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.)

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