Tuesday, June 29, 2010

To Keep & Bear Arms.

So... Wait. Let me get this straight.

The Second Amendment of our United States Constitution reads as follows:

Now, let's backtrack about 23 words, back to those first four.

A well regulated Militia.

& we'll add the next bit, too, as that comma is clearly olde-timey; the only way the sentence makes grammatical sense is if the whole clause reads thus:

A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State...

Meaning: "Assuming that a well-regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State." Meaning, not only is the right to bear arms predicated on a well-regulated Militia (not three guys in a Dodge Durango)—or even a "Militia" being a system of organization that people are apt to utilize—but the intent of this Militia was that State could protect against State—as in, if Massachusetts decided to take over Connecticut (a choice, by the way, that I would have no problem with), Connecticut should be able to have guns to defend itself.

All right. That said, explain this to me:

An explosion of cases will keep courts busy for years defining gun control's new limits now that the high court has ruled that wherever they live, Americans have a right to possess guns, at least for self-defense in the home. (AP)
Really. Someone. Please. I am at a loss. This just quite literally does not make sense to me. Nowhere—nowhere—in the 27 words of that amendment does it indicate that arms are appropriate for home use. In fact, it indicates quite the opposite: a well regulated Militia—State defense, not self-defense. I feel like the court just redeclared drinking illegal, ruled that the way we count people includes fractions again: it's as if they ignored the first line of the amendment entirely.

Because, being a Fruity Liberal Wuss (or, as I like to put it, Someone Who Prefers That More People Stay Alive Than Not), I read this amendment as self-abolishing; once a well regulated Militia is no longer necessary to keep individual states free, then the government can infringe to its heart's content. Otherwise, why on earth would the framers of the Constitution have phrased it that way, with a conditional/descriptive clause at the start?

Because my point isn't provable beyond a reasonable doubt, I do accept the opinions of those who say the Framers intended every (able-bodied, male) citizen to have ready access to a gun. However, I would still contend that these "arms" were probably kept in a local storehouse somewhere, for use by the Militia—or, even if they weren't, even if everyone walked around brandishing muskets like so much Kleenex, that America in 1776 was a fundamentally, unforeseeably different place from the America we know & love. What I mean is: this law seems, on several levels, so insanely outdated as to boggle the mind.

Ultimately, I feel about the Constitution the same way I feel about the Bible: you implement the core tenets of each—be they Love Thy Neighbor or Checks & Balances—updating or forgetting entirely the rules that attempt to regulate specific behaviors—such as Sodomy or Gun Ownership—based on the understanding, which I don't think is a particularly hard sell, that progress happens. Destinies get Manifested, & it may be necessary for the Law of the Land to adapt. Put it this way: Thomas Jefferson could never in his wildest dreams conceive of anything like the AK-47, let alone buying one on the internet.

Unlike other socially incorrect laws (read: those involving slavery), this one has remained unchanged, never successfully challenged, because it's essentially impossible to make a clear case for its outdated status (that doesn't employ hyperbolic examples of former presidents & assault rifles) while "arms" are still around. Guns exist; the law talks about guns; ergo, the law ought to exist. But, really, let's take a look at what we've done:

Alito essentially repeated the formulation used by Justice Antonin Scalia two years ago that the court was not calling into question "long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings."
This is seen as worthy self-congratulation: that we don't bring guns into schools or sell them to the mentally ill. That's considered restraint. That's appropriate regulation. I mean, I just— ...—

These are weapons.

They take lives.

They negate others' existence—void all on which we predicate anything, ever.

I don't care if the person in your sights is Bad or Intimidating or Trying to Steal Your Flatscreen TV: they deserve to be imprisoned, not shot. Even if you disagree with that as a general statement, I would hope you still see the importance of letting the state & its judicial system—or, at the very least, trained police officers—be the ones to make the fatal call.

Am I wrong? I mean, I understand that the game changes once there's a Violent Intruder in your very own home, but I also just don't see the practicality of personal gun ownership in this scenario. For example, assuming you’ve gotten the gun to Protect Your Family, the precautions necessary to truly ensure your child doesn’t blow his or her head off all but nullify any chance of its ready availability in an emergency. Of course, the only response to this foreseeable snag is to be less & less safe—to leave off those child locks, to carry a concealed weapon in public—which will only cause far more hassle, more violence, more death than this could ever be worth. Because honestly, I think what gun owner hopefuls are after is not actual Protection, but the illusion of protection, of security—&, honestly, the illusion of their own Heroism.

I find it frustratingly coincidental (curse you, O Great Screenwriter) that I just spent the other night thinking/writing about Vigilantism: it strikes me that those who would take advantage of this country’s ever-dwindling gun regulation probably think something along the lines of, “Well, I’ll get this gun, just in case; I won’t intend to use it much, but the second someone threatens me or my loved ones, I will spring into action!!! Ka-pow! Ker-chop! Shazaaam!!!!!!” Everyone wants to be the Hero, rightly lauded above all, responsible for having protected Life—paradoxically, of course, in this case, by dealing Death.

& consider this: were I awoken in the middle of the night by suspicious noises, I would absolutely take my (legally purchased) handgun out of my night stand, creep downstairs, & in my panic, probably end up shooting some local teenagers kicking a beer can around my front yard. My point is: 1) people who don’t function well under pressure shouldn’t have the power to kill on sight, 2) that the government can’t (either actually or practically) test for things like competence under pressure, & that therefore, 3) sanctioning guns in every American home—for this & reason upon reason—is effectively sanctioning hundreds of thousands of Accidents Waiting to Happen, & fatal ones at that.

If you feel you need more convincing—that you have a personal tale of gun success to trump my ham-handed examples, that you just like guns & don’t see the big deal—take a gander at the list of gun regulations that could be overturned under the new ruling. One that especially worries me is the misdemeanor domestic violence caveat: that most convicted of domestic violence are technically not serious enough felons to prevent them from now buying a gun, which means that children & spouses of abusive partners have a whole other level of Fear coming their way.

But really, though: let’s please return to the heart of this matter—what stops me from even really engaging in this debate, leaves my brain somewhere behind, bashing again & again against this impossibility like a wind-up toy into a wall: this decision is just not supported by the Constitution of the United States of America at it is written.

I don’t understand—I really just can’t, on many levels—but I can feel that something is rotten in our state, & it’s becoming increasingly clear that Heaven won’t direct it: what we need is a goddamn Well Regulated Militia.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Rock 'n' Roll Never Looked So Beautiful—Semi Precious Weapons
(Live, Bowery Ballroom, 4/26/10).

To: spw@semipreciousweapons.com 4/27/10, 12:11 AM

Subject: Beautifully fucking done.

Let me start out by saying I have never written a fan letter. (I think they're sometimes silly.) However, let me also say, I have never seen a show as brain-bending, gut-wrenching, simply-fucking-transcendent from beginning to end as tonight at the Bowery Ballroom.

You encompass everything I love about music (megawatts of Raw Power coupled with glitter-glamourous stage aesthetic), & though I haven't been there from the very beginning, I've been with you a good long while, & it's so, so, so excellent to see you positively zooming upwards. Today our love, tomorrow the world—& so it goes.

You are glorious, & you are the future. You are shiny, make-up-spattered titans of rock-&-mother-fucking-roll. I salute you with all the love in my heart.


You Love You: The Album. Now available on iTunes.
Do it. You will not be sorry.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vigilantism & the American Serial Killer. (Or, WTF Is Up With Dexter?)

When I first heard about Dexter—sometime around the end of its second season, when it was picking up real popularity—I got indignant. Massively so. "Are you kidding me?" I remember ranting in someone's face (retroactive apologies if it was yours), "First The Tudors makes King Henry VIII sexy, now we're making light of serial killing?! This is like a bad parody of American television! Has Christopher Guest taken over Showtime??"

Then, of course, boredom struck one afternoon some months later, & I decided to take advantage of my cable box: I watched all of the second & third seasons (yes, I skipped the first—a fault I later remedied) in a matter of days. Something about this show was just so addictive—the darkness of it; the garish, heightened quality of Miami; the constant suspense that Dexter (Blood Spatter Analyst By Day, Serial Killer By Night!) is ever closer to getting found out—while, at the same time, I had the palpable experience of not enjoying what I was watching. Part of this dislike, I'm sure, stems from the constant brightness & heat of the Florida setting, which is an atmosphere that I personally could really do without (I'm very much an all-four-seasons lady). Part of it, too, is due to the frustrating dearth of interesting, relatable minor characters—&, consequently, the frustrating presence of boring, unsympathetic ones—especially Deb, Dexter's foul-mouthed, anorexic-skinny stepsister, who is both badly acted by an over-emphatic Jennifer Carpenter & badly written into exactly the kind of "Loud & Obnoxious, Ergo Positive Female Character" archetype that drives me bananas.

Still, there's something deeper than setting or supporting actors, something stranger & skin-crawling-er & not quite right—& I do think it goes back to what I originally viewed as problematic, then wrote off as interesting & satirical: the fact that we end up rooting for, or believing in at all, a positively-represented mass-murderer.

Or—well—It is, in fact, indicative of my state of mind (& extreme personal interest in the subject) that I understand how "mass-muderer" is a misnomer for our death-dealing protagonist, despite the fact that he commits a massive amount of murder: technically speaking, while both serial killers & mass-murderers kill repeatedly & often, a serial killer is someone more methodical, more compulsive. Think Mickey & Mallory Knox from Natural Born Killers vs. Hannibal Lecter: the duo kill indiscriminately, constantly—even joyously—for the fuck of it, while the doctor is portrayed as particular, obsessive, & downright creepy. Dexter is crafted specifically to fit the Lecter model (who was himself, of course, modeled after certain big names in fatal American depravity—Fish, Gein, Gacy): he performs his killings in a ritualized setting (a plastic-coated room & victim); he collects souvenirs of the crime (blood drops on slides, hidden in a box behind his air conditioner); &, most importantly, he feels compelled from somewhere deep inside him—somewhere primal, uncontrollable—to do violence.

The basic backstory of this urge—intricacies of which are ever-unfolding, still to this season—goes something like this: once upon a time, young Dexter was abandoned inside one of those truck-trailer-storage-units with multiple dead bodies, left near-naked & alone in a vast pool of blood for some unthinkable amount of time. Because of this trauma, he now fetishizes blood & death to such a degree that he can only ever feel catharsis—part-spiritual, part-orgasmic, it seems—when plunging a Bowie knife into someone's chest. Harry, a policeman & Dexter's adoptive father, recognizes his son's violent tendencies &, rather than seek therapeutic help, trains him to kill (without a forensic trace) only those who really deserve it—that is, violent criminals whom the negligent Justice System lets back out on the street.

Thus, Dexter (italics or no) represents the culmination of two American-purported phenomena I find fascinating—specifically, the Platonic, idealized Serial Killer & the glorified Vigilante. The fact that he has achieved such popularity makes him a perfect point of study—& the fact that I find these issues here botched explains my uncharacteristic dislike for such a lauded crime show.

To begin: it seems that we as human beings love to look into the heart of Evil (especially we American human beings into the heart of a Serial Killer)—& that, at least in my experience, we do it for two simultaneous, if contradictory reasons. First & most obvious, there is a serious Othering that takes place: "Eew, how gross! How scary! How bizarre that these fucked up people feel compelled to do such terrible things! Thank God I'm not like that." It's a way to eschew our darker impulses by confronting them, then projecting them onto someone like Lecter or Patrick Bateman. Still, there is a way in which it's crucial that these evildoers are people, are sympathetic to us on that basic level; it's not nearly as interesting—or psychologically cathartic—to watch a lion maul a zoo attendant. Part of this pleasure in watching human depravity seems to stem from daring ourselves towards the darkness, examining up close the ever-dwindling thread—one cerebral chemical, one childhood mishap—that separates us from what we fear.

Take, for example, the case that gives me chill upon chill—one that I became a little obsessed with this past year, to catastrophically unproductive results—that of Jeffrey Dahmer. Though you've probably heard of Dahmer's many atrocities, here's a basic overview: he killed 17 young men, as far as we know, always after/as a result of pursuing them sexually. His intent, especially towards the end, was to create a "zombie" partner—someone who would (could) never leave him; he would perform haphazard lobotomies with hydrochloric acid on those whom he could lure back to his apartment. When these procedures inevitably went awry, he would dismember the bodies, keeping certain parts as trophies & even engaging in occasional cannibalism.

The case is horrifying. The man is horrifying. But—& please, please understand the trepidation with which I phrase this section—there is something tragic, something understandable about the root of his crimes: as he tells it, he bludgeoned his first victim to death because "the guy wanted to leave & I didn't want him to leave." Though no balanced, healthy person would ever respond as he did, I can only imagine that every person, balanced or no, has experienced this feeling of desperation as someone walks out the door. Moreover, Dahmer was gay in a time when homosexuality was still unacceptable to the mainstream; with societally-legitimized cause, he was afraid of being eternally Alone. Of course, of course—of course—the lengths to which he went—the unspeakable violence, the repulsive disregard for human life—are in no way sympathetic or forgivable, nor should they be. But there is something terrifying, revealing—something necessary about the extent, small though it may be, to which Dahmer is, at his core, relatable.

What Dexter does, though, is take this intense, complex sympathy & trivialize it, making it either a joke or a banality, depending upon the scene. The premise of the show, ultimately, seems to be, "Serial Killers: They're Just Like Us!"—almost as if we're watching a Discovery Channel special. The question of whether wrongdoers should be painted sympathetically is certainly an interesting one—an unavoidable one, I would say—but the approach that Dexter takes is ham-handed & odd, glossing over the soul-wrenching confusion that it takes to find oneself in Evil, to merge gently with the darkness while still keeping enough boundaries intact—preferring instead to assume our complicity on a very surface level & make a coy title sequence that portrays Dexter's everyday actions as latently violent, tongue always firmly in cheek.

However, it is important to remember that Dexter is not just a killer. Oh, no: he kills for Right; he kills for Justice; he kills only those who have killed—people unpunished for the suffering they have caused. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth—he represents the personified, self-interested Lethal Injection. & this seems to be an aspect of the show that most viewers who might be inclined to disagree with such policies (read: myself included) glossed over during the first couple episodes, just so relieved to have an easy excuse for our sympathy. It's okay that he kills people: they're bad people. It makes sense. If, though, we separate out these two issues—the sympathy & the killing of wrongdoers—we can see that Dexter is, on the one hand, a show that simplifies the relatability of serial killers to a clever premise & that, on the other, subtly promotes what is often seen as a conservative viewpoint: that killers deserve to die.

& this, I think, is where a good deal of my frustration comes from: the unquestioned glorification of vigilantism, which is itself such a bizarre, paradoxical issue, as it forces us to distinguish between Violence For Good & Violence For Evil—or even to recognize that such a distinction can be made. The killer who kills killers necessarily muddles in such hopeless ethical limbo that it seems almost impossible to render one a hero—& yet we do, constantly: with Batman, with The Boondock Saints, & any number of flashy action movies starring Men Outside the Law.

Because, as I see it, there is something inherently American about the character of the Vigilante. He's in our second amendment, clutched desperately in the hands of Southern Tradition—& just as equally in the dreadlocks & piercings of our Anarchists, tattooed limbs & stolen clothes. In a country founded on rebelling against authority, whose basic tenets include a clause allowing its citizens to Revolt, it seems only right that we be skeptical of government, ready always with our Well Organized Militia for some Violent Upheaval. In less hyperbolic terms, it seems especially encouraged in this country to never let Authority go unchecked, to be aware of & vocal about the ways in which Big Government's brand of Justice is inefficient & impractical & screwing us all over—& the next logical step, of course, is to take action.

However, most of us stay home & mind our own business—maybe write a letter or two, hoist a harmless picket sign—because we recognize that we don't live in Gotham City, that we don't have a cartoonish Bad Guy who will take too long making his dramatic world-ending speech. Most of us, in fact, are not familiar in any way with serious, repetitive violent crime; we leave that to the fiction-makers, again projecting out a piece of our inner darkness, our Revenge, this time onto the superheroes & rogue hitmen.

Perhaps, then, this is why Dexter is so very popular, even when riding on such a shaky premise: he represents an acceptable scapegoat for our violent desires by rendering them justifiable, making it okay to root for his compulsion, his sickness to take another life. Unlike the complex & frightening humanity of the actual serial killer, Dexter offers us the illusion of guiltless sympathy because he is Right; he allows us to take pleasure both in senseless violence & in revenge—those primal instincts lurking somewhere behind our bones—free of any ethical or intellectual constraints. Ultimately, operating on this level of thoughtlessness, though momentarily cathartic, just leaves me feeling icky.

There is a reason we leave vigilantes confined to unrealistic, heightened fiction; when we attempt to modernize or explain them, as far as we can tell, they end up looking like Dexter: compulsive killers, blood-spattered & smiling.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

More remixes—this one particularly excellent. This song is one of those ones you almost can't not like—however you may feel about Passion Pit or Wispy Voiced Electronic Music in general, & I would assert that this remix makes it, in fact, far, far cooler.

Furthermore: through some Random Insomniac Clicking, I discovered this free EP of some great electronic-y tracks: remixes, mash-ups, straight techno, including a version of Das Racist's infamous Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

I Am Okay With / Not Okay With: Ill-Advised Sequels Edition.

I mean, in all honesty, most sequels are ill-advised: there did not, no matter what anyone says, need to be 3 Pirates of the Caribbean movies. (Or 97 Land Before Times.) Not only are sequels incredibly difficult to write, even at the level of basic plot construction (unless the original was based on a serial story, à la Spiderman), but to make matters worse, most studios will hire an entirely different writer/director/lead actor & then just throw a dumptruck's worth of money at the project, pasting over heinous gaps by crowbarring in as many groan-worthy references to the original as humanly possible. So now, just for fun, Hollywood has decided to fuck with two of my very favorite movies—which, so the irony goes, were favorites because they were part of the dying breed that is the skillfully written, autonomous comedy. Without further ado, today's contenders are:

Yes, dear Reader, today's choice is a tough one (both of these sound really, depressingly bad), but in an effort to inject my life with a little positivity, I'm forcing myself to decide which one I hate slightly less. So, in one corner, we have a Mean Girls sequel—or, as I would prefer it titled, Mean & Meanerer: Clichés Gone Wild—which, at the moment, includes cast members from the 10 Things I Hate About You TV mishap, a director whose only work of note is a nameless acting part in Clockstoppers (or, her one episode of Lipstick Jungle), & a plot involving friendship incentivized by college tuition. In the opposing corner, of course, sits a continuation of School of Rock—a movie that not only needs no continuation, but which, in fact, stopped exactly at the moment before the joke got old. Really, within the minute. (The joke, of course, being that Jack Black plays himself, as usual—or, that children can act & sometimes play musical instruments.) Even that improvised AC/DC credits sequence was bordering on bad; it was artfully fade-to-blacked & then some. Also, the day I see a movie with "America Rocks" in the title—Schoolhouse Rock callback though it may be—is the day I hang myself.

So, which upcoming sequel inspires slightly less despair? Survey says...

I Am Okay With: School of Rock 2: In Case You Forgot How Jack Black Is.

... But just barely. & only because it has one potential saving grace: it's actually being written by Mike White. Which by no means guarantees its success; I remain of a mind that School of Rock is necessarily sequel-less, & that anything anyone tries, even if they were to seance in Billy fucking Wilder, will be hopelessly awkward & unfortunate. That said, at least they've had the decency to put Mike White in charge: he singlehandedly thought of & wrote the original as a vehicle for his friend & neighbor Jack Black (no surprises there...), so if anyone could come up with a mildly passable script, it would probably be the cross-dressing, blood-sucking incubus from Maggotdeath (that is, him). Also, Richard Linklater—AKA, genius upon genius, stewed in a genius-y broth—will be returning to direct, rumor has it. So, I mean, yes, fine, if they can really reassemble the original White-Black-Linklater (one of these things is not like the other...) team, then at least the movie has a prayer.

Still, with altogether different kids & a premise that involves road-tripping across America for God knows what reason—coupled with the fact that everyone was okay with ending the original story as it was—the future of this film continues to ride the tightrope between "iffy" & "complete fucking disaster that drives Anneliese into a pit of deep, existential darkness, from which she can emerge only to wring the pillowcase of her tears, shake her fists at the heavens & cry Is nothing sacred????" Yeah, somewhere in there.

I Am Not Okay With: Mean Girls 2: Straight to DVD Edition.

(Dear God. Where do we even start? I'm actually dumbfounded—dumbfounded, I say!—by how depressing the thought of this movie is. I guess I'll start with everyone's favorite safe bet: the Wild Generalization.)

Perhaps the greatest sequel flaw—one that has been repeated time & time again, it seems—is the failure of various filmmakers to understand what was great about their movie in the first place, thus causing them to reprise or heighten stupid, inconsequential aspects while losing entirely the flair that made you love the concept at all. (I will never forgive you, Jerry Bruckheimer.) You'll find this phenomenon recurrent in most artists who elaborate on (or even talk about) their own product—& rightly, as it's often difficult to predict/gauge audience reaction. However, you'd think that these movie moguls do enough focus-grouping / read enough reviews / generally get enough feedback on their endeavors that they would understand how to glean the Good factor off a movie for insertion into its sequel. I mean, I understand that Hollywood is a money-making business at its core, but sometimes it's just too depressing to witness the entertainment-bereft depths to which they'll sink for a quick buck from the lowest common denominator.

One such plunge is this upcoming Mean Girls project. Because the absolute last thing that made the first Mean Girls great was its core subject matter; popular girls—even in the traditional, appearance-driven tripod clique—have been getting their comeuppance since the late 80s. What made Mean Girls special was the witty modern approach, the offbeat humor that still somehow rang true with today's teenagers; it was fresh, it was hilarious, & now those who longed for some sort of reprisal are left with low budgets & inexperience—hackneyed references & sad graspings back at the original writer's former glory.

To make matters worse: while it's not explicit in any of the announcement articles that the project will go straight to DVD, the production experience of the cast & crew essentially speaks for itself: The Naked Brothers Band: Nickelodeon's Creepiest-Sounding Show for the director, & Camp Rock: Disney's Singlehanded Poisoning of an Entire Generation Against Actual Music for its star. (Also, as I think I already mentioned, the abysmal nose-dive of a rip-off series 10 Things I Hate About You will be contributing several cast-offs.) In any event, the "V" next to its title on IMDb is a pretty sure bet; we can all look forward to seeing this in the bargain bin in our local CVS is a year or so. Poor Tina Fey—I weep for you today, my lady.

Ugh. No fun, my babe, no fun—that's for sure. Speaking of music, before we move on to the next section, let's all cleanse our mental palettes with the greatest news headline ever, ever, ever, shall we?

Also, this:

Much better. Now...

Today's Headphone Fodder:

All of the Gaga brouhaha (& this. This, too.) around the house lately has got me in a bit of a crap pop funk—doomed to dull my soul along to the poorly rolled Rs of Alejandrrro forevermore—until I re-found this stashed away in my iTunes.

Here's some paradoxical reasoning for you: because I hate the song Telephone so much, I desperately want you to hear this remixed mash-up. See, this track is incredible—truly—& the fact that it was created from such depressingly threadbare material is a feat among feats. The telephone noises, the Metallica (which fits perfectly), the pulse-throbbing beats... It's one of the most fantastically danceable songs I've heard in a long, long time—& so well done on this DJ's part. (Give it until at least the first post-chorus to kick in all the way...)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Girly Until Proven Innocent.

So, here's my thing: I tend to like "guy stuff."

& when I say "tend to," I mean strongly tend to: action movies, male authors/musicians, men's clothes, men as friends—to the point where a large part of my identity, at least through middle- & high-school, was "One of the boys! You can hang out with Anneliese, guys: she's just like a dude! Let's invite her to creepy (almost literal) circle-jerk parties where we talk about our favorite kinds of porn!" (True story. For all you girls who wondered what the boys did at their sleep-overs: just forget you ever asked.)

Throughout of all this, though, there has been the little inkling in the back of my brain—the kind that gets magnified to Posting Status by entries like this one on my favorite feminist blog—that calls out, "BOOOO! BOOOOO! BAD FEMINIST! YOU SHOULD LIKE WOMAN THINGS!" over & over on a loop, like that anxiety dream from The Princess Bride. I mean, I often just tell that inkling to sit back & recognize that I have a fucking favorite feminist blog in the first place, but today, for whatever reason, that's not enough. So, here goes: a reckoning with myself about what it means to be a feminist who prefers non-feminine things—&, ultimately, a reckoning with the Man about why all things designated as "feminine" kind of suck.

First off: having grown up with an active awareness of what it means to be transgender, I can say confidently that I feel no need to redefine my gender at its core: I am Woman. Yes, I like the man stuff (& the man clothes, a lot), but I also like dresses sometimes, & Feelings—& while I understand (of course) that those things in & of themselves do not a lady make (as I would hope more Manly Men could key into them, please—especially the dresses), I can assure you that I know, deep down in that little place you don't even have to look for, that I am female. Not even genderless or in between somehow: I have two X chromosomes & I invite you to hear them roar.

In fact, if we're being honest, I am particularly attracted to (both practicing & the people who practice) androgyny, drag—the kind of gender expression that knowingly adopts the stylings of its opposite on occasion without any actual wish to become. Here, for fun, are some pictures:

All of which is to say: this strength in my identification as Woman, even as I wear tailcoats & combat boots, makes it particularly difficult to convince myself that I am a legitimate, card-carrying feminist & not just some ship-jumping patriarchy-lover who, when the going gets tough, sides with the winning team.

I suppose my dormant insecurities were provoked somewhat by this comment on this Totally Brilliant feminist philosophy article that you should all read (& that I have no personal stake in, no siree...), in which a transman openly (admirably) discusses the automatic privilege that males (or, those perceived as male) are awarded in our society. It's eye-opening, to say the least, & though you could probably already imagine, it's important—& a little frightening—to hear it from someone who's actually seen both sides, like Tiresias championing the female orgasm.

Things complicate when it becomes clear that, not only does the Current State of Things want to reward me for any male qualities I might exhibit, but, in fact, tends to designate things as "for women" that I actually really hate. I rarely wear make-up; I loathe the very concept of designer labels; perfume gives me headaches; wedding dresses are hideous; facial masks remain a mystery, as do bath salts; & I do not identify in any way with that blonde girl from Grey's Anatomy, nor do I feel compelled to see movies with her in them (or, for that matter, Grey's Anatomy). Also, I think it goes without saying that I'm bothered by all people who are shallow, vain, overemotional, manipulative, shrill, & on & on—& though I've known more than a few men who fit that bill, for whatever reason, our society has decided that these qualities come standard with a vagina.

I mean, really: who in their right mind would want to be seen as delicate, vacuous, or easily grossed-out? & yet, according to the archetypal Woman our culture checks all us ladies against (e.g., "Hilary Clinton isn't womanly enough!"), it would seem that each female is unwittingly branded at birth with a list of these "feminine" qualities that she must cross out (or not) at her own behest. In my experience at least, you are Girly Until Proven Innocent (zing!), assumed unable to kill bugs or do math until you make a great big scene of yourself. As a young lady who who wants to make clear that she thinks stylized gun violence & electric guitars can be really fucking awesome—&, most importantly, that she has worthwhile opinions on both—it seems to be up to me to yell out, "I'M NOT ACTUALLY GIRLY, P.S." at the top of my lungs whenever possible. For example: after spending the year with a roommate who was stereotypically Feminine to the nth degree—including 24/7 make-up, tight-fitting, silky clothes, & a perfected Airhead Giggle that only surfaced around Y chromosomes—I found myself saying "dude" far more frequently, excluding entirely the occasional dress or skirt, even ironically putting up a poster of a badly photoshopped conventional Sexbomb. Looking back, I think this was my way of reminding those who came by the room—including, of course, myself—that I was not like that, okay?!?

Ay, so, here's the rub: is the way I comport myself born of my own true desires, or just some race to elude presumptive adjectives? Were it the latter, perhaps I would be worthy of the guilt I harbor, but honestly, I think the developmental threads are woven a bit too tight to tell, now that my Tabula is far from Rasa'd. All I know is that my affinity for button-downs & dude-books feels organic, & that's enough for me.

But I think I've hit upon where the feminist bloggers—& feminists in general—are coming from: outrage at the general presumption that the Feminine has become something from which one must distance oneself in order to be taken seriously. Though the ways of this roommate (& the legions like her, as trained by Cosmo & Co.) are often silly, that doesn't mean that all people who prefer to smell like flowers are inherently superficial, that everyone in high heels is a de facto ditz. (Recognizing, of course, that a large number of women feel expected to smell like flowers & wear high heels. Hell, I feel expected to, I just choose not to—then doubt myself & end up writing meandering entries on the subject.)

Needless to say, it is endlessly fucking frustrating that men are still somehow regarded as superior in the World of Today, & one of the reasons, I would posit, is this relegation of Femininity to the Girly, to trivialities & fashion—& the ensuing conflation of this conventional female gender expression with the females themselves. (Even the word—"Girly"—implies something juvenile & not worth your time; the Platonic "Girl's Night Out" is often expensive, appearance-based, self-indulgent. Meanwhile, you would never call a man who expresses masculine qualities "Boyish," you would call him Manly; he & all of his Manly Man Pals would go on a Guy's Night Out—"Guy" being ambiguous in age & quality (e.g., "you guys" as referring to a mixed-gender group).)

Ultimately, in order to combat this, it becomes necessary to redefine what is Powerful as something other than what is Masculine, thereby divorcing what is Feminine from what is Weak & what it means to express Femininity from what is Shallow. Until that time, though, it's important to get people who are "Girly," especially highly visible people, to prove themselves as other stereotype-breaking things: levelheaded, intelligent, etc. One way to accomplish this, of course, is to promote (& promote the promotion of) female contribution to media; when an argument is made, in the blogosphere or otherwise, that feminists ought to appreciate books written by women or movies that prominently feature realistic females, I think that is exactly the verb intended: "appreciate." Not "obsess over," not "discard other things in favor of," but just that: appreciate. Make sure they're seen & heard. I couldn't agree more—& this, I think, is my potential saving grace.

Because, culture & roommates aside, the truth of the matter is that I genuinely happen to prefer—though not as a rule—literature & music that have been created by men. My favorite writers include Nabokov, Palahniuk, Poe, Auden, & though Woolf comes next, it remains an overwhelmingly male list—though not closed to new additions. As to music, I often describe my favorite genre as Boys With Guitars Playing Dirty, Dirty Rock—all the way from early Beatles to Bowie to Semi Precious Weapons—but that doesn't mean I'm not crazy about Patti Smith or Holly Brewer, Beth Ditto or Nellie McKay. I just find it difficult to cast a net for "women's music," because there is a hefty amount of it that's not quite my style; I actually think I'm guilty of having once uttered the words, "I just don't like women's voices as much"—the very statement that my favorite feminist blog (&, in fact, my favorite writer on that blog) spends a good amount of time ranting against. What rescues me from self-flagellation (&, hopefully, from her scorn), though, is that when I said "as much," I meant "as much," not "at all" by any stretch—that I support & praise women media-folk regularly. I believe wholeheartedly that there are & have been great artists of both genders—& that, as they're often marginalized, lady artists deserve a leg up—but still, I, personally, am more apt to like Pynchon than Austen, Joey Ramone than Janis Ian. & that's okay.

So, do I long for Brontë readings over an Enya soundtrack in a room of scented candles? No. Do I respect fluffy pink slumber parties & mani-pedis & silky tops? It depends. But do I champion their right to be respected? Absolutely. (Especially the scented candles.)

More than anything, though, do I wish the Powers That Be would stop equating femininity with stupid things it ought not be equated with? Yes, please.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

In honor of today's Deconstructing Femininity theme, I call upon a gender-bending icon for the ages, who's equally likely to appear in a mustache/suit combo as truly breathtaking drag, who famously opined "You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis & Kathie Lee; I don't care! Just as long as you call me." That's right, boys & girls:

There are many interesting points to debate about the role of male-to-female drag in the definition of femininity—or, for that matter, the role of gay men's fantasies of women in general—but for the moment, can we just say that RuPaul is fucking fabulous? Can we just get that out of the way? Not only is (s)he a pioneer for drag & LGBT rights across the board, but her message of acceptance transcends labels: "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?" concludes every episode of Drag Race—which are words everyone needs to here, as often as possible, especially when growing paranoid that they somehow don't measure up.

So, please, even if you're skeptical, take a listen (or six). I mean, sure, the song is a wee bit ridiculous—but so very excellently so. Seriously, let Ru welcome you to her stratosphere; it's well worth it. You can't regret the candy that you never had, after all.

Monday, June 21, 2010

La Isla Bonita > Elba Meets Auschwitz in a Leather Bar.

[ DISCLAIMER: The impetus for this post came from this wonderful piece of writing, which you should all read, ASAP. ]

I have been actively avoiding this video since it came out. Seriously: I tried
really, really hard not to watch it—even after impatient, eviscerating glares from several friends—because I just knew I was going to have another brain-barf episode & would probably reach the word limit on this damn Blog, which is already saturated enough with Gaga as it is—&, in that way, drastically misrepresents the amount of my brain space that she & her exploits take up on a day-to-day basis. (That is, precious little. She just has a way of getting my goat from time to time—hence the word-vomitous epics.)

However, a few days ago—after many, many hours of Awake, nourished only by Kix & beef jerky, lounging on a seafoam carpet in Brooklyn with a long lost pal—the time finally felt right. I gathered up my mental skirts, crossed myself a few times for good measure, & typed those 9 fatal letters into YouTube:


(I should also disclose that my knowledge of the song itself was limited to the few minutes I spent at a T stop next to perhaps the world's most flamboyant young gentleman, who was singing along enthusiastically with his headphones at full volume & doing a little dance, not unlike a bashful cha-cha. Basically, as this episode is somewhat seared into my brain, I could dope out a version of his slightly off-key "Alejandro, Ale-Ale-jandro" if asked.)

What I discovered, after 8-plus minutes of bowl cuts & latex & piles of pulsating back-up dancers, was actually quite shocking:

It's kind of boring.

Really. The song & the visuals: none too stimulating (well, okay, writhe-y & muscle-y, but not in a particularly compelling way)—at least compared with what she's done, & especially with what's out there to see. I don't hate it, but I don't like it much. In fact, I have almost no feelings about it whatsoever. Which, considering my history with the Lady, is surprising—to me at least.

&, while we're on the subject, let me just say this about that: Despite the amount of time I spend talking about her negatively, I don't hate Lady Gaga. Honestly, I feel the same way about her as I do this video: both ought to be wow-inducing, considering the amount of praise & attention they receive, but all I see is a tepid re-hash of bigger & better things. Not evil—not fundamentally wrong—just tepid. Lame. Diluted. However, it often feels like I'm the odd one out in a world of Little Monsters, like I'm missing some fundamental truth about Gaga that would render her Revolutionary in my eyes—or, in my version, like I'm Cassandra or Neo or that little boy at the Emperor's parade, whose job it is to yell "For God's sake, she's wearing Leigh Bowery's old clothes!"

It's similar to the way I feel as a born Bostonian living in New York: I have to get hyper-proud about my hometown, more so than I actually am, just to combat all of the sneering its mention often merits. & so, too, with Gaga—only in her case, I feel like I have to wave my arms & shout "She's Not That Cool, Guys!" far more than the recommended dosage to make any kind of microscopic dent in her massively positive image. My intent (though it often doesn't feel like a choice, the way frustration froths at the tip of my tongue) is to act as a vanguard, if you will—the devil's advocate, the provocateur—to make sure that those Gaga fans I can reach don't get too complacent as regards her penchant for uncredited homage & frustrating non-breakings of female sexuality conventions.

But I don't hate her, I don't hate this video, & as such, I only really have a few things to say:

1) Huzzah for boys in fishnets.

2) I so strongly desire that strange eyeglass/headdress contraption from the opening sequence. Honestly, if the whole video had been three minutes of her switching from lens to lens as the song played in the background, I would have been more than fine.

3) Though I get a feeling in my gut that I'm being utterly gauche by saying so—exposing myself as the fashion cretin I am & whatnot—I cannot get behind bowl cuts. I just can't do it. They remind me of little boys in striped shirts; seeing them on buff, leather-clad back-up dancers is just odd, if not laughable, impractical, juvenile. Am I wrong? It makes me feel like they ought to have giant eyebrow-pencil freckles & do a slapstick comedy sketch.

4) The song itself seems, upon further inspection, to be two verses appropriately chorus-intercut, followed by four minutes of repeating that chorus / the name "Alejandro" over & over & over & over until you would rather scoop your own eyes out with a soup ladle than hear her try to roll another R ever again. (Read: I'm really not a fan.)

5) There has been a lot of brouhaha about Gaga simulating the dominant role in gay male sex—that is, getting behind one of her muscle boys & thrusting—but that shot, though repeated twice, is but a few seconds in a video mostly dominated by her being dominated (felt up by multiple men at a time, restrained & lifted off the bed while struggling) & then lots of traditional pop group-dance. It's true, though: this fleeting moment of her dominance in the sex act allows me not to feel icky about a video in which a petite, mostly nude woman is repeatedly manhandled. However, it doesn't do much more than that; in the words of the great Rick Springfield, the point is prob'ly moot.

6) After the truly excellent pairing of song & video concept in Bad Romance—in which the video, though not a literal illustration of the lyrics, actually does better by illuminating another potential dimension of the song—I'm a little disappointed at the Cabaret-meets-La Grande Illusion motif. (Not in & of itself, but as it relates—or doesn't—to Alejandro.) As far as I understand it, this song is supposed to be about Gaga's love for gay men in general, a love that sometimes morphs into the romantic kind she knows they can never reciprocate—hence, don't call my name, etc. While I appreciate the sentiment (as this predicament is something I am well familiar with, rest assured), the video doesn't really seem to have much to do with that, metaphorically or otherwise. I mean, unless, as a nun (who is a bride of Christ), Gaga is trying to parallel her unrequited love for the gay Alejandro to the (technically) unrequited love of a nun for Jesus. Or is it just that unrequited love feels like a German POW camp? But even then—where do these potential parallels lead, aside from shock for shock's sake? Blasphemy has been done many times before, even by blonde female popstars.

Which brings me to the point so obvious I was actually calling out song & video names during my first Alejandro viewing—a point that I think deserves its own category:

—Ways in Which This Is a Madonna Homage—

La Isla Bonita: A Spanish-ified song, about Pedro this time, & the leading lady's longing to be with him, despite knowing it's hopeless.

Like a Prayer: Blasphemy, blasphe-you... Really, though: the religious imagery, the sexualizing of Jesus, it's all there—just not strapped across Madonna's crotch.

Open Your Heart: The original Violently Protruding Chest.

[ NOTE: This just may be my absolute favorite music video of all time. ]

Express Yourself: The leading lady looking down on muscular men dancing outside her window.

Vogue: Black & white, essentially an editorial fashion shoot with dance moves—plus, a black, fitted pantsuit.

... You get the idea. Am I alone in recognizing these—all of these—watered down, funneled together, & simplified to a red-black-white color palate? Again: it's not that I hate Alejandro; I just like every single one of these better.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

While compiling a Non-Gender-Denominational Parents' Day mix for the lovely Ms. Mika, I rediscovered this song—which I distinctly remember (forgive me, Father) ruthlessly hunting down after I heard it for about 30 seconds in the background of an L Word episode. It was well worth it, though: any song that can combine this catchy a synth hook with use of the term "cash masturbation" (so deliciously alliterative) is absolutely worth finding—& celebrating.