Friday, September 24, 2010

What Are We Laughing At?

A few months ago, two videos briefly made the rounds on Facebook. One was this clip from the 7/29/10 Colbert Report of Colbert and Bravo’s Andy Cohen reenacting one of Bethenny and Kelly’s fights from the second season of The Real Housewives of New York City (the reenactment starts around 3:50).  In the second video, Christopher Walken gives a “reading” of the first verse of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” on BBC One. (A clip of the original scene from Real Housewives can be found here. If you have somehow avoided hearing/watching “Poker Face,” until now, feel free to google it.) At the time, I thought that the Colbert and Walken videos were worth a giggle—in fact, I still do (although arguably the original Bethenny-Kelly brawl is funnier than either). At the same time, these performances disquiet me. As I noted in my previous post, American culture codes restraint as normative, while stigmatizing excess. Furthermore, it codes excess as not only lowbrow but as feminine. Consider the degree of ostentation that is permitted and even demanded of female fashion as opposed to male. Consider the etymological origins of the word “hysteria.” Consider the popularity of female vocal artists performing in lower status genres such as pop and country, and their dearth within rock’s more exalted bailiwick. Fears of feminine excess also fuel homophobic discourse, which labels gay men as both inappropriately female and undisciplined.  Excessiveness may in turn be reclaimed by gays as a matter of pride—for instance, through the ambivalent terms “flaming” and “flamboyant”.

Generally speaking, Colbert, Cohen, and Walken all transgress the boundaries of normalcy. Cohen is gay, while Colbert and Walken present decidedly excessive public personas. The former has practically trademarked the bug-eyed stare and quirked eyebrow; the latter has long specialized in playing the highly-strung or monstrous, not to mention headlining the most famous skit in SNL history. Yet, in the two videos under discussion, Colbert, Walken, and Cohen affirm the elision and denigration of excess, low culture, the female, and the queer. Colbert and Walken may not represent high culture when compared to, say, Robert Wilson, but they certainly occupy a more elevated position than Lady Gaga and the Real Housewives of New York City. Cohen is the outlier here—after all, he produces the dreck that is Real Housewives. However, during the course of his scene with Colbert, he lays claim to a more dignified cultural status than that of the women he oversees and imitates. Cohen, Colbert, and Walken ostensibly ridicule their respective subjects’ trashiness—the Housewives’ publicly staged hissy fits and Gaga’s puerile lyrics. But at a deeper level, the trio target the exaggerated, synthetic femininity generating Gaga and the Housewives’ trashy appeal.

There is, of course, an entire genre devoted to male performance of excessive femininity: drag. Moreover, some drag artists impersonate female performers—Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna—who themselves enact an exaggerated femininity. Drag has long drawn accusations of misogyny, and some drag artists have no doubt merited such accusations. However, drag queens have also long been hailed for challenging gender norms by revealing the performative nature of gender. Indeed, drag queens dismantle the notion of an “authentic” female precisely by appropriating recognizable markers of femininity and exaggerating them to the point of absurdity. Our culture equates the natural with the seemingly effortless. Drag exposes the degree of exertion that playing “female” demands, and thus undercuts the illusion of gender as innate. The sequined dresses, six-inch platforms and false eyelashes all come across as just trying to hard.  The Real Housewives and other self-identified females not blessed with a sense of irony may inadvertently create the same impression of overexertion.  The diva attitudes, the over-tanning, the wigs sported by the Atlanta housewives—all strike the viewer as laboriously acquired and therefore outrageously, defiantly artificial.

Colbert, Cohen and Walken’s performances deliberately eschew drag. Drag artists may parody expressions of excessive femininity, but many also celebrate and identify with them. This confluence of mockery and celebration defines the camp sensibility. By contrast, Colbert, Cohen, and Walken sunder their own identities as far as possible from those of the female performers they portray. More specifically, the three men contrast the restraint of their own performances with the excess of their female counterparts. All dress soberly—Walken in a muted shirt and blazer, the other two in suits. Walken even wears reading glasses, the least fabulous of accessories. The men’s playing styles project the same self-possession as their costume choices. All give their readings sitting down, signaling a certain casualness. Colbert and especially Cohen break character throughout their reenactment—fumbling lines and cracking grins. By refusing to “go all the way,” to really commit to the Bethenny and Kelly personas, they keep their “real,” male identities visible to the viewer at all times. Walken likewise draws a contrast between Lady Gaga’s exaggerated performance style and his own restraint; his intonation calls to mind a librarian at children’s story hour. He even affects an old man’s quaver on the line “I’ll make him hot, show him what I’ve got.” Walken also draws on cultural perceptions of music itself, and particularly pop music, as excessively emotive. Song lyrics often sound overblown or nonsensical when separated from their melody. Walken exploits this fact, particularly in his earnest rendering of the line “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oo! Ee! Ah! Oh!”

As I mention earlier in this post, the very excessiveness of Lady Gaga and the Housewives’ femininity reveals the latter as artificially constructed—as a performance. By contrast, Colbert, Cohen, and Walken’s displays of restraint deemphasize their own performativity. They are not “in costume,” they appear relatively unrehearsed: they are “just giving a reading.” Of course, such  “masculine restraint” is itself a performance, requiring just as much effort as its opposite. But unlike Lady Gaga, the Housewives, and drag queens, Colbert, Cohen and Walken camouflage their efforts. They revive misogyny and homophobia’s age-old accomplice: antitheatricalism.  Identifying the theatrical with the female, they dismiss both as excessive and therefore artificial.  

Now, it’s not like I’m going to stop watching the Colbert Report out of high-minded outrage. Heck, I can’t even stop laughing at Walken’s deadpan delivery. And so I’m left with a question: how do we contend with our stubborn enjoyment of entertainment whose politics we recognize as suspect?

*Note: If, like me, you’ve spent the last several years of your life in a grad program for the arts or humanities, you’ve probably already read enough theoretical discussions of gender performativity to last you a lifetime. In the unlikely event that you a) haven’t and b) want to know more, Judith Butler is the standard source. Personally, I find her prose unintelligible, and would only recommend her work to fledgling academics or masochists. The Zimmerman and West article “Doing Gender” (1987) covers a lot of the same ideas in more comprehensible fashion. (Thanks to my sociologist sister for recommending it.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Going Over The Top: Trash And Excess On "True Blood"

“What do you think we would be like if we were normal?” (Sookie to Bill, Episode 3.11, True Blood).

Since its inception, True Blood has scrutinized the ways America defines normalcy: What is it? Who is it? Is it even worth having? This season’s story lines—the Vampire Rights Act campaign, Jessica’s struggle for self-definition, Russel’s plans for world domination, and the revelation of yet more supernatural beings—werewolves! werepanthers! witches! sorcerers! fairies!—have all served to intensify that focus. Moreover, True Blood is the third major HBO series, after The Sopranos and Big Love, to depict members of ostracized minorities attempting to assimilate within mainstream American culture; indeed, this particular narrative has become something of an HBO specialty. But while The Sopranos and Big Love present themselves as serious dramas, True Blood revels in its own trashiness. Indeed, it has incorporated a whole range of disreputable genres—horror, gothic romance, WiP film, biker movies, and, in the episode 3.1 Sam-Bill dream sequence, porn.

Most commentaries have addressed the series’ high-minded social commentary and lowbrow format as separate entities. The New York Times' Ginia Bellafonte describes the show as “a mishmash of Flannery O’Connor aspirations and Anne Rice pop blood hunger.”   In fact, True Blood’s formal elements mirror its thematic concerns. In verbal and written analyses of True Blood, one word that crops up repeatedly is “excess”. Excess is what unites the show’s examination of marginalized groups and its juggling of marginal entertainment forms. Excess is True Blood’s true subject.

American television tends to locate normalcy among the white suburban middle class; this is the case in The Sopranos and Big Love, as well as Weeds, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. Atomization and anomie stalk these mythic suburbs; having shrugged off the traditional bonds of ethnicity, religion, and region, they suffer from a kind of vertigo. At the same time, they straightjacket themselves within their own petty conventions, all designed to maintain a manufactured homogeneity. The conception of social life and social identity that popular culture now attributes to suburbia was actually created by the European and, later American middle classes beginning in the seventeenth century. As it acquired increasing political power and socio-economic status, the middle class constructed standards of behavior opposing the more relaxed mores of the rapidly declining aristocracy. These standards precluded all forms of excess: drunkenness, extravagance, and sexual license. Interpersonal violence, such as dueling, was increasingly delegitimized. Individuals and groups who persisted in excessive behavior were criminalized or otherwise exiled to the margins of the dominant culture. This antipathy toward excess remains central to American definitions of normalcy, and to HBO’s attempts to grapple with those definitions. The violence that Tony Soprano and his compatriots engage in, along with their flashy SUVs, expletive laden speech, and touchy machismo, all strike the viewer as just too much, and this excessiveness simultaneously repulses and entertains. Big Love’s preoccupation with excess is encoded into its title:  while most men make do with one wife at a time, Bill Henrickson takes three or (for a brief while last season) four.

The rise of middle class values also coincided with a move toward realist aesthetics, which likewise disdained excess.  Although Realism with a capital R would not be invented until the end of the nineteenth century, even eighteenth century playwrights such as Lessing and Diderot avoided the titanic emotions of French Neoclassical tragedy and gory violence of the Jacobeans. They preferred to portray smaller scale domestic conflicts resolved by tear-filled reconciliations. Over the next century and half, explicit sexuality and extreme violence would increasingly be exiled to lowbrow genres like melodrama, cabaret, and the Grand Guignol.  These forms of excess have remained on our culture’s unseemly periphery ever since.

Contemporary lowbrow entertainment—Lady Gaga, the Super Bowl half time show, monster trucks, Real Housewives, Machete—doesn’t just permit excess, it gleefully embraces it. Why walk onstage in real clothes if you can wear a bra that shoots off sparks? If you’re going to crush a bunch of old cars in a 15,000 seat arena, why not do it with a dragon-shaped, smoke-blowing, fire-breathing robosaurus? (The first part of the video is kind of boring. Skip to 0:57 to see the robosaurus). If your hero is going to escape by jumping out a window, why not have him do so just as the building containing said window blows up? Better still, why not show all this in slow motion, in order to expand the moment even further, show every particle of exploded glass and metal and every drop of blood in loving detail? 

Such lowbrow performances achieve their popularity by allowing audience to vicariously experience the excessive desires and behaviors forbidden in “normal” life. And yet, because contemporary American culture still largely equates normalcy with restraint, we disavow our own fascination with excess by dismissing such entertainment as trashy. Some of my friends enjoy discussing True Blood in tones of knowing irony. Now, the show has at times earned these sneers. (Remember in season two when Sookie told Bill: “You have a heart….even if it no longer beats”? I harbor the unhappy suspicion that the moment’s humor was wholly unintentional.) However, I’d wager that the primary reason some viewers adopt an ironic tone when talking about True Blood is to disguise just how much fun they’re having watching Russell Edgington rip out the newscaster’s spine (Episode 3.9), or Bill and Sookie having loud, nasty sex on the floor of her wrecked living room (Episode 3.8).

Most trashy entertainment encourages viewers engage in this kind of dissociation. Over-the-top violence, in particular, tends to be framed as either a threat to normalcy (things were going just swell for the Nostromo crew until they decided to check out that distress signal coming from the “abandoned” planet), or justified as necessary to maintaining normalcy (got a zombie problem? time to break out the chainsaw!), or, often, both. The standard of normalcy itself is never seriously challenged.

True Blood places itself in a paradoxical position. It has achieved its present success by giving viewers precisely the voyeuristic experience of excess they desire, and giving them more of it, and better, than any other show currently broadcast. At the same time, True Blood refuses to provide viewers with a comforting standard of normalcy. This is a world in which the local bartender is a shape shifter, the waitresses are Wiccan or part fairy, the nursing home attendant is the descendant of sorcerers, and the meth dealers down the road morph into panthers once every twenty-eight days. “Regular” humans are actually a little thin on the ground. Furthermore, the South, and particularly the rural South, has long figured as a cultural “other” in the American imagination. Film and television have largely portrayed it as either a locus of backwardness and bigotry (Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, The Color Purple) or of traditions, familial bonds, and authenticity that mainstream America has lost (Fried Green Tomatoes, Forrest Gump) It is also a region seen as host to various forms of excess, many of which True Blood cites in its opening credits: violence (the drunks fighting over a woman), fanatical intolerance (the “God Hates Fangs” sign and the child in the Klan uniform), and Pentecostal Christianity, whose flamboyant, emotive style of worship, as much as the beliefs it promulgates, often makes it an object of suspicion or ridicule within the dominant culture.

Some (for example's Jason Zinoman) have criticized the increasing presence of supernaturals on True Blood, arguing that if non-magical humans become the minority there will cease to be any standard of normalcy for the other characters to either aspire to or reject. It seems to me that this is actually the whole point: on True Blood, normal does not exist. The show suggests that in some fundamental sense America is a gothic fantasy land inhabited by beings hiding terrifying, thrilling alternate identities.

After Russell relieves the newscaster of his spine, he speaks directly into the camera. We the viewers see him through the TV screen in Nan Flanagan’s limo, which is, of course, also our own TV screen. His speech to the presumably horrified fictional humans watching is, by implication, addressed to us as well:

Now, the American Vampire League wishes to perpetrate [sic] the notion that we are just like you and, in a few small ways, we are. We’re narcissists, we care only about getting what we want, no matter what the cost, just like you. Global warming, perpetual war, toxic waste, child labor, torture, genocide: that’s a small price to pay for your SUVs and your flat screen TVs, your blood diamonds, your designer jeans, your absurd, garish McMansions—futile symbols of permanence to quell your quivering, spineless souls.

As Russell concludes his speech, he clasps his hands in front of him—one dead white, the other dyed red with blood. Rather than underscoring vampires’ ambivalent relationship with violence, this image actually captures True Blood’s somber view of human character.  The show suggests that irrational drives—consumption, sex, aggression—constantly explode the constraints of reason, altruism, and tenderness. As Jessica tells Hoyt during this season’s second episode, “Getting so mad that I do bad things…’s in my nature.” True Blood simultaneously thrives off of and critiques its viewers’ voyeuristic fascination with excess—a fascination fueled, it suggests, by our refusal to recognize the impulses toward excess buried within our seeming normalcy. We are the monsters we love to watch. 
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