January 2006

Character Acting: Gwen Stefani’s Cool Pose
excerpted from “Iconography Redefined”

In Gwen Stefani’s recent seat at the black kids’ table she has garnered more than a few comparisons to the original Queen of Pop, Madonna, Ms. Blonde Ambition herself. Although Stefani arguably wins for being more lovable or beating Blonde Ambition at her own game of the synthpop dance album, she learns from the master in the tradition of shameless “Othering.” Aside from the spirited conversations peppered by Salon’s MiHi Anh and Margaret Cho about the obviously bizarre Harajuku girls, Stefani’s appearance recent video “Luxurious” again crosses the lines of inappropriate cultural appropriation.

In costume and attitude, she clearly adopts motifs from an ethnic Other. By glamorizing aesthetics associated with a working class Mexican-American socio-economic culture, (gold jewelry, baggy clothes, silk wrap nails, bright colors, dark wardrobe and makeup) and mixing them with historic iconography of the Mexican upper class (her braided Kahlo-esque corona, suitably ribboned and flowered), “Luxurious” uses various representations of Mexican and Mexican-American subcultures to create a generic “Latin” overarching visual thesis, reducing the differences therein. For most of the music video, Stefani wears a blue flannel button down shirt and a red tough-girl pout outlined by dark brown liner. Overall, here are aesthetics that are stereotyped as economically disadvantaged, racially marginalized and generally disenfranchised. The brown lip liner and blue flannel shirt are motifs made nationally recognizable with the introduction of West Coast rap in the 1990’s. In this setting, the lyrics take on a working class connotation:

Working so hard, every night and day
And now we get the pay back
Trying so hard, saving up the paper
Now we get to lay back

Altogether, in this video coolness is linked to the fantasy of working class authenticity. It is cool to play working class Mexican, to play Asian, to play Black and to imagine how these types make themselves feel special. I don’t find the music video necessarily offensive, but classically bold, thoughtless and indicative of a tradition of dominant culture’s “slumming it” to enhance their own image and credibility. Aside from using Latin types, Stefani’s image as a solo artist has been punctuated by an instantly familiar non-white swagger, slang and hip-hop informed mock-bravado. Stefani’s cool pose appears most when she is being particularly “bad”, “cool” or “tough” as in “Rich Girl” or “Hollaback Girl” where she is brazen and publicly disruptive. There is no such attitude or Othering in videos such as “Cool” where she is the object of white male affection and projects an image of mainstream glamour, although she could very easily relied upon glamourous iconography of black, Asian and Latin cultures. In this video although Stefani co-opts Italian opulence and golden-age cinematic motifs, as a supremely “neutral” self-described “mutt” she somewhat naturally inherits these canons of white representation. She can rely upon the visual history of whiteness as tools to reaffirm her Caucasian position once returned from erstwhile racial transgression. Not to mention, known for her trademark porcelainic skin and ultra-blonde hair Stefani assumes “neutral” hyper-whiteness, invoking a sense that she is the most qualified of canvases to paint cultures over thanks to her stark monochromatic palette. A person of color could not easily afford or pull off such transgression without ridicule or comment. The right to reproduce white American iconography belongs most immediately to white people; on the other hand to perform this American visual history as a woman of color is to make a radical transgression, as in the case of reception to Barbie Doll/Betty Page inspired image of Lil’ Kim. (Men of color in popular culture have greater success reinterpreting white iconography as evidenced in the persistent motifs of the Scarface/Goodfellas/Godfather gangster legacy repeated by male rap artists.)

Like Madonna who seemed inimitably cool in her day, part of Stefani’s visual allure is the ability to reinvent herself by boldly performing “types.” She is cool because she seems soi-disant , to defy music industry fabrication, counter culture. However, her brand of coolness is hardly so, neither is it new to music, and the portrayal of “types” is just to reinvent the wheel. Both entertainers employ mild camp in the use of ethnic stereotypes and make kitsch of both popular and niche iconography across cultural and international lines. Over years of transformations, Stefani has stood for girly defiance, unconventional glamour, and brash personal style. Like Madonna, she has usually depicted white female rebellion through affecting boyishness/masculinity and non-whiteness. As an ever-changing character, she can turn on coquettish vulnerability and bad-ass tough. At almost forty, she is still the cool girl that suburban teenagers wish to be but are afraid to dare. Coolness, in general, is often born from the successful appropriation of taboo cultures identified by the middle class, such as what I call popular blackness, the poor and working class, hip hop, the loud and impolite. By encompassing other cultural and gender codes, she takes the risks whose venture ensure her coolness simply because to do so is taboo. Gwen Stefani, like Madonna, is that suburban girl that pulled it off and got away with it.


Part of growing up in a culture of excess is the idea that with maturity and high living comes induction to the privilege of waste. I mused on this while assembling a pile of charity goods during one of my several requisite moves as a New Yorker, rummaging through prizes I’d squirreled away in Manhattan Mini Storage that were, in many ways, generally useless. One remaining application of high end conditioner, in several bottles each. Unused vaseline I’d saved for years in case I ran out of eye makeup remover. A half a box of bandaids. Comfortable houseclothes, numbering greater than my real clothes, that I’d never be caught leaving the apartment wearing. I could call myself a conscionable packrat in that I cleanse and sort and give away about a fourth of my possessions at least twice a year. I hate excess and believe in paring down. Living in New York made me ultra-attuned to having too much stuff, yet I manage to cull such odds and ends I justify useful on a regular basis. Something told me it was time to grow up and throw this stuff out instead of tracking multiple places to donate hair products, clothes and foodstuffs. Besides, wasn’t it tacky to give away one remaining application of conditioner, no matter how expensive and amazing (even though I got it for free)?

Since I was a child I have been sensitive to the power of giving and receiving “one man’s junk.” In elementary school we held a food drive for the needy every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My parents routinely sent us to school with a can or two of vegetables each and the message to keep the less fortunate in mind. One year during the holiday season, my mother got in a car accident on the icy road. She was moderately injured, but ultimately okay, however as artists my parents had no heath insurance and a shoestring budget. Not to mention Christmas was rapidly approaching. One snowy evening, the doorbell rang. As my father opened the door a mysterious figure dressed as Santa Claus stood before him with a plentiful box of food. Don’t you know that night those canned vegetables came right back to us?

“Excess” can speak for the cumulative body of stuff that is no longer effective or useful to a particular person. To make waste is to just throw out excess that is perfectly useful with no regard to those who could use it, worse yet to replace it shortly thereafter with that which will be discarded later.

Making waste puts a person in a position of power, there are economic and social ramifications to tossing out something that is perfectly good or useful. Excess is recovered or redistributed through charity, sale or clever collection. To recover excess is associated with need, although that is not always the case. This is not to essentialize that the “haves” never donate and “have nots” comb the trash; I believe the definition of “junk” is made in aggregate. In fact, Americans consume so much all around, that we sometimes have more than necessary but less of what we need; we all make waste and could probably use waste as well. However, the idea that time itself is wasted in effectively giving away dribs and drabs is a fairly solid one.

The last minute-ness of a few of my moves has meant neatly leaving behind bags of practical things I knew someone would find useful. I could only hope, for example, that someone who worked in my dormitory would come across a bag of pantry items I didn’t have time to properly send home or give away. Part of college life is acquiring as much free stuff as possible, the culture of immediate recycling is almost built in. Over those years friends and I made a project of collecting free housewares, meals, and assorted filmmaking paraphrenalia. However, as an established adult living at a certain level, its admonished, say, to scrounge for free furniture or steal paper clips from work. A young adult can still get away with this.

However, as I transition social classes and since my introduction to New York and the behavior of upper-class strata, I began to observe the idea that making waste is more favorable than rainy day conservation, and consuming one’s castaways was at least more acceptable than collecting your own crap. And that crap is relative. After all, we couldn’t have scrounged in back in college if the rich summer students hadn’t left behind so much valuable stuff in the first place, much of it pristine and brand new. Whole bottles of laundry detergent, microwaves, random articles of clothing, dish soap. I heard one dorm staffer found a huge flat screen TV – a student bought it while in the city and simply found it inconvenient to bring home at the year’s end.

Although recovered waste is hardly consistent at this level, a perusal of Craigslist classifieds makes an example of just how much stuff there is to get rid of. The real challenge of wastefulness, though, comes with the littlest stuff; things that are theoretically practical but realistically seldom to be used. These are the things we hold onto just in case, or because we wish to glean the last scrap, even if its three years from now. Holding on to the little things recalls extremes like Depression-era scarcity, homelessness or senile old women, imprisoned in packrat paradises they call their homes. New Age feel-good icons consider that by (lovingly) getting rid of stuff, I could break away from the hardscrabble mentality and feel better about myself, “trusting in abundance.” As an upwardly mobile young adult, one feels expected to keep aware of what people with money do, to consciously become “reasonable”, therein slightly frivolous, that being grown and sophisticated is to treat yourself by replacing things you already have. But where, I wonder, does one draw the line?

I figure one thing: The spaces of wastefulness, thoughtfulness, preparedness and relative practicality are those to negotiate with a bit of awareness and applied ingenuity. To make waste is a part of life in America, but the extent to which is certainly controlled by our discretion.

-January, 2006

18th Annual Independent & Small Press Book Fair

On a blustery December afternoon, I decided to make it over to the 18th Annual Independent Small Press Book Fair, hosted by the Small Press Center for Independent Publishing. Inside the beautiful landmark building, home to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, I found a bustling array of booths devoted to over 150 small publishers, from the niche Thanatosis Center to the broader market powerHouse Books. For avid readers, the fair is a great resource to purchase books, zines, and graphic novels. [I found the latest Octavia Butler thriller, Fledgling, below market-value from Seven Stories Press.] For writers, its an opportunity to research prospective publishers and new imprints. Most attractively, the Small Press Book Fair promises 25 events that are free and open to the public, mostly an eclectic array of lectures and panels such as “Is Blogging Dead?”, “Tips on How to Get a Literary Agent and Publisher,” and “The Politics of Culture: the Role of City Government in Local Culture.”

18th Annual Independent & Small Press Book Fair
The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, at 20 West 44th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues)

Free and open to the public
Saturday, Dec. 3 10am to 6pm
Sunday, Dec. 4 11am to 5pm

. . .

Touch and Go

Over the last twenty years in the United States, open dialogue on sexual violence has become a refreshingly common conversation for the survivor and an uncomfortable nuisance to many others. Since the mid 1980’s the discussion of sexual assault in public spheres has ridden a steady chronology. Women and men publicly began to emerge from the shadows of their dark, scary memories and discuss the subject taboo in decades past. Along with domestic abuse and child kidnapping, sexual violence rounded out the trifecta of 1980s public social awareness, sometimes co-opting paranoid themes from the War on Drugs as motives. Elementary schools began to promote special curriculum that warned against the dangers of being “touched inappropriately” by strangers. After school specials and public service announcements warned of these dangers and encouraged survivors to seek help. At the same time, talk shows and dramatic television programs began to sensitively feature rape and domestic abuse as prominent storylines. Throughout the last few decades a number of celebrities have come forward with personal experience of rape, incest and sexual abuse; among them Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey in the 1980’s, to Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Axl Rose, Gabrielle Union, Missy Elliot, and most recently, John Irving, Mary J. Blige, and Fantasia Barrino among others. However, since mid-eighties the conversation has changed. Overshadowed by her functional illiteracy, at the time Ms. Barrino revealed her story discussing her rape wasn’t even news, for these days it seems everyone is a survivor.

Historically sexual violence has always found a place in the media, especially those organizations seeking a boost in sales. For decades the fear of rape committed by black men upon white women largely informed the media’s presentation of the subject, providing a common excuse to brutally kill innocent black men. However, its history as a publicly acknowledged, non-racialized crime is fairly new and the discussion from the survivors themselves is fairly recent. Whereas sexual violence has been always been sensationalized in the press, the issue often took hushed tones in other domains. After decades of silence in American culture, sexual violence, especially rape is everywhere. The conversation has continued although the feelings behind it have changed.

The John and Lorena Bobbitt scandal is remembered as a hallmark of unthinkable acts – castration – but few recall this was one of the first trials discussing the legitimacy of the concept of “marital rape”. In the most perverse demonstration of American fame, John Wayne Bobbitt brutally raped his wife on several occasions, lost his penis, reattached it via plastic surgery and became a short lived porn phenomenon.

Sexual violence has become a sort of permanent backdrop that is no longer alarming. Somewhere the American public has become anesthetized; the shock, tact and recourse for public outcry have dried up. In recent years Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Damon Dash have been charged with forms of rape or endangerment, yet have enjoyed public support amid rectifying their “personal demons.” Since the mid-nineties MTV reality shows such as The Real World regularly featured a character that endured rape or molestation in their past. In 1994 Megan’s Law hit the books in New Jersey to widespread publicity. Once Rohypnol – when misused the so-called “rape drug” known as “roofies”- emerged in the mid-1990’s it became a well-publicized fact that one in four women will have undergone sexual assault. Today hardly a month passes where a woman’s magazine does not publish the testimony of a reader’s sexual abuse. Through informing the public, these messages also normalized the phenomenon. Over the last twenty years, sexual abuse became seemingly common and to a degree, less special.

The bottom line: through the liberating act of victims’ testimony, Americans became used to the idea of sexual assault, and consequently got over it. It appears we no longer have the same capacity to regard sexual abuse with great sensitivity or compassion; we’ve developed a touch and go relationship with the topic of sexual violence. It’s another American dysfunction we’ve darkly come to expect, an incidental fact. Perhaps its because we’ve reestablished ourselves as a society fascinated by and entertained with all forms of crime and violence. Think of the grim Law and Order: SVU, an hour-long crime drama devoted solely to exploring crimes of sexual assault. In American media rape sells. The reports of widespread rapes helped sell the notion of mayhem in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina, and the alluring possibility of rape bolsters the current spate of kidnapping mysteries such as Natalee Holloway’s.

In my opinion, rape and sexual violence are not taken seriously because a) it deals with sex, a concept associated with pleasure; b) women are still thought to “want it” or “deserve it” for minor reasons that defy ordinary civil rights; c) women are believed to secretly indulge in rape fantasies, which are not the same as actual rape itself; d) it is usually immediately presumed the woman is lying, embellishing, scandalous and deceitful, traits women are expected to naturally possess, e) supported by women like Tawanna Brawley or Kobe Bryant’s alleged victim who have indeed lied about assault for their own profit.

In high school I knew a girl that consensually slept with her best friend’s rapist within a year or two thereafter the incident. Has sexual assault gone from one end of the spectrum; a secret taboo that was rarely discussed, to the other, a topic that’s oversaturated the market the point of disinterest? Perhaps the discussion grew tired with the politically correct induction of sexual misconduct / harassment charges. America collectively groaned as a televised Senate committee lengthily explored Anita Hill’s misconduct accusations on then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Then, we groaned again as Bill Clinton testified in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Although sexual violence and sexual misconduct are not the same thing, this may have changed the pale for sexual abuses to be taken as seriously. However, discussing one’s victimhood makes it no less important.

Strange white women are always touching me. And in a manner that’s too familiar.

Black women are pinned with the attribute of attitude; however it is nary considered the unnecessary attitude a white woman unleashes when she feels someone below her is occupying her precious space. Personal physical space, I’ve noticed, is sensitive with white women. A strange white woman may be quick to brush aside a hand that broadly approaches her hair, face or waist, although in my experience she is more than quick to reach toward the equivalent on a black female. I’ve had my hair pawed repeatedly by strangers, unfamiliar women grab baubles dangling at my chest, my waist and bottom handled to guide me in specific directions where my body may be a nuisance. Each of these encounters were imparted without permission.

I was raised to respect a person’s personal space, to never enter a one’s physical area unless invited. White women, by virtue of a culture that upholds them, always seemed untouchable. I remember once, after a schoolmate thoughtlessly fingered my hair, I intentionally returned the gesture-just to see if I could do it. I didn’t give a shit about feeling her hair, although the reverse was always an issue, but curious to see her response. As my hand reached her shoulder she brushed my hand away, instinctively annoyed. I was pissed, just seconds ago she performed the same action with such authority. In the West, the black female body, from its underpinnings in bare breasted savage imagery, has been understood as an unauthored and available public domain. On the other hand, the white female body, historically bound in corsets and swarthed in heavy fabrics, was a delightful mystery to unravel, a privilege bestowed to very few. This is not new analysis. However, beyond the dialogue of rape, prostitution and abuse that usually inform the history of access to the black female body, I’m talking about the incidental daily interactions that reveal a mentality of accessibility.

We learn socially acceptable boundaries in the home and through watching others. Although mothers of all races have taught their children through the ages, “Don’t let anyone touch you” the rules became understood more tacitly in regards to when and with whom its okay to touch others. Black children have long been taught not to touch white people, especially white women. I find that the same bold white curiosity that expects answers to painful and difficult questions about the nature of being black- fosters the rude satisfaction of inquisitive desire though physical interaction-that is, the unwarranted touch. On a profound unconscious level, the black body is always available, even though it may be more guarded; it is also more easily invaded. From the harmless yet brazen exchange we laughed off as Adrian Brody kissed an unsuspecting Halle Berry at the 2003 Academy Awards, to the total stranger who casually grabbed my skirt yesterday because it was “so pretty”, it’s slightly bothersome. And its always happening.
I’ve heard black men report that white folks can be too familiar in their space too. ( Note: if you are a young white woman, under no circumstances is it okay to playfully pat a black male on the head. I don’t care “how far we’ve come,” its just too loaded.) Its not that we as different people cannot touch one another, the issue that there is an unspoken inequity in who can be touched in what manner and when.

I advise black women to try it – offer an overly familiar gesture, compliment a strange woman’s outfit by tugging at her, or even just stand next to a unfamiliar white woman for long enough. Breach this space and you get white girl attitude, be it a glare, a comment or a deliberate shift in space. Call me obsessed with the little things, but the it’s the smaller, day to day encounters that reveal what we really believe.
-July 2005

Bobby Loves Whitney

“Abuser!” one passerby etched on a Brooklyn subway poster. “IN THIS PATRIARCHY BEATING YOUR WIFE MAKES YOU FAMOUS!” Such truths were scrawled on the shoulders Bobby Brown, who, donned in a white suit of innocence, stands beaming on the poster for his new reality TV show “Being Bobby Brown” which airs on Bravo. Perhaps, if you’ve already become accustomed to the bizarre, Ringling-esque parade that has become hit television, you’re hardly miffed by the concept of a show that follows the lives of two has-beens that have become more famous for their troublesome abusive relationship and rehab stints than their 80’s era mega-watt achievements. Brown, as we know, rounded out ‘tween group New Edition before a successful solo career, and his wife, Whitney Houston was arguably America’s first black pop sweetheart. Both had enormous talent, which in popular opinion disseminated into drug problems and codependency. As both got older, they struggled for relevancy in a youth-driven market, a relevancy which they attempt to recapture with each bewildering episode of this thirty minute program.

Completely unabashed in their behavior, Bobby and Whitney are new money at its worst. In the absence of any pretense of class, pride or presentability, even the Brown children run amok with wild snatchback ponytails. Whitney does not disappoint (in my mother’s words) “to show the worst of Newark in her.” In one particular episode, where the Brown clan go camping, a sex-crazed Whitney purrs for Bobby to “row across that river, bring me behind that tree and work me over.”

Later in the episode we watch Bobby, proudly foul, fat and flatulent, making plans with sidekick brother and business partner to create new acts for their label. One may sit and stare, pitying him for his hope to reenter the spotlight/game. However, lest we forget, this is the same Bobby Brown that finagled himself a reality show about himself in the first place. Maybe the joke’s on us. After all, when’s the last time you jetsetted for no particular reason whatsoever?

If you had a crush on Bobby Brown in the 80’s you may be sad to find he ended up with a puffy eyed, loose tittied harpy; if you idolized Whitney Houston, you’ll be disappointed to see she settled with a crass, pug nosed alcoholic. In reality, or at the least the reality they present to us, Whitney and Bobby are worse than we could have imagined. For the first time, their actions as black people did not shame me as a racial sistren, for it is very clear their actions only reflect upon themselves. Once you make the admission that a) yes, Whitney may have been “like this” in the first place and b) this is how they really are; you can move on to critique the quality of the programming. At the end of the day, Whitney and Bobby are two codependent addictive personalities who are deeply in love, the kind of sweaty, tore up “black love” one might see on a hot day rubbing scratch-offs just outside the liquor store at noon. Ultimately, not too novel. If these sort of archetypes are unfamiliar to you, then the antics of “Being Bobby Brown” just may satisfy as good entertainment.
-Spring 2005


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