April 1, 2008

Black Youth in Hip Hop: Cultural Relevancy and Capitalism

Crank That by Soulja Boy

A couple of months ago, no matter who I was with, I could not help but hear Lil Mama. Seriously, everywhere I went, all I could think about was lipgloss.

Whatcha know about me, whatcha know about me? I know plenty, like that your lipgloss is popping.When not listening to beauty cosmetic commercials, I took some time to crank that souljaboy (you!).

My first reading of this new youth oriented hip-hop trend was the usual one. While I found it very encouraging that new hit rap songs weren't loaded with pimps and violence. I was somewhat disturbed by the alarming and blatant capitalism in the videos. It reminded me of those 80's cartoons that I grew up on... I mean, those shows were essentially 30 minute commercials.

A song about (L'oreal) lipgloss is one thing, bragging about the size of your chain is another thing, but having a L'Oreal hot dog cart worker throwing lipgloss to children who then wave them around like magic wands is completely ridiculous. I mean... come on.

G-Slide sparked my second reading of these music videos. Corporations were exploiting consumers through sponsorship. After all, Lil Mama's lipgloss wasn't able to create a tween-inspired shiny tour bus, but her killer dance moves (and shoes) were able to.

But why should a double standard be used in the cases of these hip-hop videos? After all, rockers play at Pepsi Fest, Starbucks has its own music label, and so on.

So now I sit here and am on my third reading of these videos. I am tired of those rap is bad studies. I mean, I could easily just leave it at that for these music videos. Ok, they don't promote violence but they are about sheer consumerism.

I think it is more relevant to look into the cultural situations though. bell hooks, writing in response to gansta rap criticism, states that:
One cannot answer them honestly without placing accountability on larger structures of domination and the individuals (often white, usually male but not always) who are hierarchically placed to maintain and perpetuate the values that uphold these exploitative and oppressive systems. That means taking a critical looking at the politics of hedonistic consumerism, the values of the men and women who produce gangsta rap. It would mean considering the seduction of young black males who find that they can make more money producing lyrics that promote violence, sexism, and misogyny than with any other content. How many disenfranchised black males would not surrender to expressing virulent forms of sexism, if they knew the rewards would be unprecedented material power and fame?
Instead of blaming the artists for cashing in on audience demand for consumerism, I think it is more important that I blame the true culprit: capitalistic patriarchy. By blaming these artists, I accomplish nothing. After all, it would be extremely ethnocentric as I live in my white privilege world to lay blame at the black artists.

Offense shouldn't be had as marginalized groups are doing what white folk have been doing for ages. We, as a society, need to look at our own actions and internal patriarchal capitalism before casting judgment on artists like Soulja Boy and Lil Mama. Before saying the artists are at fault, we need to look and wonder why these messages and images are in demand and work on that. Don't kill the messenger, but you can address why the message is what it is.

March 30, 2008

From TransAmerica to Newsweek:Transgender in the Media

Alexis, from Ugly Betty

With gay visibility becoming almost passé for some, media outlets decided to focus some attention on transgendered individuals, often casting them either in a normative light or playing a dual role.

This post isn't going to go in-depth in theory nor is it going to provide more than just a brief description of how transgender-identified individuals are portrayed (and subsequently made invisible in reality as their portrayals are highly inaccurate). I don't usually believe in identity-based politics, but in this case, I feel that more writing needs to be done by trans-identified people before yet another cisgendered person like me speaks on the manner.

Casting and Normalization

Trans-folk are typically cast as support and/or reoccurring characters (Ugly Betty, Dirty Sexy Money) when it comes to the sitcom genre. Like other queer characters, trans-characters are sugar-coated to be made quite digestible for a normative audience.

Typically extremely feminine (hyperperformativity), these characters are the epitome of typically beauty. The Ugly Betty website describes its trans-character as "big brother Alex who has returned as gorgeous Alexis". This mode of thinking is dangerous as it creates a simple binary of before and after. Truth is, some transgendered folk are always in transition. Others may live their entire life with a fully male sex but identity with a female gender, genderbend, etc.

Newsweek's Depiction

This normalization is most apparent within an article Debra Rosenburg wrote. But through this normalization, Rosenburg creates a sort of monster.
To most of us, gender comes as naturally as breathing. We have no quarrel with the "M" or the "F" on our birth certificates. And, crash diets aside, we've made peace with how we want the world to see us—pants or skirt, boa or blazer, spiky heels or sneakers. But to those who consider themselves transgender, there's a disconnect between the sex they were assigned at birth and the way they see or express themselves.
Those who do have problems with the "m" or "f" on their birth certificate are compared with the inability to breathe. Rosenburg also uses the term "normal", again pushing the sense of deviancy onto transgendered people.

Tolerance and Its Repercussions

The article reeks of tolerance, trying to "make sense" of this "other". Rosenburg also attributes a sense of the hyperperformativity upon those that transitioned in order to show that they are indeed now proper women (but no mention for female-to-male transitions).

Media depictions of transgenderism have a long way to go before they truly encompass the wide umbrella of the gender spectrum. Casting transgendered characters (themselves just a cisgendered female) as completely normative beings again ignores diversity of taste and opinion, all the while further demonizing those who don't conform to normative gender ideals.

Critically acclaimed transgender-themed film, Transamerica, a somewhat better example of transgender visibility.

March 29, 2008

Friends: A Case Study of Lesbian Representation

Susan & Carol, lesbian lovers on Friends announce their marriage intentions

The increased on television is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, through its visibility, gays are having a voice legitimized in the public sphere. On the other hand, only a homogeneous, normative gay is portrayed on television.

The Friends episode, The One With the Lesbian Wedding, is a typical example of homonormativity. By casting the gay characters in a normative light, they become more digestible to the dominant viewers back home.

Easy To Digest

Susan and Carol represent a cookie-cutter T.V lesbian formula. They both conform to proper gender performances (both wear skirts, have long hair, and wear make-up) and are quite pretty. In essence, they are both fairly femme. Obviously this was done so to make Susan and Carol appear "normal" to the viewers.

Marriage, as an institution, is outdated. But as it is part of the normal family life, the creators of Friends marry off Susan and Carol. If they are married, you have to accept their love as real. This logic is used often in sitcoms, especially for lesbian characters.

(Homosexual) Married characters essentially lack any form of physical desire. Because of this, gay characters can be seen mingling with heterosexual characters with out the fear of contaminating the sterility of the heternormative environment. The Victorianesque garments that Carol and Susan wear only reinforce this notion of a bourgeois middle-class sexual repression sexual repression.

What is most frustrating is the lack of even a simple kiss. After being pronounced married, the camera cuts away from the wives. Homoerotic desire is extinguished to maintain a normative propriety. It is one thing to show that the network is liberal (gay marriage on their network) but another to show that they actually accept it.

Even during the intimate moment of having their portrait taken together, Susan and Carol don't maintain a closeness that shows their love. The camera quickly cuts away from them, following the drama of the other characters.

Reassurances From Normative Characters

Susan and Carol's lives revolve around the lives of their heterosexual counterparts. Throughout the entire episode, their eros is only privileged through Ross' ultimate blessing. Susan has cold feet, and Ross is the one who soothes Susan. Carol's father is seen as a military man.

All the codes are used as a cooling and normalizing agent to, again, make Susan and Carol appear normal. What is important to understand is that homosexuality becomes inherently tied to heteronormative approval. Homoerotic desire cannot (and doesn't) exist with out permission of normative characters.


Besides the normalizing aspects of the show, I do have to admit that there is some promise to this visibility. Ross plays an active role in raising his and Susan's son, Ben. Carol is also active in her role as mother, portraying a functional and happy 3-parent family.

But this does not mean I am happy about portrayal in the show. Besides highlighting only one form of the queer body, this episode of Friends actually typecasts alternative forms of gender expression as a joke! The sole butch character is shown in a joking/predatory light as she is trying to pick up the naive Phoebe.

Audience reception is important in all this. It is obvious that these characters aren't created for a gay audience in mind. By casting gay characters with a normative audience in mind, Susan and Carol are created, a sexuality-free zone where alternatives don't have a voice.

Gay visibility is fine and dandy, but not when it comes at the expense of alternative means of expression. The butch character is ridiculed in its visibility on Friends. A social hierarchy is created between the good lesbian (Susan and Carol) and the bad. While I applaud the show for showing that alternative sexualities do exist, I am discouraged by the total lack of desire and its ridicule of non-conforming gender play.

To be invisible is essentially to be non-legitimate. But until new and more diverse gay characters are shown, our contemporary gay visibility doesn't represent the diversity in the gay community.

March 27, 2008

Gay Representation on T.V

Further Off the Straight and Narrow

As gay-identity politics is increasing on a world level, (as is evident with the debates over same-sex marriage) televised gay visibility is also becoming a (little) bit more common. But how does this overt representation of gay characters affect gay people in the real world? Is this idea of visibility at any cost truly beneficial?

As I've previously claimed (and state with each and every post), pop culture is used as a means of legitimization. For gay-identified people to be showcased on television means that gay identity is being broadcasted for the (normative) masses to see.

Problems of Legitimacy

What becomes problematic in all this is that the private notion that is a gay identity becomes public for normative audiences to scrutinize. In these cases, gay television characters move into the realm of the spectacle for the audience's normative gaze.

Visibility leads to legitimacy, right? And there are definitely more gay characters that are being shown. But which gay body is actually receiving this legitimacy?

My biggest beef with gay visibility is that the represented gay characters all conform to imposed heteronormative conventions. These characters are lacking sexuality (or are thrust in committed, monogamous relationships as soon as possible), speak constantly of marriage and of children (especially in the case of lesbian characters... Think Mad About You and Friends).

Homogeneity of Depicted Representations

The homogeneity in which these gay characters are represented is both hilarious and sickening at the same time. But what do these representations mean for gay-identified people living outside of television's warm glow? To be deemed legitimate, they must conform to the televised character's standards... meaning desexualized, maintains a proper gender-identity, most likely middle-class, and a sidekick.

Self-censorship is then used by gay people in order to conform to these standards. In order to be a "good gay", as judged by normative audiences, it is crucial not to be deviant. A social hierarchy is then formed, casting those who can't/don't conform to these depicted images.

Am I happy that I am seeing an increase of gay representation on television? Yes. Do I find these images entertaining? Heck yes! But until I start seeing images of the actual multifaceted umbrella that is the gay population, I will continue to fight and scream. It is naive to think that these normative representations are as positive as they seem. Is it really all that humane to cast others into the shadows in order to increase your own personal visibility?

Rumours that Ellen's character is going to come out. Shortly afterwards, she received several threats, including bombs.

March 26, 2008

Queering Videogame Culture: The SIMS and (Queer) Sexuality

Beautifuldisaster210's Sim's 2 video.

Video games symbolize an important fantasy element within popular culture. In fact, as sales soar, academics have begun further examining how people consume and receive the message in the games. But what has struck me as interesting is the sheer absence of sexuality in the academic literature.

Typically, the story arc within video games are quite heteronormative. Save the princess, be a hero, defeat your enemies, etc. But how are non-normative individuals represented? How do queers receive these images?

Mia Consalvo sets out to look into queer sexuality in Electronic Art's popular game The Sims. The reasoning for choosing the Sims, claims Consalvo, is that the Sims franchise is popular with men and women, normative and non-normative players. Actually, more females play the Sims than any other mass-audience produced game offered. As an added bonus, this game has little heteronormative bias unlike in other games.


Starting a new Sims game is quite easy. First, you create a new family. Unlike in traditional families, there is no patriarchal head. Players are free to create characters that are similar to themselves or completely unique. Players choose skin/body/clothing type and gender. But there is no check-off for sexuality anywhere.

The Sims plays as a choose-your-own-adventure game. Its innovative emergent storyline allows players to choose their own interactions. But within this arc lies coding that enables same-sex characters to flirt, kiss, and even romp around in a hilarious heart-shaped bed or hot tub. But remember, as no orientation is chosen in a character's creation, it is safe to assume that sim sexuality, then, is not an identity so much as it is an activity.


Because of this, The Sims plays with the notion sexuality and questions sexual orientation as a core aspect of identity. More importantly, the game questions and destabilizes identity categories as they pertain to sexuality. However, it is deceptive to make a claim of inherent sim sexuality as it is the player that ultimately controls their character's sexual activities.

The Sims main charm is that game play is built off of relationships between characters. Sexual activity only comes about after friendship is achieved. But sexual behaviour (not only the act of sex, but kissing and other erotic behaviour) is available to all Sims characters regardless of gender. The Sims thus raises questions about the fixedness of sexuality to identity and sex and forces players to examine their own thoughts about the idea.

These characters belong to MShades

Players are free to control their Sim's desire by simply ignoring the command that appears. But by not barring these homo erotic scenarios, the Sims can be read as queer as it challenges what is seen as normal in the real world. It challenges the fixed nature of the gay/straight binary and of the insistence of gayness as a birth right.

The Sims is revolutionary as it acknowledges that while normative behaviour is the dominant one, alternatives do exist. Whether normative or not, a wider spectrum of people are now being represented within the wonderful queer world of the Sims.

March 13, 2008

Masculinity and 20-somethings: An Interview With Stu

Scene from Julien Donkey-Boy, directed by Harmony Korine.

**This is the last segment of my 3-part interview series on masculinity. This will also be my last masculinity themed post for a little bit so I can focus on other areas.

For this last interview, I wanted to see how masculine representation affected my friend Stu. Theories aside, I wanted to delve into my friend's mind and see his impressions on masculine representation and who came to mind in pop culture.

Unlike the interviews with Gauge and Paul, who both had differing ideas on masculinity, it is apparent with Stu's answers that he is still questioning norms. But what is most interesting is that he is not overly concerned with typical representations and seemingly identifies more with alternative portrayals.

Now without further ado... meet Stu.

Growing up, do you remember seeing on television or in films, any male figures who do not fit the normative depiction? How did you feel about them then? Now?

"A film I can clearly remember is Julien-Donkey Boy. The main character, Julien, played by Ewen Bremner, is depicted in such a disgusting and realistic fashion that most leads in Hollywood would run from and consider career suicide. You would NOT see Brad Pitt playing this role.

The film opens up with Ewen staring into the camera with drool dripping down his face and snot dripping out his nose. He is not a handsome man on any scale, somewhat losing his hair. At the time, I thought to myself that it had to have been one of the most disgusting and irrational things an actor could do on screen.

Today, my view of the world is definitely more mature and Ewen wanted to make a point that you don’t have to be the typical male that fits in the norm to be accepted."

As a teenager, what sort of male representations did you see in pop culture? How did they affect you?

"Having figured out I was gay at a younger age, I realized that gay issues were still quite new to television. Shows like Queer as Folk and Will and Grace opened up my eyes to seeing distinct representations of homosexual life in different, mainly positive, scenarios.

On the other hand, there were many shows out there that were all about the macho man. You know, the jock, popular straight guy dealing with girlfriends, cheating, friends, and then dealing with the one gay character on the show. Dawson’s Creek or Degrassi: The Next Generation come to mind.

It is tough to pinpoint how exactly each character and how they represented themselves affect me. On the one hand, if a gay character became popular or there was no change in how everyone around them acted once they came out, it made me think that it was possible that it will happen to me down the line as I had not publicly come out.

On the other hand, for example, many shows would show gay bashing, or that straight guys who are successful in one area and have issues would usually find a way out of [their issues]. This would downplay the gay guy's issues.

In Dawson’s Creek, the gay guy was always depressed, which would send a mixed signal of how life is. There was no middle ground. Male representation was on either ends of the extreme."

How do you feel male stereotypes brought in from pop culture affect you in your day-to-day life?

"I don’t really base my life around the stereotypes I see on T.V. As unoriginal as this may sound, but I like to consider myself original. There is no way that, to a certain degree, I am influenced by images and ideas that I am exposed to from the shows/films I watch and the music I listen to.

I guess that the male stereotypes would affect me in the way that I tend to try and avoid them. I think they are generalized and can be an illusion as to the way society would like to view the typical male."

Looking at Stu's answers, it becomes apparent that a part of his masculinity is about rebellion and of independence. For Stu, the alternative media (such as Harmony Korine) provides a sort of respite from typical depictions.

Boys Don't Cry- The Cure, hailed as the dance song for guys.

March 12, 2008

Radical Masculinity: A Discussion with Gauge

She's My Man- Scissor Sisters

In my last interview with Paul Baines, I ventured into the realm of masculinity as a construct. Moreover, Paul relayed how current masculine depictions and attitudes are self-destructive.

Today I want to showcase a more radical idea of masculinity. Gauge's blog, Radical Masculinity, helped me further understand the concept of alternative masculinity(ies) as well as how masculine privilege can be evoked/revoked in varying situations. So, with out further ado, here is part 2 of my masculinity interview trilogy.

Hercules and the Love Affair- Blind (Hercules Club Mix) featuring Antony Johnson on vocals

Radical Masculinity explores many issues in regards to the masculine identity and of male privilege. Can you explain in a little more detail the notion of alternative masculine identities and how male/masculine privilege interacts with them?

"Well, first of all, I like to think of sex and gender-based privilege as two separate things that tend to intersect to the point that they often seem to blur into each other. Many alternative masculine identities are held by people who aren't privileged on the basis of their sex.

It would be very blind to say that masculinity is ever not privileged, but, the interaction between society and alternative masculinities often views those masculinities as invisible or illegitimate, and often oppresses the deviance from gender norms in such a way that the oppression faced for non-normative gender is tied up in possessing masculinity.

In general, non-normative genders greatly complicate discussions of privilege and oppression, so, it requires looking at both individual identities and specific locations, communities, and subcultures."

Do you feel as if normative identified males can benefit from alternative masculine discourses?

"Absolutely! I think that normative masculinity is very prescriptive. While feminism has opened things up a little, I think that a dialogue between people with alternative masculinities and people with normative masculinities can help people in both groups grow and resist unwanted social constraints on their identities."

Visibility Alert’s
main goal is to question (and highlight) typical pop culture representations and analyze who is actually receiving legitimizing power from dominant society. Do you feel as if alternative masculinities are represented in mainstream areas?

"Not all that much. We don't see much in the way of alternative masculinities for males who are assigned at birth men. For female assigned at birth people, we might see someone who is a little bit of a tomboy, but what masculinity she'll display has to be balanced out by her still being conventionally attractive and capable of performing mainstream femininity.

The majority of the time, for people who society says aren't masculine, they can do masculine things, as long as they themselves do not read as exclusively masculine.

FTM spectrum characters are pretty rare in fictional mainstream media. In documentaries and talk shows, they tend to always be very conventional, normative & narrative FTMs.

In the mainstream of queer media, you definitely have most of the characters that aren't just normative LGB folk in the background, or as minor characters, or doing Trans 101 (most of the time Max is on the L Word, for instance), or being held up as objects to be laughed at (how the Big Gay Sketch Show on LOGO treats trans people). So it seems that we're recreating the same sort of dynamic that the mainstream media does to queer people in our own little microcosm."

Transgenderism as spectacle in The Big Gay Sketch Show's Tranny 911

Any closing comments on alternative masculinities in relation to pop culture?

"I think it's pretty striking to me how pop culture will try to sweep away alternative gender identities. An isolated example is the video for the Scissor Sisters' video for “She's My Man” - a song that pretty clearly lyrically reads as being about a very masculine woman, yet the video has a very normative woman being the aggressor in a stylized fight at dinner. Beyond just the reinforcing of the equating of masculinity with violence, it eliminates what I – and it seems like a lot of other people I've talked to – read into the song.

Even in the queer mass media's depictions of LGBT people, the vast majority of depictions – and almost all the major ones – are of people who have simple, clear cut identities that fit very normative standards. I think as LGBT people have gained , we've mainstreamed our own depictions of ourselves."

For more radical insights, check out Gauge's wisdom at Radical Masculinity.