In Defense of Ugly

The first week of spring term when students and professors alike blearily stumble back to campus disoriented from the sheer quantity of food and booze they’ve consumed over winter break.  Personally, I’ve always felt that it’s a cruel joke to refer to something that begins in January as “spring” anything, particularly in the midwest, where nothing resembles spring until about May.

However, being back on campus means that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing many an undergrad conversation on a smattering of topics.  A topic recently topping the conversation charts has been the Golden Globe Awards, specifically, what everyone WORE to the Globes.  My interest in award shows is minimal at best, I’ll watch the Oscars for the gowns and the Tonys because duh, but that’s generally all the enthusiasm I can muster.  I only took notice of the Globes discussions because almost everyone had something to say about the awful appearance of Jennifer Lawrence.  This peaked my interest for two reasons: I have a soft spot for J. Law and my litmus test for good fashion is how poorly a garment is received by the masses.  After referencing my googlemachine for images of this “awful” dress I discovered that a lot of the internet had very strong feelings about this dress (they even compared it to the sheet and rope dress from The Little Mermaid).

This may come as no surprise to you, dear reader, but I loved the dress.

The point of this blog post is not to defend J. Law and her dress (I would like that job though) but rather to offer my comments on a larger cultural trend.  One of the words most frequently used in reference to the offending garment is “ugly” as in, “that was such an ugly dress.”  This, then, is the real point of my blog, to provide a brief (and very biased) defense of “ugly.”

Quick etymology lesson: Ugly is a rather unusual word because it’s formed from Norse root words meaning “fear” or “dread.”  I’m also rather partial to the softened 14th century definition of “ugly” as, “very unpleasant to look at.”  More often than not, it seems to me (and people far smarter than I articulate this in greater detail) that fear is deeply connected to uncertainty or the unknown; I believe it was Andrew Smith who said “People fear what they do not understand.”

Stay with me here, so when something is deemed “ugly” it really means that the looker does not understand what it is they are looking at.  “Ugly” then becomes a fascinating space to occupy particularly in contrast to its antonym; beauty.  “Beauty” refers to “physical attractiveness” and also “goodness and courtesy” and, more importantly, “beauty” is easily understood.  “Beauty” is a socially agreed upon status conferred on bodies etc that are both easily legible and palatable.  For me, “ugly” is much more interesting because it is so hard to pin down.  It comes from a place of illegibility that makes us culturally uncomfortable and so we reach for somewhere to put it.  I’m a proponent of what is commonly referred to as “man repellent fashion” or “ugly fashion” which is so called because of its bawdy, ostentatious style that is somehow unattractive to men?  I mean, my fiance digs it so joke’s on you.  It’s difficult to fully summarize this aesthetic, think: loud prints, non-normative lines and shapes, some of it could even be considered “unflattering” but it is certainly never boring or safe.  As a bonus, if you do it right, people will be talking about how “ugly” your outfit was years after they’ve forgotten about the millionth beautiful little black dress.

So come on, be ugly with me.

 

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Stop Putting Your Family On the Back of Your Car, Seriously.

As someone who lives in a large city and does a lot of driving I have the pleasure of seeing myriad bumper stickers, magnets, and other car flair.  For the most part I accept that people are strange and will put strange things on their cars.  You want to tell me you love your Puggle? Fine.  You want to be witty about your political beliefs? No Problem.  

But there is one car ornament I can no longer abide and that is: the stick figure family.  The various assortment of stick figure fathers, (a stick figure with a tie, or pants, or other hegemonic indicators of maleness) mothers, (in a dress or skirt, because duh) tiny children and pets has gone too far.  I am done.

But Liz, you may say, those are just people proclaiming their love and devotion for their family you can’t be angry at that.  Oh yes, yes I can and I have a good reason for it.  

Those stickers are sly enforcers of compulsory heterosexuality.  How many times have you seen a stick figure family with no children- one that is just a pair of adults?  I have seen only one.  The vast majority of people displaying stick figures are people with conventional family units: mom, dad, buddy, sis, puppy, and cat.  The specifics on number of children and pets vary, but for the most part those stickers are couples and kids.  Most of the stick figure sticker sets come with a father, mother, two kids, a baby, and two pets.  While a person can order a variety of sets to suit their personal needs, there is a clear formula in place for the manufacturing of acceptable sticker families.

As I mentioned before, the stick figure family stickers rely on cheap stereotypes to indicate the sex of each family member.  Men often have short hair and pants, while women have long ponytails and some kind of skirt, even the Zombie family  has a blonde haired, dress wearing mother for fuck’s sake!  Also, most stick figure families are arranged in descending order of height which almost always means the father stick figure is first (even when the father and mother stickers appear to be the same height).  I don’t want to make any assumptions about WHY the father stick figure seems to usually be first in line, maybe everyone’s father/husband is simply the tallest member of their family. 

I know some people will think I am taking this too far and I should get off my gender studies horse and get over it.  But I will not.  I think really examining even the most seemingly mundane aspects of popular culture, ie. stick figure families, can yield some fascinating insights.  So I will continue to “knit pick” and “over-analyze.”  And I will continue to resist the lure of the stick figure family.

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The “F” Word (Feminism, duh)

Today in Twitterland the hashtag #TellAFeministThankYou has taken off, and how.  I don’t know how this trend got started but here are some of the good, the bad, and the predictable responses:

 

 

 

I didn’t include the myriad of tweets about thanking feminists for their sandwich making skills.  Trolls and their originality, fascinating insights.

Like I said, I don’t know how this trend got started but I am incredibly grateful to whomever started it.  I am grateful for two things: The warm, fuzzy feminist high-fiving, and the troll baiting.  I mean that in all sincerity.  And here’s why:

This hashtag is serving as a perfect example of the problems with the word feminist/feminism.  Let me be explicitly clear, I am solely referring to the problems with the WORD not the ideals or beliefs associated with it.  When I attended NWSA this past fall I was fortunate enough to hear the brilliant and poignant keynote address delivered by Patricia Hill Collins.  In her speech PHC implored the audience to imagine a feminist future that might not involve the word feminism.  Her point was that after decades of reappropriation, reconceptualization, and just plain incorrect assumptions the word feminism has become muddied, really muddied.  For good or for ill, “feminism” comes steeped in meaning that is not easily removed.  How else might you explain the oft heard refrain, “I’m not a feminist but…”

This hashtag is illustrating just how convoluted the concept of “feminism” has become.  You only need to glance at this thread to see how many people associate feminism with concepts that have nothing to do with contemporary feminist ideology.  Along with the old myths about us all being man hating, womyn loving dykes, there are a surprising rash of women who seem all too eager to jump on the anti-feminist bus.  Of course they wouldn’t be able to freely express their hatred of us feminists without all the work feminism has done for them, but that’s a story for a different day.  I wonder how many of these rabid haters really and truly despise women and women’s rights, and how many are responding to some murky, contorted, mangled concept of “feminism” that they’re afraid to be associated with.

The perfect way to conclude this blog would be by introducing the word I have come up with to replace “feminism.”  Only, I don’t know what that word is.  I don’t think anyone does.  I mean, PHC didn’t and if that genius brain can’t come up with the new term I feel safe saying it does not yet exist.  What I think is useful is to use this hashtag, and its larger conversation, as a rallying cry for 21st century unfeminism (clever, right?).  Those of us who are passionate intellectuals, activists, or just plain empowered women and men should unite in the cause to imagine the future of unfeminism.  What does it look like?  What does it sound like?  Who is in it?

And for the record, I am thanking all those women and men who have proudly born the burden of “feminism” so that I can have the luxury of imagining what comes next.

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February 12, 2013 · 11:32 pm

Cultural Studies is Not a Free-For-All

Lately something has been bothering me.  Maybe because it’s been bothering me I’ve been noticing it more often or maybe it is actually becoming more prevalent.  What I’m referring to is the “anything goes” attitude of articles and “scholasticism” published under the category of cultural studies.

I am a big fan of cultural studies on account of that’s what I do: I write about T.V. and fashion and culturally relevant aspects of American society.  I fully believe in the legitimacy of cultural studies as a rigorous academic discipline just like chemistry or history.  As a legitimate discipline I believe that anyone publishing/researching/generally dabbling in the arena of cultural studies should engage in serious scholarship.  Which is why it is maddening to encounter the erosion of cultural studies until it is merely opinions about popular culture; where popular culture is anything that happens in America.  Take, for example, this article published today under Aljazeera’s opinion section.  There are a few interesting points that come at the end of the piece, but the majority of her article is surface level engagement with why humans love origin stories.  This lackadaisical attitude is also rearing its ugly head in undergraduate and graduate classrooms.  I cannot count the number of classrooms I have been in where students seemed to have believed that cultural studies means observing and blithely commenting on a cultural trend and then moving on.  Once again, not every classroom or every student is guilty of this offense but I have dealt with this problem enough times to feel compelled to address it. 

Yet even as I write this I am aware that I am toeing a fine line.  Legitimating cultural studies has been and continues to be a difficult undertaking.  As a television scholar I find myself, more often than not, defending my work and my subjects as serious areas of study and not just happy fun t.v. time.  I am grateful and happy that more people are working with cultural studies, quite frankly I think it’s about damn time.  Voicing my complaints feels a little like I’m betraying my tribe when that is not at all my intention.  The only way to continue to legitimize cultural studies is by holding all of its scholars accountable for the production of quality work.

 I believe in cultural studies.  I do not believe in lazy, sloppy, unengaging work masquerading as cultural studies.

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Catch of The Day: MTV’s Catfish

Remember in 2010 when everyone you know seemed to be debating the authenticity of the new film Catfish?  RelativityReal certainly does, and that’s why they’ve created the new reality series airing on MTV; catfish: the tv show.  Hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph travel across the United States to help people who believe they are being “catfished” which, according to MTV’s website, means: “To pretend to be someone you’re not online by posting false information, such as someone else’s pictures, on social media sites usually with the intention of getting someone to fall in love with you.”  Each episode finds Nev and Max coming to the aide of an unfortunate “hopeful romantic partner” who cannot understand why the person they’ve been having an intimate relationship with online refuses to meet them in real life.  After listening to the aforementioned hopeful romantic, Max and Nev do some surface level research to discern whether the intended object of the romantic’s affections is legitimate or merely a ruse.  Using tools like Google image search and scouring the person’s Facebook page, Max and Nev are usually able to figure out whether the person is authentic or a catfish.  After revealing their findings to the hopeful romantic, Nev contacts the mystery person to arrange a face-to-face meeting.  As you might be able to guess, all of the potential partners to date have been catfish.  No one has been “authentic.”  The moment of confrontation, arguably the most vulnerable moment of each episode, when the hopeful romantic realizes beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have been fooled is exploited for all it’s worth.  Nev and Max select that painful moment as the perfect opportunity to transform from helpful detectives, to psychological experts, probing the hopeful romantic and the catfish for answers regarding emotions and motive.  Once sufficient emotional devastation has been captured on film, Nev and Max whisk the bamboozled hopeful romantic away from the wreckage.  More often than not Max and Nev arrange a sit down meeting between the hopeful romantic and the catfish in order to provide closure and answer any lingering questions.  The only thing missing from the ending of each show is a shot of Max and Nev riding off into the sunset, sheriffs of the virtual Wild West.

While it is tempting to dismiss this show as the latest in a long line of MTV reality slop, I would caution against a wholesale rejection of the show.  Though the intentions of catfish: the tv show may not have been to raise nuanced and difficult questions about virtual obligations, it has done just that.  As New York Times television reviewer Mike Hale aptly puts it, “What are the rights of the Internet liar?”  From the start catfish operates under the assumption that being a catfish is morally reprehensible and these people must be sought out and forced to answer for their actions, to an audience of thousands no less.  The notion that perhaps these people are embracing the anonymity afforded them by the Internet and exploring creative virtual alternative ways of being is never even mentioned.  We, as the audience, are offered a very cut and dry narrative: the hopeful romantic is pouring their heart out in the hopes of finding true love, and the catfish is a conniving trickster reveling in their deceit.  One is good; one is bad, end of story.  In order to maintain this black and white narrative it is essential that the hopeful romantic always be cast in a very favorable, and overly sympathetic, light.  The audience must rally behind this person because he or she is the torchbearer for the American dream; true love.  It is acceptable to show a clip of the person’s friends or family expressing hesitation about the online relationship because they do not wish to see their friend or family member get hurt.  It is not okay to even subtly suggest that this person might be complicit in his or her own romantic demise, or that there are steps this person might have taken to avoid their current situation.  Because the hopeful romantic must always be the one to root for his or her own lies go overlooked or excused.  For example, in episode 105 when Nev and Max first meet Jarrod he professes his love for the woman he knows as “Abby,” claiming she could be “the one.”  When Nev asks Jarrod how he will feel if the “Abby” they meet is not the “Abby” Jarrod thinks he’s been talking to Jarrod responds that his feelings will not change as long as the personality is still the same.  However, when Jarrod finally meets “Abby” (whose real name is Melissa) and discovers that she is not the thin, blonde woman he thought he was in love with, his feelings quickly shift and he regards Melissa only as a friend.  Jarrod’s is not the only episode to feature such a dramatic emotional shift; indeed almost all of the episodes to date follow a similar narrative which suggests that some lies are okay, and others are not.  It is okay, catfish tells us, to purport love for someone no matter what they look like and then renege on that claim if their actual physical appearance differs from the images they have sent you.  Suggesting that it is easy to love a thin, blonde, supermodel but less easy to love a more average looking person.  After seven episodes and counting, catfish shows no signs of slowing down or of altering the already predictable narrative.  Which asks the question: how many seasons of fishing should we prepare for?   

  1. http://www.mtv.com/shows/catfish/episodes.jhtml
  2. Hale, Mike ‘There’s Always A Catch’ Nov. 11, 2012. tv.nytimes.com

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Wedding Fever

No, I don’t have it.

But it is the time of year when everyone you know seems to be getting engaged.  And everyone seems to be talking about weddings: their own, their friend’s, their co-worker’s, their mailman’s, it’s everywhere.  Between listening to a lot of wedding conversation and watching a lot of wedding themed t.v. I’ve become aware of a rather unnerving trend in brides-to-be.  Somewhere between Saying ‘Yes’ to The Dress and being a Bridezilla we have decided that a wedding day is all about the bride.  We are saturated with the idea that a woman’s wedding day is a day for her to be a princess.  And those people attending your nuptials?  As one Bridezilla so aptly put it, “They’re just lucky to be invited to my day.”  

In my opinion, a wedding should be the first big party you and your partner throw together.  It is your societal debut as a married pair.  It is not a day for everyone to bow and scrape at the altar of the all powerful wedding princess.  My opinions on weddings aside, I think it’s important to examine what wedding themed reality shows are selling us, aside from over-priced ballgowns.

Lesson 1: The Dress Trumps All
Spend five minutes watching Say Yes to the Dress(Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta), I Found The Gown, or My Fair Wedding and it will become apparent that your wedding day will be garbage if you don’t have the perfect dress.  You should be willing to do whatever it takes to find the one, gown, that is.  If you need to drag your bridal party around to 20 different stores, do it.  If you need to go over your budget, do it.  If you need to fly across the country just to visit an “elite” bridal salon, fucking do it.  It is not enough for you to simply ‘like’ your wedding dress, you must love it as much as, or more than, you love your partner.  Each of the aforementioned t.v. shows employs a parade of experts to bombard customers, and viewers, with ideas of “the perfect dress” and alludes to the magical “it” factor that one will surely feel when wearing THE dress.  It is perhaps unnecessary to mention that THE dress is rarely ever found in a bargain basement.  It is often the newest Lazaro or Pnina Tornai gown, which the bride can seldom afford.  The hype these t.v. shows place on finding THE gown is a neat and tidy way of superimposing issues of class and classism onto one’s wedding.  While the perfect gown is not always the most expensive gown, the idea of more money being synonymous with a better dress is certainly a dominant, if unspoken, theme.  The assumption is as follows: the amount of money you are willing to spend on a dress is directly proportional to the amount of love you have for your partner.  If you loved your partner as much as you claim to, you wouldn’t balk at spending whatever amount necessary to ensure you have THE gown.  

Lessons 2: Who Needs a Groom?
For as much hype and importance as wedding shows tend to place on finding the perfect wedding dress, almost no mind is paid to the groom unless he is being used as the bride’s whipping boy (Bridezillas) or as complicit in the ruining of the relationship (Shedding for The Wedding).  Once the cursory introductions are made, wedding shows tend to focus exclusively on the bride and her wedding which makes it that much easier to perpetuate the myth that the wedding is “all about me.”  Where brides are often referred to by their names, grooms will be referred to only as “the groom” or “her fiance'” reaffirming that they are mere accessories in a woman’s wedding.  Indeed, whenever a groom wants to be more involved with the planning of the wedding he is painted to be a micro-manager, or a usurper trying to steal his bride’s thunder.  On My Fair Wedding, host David Tuttera has referred to one “overly involved” groom as a “groomzilla.”  By relegating the men to the same importance as say, the table linen, it implies that they are interchangeable.  That one face in a monkey suit is the same as any other, so long as there’s a body to meet at the altar the identity is unimportant.  Which leads into the third and final lesson…

Lesson 3: It’s All About Me If you were to turn on an episode of Bridezillas and take a shot every time a bride-to-be announced that “it’s my day,” you would be under the table in less than ten minutes.  And while Bridezillas is intended to showcase very bad bridal behavior, the bride-centric theme pervades other, more polite wedding shows.  The wedding day is rarely ever referred to as “our day” or “our fairytale moment,” it is almost always “my day,” “my fairytale,” or “my time to be a princess.”  Showcasing this selfish behavior encourages viewers to believe that being a bride means getting everything you want, or at least acting as though you should.  Spoiled, ungrateful behavior has become de rigueur for brides-to-be, while the bridal party is forced to shoulder unrelenting bridal abuse.  Of course not every bride acts like a spoiled child, but many of the women featured on wedding shows do. 

 

In conclusion, I remain hopeful that not everyone is blindly absorbing the poisonous messages transmitted by many reality wedding programs.  In the meantime, I’ll wait for this year’s wedding fever to break.

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My Un-Resolution

I don’t make resolutions, at least not New Year’s ones.  I firmly believe that we retain the right to change our lives any day of the year.

That said, I always seem to be a bit more reflective around the first of the year, original, right?  I think about the things I know I should be doing but for one reason or the other never manage to do.  Take this blog for instance: I know I have it, I know I should write in it more often, and yet I can’t quite get a handle on it.  One of the things that keeps me from blogging is this nagging voice at the back of my head tauntingly jeering “you have nothing to say.”  Much to my chagrin, I usually let it get the best of me.  But not this time.  That little mean voice can go straight to hell, or wherever mean voices go.

So I’ve un-resolved to blog at least once every week.  I may not always have insightful, witty (I will always be witty) things to say, but I have promised myself I’m going to write anyway.  My partner claims that it makes one a better writer, I think that’s something good writers tell bad writers to be nice, but what do I know?  With all that said, the first blog of the new year:

Mtv’s Buckwild

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Buckwild is the latest in a long line of Mtv reality television.  It premiered the first week of January and according to Mtv’s website, “Buckwild is an authentic comedic series following an outrageous group of childhood friends from the rural foothills of West Virginia who love to dodge grown-up responsibilities and always live life with the carefree motto, “whatever happens, happens.”  To be clear, I have not yet seen this show and my opinions are based solely off of Mtv’s commercials, their history, and broader trends within reality programming.  The first time I saw a commercial for Buckwild I thought, “so it’s The Real World: Appalachia.”  The commercials stress the rural dynamic almost to the point of caricature.  The show’s participants are shown using the bed of a pick-up truck as a swimming pool, wrestling in mud, and speaking in almost unintelligible accents (indeed I’ve been told the show actually provides subtitles for some of its participants).  The argument could be made that teenagers/young twenty-somethings across the country are engaging in things like mud wrestling, pick-up truck swimming and such activities are not specific to, or reflective of, rural West Virginians.  My issue is not that Mtv is documenting the “authentic” experiences of this group of friends, but rather that it seeks to do so in a way that will serve to perpetuate classism and Othering.

Again, these are just the insights I’ve gleaned from the commercials, but it certainly does not feel as though Mtv is trying to present these people and their communities as relatable, quite the opposite, I’m afraid.  In one thirty second commercial Mtv has managed to reify almost every stereotype Americans have about rural Appalachia and its inhabitants.  Mainly, that they are regressive, unintelligent, poor, and almost alien in speech and mannerisms.

There is the chance that I am completely wrong and Mtv’s Buckwild will prove an insightful and progressive allegory about overcoming stereotypes and classism.  Though I highly doubt it, I guess I’ll have to watch.

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