night,” ditches the homoerotic themes. In their place are the allegedly fun times that girls can have by drinking to point of serious memory loss. Perry sings about a list of events that would make most people fear for their personal safety. She awakes, hung over, with a stranger in her bed and lewd photos posted on-line. She is uncertain whether she has a hickey or a bruise. If you think that this is going to lead her to the door of Betty Ford, think again. She promises that she will do it all again next Friday.

With all that drinking and amnesia going on, it’s not surprising that P!nk would have a song entitled “Sober” where she contemplates the problems of being a party girl. Now, of all the artists mentioned, I actually like P!nk. To my mind she is one of very few who attempts to put out feminist messages in the mainstream. It’s true that many of P!nk’s other songs celebrate drinking as much as Ke$ha or Perry. At least P!nk most often talks about men as getting in the way of her good times (e.g. “U + Ur Hand”) rather than as being the objective for getting sloshed. “Sober” offers much needed caution to being a party girl. The song opens with the statement that she doesn’t “wanna be the girl who laughs the loudest/Or the girl who never wants to be alone/I don’t wanna be that call at four o’clock in the morning/’Cause I’m the only one you know in the world that won’t be home.” Unlike Perry, P!nk acknowledges that drinking to the point of blacking out will lead to serious regret instead of giggles with your girlfriends.

As far as I can tell, no such genre exists for men on the radio. Of course songs produced by male artists occasionally mention liquor or other drugs, but they are rarely presented as the opening shot to a night of forgotten sex. So what are we to make of all these "drunk girls" on the radio? Songs about women drinking to abandon are part of a larger pattern, it seems to me, in which women’s sexuality/sexualities and agency have been constrained in mainstream popular culture. One need only think of the classless Girls Gone Wild series to see that the media has been conflating drunkenness with sexual availability. If young women must continue to navigate the age-old virgin/whore (“ho” in modern parlance) dichotomy, then the music they listen to today isn’t offering many healthy solutions. These songs suggest that women can have a good time and explore a variety of sexual opportunities, but only if they are not really in control of their faculties. Drinking to the point of being without inhibition isn’t about putting yourself into situations where you might be exploited (or even be in serious danger). Rather, these songs suggest that it is a path to being cool and finding sexual fulfillment. Not only is that absurdly false, I think, but it also undermines women’s real ability to make decisions about sex. Instead it upholds the horrible notion that women are the most desirable when they are almost totally passive (if not passed out entirely).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Yes, I am Getting Older Too

I find it hard to believe that I just finished my fourth year in Midwestern Funky Town. That’s one year longer than I survived in Texas. Yet, my time in Texas still feels like it was almost twice as long. Go figure.

The summer has technically just started, but the appearance of fireflies suggest that we are already halfway through the season in the north. The fireflies also means that it must be time to celebrate my birthday, some 37 years ago. Do take the time to fix yourself a cocktail and toast to my health. Probably I will live quite a long time -- unless I don’t. Whatever the case, I always like to take a moment each year to consider what other people were doing when they were my age:

    If I were Mary Richards at age thirty-seven, I would have moved to Minneapolis seven years ago. Although I would not know it, this would be my last year working at WJM.

    If I were Dolly Parton, this is the year that I would release “Islands in the Stream” with Kenny Rogers.

    If I were Kenny Rogers, this is the year I would release my first solo album. It would be another sixteen years before my disastrous foray into fast food.

    If I were Cher, this would be the year that my film career took off with the release of Silkwood. I would take the then-unknown Val Kilmer as my date to the Oscars. He would be 13 years my junior and sport a hideous mullet.

    If I were James Dean, I would be dead.

    If I were Luke Appling, the Chicago White Sox legend, I would be serving in World War II at age 37.

    If I were Pancho Villa, this is the year that I would attack the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. This action would transform me overnight into a villain in the eyes of most U.S. citizens.

    If I were the Roman Emperor Nero, I would be dead.

    If I were Chloë Sevigny, this is the year that I would have finished filming the series Big Love.

    If I were Captain Kirk, my five year mission “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations” would end.

    If I were William Shatner, I would have been playing Captain Kirk for two years.

    If I were Captain Picard, I would be serving as first officer of the U.S.S. Stargazer. It would be another 22 years before I took command of the Enterprise.

    If I were Patrick Stewart, I would have been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company for eleven years. It would be another ten before I accepted the role of Captain Picard.

    If I were Jesus, I would be dead.

    If I were GayProf, I would be mediating on another failed romance. My blog, The Center of Gravitas, would barely be updated in its sixth year.

    If I were César Chávez, I would sign the one-thousandth member to the recently founded National Farm Workers Association. That organization would have fifty locals.

    If I were Marylin Monroe, I would be dead.

    If I were Martin Luther King, Jr., I would be campaigning to end slums in Chicago.

    If I were Noël Coward, I would produce my short play Still Life for the first time in London this year.

    If I were Paul Revere, my silversmith business would be struggling. It would be another three years before I rode through the night to warn Massachusetts colonists that the British regular army was mobilizing for a possible assault on Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and others at Lexington.

    If I were Sarah Palin, I would have absolutely no idea why Paul Revere was important to the U.S. War for Independence.

    If I were Princess Diana, I would be dead.

    In between nursing my polio stricken husband, I would write my first article (“Common Sense Versus Party Regularity) if I were Eleanor Roosevelt.

    If I were Blake Harper, I would retire from gay porn in three years. -- What? This isn't a blog for children.

    If I were Ellen Degeneres, I would be starring in my own sitcom (Ellen). It would be another two years before I publicly came out of the closet.

    If I were Oscar Wilde, I would pen “The Soul of Man under Socialism” this year.

    If I were Hernán Cortés, Malintzin (a.k.a. Doña Marina, a.k.a. “La Malinche”) would give birth to my son this year.

    If I were Michel Foucault, I would publish Birth of the Clinic this year.

    If I were either of my parents, I would already have three children. The oldest would be seventeen years old. The youngest would be ten years old.

    If I were Montgomery Clift, I would finish filming Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor. It would be the first time the public saw my face after my car accident.

    If I were Derek Jeter, this would be the year that I hit my 3,000th hit (most likely).

    If I were Franklin Roosevelt, I would be the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It would be another 14 years before I became President of the United States.

    If I were Paul Lynde, I would record a comedy album entitled Recently Released this year.

    If I were Mitt Romney, my insatiable greed would lead me to seek $37 million to co-found the private equity firm Bain Capital.

    If I were Wonder Woman, I would age another 2,454 years before joining Patriarch’s world to fight crime.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The World is Ready for You

Many of you have asked what I thought about the failed effort to bring Wonder Woman back to television. Well, some of you asked. Okay, one person mentioned it in passing. Still, given that I shamelessly stole this beloved character to be my on-line avatar, I have some thoughts.

For those of you who don’t slavishly follow the Amazon Princess, NBC recently rejected a pilot for a new Wonder Woman t.v. series. Produced and written by David E. Kelley, many people (including Lynda Carter) fully expected that it would be a slam dunk. Certainly the actor chosen for the role was plausible. The few details that have emerged about the script, though, suggest that it was a bit of a trainwreck. Making a new Wonder Woman show should not have been that hard, really. This country is currently obsessed with the superhero genre. It’s true that Diana isn’t the only one who has been screwed over (Poor Green Lantern! I can smell the suck from here.), but she sure doesn’t get much respect. Shortly following NBC’s rejection, DC comics announced that it planned to reboot the Wonder Woman comic yet again. Ol’ Superheroine-Number-One can’t catch a break these days. For reasons that remain a total mystery to me, neither DC comics nor Warner Brothers ever solicits my opinion about how to promote and protect their most important female hero. I have some ideas:

    1. Wonder Woman is a Feminist:

    For either comic book writers or television executives, the “f” word continues to make their brows sweat. This probably explains why Warner Brothers tapped the creator of Ally “Feminism is Dead” McBeal as producer for their most recent t.v. venture. Gee, who would have guessed that would fail?

    It’s fundamentally dishonest to develop a Wonder Woman project without feminism being a driving point of the story. Doing so would be like creating a t.v. show about the Tea Party without the crazy. When William Moulton Marston created the character in the 1940s, he included the radical notion that women were more than the intellectual equals of men. He feared that young girls were unfairly kept from realizing their true potentials and lacked the types of role models that abounded for boys in comics. True, he also had a bad habit of essentializing gender roles and some fairly bizarre notions that bondage could be a path to liberation (Paging Dr. Foucault, stat!). Still, for the middle of the twentieth century, any pop culture venue that showed women as both physically powerful and scientifically minded was a breakthrough.

    Since that time, most of Wonder Woman’s (male) writers have had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with the feminist bits. Either they forced her into traditionally subservient roles (e.g. they made her secretary for the Justice Society despite her being the most powerful member) or they made her into a psycho man-hater who played into the media’s favorite image of feminists as unreasonable and bitter. Needless to say that neither of these is acceptable.

    I can’t help but think that the fight for women’s equality has taken some huge steps backward over the past decade and a half. Personally, I put at least partial blame on the drivel created by David E. Kelley. The time is right for Wonder Woman to speak candidly about actual feminist goals.

    2. Everybody Wants Wonder Woman to Wear Her Original Costume

    Okay, I know the Playboy-bunny costume is sexist, absurd, and as practical as a wooden fire escape (See Number One Above). One doesn’t know if you should salute her or give her your drink order.

    The efforts at changing her costume, however, have not really solved the biggest complaints about the original. Slapping on some skin-tight trousers while keeping her in a cleavage popping bustier is a lame attempt to appease critics. It should have been a forgone conclusion, too, that her costume would not be made out of plastic. The costume designer from the failed pilot was an idiot:

    If Wonder Woman is going to inevitably be about T&A, then I say just own it and try to at least give her some dignity.

    Also, keep the eagle and ditch the stupid WW. If you have doubts that the eagle is cool, consider that DC comics could sue the Washington Capitals for copyright infringement. If a WW eagle is tough enough for a hockey team, then it certainly can do the job for Wonder Woman.

    3. Wonder Woman should never say the following lines of dialogue:

      “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”

      “Capitalism sure seems like a fair and equitable economic system.”

      “I want a baby so badly that I see one dancing in my room at night.”

      "I just need to lose five more pounds."

      “Why are all the best men married or gay?”

      "I'm not a feminist, but . . ." (See Number One Above)
      “I can haz cheeseburger.”

      "The unrestrained mergers of banks, airlines, media, and telecommunications corporations has served consumers well."

      “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

      "The heterosexual nuclear family sure seems like a fair and equitable building block for society."

      “Follow me on Twitter.”

      “Cheesecake makes everything better.”

      "What do you think of my costume?"

      “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

      “Math is hard!”

      “Christianity sure seems like a fair and equitable religious system.”

    4. Wonder Woman Does Not Believe in Capital Punishment

    Wonder Woman might have some flaws in that she often solves violence with violence. Still, when push comes to shove (literally!), she will never kill anybody (except maybe Max Lord, but, hey, she had no choice). Given that the United States currently imagines its prison system as massive holding tanks and has no problem sending people to death, how radical would it seem for Wonder Woman to advocate that every person can be redeemed? Diana would likely imagine the current prison system as a symptom of a deeply flawed patriarchal society (See Number One Above). Instead, let's see a return of Reform Island!

    5. Wonder Woman is a Scientist First, a Warrior Second

    Diana first saved Steve Trevor’s life through her immense knowledge of science and medicine. Then she kinda got stuck saving his life all the time. Whatever the case, Wonder Woman is a thinker. Among the many quirky ideas held by Marston was the one that the Amazons attained their physical power through successfully tapping into their hidden intellectual gifts.

    Young women in this country are still not encouraged to pursue science related careers. Playing up this aspect of her character would go a long way to inspiring women to change this (See Number One Above).

    6. Wonder Woman Would Not Participate in, Much Less Profit from, the Subjugation of Other Women

    One of the most puzzling details about the failed Kelley pilot was that Wonder Woman was supposed to have run a cosmetic company. Maybe this came from a desire to do a product placement with the recent MAC line featuring the iconic hero? Other than that, I can’t think why anybody who knows anything about Wonder Woman would think that would make sense (See Number One Above). I mean, okay, she did once run a dress shop, but that was from a comic storyline that is best forgotten. We can debate on whether makeup is about liberation or repression for women (Heck, I am undecided), but it seems unlikely that somebody devoted to gender equality (See Number One Above) would be interested in taking money from women so that they could attract a man.

    Wonder Woman would be devoted to public service. First, she didn’t leave the comforts of her island, where she was a goddamn princess, just so that she could work for some faceless corporation. She left the island so that she could help patriarch’s world become better. Second, she would want a job that kept her informed about dangerous villains or international plots. It seems unlikely that such things would emerge during boardroom discussions about whether a new brand of lip gloss should be called "Cherry High."

    7. Bring Back the Greek Gods

    It might be sacrilege to some, but I was never a fan of George Pérez’s stint on Wonder Woman. No Diana Prince alter-ego just seems sad to me. Still, I will give him credit for drawing the Greek gods back into the mix. If Diana is almost indestructible in patriarch’s world, then she has to have somebody who can keep her on her toes. A god or two could do the trick. In the 1940s, it was a wager between Aries and Aphrodite that sent Wonder Woman into man’s world after all. Aphrodite argued that love could triumph over war (See Number One Above).

    8. Doctor Psycho is a Plausible Villain

    Some people argue that Wonder Woman lacks a decent rogues gallery. This just isn’t so. Why is Cheetah somehow lame, but Catwoman cool? They are basically the same character.

    Regardless, the most interesting villain (aside from maybe Orana or Artemis) has to be Doctor Psycho. In lots of ways, he is the total opposite of Diana: insecure, cruel, and misogynistic (See Number One Above). His telepathic abilities make him a dangerous foe for somebody as powerful as Wonder Woman (I’m told one of the hardest parts of writing in the superhero genre is figuring out how to keep the threat real). The ideological divide between the two characters would make their battles all the more compelling. Who will win in the final throw down between the feminist (See Number One Above) or the misogynist?

    9. Wonder Woman is a Fish Out of Water

    Wonder Woman first achieved popularity, I think, because she offered an inverted mirror through which the U.S. could view itself. A smart writer would play up those aspects. That same writer would point out the foibles of our society as seen through a foreigner’s eyes.

    The most immediate difference is that Diana never interacted with a patriarchal society (See Number One Above). Actually, she literally never interacted with a patriarch at all given that she had no father (She was formed out of clay by her mother, for those whose comic history is a little rusty). Her responses to the pervasive problems of our society could range from bemusement to impatience. Then, of course, there is the story line of her grappling with her feelings for Steve Trevor. This would be difficult for her because. . .

    10. Wonder Woman was Raised by Lesbians!

    Alright, there has never been anything to make this canonical. Still, wouldn’t that be a great story line that makes some sense? She is part of a society of women who had little use for the company of men. They lived quite happily for two thousand years until some guy showed up. How confused would the rest of the island be by the princess’s sexual interest in a man? Indeed, wouldn’t a few of them think of it as a bit perverted? Think of the immortal words of Queen Hippolyta, “I named this island ‘Paradise’ for an excellent reason. There are no men on it.” Suffering Sappho! I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Poor Life Choices

Lately I have been thinking about graduate education in the humanities. Perhaps it would be a bit extreme to say that I have been having a moral crisis. Like St. Thomas, though, I sometimes have my doubts.

It’s not that I give credence to right-wing attacks on humanities research. Nothing drives me up the wall more than to switch on some local news story about an illiterate state legislator claiming that the humanities are irrelevant and a waste of tax payer money. I have written here and elsewhere about how critical an engagement with the humanities is for an informed and responsible citizenry, mostly to keep them from electing illiterate state legislators. Ethnic studies research also has a critical role to play as the nation’s demographics continue to shift. Ironically (in an Alanis Morrisette sorta way) it is at the very moment that companies and government agencies are desperate for individuals who can intelligently engage with minority communities, especially Latinos, that many universities are slashing their ethnic studies programs. I am looking at you, University of Texas system.

My concerns about graduate studies in the humanities are a bit more pragmatic. I have wondered about the wisdom of churning out armies of Ph.D.’s when the opportunity to land a traditional tenure–track position is becoming more and more remote. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" or something . . .

Do we have any ethical obligation to resist the temptation to admit graduate students when we know this to be the case? How do we balance that obligation with an equal investment in insuring that new research on critical topics like race, gender, sexuality, class, disability studies and other fields moves forward?

Sadly, I have no answers to these questions. Instead, I can only think about the type of advice that I would give to newly admitted Ph.D. students in the Social Sciences or the Humanities. Hopefully you already received some clear-cut guidance before you applied to these programs. If not, here are some things to consider as you start a new program. It might be harsh, but it’s only because I love you.

    1. Do not expect to get an academic job. Surely I can’t be the first person to mention that the academic job market is beyond miserable. A few very lucky folks land a coveted tenure-track position, but then a few lucky folks also win the lottery. Many others are placed into some mighty abysmal working arrangements as part of the adjunct machine. Universities and colleges, regrettably, know that they can acquire cheap labor and offer no guarantees because there is a surplus of Ph.D.’s on the market. Only you can decide if you want to work those long hours for minimal pay (and probably do without health benefits). It seems wiser, though, to prepare yourself to walk away from the t-t market. Consider obtaining an advanced degree as the opportunity itself. You have six years (or so) to really delve into topics that interest you. That is a luxury that can be enjoyed on its own.

    2. Learn to combat feelings of being an intellectual imposter. If you find yourself feeling like everybody around you is a bit smarter or has read more, don’t worry. They are all thinking the exact same thing. I won’t deny that admissions to a graduate program depends upon a range of subjective criteria. Nonetheless, you would be surprised by the level of consensus that usually forms around candidates during admissions. This means that you should rest assured that you are just as bright and capable as any other student in the program.

    3. Learn to combat feelings of being an intellectual superior. This is the flip side of number two. Indeed, many students vacillate between these two extremes. Graduate school can turn you downright bipolar. You have talents, to be sure, but they do not surpass those around you. It has seemed to me that once graduate students go down the path of hyper-ego their minds close faster than a vegan restaurant in Texas.

    4. Use the gentle cycle on the washing machine. Have you looked at your stipend recently? You better make your existing wardrobe last because there are no trips to the mall in your future. It’s either that or join a nudist colony by your fifth year.

    5. Remember that being a graduate student is a remarkably privileged position. This might seem hard to imagine given the brutal hours that you spend toiling away in the library. Nonetheless, you are now part of a tiny educated elite in this country whatever your economic or social class prior to admission. Estimates suggest that only 3 percent of the nation’s population holds a Ph.D. There are many mighty smart people who would have jumped at the chance to continue their education, but circumstances prevented it. This isn’t to say that the stress you feel is not real or that institutions can’t do better. Still, remember that you aren’t exactly shoveling coal for a living either.

    6. Avoid having sex with faculty members in your department/immediate field. In my time, I have been propositioned by faculty who outranked me and also by graduate students. I don’t mention this to make claims about my innate hotness (Although . . .), rather it is to suggest that such things are a common turn of events in the academic world. It seems to me if you are a woman or a gay man, your chances of fielding unexpected/unwanted advances are pretty high. For some gay men, it’s how they say hello.

    It might also be the case that you are occasionally dazzled by a faculty member who really pushes your buttons. Never, though, does it seem like a particularly good idea when there is such an obvious difference in power. Coming up with polite ways to decline is your best option.

    Feel free to have sex with faculty members in departments far removed from your own. If you are in the humanities, there is no reason not to take a tumble with somebody in civil engineering should the mood and opportunity appear. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

    7. Learn the metric system. Okay, this doesn't really have much to do with your success in the program. Still, it's embarrassing that the U.S. is far behind on converting to metric.

    8. Summers are not vacations. Take a poll of your department’s junior faculty and find out how they spent their summer months. Chances are you will hear things like “researching,” “writing,” “visiting archives,” or “field work.” If you hear the word “vacation,” generally it means they have dragged their significant other along with them in a simple attempt to appease them. “Yeah, I really needed to spend some serious time at the Iowa State Archive,” one might say, “so I took my husband and we made a vacation out of it! I don’t care what they say, Des Moines has lots of summer surprises.” By “vacation,” they really mean that their spouse got to spend time with them late at night and on the weekends when the archives closed. The spouse’s “surprise” was that they found themselves being a dedicated xerox operator the rest of the time.

    This is a window into the life of an academic, especially one who is early in hir career. The demands of the regular academic year generally permit only scattered time to focus on a research agenda. Summers become precious opportunities to really bare down and work. If you plan to spend the four months lounging around a pool without cracking an academic journal or book, save yourself some heartache and drop out of graduate school now.

    9. Tend to your personal life. Sacrifices will inevitably have to be made, but try not to let grad school take complete control of your life. Have plans to get married? No reason not to do so. I mean, you’ll still end up divorced eventually, so why not get the clock running now? At least this way you’ll still be relatively young when your first marriage goes south. Want children? Go for it (Although, as always, I would suggest that one think carefully about the larger environmental implications of producing another weapon of massive consumption). Don’t have a family plan? Rather frequent bathhouses? As long as you have an endless supply of condoms, I say make it a weekly ritual if that’s your thing. In other words, there is really not a reason to delay doing other things simply for graduate school. This doesn’t mean that you don’t still need to do the actual work, but I haven’t seen any reward come to those who put off their personal life.

    10. Keep an eye on the liquor consumption. It’s hardly an original story when one turns to gin when feeling a bit stressed out. I am not a teetotaler (trust me), but it is always well worth thinking about how much liquor you consume. Avoid the binges or drinking every day. Besides, it’s an expensive habit and that money could go to other extravagances – like protein. An ideal scholar ends up with a classroom building named after hir; a less than ideal scholar ends up with the boardroom at Tanqueray named after hir.

    11. Come to terms with the fact that you will not likely live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, or another of the nation’s great cities. Back in the nineteenth century, when most of this nation’s universities started, popular thinking associated cities with vice, pollution, and unhealthy living. To insure that young adults remained morally and physically in shape, the logic went, universities needed to be as far away from urban areas as possible. Better that they hang out with the cows. That was before the nation faced the epidemic of bovine gangs. Personally, I blame the alfalfa black-market.

    Now we reap the legacy of nineteenth-century discourse as most of us in the academic world live in small towns rather than metropolises. This, I think, is one of the hardest things that we have to come to terms with for this job, especially if you’re gay (where the number of other gay people is necessarily going to be quite small). I have no solution to offer, which is probably why Tanqueray named that boardroom after me.

    12. Learn how to communicate your ideas to a wide audience. There are good reasons to delve deeply into a particular subfield or methodology. Nonetheless, you’ll be taking your dissertation on a road tour before you know it. If you find yourself at conferences getting asked questions about your main argument (or, worse, not getting asked any questions at all), it’s not the audience’s problem. You have to know how to pitch things in a way that is approachable from a wider range of disciplines.

Keep your chin up. In the end, graduate school is mostly about sticking through it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Missing Minority

Those of you who have followed the slow release of data from the Census Bureau (and who hasn’t!) know that the nation’s demographics have shifted considerably over the past ten years. The Midwest, once the metaphorical and population “center” of the nation, is hemorrhaging people faster than Sarah Palin’s campaign team. Part of that change, of course, is the combination of Midwestern urban decay, failing infrastructure (Why pay taxes?), and mass relocations to "sunbelt" areas in the southwest. Another contributing factor, though, is the rapid growth of Latino populations in the border states. Census officials estimated that there were 45.5 million Latinos and Latinas in the United States as of 2009. This represents an almost 29 percent increase from the 2000 Census report of 35.3 million Latino/as.

What has surprised me is that our national entertainment industry has been remarkably slow to reflect this new reality. Latina/os might be the largest minority, but you would be hard pressed to find substantial representations on either broadcast or cable television. Some networks, including Oprah’s OWN, Lifetime, or FX, have zero (0) recurring Latino characters or hosts in all of their 24/7 programming. Those that do exist on other networks are sadly retreads of some pretty worn out stereotypes. Latinos remain relegated to the supporting cast. This is true despite the fact that various corporations have become increasingly hungry to grab a slice of the Latino economic pie.

It strikes me that the most visible characters currently on the air are Latinas. Yet, this is not necessarily good news. Two major roles define the options for Latinas on television: the sex bomb and the steely enforcer. The first has deep roots in this country. Since way back in the nineteenth century, mainstream representations of Latinas have most often presented them as tempting “tamales” who turn out to be “too hot to handle.” Latina women became convenient metaphors that legitimated multiple racialized assumptions as the U.S. contemplated war with its neighboring republic. Latinas were construed as always sexually available to Euro American men even as they were simultaneously presented as duplicitous, scheming, and dangerous. Euro-American travel writers first circulated these types of images to suggest that "immoral" Mexico needed a U.S. invasion to satisfy God’s supposed plan of manifest destiny (You can read about this and many other fascinating elements of nineteenth-century Chicano history when you purchase a copy of NERPoD from a fine on-line book retailer near you).

Such images live on in the conniving and fickle character played by Eva Longoria on Desperate Housewives; Colombian-born Sofía Vergara’s “trophy wife” role on Modern Family; and even Naya Rivera’s role on Glee. The last character, Santana López, hits many of the hallmarks of the stereotype. López uses her sexuality, often presented as irresistible to the white men around her, to satisfy her ambitions or as part of a larger scheme. At the same time, she can be depended upon to enact the “loca” traits that make her untamable. Quick tempered and cruel, López shows she is always ready for a fight. This includes a recent episode where she claimed to have razor blades hidden throughout her hair (!). Perhaps the revelation of her same-sex love interest will redeem this character, or at least steer her from being a twenty-first century incarnation of “wicked Felina.”

Another less noticed, but still identifiably stereotypical role, appears in the police-procedure genre. Many shows, like Law and Order, Eureka, or the doomed Detroit 187 feature the tough Latina enforcer. While I can’t say for sure, it seems like this version of Latina can find some of its roots in Aliens (1982). That film introduced the memorable character Private Jeanette Vásquez, a tough-as-nails marine. Here was a Latina character who got to do things on screen that had previously been reserved almost exclusively for men, including handling some really big guns. She also met her demise memorably in an altruistic blaze of fire, ultimately hugging a grenade rather than being taken by the titular aliens. Reportedly, the Vásquez character left such an impression on Gene Rodenberry that he intended the security officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation to be a comparable Latina figure (which was later dropped when he cast blond Denise Crosby for the role, contributing to Star Trek’s long history of failing to include Latino/as in the future – but that is another entry).

What I call the “Vásquez type” presents Latinas as figures who bend traditional gender conformity through their military/police skills. They are often presented as invaluable to the white leads in solving crimes, battling aliens, or generally kicking ass. They know their way around a gun, wear their hair in a sensible bob or poneytail, and can more than handle themselves in battle. All of that is nice . . . but these Latina figures are also always ancillary to the main white characters. If they provide the muscle, than it is up to their white (usually male) partner to provide the problem solving skills which truly stops the criminals/aliens/mayhem. Representations of their personal lives range from non-existent to deeply troubled. While generally I appreciate their rejection of gender conformity, it can nonetheless becomes a racial marker that only serves to highlight the more authentic masculinity of the (white) male lead and/or the more alluring femininity of the (white) women around them. Latinas become characters who have not quite mastered the mainstream gender rules, and therefore remain outside of society.

Keep in mind that those are the most positive options currently seen on television. Most of the time, television networks prefer to imagine that Latinos don’t exist at all. Even shows set in geographic areas with significant Latino populations manage to sideline those inhabitants or simply turn them into background “color” that spices up the main white characters’ lives. As I have talked about elsewhere, the USA show Burn Notice takes place in Miami but manages to only grant roles for Cubans as either victims (usually women) or as villains (either men or women). Whatever the case, both are easily dispatched after one episode.

For obvious reasons, I am the most sensitive about this phenomena when programs are set in New Mexico. My home state, as everybody knows, has always had a non-white majority population. Recently, the census bureau also revealed that Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the land of enchantment. Making a show set in New Mexico without showing Latinos is like making a show set in Washington, D.C. without showing idiots. Nonetheless, that is exactly what happens in USA’s In Plain Sight or the critically acclaimed AMC show Breaking Bad. The first, which centers of the blond lead, has a token Latino character who is a Dominican baseball player. Apparently the USA network could only imagine Latinos as recent immigrants, thereby ignoring the Latinos actually residing in the state whose families have been there for generations.

Breaking Bad, also set in Albuquerque, does little better. Like in Burn Notice, Latinos zest up the drab background by providing Spanish-language music, low-rider cars, or colorful expressions. When they aren't providing the literal and metaphorical salsa, they appear as threats to the main white leads. These roles as side characters serve to contrast the normalcy of the two middle-class white characters. Latinos, as dangerous drug dealers, represent an upending of the “quiet” life of the white school teacher and his former student. The series lead, we are told, had no choice but to enter the drug underground. He begins manufacturing meth in a noble attempt to provide for his family after his imminent death from cancer. Latino drug dealers, on the other hand, are shown to be motivated only by greed and violence with few redeeming characteristics. They are almost always recent arrivals in the country.

I am disappointed that television programming has failed to understand or represent the variety of Latino/a experiences in the United States. This is even more troubling when we consider that many (most?) of the nation’s other citizens probably depend on television as the only venue through which they get to know the United States' largest minority. For the most part, it seems that television executives consider Latinos too much of a political hot potato to represent fairly. When they do make an appearance, they enforce the notion that Latinos (and a multi-cultural society in general) threatens to upend the national status quo through their supposedly hyper sexuality and unquenchable thirst for violence.

Some of this might change when media monopoly Comcast launches its new English-language Latino network in 2012. I’m not holding my breath, though.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Detective

Some evenings ago, I had finished with a hard day of accomplishing nothing on NERPoD: The Sequel (Which reminds me, have you ordered your copy of the original NERPoD from your favorite on-line bookseller? All the really cool bloggers have already read it. Why haven’t you?). This meant that I needed some form of entertainment to distract me. My mindless channel surfing stopped at the start of The Detective (1968). Now here was a film that would allow a lot of self-justification for watching the idiot box. I knew of this film from Vito Russo’s classic Celluloid Closet (and the later HBO documentary of the same name), but had never watched it in its entirety. Parking on the couch to watch this wasn’t me blowing off the evening. Rather, I was assessing a critical primary source that would shed light on past notions of sexual difference. Hey, it’s tough work, but somebody has to do it.

For those who have never heard of The Detective (and I’m going to guess most people have not), it was one of the first explicit representations of gay men at the local picture palaces. The year 1968 had brought significant changes and challenges to the nation. The Civil Rights movement was dealt a serious blow by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr; LBJ served his last year in office; Pierre Trudeau became Canada’s Prime Minister; Andy Warhol got in the way of radical feminist Valerie Solanas’ bullets; and Hawaii Five-O premiered on television (for the first time). That last one alone sent many people into an existential crisis from which they never recovered.

The year 1968 also brought an end to the draconian censorship of the Movie Production Code. Moviegoers demanded that films start reflecting the bleak and turbulent times. In place of the censorship Code, which sought to keep everything squeaky clean for all audiences, films started having a letter rating (G, PG, R, and X) that parents could totally ignore when considering which films were appropriate for their families.

Twentieth Century Fox rode that new rating train all the way to the bank with their highest grossing picture that year, The Detective. None other than Frank Sinatra occupied the titular role. The movie, based on a novel by Roger Thorpe (the man who later brought you Die Hard (more or less)), included topics like marital infidelity, corruption, civil rights movements, anonymous sex, and, of course, homosexuality. They probably couldn’t have included any more salacious story lines unless they made it a flat-out porno.

The start of the film lets us know that this ain’t no Doris Day flick. New York Detective Joe Leland (ol’ blue eyes) arrives at a crime scene. Upon entering the upscale apartment, he casually observes that the victim was a “male Caucasian, nude laying on the floor. Penis cut off, laying on the floor of the living room.” Leland’s partner, a novice African-American policeman, nearly hurls his cookies onto the floor. In contrast, Leland has seen it all and casually asks Quincy, or, er, Jack Klugman to wrap up the penis in newspaper to keep people from accidentally kicking it around the floor.

The audience is left asking, who could have perpetuated such a gruesome crime? Well, it was a number of years too early for people to imagine that Bobbit story.

We start to get clues about what might have transpired as Leland tours the deceased’s apartment: Nude, greco-roman male statutes in every corner? Check. Unknown drugs in the medicine cabinet? Check. Semen stained sheets? Check. A pile of barbells and a half-gallon jug of mineral oil? Check and check! Even Scooby-Doo could have pieced together that this man was as queer as Fred’s ascot. The Detective is that subtle.

But this was post code! No longer did movie makers need to hint broadly about the sexual identity of its dead characters through objets d`art. The Detective spelled it out plain and cold: “Junior over there was a homosexual” remarks the medical examiner. Just how the doctor determined this posthumously is never revealed, but he assures Leland such an end is typical for men of his persuasion. When asked about the cause of death, he glibly replies “Lover’s quarrel, that’s how they settle it.. . . Twenty years and they still disturb the hell out of me.” Who can blame him? Most of my man dates usually follow the trajectory of drinks; then dinner; then a movie; then sex (possibly slathered in mineral oil); and then a bloody death match on the livingroom floor. If I come out alive and with my member intact, I hope he calls me again.

One doesn’t need an extra eye to see the homophobia dripping out of the film. It is for this reason that The Detective has been rightly disparaged by generations of queer scholars and moviegoers. The film makers promised, and delivered, the first celluloid glimpse at “gay” life. Following the chairman-of-the-board through his investigation gave a voyeuristic glimpse at all the joints that gay men apparently inhabited: gyms, boarding houses, the docks, and orgies in semi-trucks. Or, as I think of it, Tuesday. Each time they encounter a gay person, an ancillary character comments on how “sickening” it is to normal men like him.

To make a long, convoluted story shorter, Nancy Sinatra's father thinks that he finds his man, Felix Tesla, at a sketchy boarding house. The suspect fits with what sixties mainstream society imagined for gay men. In other words, he was totally drugged out . . . or nuts . . . or both. It didn’t really matter. Listening to his contorted speech patterns, it’s hard to believe this man was lucid enough to ride a city bus much less have an extended relationship with a prominent millionaire. But, whatev’s.

Tesla arrives at the police station for intensive interrogation, which does result in some of my favorite campy movie dialog ever. When questioned about life with the victim, Tesla proclaims, “He was a bitch!” Oh, honey, I’ve been there. The rest of the scene played out more peculiarly as Frank Sinatra more-or-less seduces his suspect. A gentle touch here, an oblique reference to a gay bar there, questions about the victim’s body (“soft, like a girl’s” btw). Before you can say “police coercion” Leland has his suspect singing like Billie Holiday. You can guess what happens next. Yep, the gay man goes immediately to the electric chair and fries faster than a bucket of chicken. All the cops and politicians are delighted. The detective wins a big promotion and everybody enjoys some stiff brown drinks. A happy ending in heteroville. Well, except . . .

Turns out maybe Tesla wasn’t so guilty after all. Through an unrelated investigation, the detective discovers that another man has jumped to his death at a local race track. The newly deceased? A closeted gay man who had been involved in some mighty shady deals in the city. Apparently the director couldn’t let a full twenty minutes of celluloid lapse without having a gay man facing some type of peril: dismembered, strangled, beaten up, threatened with a gun, threatened with imprisonment, electrocuted, or just clumsy on a ledge. Like all gay men, The Detective lets us know that the most recently departed deserved his fate. He helped a crew of politicians and real estate brokers embezzle millions of dollars, all at the expense of the poor. Yet, this was not what set him over the edge, literally. He just couldn’t handle his deep, deep desire for some man love. I mean, committing outrageous acts of fraud and theft are one thing, but kissing another man? Somebody has to die.

Leland uncovers a taped confession that outlines the closeted man’s torment. Oh, you know the type. He had “experimented” in college, but since then had become 100 percent heterosexual. Think an accountant version of Ted Haggard. To prove his new found straightness, he even married the glamorous Jacqueline Bisset. Hey, if you’re going to get a beard, go top of the line is what I say. Trouble was that sometimes he just needed somebody in bed who was, shall we say, a bit more hairy. He turned up at a local gay bar and went home with the millionaire. And, as we were told early on, the inevitable happened when two gay men connect: murder. Sinatra emotes some remorse over turning Tesla into a human flambé, but not enough so that he can’t end with a sanctimonious speech about city corruption.

All in all, the movie leaves you with the impression that gay men are self-hating, drug addled, murderous embezzlers who keep the mineral oil industry afloat. Yet, in watching the film I was surprised to see that it also contained a (very modest) counter vision of gay men. The police contemptuously questioned the victim’s beard, or er, occasional “date” to parties. She defended the victim. “I knew he was gay," she said without apology, "but he was civilized and he a bit of wit, which is more than I can say for most people.” Though most of the police rough up the gay men whom they encounter at the docks, Leland reminds them to “take it easy. These people aren’t murderers.” Of course, that line would have been more convincing if the film hadn’t already presented gay men as only murderers. Later in the film, he tells Tesla “I believe in live and let live.” Of course, that line would have been more convincing if he didn’t later send Tesla to die in the electric chair.

Perhaps The Detective can be understood as exploiting the contradictory attitudes about sex and sexuality swirling around during the 1960s. On one hand, the film didn’t shy away from pointing out that gay men actually existed and were out having a good time. Well, at least until they died in some gruesome way. When they did die, it was usually their own fault or at each other’s hands. Those depictions of gay men, though, have to be placed into the larger context of the way the film presents other forms of sexual behavior. The Detective didn’t just delve into gay men as the only symbol of sixties sexual corruption. In an ancillary plot, Leland's own marriage falls apart when it’s revealed that his wife likes to have anonymous sex with strangers whom she meets at bars (Don’t ask). The increased sexual freedom of the era costs Leland personally and left him disillusioned.

Leland thereby comes off less as a crusader for social justice than as a libertarian who has himself been victimized by the sexual revolution. The film reassured audiences that good straight white men, like Leland, always fight for the less fortunate and provide stability in a world run amok. His mild defense of gay men served to make him appear more generous and “by-the-book,” unlike the crooked cops who surrounded him. He was a hetero patriarch that audiences were supposed to embrace. It ignored that such straight cops were often the ones harassing anybody who dared to break the social mores.