Writings and Letters

A blog oeuvre… a "bloeuvre"

Tag: feminism

Your Body is Not Your Own: Brief Thoughts on Patriarchy

Bad Thoughts

Late night at our house in Nashville, my roommates and I sat around the dinner table engaged in a lively brainstorming session. Two of my roommates were trying to develop the concept of their band’s album art. Our other roommate, Melissa, the band’s photographer and friend, sat in on the discussion. I was more or less there to eat my dinner (back then, probably mozzarella sticks) and chime in if the Spirit moved me. The basic concept was related to the more occult qualities (since the band played a modern rock twist with hints of the delta blues, and was inspired by the more gothic aspects of the South centered around the imagery of voodoo, witches, the supernatural) and lore of rock music (i.e. the story of how the Devil taught Robert Johnson how to play the guitar). It was a loose connection between the taboo, the sexual, and the feel-good. In hindsight, it was a confused, simplistic renunciation of mostly Southern Victorianism, and fear of black culture, but that’s really neither here nor there.

Though jejune, the purpose of the artwork was not the problem (not outright, at least). It was where the little group’s thinking ended up that is of note. Of the four of us, the three guys were really spearheading the conversation. The (de)evolution went a little something like this:

“We should have a woman on the front of the album, and like, we should convey that she is moving seductively. It’s like she’s tempting the listener.”

“Yeah. She’s like the sorceress that we’ve fallin’ under her spell.”

“Yes, and we have to free ourselves from the spell. Like the album is that for us.”

“Purging her from our souls. The album is how we do that.”

“Right. And we tell this story through the artwork.”

“I have this scene in my head. You know that old barn off 65? The one that sits in the middle of that field. In Brentwood? Yeah. If we shot near around there. Like us looking for her, and she’s running off in the distance. Then a moonlight shot of her along the fence-line out there, where the trees are, we see her silhouette and then ours chasing after her.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Maybe we could have like torches or something, or is that lame?”

“It’s a little cheesy.”

“You know, during the witch trials in Salem, they used to drown them to see if they were witches or not.”

“Right. We could like shoot something in the river.”

“Yeah, maybe we end up there.”

“Like we see a scarf of hers, or something, in the water. We highlight it. Go back to the front cover. Like it’s a black and white cover and just the scarf is in color, like red. And then in the river we see the red scarf again floating away.”

“And then the last shot, on the back of the album is like us with shovels. Standing around.”

The three of us were quite pleased by this final imagery. We kept asking one another what we thought, and we all were nodding our heads in agreement. It was a cool concept. Using a gloomy feel of the Nashville wilderness, mixing in the elements of horror, myth, and music to drive a narrative. The way it would be photographed would be cinematic in quality. What was there not to like?

It was at the apex of our euphoria that Melissa voiced her opinion: “I in no way want to cramp your guys’ creativity, and I’m not saying you have to change anything, but as the only woman in this room right now, hearing this conversation, this album art terrifies me.” This statement struck me. But sooner than I could form a thought, she continued: “You introduce fans to this woman. She’s beautiful, she’s dancing, she’s having a good time. She seems innocent. And then you show, through the subsequent photos, her being chased down by five guys through the woods at night, through a river, and eventually being murdered and buried out there somewhere.” She pressed her hand against her chest to help catch her breath. “That is just so disturbing and halting to me. As a woman, I would just be so struck by something like this.”

I cannot speak for my roommates, but from what I remember of their physiognomies, they felt just as shocked and ashamed as I did. Like them, I never considered myself writing a narrative of grotesque objectification and brutality. What disgusted me more about myself was not that I was just completely oblivious to this, but that I had willingly participated in the act. The room fell silent. Melissa felt as though she had done something wrong, offended us in some way. She quickly offered: “I mean that’s just my opinion. You can take it or leave it. I don’t want to shoot any idea down. It’s your album. It’s your music. But I just feel like I need to be honest with you. As a woman, as a friend.” The bandmates nodded their heads and thanked her, canceling any notion that Melissa should feel bad, or that somehow this was her fault.

It was truly one of those transformative experiences for me. In that moment, I became acutely aware of hidden biases and blindspots I held, and the capitulation to certain abhorrent narratives (or “common sense”) of a male-dominated culture. I was perpetuating the same kind of practices and ideas I myself found so despicable. The profundity came from the realization that I did not possess the type of insight I thought I had held for women. And equally important, I learned another example of human complexity. How my roommates and I, we were not “bad guys,” but we were easily making an incredibly poor decision. I’m only grateful Melissa was there to point out the inanity, the cruelty of our imaginations before it became worse. Still, to this day, I think of what must have been going through Melissa’s mind, watching her three friends talk about hunting down and murdering a woman with such enthusiasm. She had to bear the burden for all the those who might come across this album art and experience the same anxiety and heartbreak. For that, I still feel awful.

From here I’d like to expand this thought piece. I’d like to take notions that are grafted to the “bad thoughts” that occurred in the dining room area in Nashville, and extend them to other areas of realization. So that one can see just how these ideas become metastatic when applied to social relations—specifically here in relationship between men and women. Also, I hope to show how patriarchy and our (American) sense of moral actors play together on this topic.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I imagine something quite similar to our “dining room chat” happened amongst the marketers of X-Men: Apocalypse as they planned the outdoor campaign for the film. Only those marketers didn’t have the benefit of a Melissa to expose their blindspot.

Amongst the half-dozen outdoor posters or so, there were two that featured the strongest female leads of the movie: Mystique and Psylocke: in less-than-flattering form. In the standalone image of Psylocke (played by Olivia Munn), she is shown bending forward, arms swung back, hair flowing with her cleavage prominently in the foreground. For Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), she is being choked to death by an Apocalypse two times her size.

XMA_Psylocke2

XMA_Choke

Set aside the fact that both Psylocke and Mystique have always been highly sexualized characters. In the comics, both women are drawn with impossible figures, skin-tight clothes (that don’t make a lick of sense for combat), and are clear projections of the basest visceral hetero-male desires (all of which is rich with its own issues steeped in patriarchy). Set aside that Hollywood was successful in saying: “I see your highly-objectified women images, and I’ll raise you.” So we transform Comic-Mystique, traditionally (or iconically) fully clothed in a white dress (and skull belt), into Film-Mystique, who is dressed, well… not at all. And although Comic-Pyslocke is quite salacious with her tight purple (what I can only assume is) latex outfit, Film-Psylocke ups the ante by cutting out all that unnecessary clothing atop her breasts, leaving them exposed for strategic value one must assume.

Set that all aside.

Focus instead on a very particular issue with these two specific images being displayed in the most public spheres: amongst the images of the most carefully selected models dressed in high, mid, and low-fashion clothes, amongst the shoe ads, promotions for lingerie next to calls for gym memberships, beautifully airbrushed actresses hawking perfumes, skin creams, shampoos and conditioners, eye-liners, jeans, and coconut water (just to name a few). See how these two images from the film, in this deluge of beauty objectification and stereotyping on billboards across the nation (and around the world), can provoke a sense of anxiety and frustration in protesters (who often end up being women). In this proper setting, through the eyes of female consumers, one begins to see these images in a different light: Psylocke is a grossly sexualized character, and Mystique is a woman whose received violence is so meaningless it is utilized as a form of advertising for a movie.

What makes this whole instance even more upsetting is precisely how avoidable it was. In a film where these two characters are on screen for a majority of the time, the marketers had a wide variety of still images to choose from (even from the very scenes these images were taken!) that would have portrayed the women in a more favorable sense. That the marketers did not choose any other scene seems to suggest either willful cynicism (i.e. They did not think the intended audience—read: young males—would recognize the offensive quality of the billboards, or flatly would not care, and ultimately not affect ticket sales.) and thus sexism, or they suffered from a painful ignorance (or more precisely, women suffered painfully from their ignorance). To drive this point further, in the outdoor campaign featuring Storm, the image shows the character shooting lightning out of her hands in every which direction and being a general cool ass-kicking mutant. That the Mystique and Psylocke posters were spared this approach is quite disappointing.

XMA_Storm

This poster replaced several “Mystique Choke Scene” billboards around the Los Angeles area after negative reactions.

Before I go further, though, there is one particular counterpoint raised as a defense of the marketing campaign. It is a line of logic that is regularly used in these types of discussions to a fault (quite often by those who want to pooh-pooh the idea of racism’s continued existence in favor of their colorblind claptrap). The argument goes a little something like this: “But if that was a man Apocalypse was choking, no one would even care. Hugh Jackman goes shirtless in posters when he’s Wolverine, and no one cares. DOUBLE STANDARD! DOUBLE STANDARD! #SEXISM! #SEXISM! #SEXISM! I WIN, I WIN, I WIN, I WIN, I WIN!” Or something to that effect.

It is a tempting argument to succumb to. After all, no one wants to consciously stand athwart equality. But this rebuttal is a sleight of hand. While it speaks of equality on the surface of things, it successfully strips the conversation of all context. Quite simply put: the reason people are not taken aback when Hugh Jackman goes shirtless, or if Professor X was to be suffocated at the hands of Apocalypse is because men do not share the same societal experience as women—not in billboard campaigns, not in entertainment/media portrayals, not in office spaces, on the streets, or at home. To bypass this context makes the counterpoint negligent and unnerving. Particularly, it is disturbing (and perplexing) that the argument purposely disregards the plight of women, and consequently the legitimacy of their concerns, and then uses the violence and objectification against men in a negative connotation as justification for the continual misrepresentation and mistreatment of women.

Lastly, what the above failed-refutation does not recognize is easily the biggest difference between men and women in the world of advertising, entertainment, and most anywhere when the human body is utilized as product, and is the true underbelly of the conversation at hand: fetishism. In hetero-male-dominant societies, men are not coveted. This sexual desire comes from the normative roles of patriarchal society: men are the sexual actors who seek out and perform sex acts (attributes that behave as main identifiers of “masculinity”) and women take on a passive role (as part of the “feminine” responsibility). [Note: Animosity towards homosexuals is often derived from these myopic gender roles, too. Oddly, though, the racialized aspects of these identities often work against people of color, especially the African American community. That’s white supremacy for ya!]

Fetishism is nothing new, nor is sexualized imagery in marketing, and the two seem to combine effortlessly in today’s media—some less so. In certain respects, they are the result of the sexual revolution. For all its apparent accomplishments, one failure of the revolution was to actually revolutionize sexuality. So what we are left with is rhetoric rich with calls to action for liberating the bedroom, or our sexual attitudes, and ultimately having more sex (because there is nothing wrong with sex, per se). This is all well and fine, but it does nothing to curb the perceived gender roles of men and women. The liberation still engenders an environment in which women should feel “free” to openly engage in more sex with men without any consideration to whether or not either side truly wants to. Continuing to define masculinity and femininity through the engagement of sex produces the fetishization of women as we understand it today and, combined with the commodity-obsessed capitalist consumer culture we have in the United States, leads to some odious results (as will be discussed shortly). Because if a woman is to step outside of the realm of normative roles dictated by hetero-male society, she is to be dealt with—often through violence. These two ideas: the woman as sexual object, and the disobedient woman punished: are on display in the posters, surrounded by a jungle of further fetishism.

So let’s return to our marketers for a moment. I’ll take them in good faith and assume they suffered from a similar blindness I had years ago in Nashville—only they put their thoughts into action. They must have looked at both posters and not seen the aforementioned styles of objectification and gender-specific violence. Instead, in all likelihood, they saw a bad-ass female mutant (Psylocke) landing some awesome move in the one case, and the powerlessness of one of the more recognizable, strong mutants (Mystique) at the hand of this next foe. I will go one more step and suggest they wanted to highlight the women in this film as much as the men in a gesture of equality. These marketers, like my buddies and I, were excited about telling this story, proud of their degree of female inclusion, and totally unaware of the potential consequences.

Allowing this type of marketing to continue unchecked is damaging for women both immediately and in the long-term. The whole imagery of woman’s relationship to man is seen in this dual sense: sex and brutality. Through the propagation of this type of advertising, the product is not just the film, but the codification of patriarchal logic. Continuously, we are treated to this logic so that it becomes seemingly innate, and feeds our action, which we then observe in real time as if natural to begin with. Granted, in some vague way, societal/cultural attitudes do have origins, but contrary to what some might have us believe, biological determinism alone does not explain the enormous, concentrated efforts espoused by large swaths of disparate people acting cohesively to subjugate, exploit, or obliterate another. Nor does theology, or any other host of singularly-driven narratives for that matter. Instead, a truth lies somewhere deep within the shrouded past across innumerable nameless people, places, and events that helped create our current predicament. What we do know is that there was some evolution to our current hyper-masculine ethos, and that its continuation thrives on this seemingly connate quality, and moreover, if the proliferation of this type of logic continues, again and again we will see it manifest itself in its most heinous, but predictable conclusion: rape.

Brock Turner

Rape (like patriarchy) is quite antediluvian. The two go hand in hand, as evident in ancient records of long-dead people, tribes, and civilizations. There is debate about whether one can place a “start date” on patriarchy. However, much consent is given to the notion that the transition from hunter-gathering groups into agricultural and eventually industrial civilizations marks the genesis of patriarchy, and rape a key ingredient to its formation. Societies were often realized through various methods of violence, and so too was patriarchy. This violence spread towards women in several fashions—the most obvious: rape. Whether it was through an “exchange” of women between tribes (often through raiding missions) as a form of debt payment, or population control, or the conquest (and enslavement) of women during times of war, rape was a constant in this form of male dominance. It is also hard to recognize the creation of patriarchy without acknowledging the relationship economic strife, the rise of militarization, and the formation of states had in its realization as a fully-fledged way of life. There is an undeniable connection between a failure in the market (often related to scarcity), the threat of the state’s legitimacy, and the rise of military power to regain equilibrium (often through conquest of one sort or another).

Flashing forward a few millennia to contemporary times in the United States, though much has changed (scarcity is not as much a result of nature, but human failure at sharing), we still see the same apparatuses and social customs in their latest regenerative forms: the market (neoliberal consumer capitalism), the state (quasi-republican government), the military (nuclear-powered and technologically advanced), patriarchy realized through the commodification of women and rape. That the contemptible effects of patriarchy still exist in a country like the United States, even in environments of the most affluence, speaks to the omnipresent and well-nigh “natural” essence of patriarchy.

To see how this exists in modern America, in its most disgusting real state, let’s take convicted rapist Brock Turner for example. The case of the former-Stanford student taking an intoxicated and unconscious woman behind a dumpster and raping her until two men stopped him is full of various aspects of coeval patriarchy at play. I’m going to focus on just a few. The first focuses on the idea of scarcity and its relation to patriarchy in the modern era, then shame and the idea of honor, and finally a particular strain of thinking concerning the male and female bodies.

The origins of patriarchy might correlate to humanity’s initial struggle with scarcity, but it is not an effect of dearth today. At least, this is the case with much of the United States. It is certainly true when considering Brock Turner—a white man of considerable advantages. Using Turner to examine and understand concurrent patriarchy leads to a better contemplation of, and in some sense demystifies the deleterious phenomenon. For it was not scantness that led Turner to irrevocably destroy two futures—more so the woman’s. As patent in his father’s call for mercy, Turner came from a notable degree of privilege:

Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big ribeye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him. I had to make sure to hide some of my favorite pretzels or chips because I knew they wouldn’t be around long after Brock walked in from a long swim practice. Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.

[Full text here.]

 

Earlier, Turner’s father calls to attention the fact that his son was having trouble fitting in at college (descending from those Midwestern sentiments and sensibilities, a gentler, kinder breed of American, it was hard for Brock to adjust to the strange, uncouth ways of Stanford University—my reading) and balancing both his academic and athletic responsibilities. Eventually, under the tutelage of senior peer pressure, Brock turned to heavy drinking and partying as a form of relief. Set aside the fact that these are anxieties most college students deal with (especially student-athletes) and thankfully a large majority of them are not rapists; and postpone following this logic to its obvious conclusion (every out-of-state student-athlete at Stanford is a rapist-in-waiting, one college party away from shoving parts of himself into a woman who lay inert). Instead, just recognize this as not a real form of scarcity, and that patriarchy has survived into affluence where it is most exposed for how truly inane it is. To put it another way: starvation, destruction of the land, other calamities did not lead to Brock’s decision to unclothe and physically penetrate an unconscious woman right behind a receptacle where people deposit their trash, neither did some agreed ritual of exchange between his family and hers, nor was this woman a form of payment to him. More importantly, women have had to rely less and less on men (starting in the mid-twentieth century for our brave new postmodern epoch) and the gender normative habitats that were created by patriarchy during the conflicts over scarcity.

And yet, the result was still very much the same: Brock raped this woman.

We are then left to conclude we are living in some residual phase of patriarchy (again, at least in more affluent circles of society). Because patriarchy is as much an ideology as cultural thing, and ideologies are hard to kill, this current phase can easily retrograde, but as it stands it affords us the closest examination of the logic of male-dominant societies—now more than ever, less shrouded in the cultural grips of common sense and the status quo.

Many markers of patriarchy’s logic were on display in the case of Turner. One of the more prominent features was the idea of honor and use of shame. Now, rape has deeps roots tied to the social notion of honor, or more appropriately, it is a method through which women (or females of any age) can be stripped of their societal bond; honor has its ties to the idea of self-agency and generally to moral uprightness (in certain respects as it relates to debt—one of the key ingredients to the social fabric). So an act that is forced upon a woman that strips her of these notions helps form a sense of shame and alienation from society—it’s really no wonder then why “honor” used to be synonymous with a woman’s chastity—and it is doubly felt (and meant to) as a cast of dishonor in a patriarchal society for both the woman (who carries no freedom to decide how her body can or cannot be used) and the men in her life (who could not protect her from the violence, one of their main duties). [Note: From here the fetishization of the female body can also slowly develop and expand (women have no autonomy, they are only things to be protected by men from other men), and given time, it is not too difficult to understand why the before mentioned marketing exists around the world.] In addendum, shame is used to inculcate social norms, and as this awful tango of a priori and posteriori goes on, so does the reinforcement of patriarchy.

Apart from the great mental shame that goes naturally with having suffered an act of unparalleled violence like rape, the victim of Brock Turner also suffered from further shaming in an effort to convince the judge and jury of his innocence. Throughout the trial, the woman’s morals were called into question, constantly cast as a demimonde by Turner’s attorney. Whether it was her history of sexual experience or her loyalty to her boyfriend or her lust, the victim was portrayed as impure, and thus dishonest. She had sex before that night in January (!), she may have intended to engage in premarital sex with her boyfriend in her potation-induced state of mind that night (!) and must have settled on innocent Brock when her boyfriend did not materialize. In this double bind, she was simultaneously victim and violator of patriarchy. But as Turner’s attorney wanted the jury to believe (as is custom for a great many defenders of patriarchy’s honor code), the sin of breaking the bonds of patriarchal rectitude was worth scrutiny and disgrace, and the fact that she had been raped was of the utmost secondary consideration. To put it another way: the woman was a slut, and therefore had no honor to speak of, so what difference did it make that she was raped (“allegedly”)? Her humanity was already unworthy of consideration from the start, so why blame Brock?

Branching off from this comes the second argument made by Turner, his defenders, and more broadly speaking those who defend the state of patriarchy. It concerns the standards of the male and female bodies. Or more appropriately, it concerns the helplessness of both bodies. For it was the booze that did it! If Brock was guilty of anything, it was crapulence! Drinking and party culture was what led him to “20 minutes of action” (otherwise known as three counts of sexual assault). He could not help himself. He could not help but take this woman behind a dumpster, expose her breasts and genitalia, take pictures of her naked, still body and send it to his friends, and then begin to penetrate her body. At this point, his mind had slipped through the earthbound realm, unable to prevent himself from continuing on, yet remaining completely aware of the fact that he was definitely not raping a motionless woman. He was just a male body at that point, coerced by alcohol and festivities. So not only is a woman’s body not hers (more so a vessel through which pleasure can be derived), apparently neither is a man’s. And yet, in patriarchal structures, the burden of avoiding such mindless bodily violence from men unto women falls on the woman’s shoulders. One sees this logic throughout male-dominant societies—most grotesquely in cases where the victims of rape are punished with jail time or worse. Though the woman is dehumanized by effect of her body being violated, she must also take the blame for the attack because men have no control over their anatomy, and she should have known better! Known the gender roles (as stated before). That, by the nature of things, men do and have sex, where as women are done onto and experience sex (sometimes less pleasantly than others).

After all, Brock Turner was not an evil kid. His father, lawyer, even (female) friends from high school vouched for him. He had spent twenty years of his life being an all-around “good guy” and never harmed or wanted to harm anyone. So being a rapist just doesn’t fit his modus operandi. There must be some other explanation for such an event to have taken place. Must have been the witch—I MEAN—women!

Many who doubt rape culture, patriarchy, or that they too are a part of this systemic human problem cling to this notion of binary morality. That “good” people do “bad” things is a very difficult concept to accept—for them and us. The turbid quality of human behavior and complexity challenges our ethics and values each day. Failing to recognize this, failing to place blame where it is due, leads to severe misunderstandings, conclusions, and actions. It also furthers patriarchy.

In order to break the continuation, we must change our thinking. Not just about how men and women treat each other and their own, but how humans are capable of wonderful and horrifying thoughts and behaviors, and how decency has to be reified in that fragile nexus between “us” and “them.”

Nashville Revisited

I think back to that night in Nashville a lot. More often, I think about how great it was that Melissa spoke up, and also that we three listened. It was because the setting was affable that Melissa felt her opinion would be at least heard, and thankfully we saw her valid point and altered our course. This consciousness awareness was not only imperative to my growth as a man, but it is exactly what is necessary on a broader scale. More of these conversations must happen not just between men and women, but all permutations, in the kitchen, the boardroom, and certainly the bedroom if we are to grow together and improve how we treat one another.

And let me be even more unambiguous! Melissa is not a stand-in for women writ large. Patriarchy is not the subject of just one particular set of people (an evil mustache-twirling cabal of white men). It transcends gender, race, and sexual orientation. It is not an abstract concept perpetuated by men alone, thus only subverted by the noble efforts of women. This, too, is a narrative we must disabuse ourselves from because patriarchy is not subject to such a simple binary. Even though it tends to work to a man’s benefit over a woman’s, patriarchy is often aided by the efforts of men and women and can be found in most cultures around the modern world. This type of ubiquitous nature does not result from a single hegemony, but rather widespread communal ones. To complicate matters more, it is often perpetuated by actors behaving cluelessly, who are otherwise described as “decent” people. Too frequently, these members of the patriarchal societies aid its perpetuation unwittingly. In an adjunct, the counter-force behaves in a fractured and ephemeral manner—as minority oppositions tend to do. Combining all these factors illustrates patriarchy’s longevity both vertically and horizontally. Allowed to continue unabated, we eventually see it act out in its most brutal, morally repugnant, yet purest conclusions. The response to its existence does not come with simple, straightforward solutions. To counteract such a pervasive systemic issue, the response must be as wide-ranging and persistent with a malleability to match. There also needs to be a rigorous discussion and understanding of human nature and its relationship with societal behavior. This all sounds crude and abstract in many ways, but the key is to open up and carry forth conversations, constantly thinking about these situations at hand.

More and more anxieties about contemporary hetero-male-dominant culture are being expressed, and more ideas of fairness in the social, business, and domestic arenas are being shared, along with greater discussion about the multiplicity of (and at times contradictory) human thought and agency, and this is great. This needs to continue. Although conversations will not simply wash away generations of perceived behaviors, genuine constructive dialog can (and must) lead to ameliorative actions. People are talking about the ills of patriarchy and what we must do to rectify it, as well as dealing with human complexity. The question now is: will we listen?

 


 

 

A lot of the thoughts expressed in this essay were not possible without the aid of some key thinkers that have blazed a trail in gender studies long before me. I’m in deep awe and gratitude to a whole slew of feminist thinkers. Most prominently featured here are Gerda Lerner (The Creation of Patriarchy), bell hooks (Feminist Theory), Silvia Federici (Caliban and the Witch), to a lesser extent David Graeber (Debt: The First 5000 Years), and more generally Judith Butler, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and a whole bunch more I’m leaving out. Without these thinkers, there would not be much meat on the bones of this otherwise gaunt think-piece on contemporary patriarchy. Of course, any faults lie solely with me. My only hope is that I did some justice to this very serious matter.

Lastly, on a personal note, throughout writing about the Brock Turner case and surrounding conundrums, I could not help but regret the fact that the victim will forever be tied to this man and event for the rest of her life, and that for most of us who followed the case, she will only be recognized as “Brock Turner’s victim.” Not Mary, or Celeste, or Vanessa, or Amy, or loving sister, or daughter, great friend, hard worker, funny person, or even: pain in the ass, horrible dancer, traffic violator, etc. etc. In trying to bring her justice, we still manage to void her humanity. There is just something extra disheartening about that. This will not be the sum of her parts, she is undoubtedly strong enough to rise above it and continue on. Her own words lead me to this conclusion. I wish her well. I wish all the women who have felt her pain in one sense or another well. I will continue to try and help change the conversation and raise awareness for all women. You are not alone.

 

 

On Parenting, and History

So we’re all sitting here in the backyard while the kids play around. Little Olivia is shouting at Arie to “get out of the tree!” Arie has, in fact, managed to get himself up in the tree, wedged between some of the Dalmatianesque limbs of the birch sprouting out of the earth. He’s all smiles as he dodges his head from side to side behind one of the limbs, teasing the poor girl. The protestation continues and brings on our full attention, but Arie’s lack of ascent (only a few inches off the ground) renders Olivia’s concerns absurd. Her father calls out: “Honey O, cool it with the screaming. Let’im play.” He’s got all kinds of neat appellations for his girl: Honey O, Little O, Baby O, O, and my personal favorite: Cheeri-O. “Arie,” (which is his nickname, phonetically based off the initials of his first name: Reginald-Ernst) his mother says, “you don’t go any higher than that, understood? And no teasing.” Arie seems not to listen, but he also isn’t climbing any higher, leaving me to infer he either got the message, or is already wise enough to know he can’t possibly climb any further without risk of injury.

Sick of Arie’s shit, Baby O picks up the toy lawnmower and walks off saying something to the effect of: “Fine, but you can’t mow the lawn then.” I’m not certain as she still mumbles a great deal of her words, much like her mother, and her knowledge of English syntax is still lacking, but that’s the gist. Arie watches her from the safety of the birch, clinging to the smooth trunk. The game is afoot, though it is still clear neither child is quite sure what the rules are. Olivia starts humming a nonsensical tune as she continues to pretend-cut the grass. This reminds me I have to pay my gas bill for some reason when Arie decides to dart for the toy. Little O spins to avoid his slow advance, his chubby legs and flat feet let him down in the chase, his sprint some form of unrefined motor skills. She makes an about-face and takes the offensive. The first rule becomes realized: whoever has the plastic mower has the power, and quickly the second: the tree is the only salvation. They chase, back and forth, expanding and creating new rules, evolving along the way.  

Not sure how, but the conversation I return to involves what my friends are reading their respective toddlers. More precisely, the two are talking about their astonishment over just how horrifying older versions of the beloved children’s characters are.

“I was reading O one of the original stories of Bugs Bunny the other night. My mother dumped off a huge stack of my childhood books. I couldn’t believe it.”

“What’s that?”

“Bugs Bunny.”

“Oh I know—“

“Bugs Bunny is a real asshole.”

“Yeah, total bully.”

“They really altered his image when it came to the cartoons. But when I was sitting there reading that stuff to O, I was like: ‘Goddamn. What a fucking asshole.’ Without saying that of course. But the way he instigates and taunts Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig, I’m like: ‘Christ, someone please pistol whip this guy already. What a dick.'”

“And it doesn’t just stop there, you have all those horrible, racist cartoons through the 40s and 50s.”

“‘All This and Rabbit Stew'”

“Sure. Is that one?”

“Well, Bugs always seemed inspired by Br’er Rabbit to me. Which makes the appropriation of him into racist cartoons like that extra painful when you think about it… at least to me.”

“Yeah, all these children’s books are so troubling. I’m reading her these Disney works.”

“Oh don’t get me started on that.”

“I know, I know. But I’m reading her Snow White, right? The young, pretty chick gets slipped a rohypnol apple by the jealous older witch lady, who later turns into a fucking dragon, and has to be saved by the prince. She literally does nothing the whole story except run for her life and get knocked out, then everything turns out OK.”

“No. You missed her most important contribution to life: she stays home and cooks and cleans for the seven dwarfs. That makes her a compelling character, apart from also white and pretty. At least Cinderella was a sweatshop worker.”

“Little Mermaid. My girl loves that story. It’s a story about a girl who changes her body image in order to get a guy. What the fuck?”

“That’s why I can’t stand Disney. I mean that and the shameless marketing to children. “

“Yes, let’s not forget the shameless marketing.”

“It’s not like any of those other children’s stories out there are that much different.”

“I know. I’m reading Arie the story about Little Red Riding Hood. What I remember about the original story was the wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, and The Woodsman has to chop The Wolf to pieces before the two can be saved. Luckily, this book I’ve got for him tones that all down. The Woodsman ‘scolds’ The Wolf to spitting the two out. And then there’s Goldilocks and how she ‘forgets her manners’ when she is breaking and entering the Bears’ house.”

“It’s nice that they tone them down. All these ones I have from when I was a kid are terrible. What’s the name of that collection?”

“You had Disney princess books as a little boy?”

“Oh I don’t know. I’ll find out and text you.”

The conversation turns as my friends start to converse over the silly idiosyncrasies of their kids—at which point I tune them out and start thinking about an article I read not too long ago. The report concerned a series of psychological studies that used false images of Bugs Bunny mascots in Disneyland. The psychologists showed these doctored photos to test patients (them with the rabbit), who upon seeing the photos, claimed they remembered meeting the costumed Bugs in the land of the Mouse—which never happened. This idea of false memories was particularly intriguing to me when placed in the context of these fairy tales. Was this revisionist approach to these children’s tales in a sense providing a cultural false memory for the next generation, and was that a good thing? What would their kids’ futures look like if they never learned their beloved Bugs Bunny, or Mickey Mouse, or other earlier cartoon hero was once a proxy for an entire group of people who were trying to indoctrinate their younglings into a vast racist narrative of superiority and minority debasement? Would it be better? Or, in another case, is it possible that Little O and Arie’s generation will thrive in a community that never grew up listening to the time-honored tales of little children being massacred, or doing the butchering, that they never had to learn these were all narratives told at their outset by a much larger, impalpable hegemonic force we commonly refer to as CULTURE to help ease them into their quotidian existence with relative ease and acceptance. How best to teach them all this? I imagine Cheeri-O’s dad might say: “They’re just too young to learn that. They’re three for Chrissake. Now’s not the time.” Fair enough. No need to expose them to all these matters we adults regularly avoid with boldfaced ignorance verging on beast-like stupidity, let alone actually comprehending what any of this bullshit means. But I can’t help but wonder what implications lurk behind these signs of progression. Do my friends’ children no longer become educable to these pasts, or just as bad: do these histories become a novelty, something reduced to a trivial level? What happens to our futures when we occlude the understanding of our lineage?

I’m not sure. But, being both black and a Jew, I can’t stop myself from thinking about American slavery, and the Holocaust while my friends continue some impassioned conversation of whether or not Tupperware is still a valuable appliance for housing leftovers. I think about the totems to white supremacy. The ones that have vanished, and the ones that remain. I think of the celebration of “Dixie” at high school and collegiate sporting events, etchings on the side of Stone Mountain, the doubly offensive statue of Nathan Bedford Forest overlooking I-65, and the statues and engravings and names that behave as emblems to this country’s known, yet mute identity. Then I think of the only remnants left throughout Germany, Poland, Austria, and other formerly-occupied territories are the ashes. Grim sepulchers that set inside the bucolic countryside, left to help bridge the gap between what was and is. No horrid tokens of the apparatus that conceived, implemented, and executed such doom. Instead, back home, we’ve buried the ashes and obfuscated why the relics remain. Heroes everywhere, and God on everyone’s side. No wrong. No shame. Nothing.

I remember reading about some American taking a selfie at Auschwitz, her face beaming with joy as she stood on the path to the gas chambers. About a year later, people are raising holy hell, crying about “Heritage. Heritage!” as Confederate flags are removed from state grounds.

The meanings behind these symbols have become so recondite they have lost their focus, allowing new narratives to claim authority. I think of this type of revisionism; I think of the Southern apologists, and how few shits Lynne Cheney gave about this type of storytelling influencing the American mind, what the impact this kind of inculcation might wreak on the social fabric.

So why even keep these tombs if we don’t care to acknowledge what lies within?

Then Arie and Little O call out to their parents: “Come play, play!” And Little O’s dad gets up out of his chair and starts to pretend he is a big bull chasing after them, and Arie’s mom tells them to: “Run, run!” The two children dart off with the 40 year old man-bull charging after them. They keep twisting their bulbous heads back to see which one of them he is chasing as their untoned legs move with all the gaucheries of young speed. And I start to get it—I see the danger implicit within its wordless rhetoric, but I understand its necessity. It’s the same that propels me and mine from a separate view.

All these ghosts, arms out-stretched, dying to be remembered, and we in turn look back while lunging forward, wondering if we too have some connection with the intangible, something other than ourselves to tell us to go on, to tell us we are good, and we belong, and are worthy of not being forgotten.

Getting Burned: A Review of ‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner

Because it takes me forever to do most things, I’m finally getting around to writing down my thoughts on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. That’s it. G’night, folks!

 

Kidding.

 

For the uninitiated, The Flamethrowers came out three years ago and was quickly praised by critics (culminating in a second National Book Award nomination for Kushner—the only author to ever be a finalist for the award with their first two novels), and shared a run of success on the New York Times bestseller list, and is being sold around the world (I saw its German-translated hardcover while spending some time in Frankfurt last summer.)

So good for her. No, really. I’m glad to see this kind of literature being well-received and appreciated—at least relatively. There have been some people who have quibbles with its passive main character, and more aimless-at-times plot (there was a podcast of this argument on Slate: starting around 7 minutes or so: interesting to note that the two men didn’t enjoy the novel as much as Hanna Rosin—not writing any meta-narrative, just interesting), but I don’t really give a shit about that. Plot is great and all, but as many wonderful novelists have taught us over the years, a novel doesn’t always need to lean on a solid plot. So fuck plot. And the idea that a character (in this case the main character) is rather passive and allows things to happen to her/him somehow makes the book less appealing seems to rely heavily on personal taste—which is fine, but generally unhelpful when considering the larger merits of a work.

No, plot or character aren’t what I want to talk about at all. What spoke loudest to me, and it is not a revolutionary observation (many other critics have picked up on this, too, in one fashion or another), are the notions of exploitation, and the inflammatory quality of a globalized world dominated by capital. To me, that is where part of the brilliance of The Flamethrowers lies.

First, let’s look at this notion of exploitation, for it is perhaps the most prevalent (and therefore easiest) motif in the novel. The nameless main character (I will be referring to her as “Reno” for convenience) recounts her experiences from the art scene of 1970s New York, and a brief window of time in Italy during the violent, frightening epoch of the Years of Lead. The nameless main character allows for a universal quality, inviting the reader to implant her/himself into the character’s shoes. There is also a quality to this namelessness that allows the novel to focus on the events and other characters happening at this period, rather than about “Reno.” For the novel really does have larger ambitions than to tell the story of some 21 year old’s experiences during the 70s. This ubiquitous quality to the naming convention (or nameless convention) reminded me of Ellison’s Invisible Man—also another character who allows a great deal to be forced upon him and allows the world and characters surrounding “Invisible” to speak just as loudly (if not louder) than the main character/narrator.

In her long journey, vacillating between New York and Italy during this provocative period, “Reno” experiences the constant fetishism of her male counterparts. Whether it is former lovers, current boyfriends, or random strangers, “Reno” is never without a man who is “using” her for his personal gain. This certain “utilization” of her, over and over, is reflected in the other habits of exploitation occurring throughout the novel. The reader first witnesses it as “Reno” and other women are treated poorly in the “boys’ club” of the New York art scene, then it morphs into the form of violent suppression of workers and students by the Italian state (its important to note that some of those workers and students during the Years of Lead were murderous terrorists—a point Kushner does not ignore), and lastly mentioned in a story about how the natives of Brazil were duped into labor during WWII to extract rubber for the Brazilian state to be sold to the United States’s war effort, only to never be paid and furthermore never be told the war was over until thirty years later (no really, this shit happened; fuckers kept working the poor bastards letting them believe there was a fat check waiting for them in the end). As “Reno” continues on through the story, either flitting from New York to Italy and back again, the reader becomes aware of how the story, too, flits from one example of exploitation to the next.

Sticking with this idea of “flitting” draws to mind how capital flits from one location to the next in its constant search for new means of accumulation (often through appropriation). In the novel, the reader learns of “The Flamethrowers” in the Italian army who constantly charged their enemies flames a-throwin’, and had their lives ruled by these violent bursts. Stay with me now, because if we think of capital accumulation in this way, we can begin to see more connections being made throughout the book, and we can begin to see how the novel chronicles the ways in which capital bounces from location to location, generating new piles of wealth—often through exploitation—before hopping off to some newer untouched area, leaving a path of destruction behind it in its constant charge forward. [Going back to “Reno” and her passivity for a second, it begins to make more sense as a creative choice when the main character is understood as a universal stand-in for people who continue to be subjected to the “flamethrowing experience” that is capitalism.]

This, to me, is what stood out most in Kushner’s work. This idea: Violence is inherent (and key) to capital’s success: is present in almost each page of the book. From enslaving indigenous people in the jungles of Brazil, to violently suppressing workers and unionists in the streets of Italy, to objectifying and exploiting women in the “open-minded” circles of the New York art scene, all these translate one into the other. So we must bear this in mind, not only as we read this wonderful novel, but as we live our lives: in a land of flamethrowers, we can’t help but keep getting burned.

 

 

An Artist’s Palimpsest: Otherwise Known as the Sequel to the Berlin Trilogy (David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’)

You probably know by now, but the almost 70-year-old David Bowie came out with his 25th album: Blackstar (or ): on his birthday last Friday (Feb 8th). And man is it a humdinger! Overall, he covers themes of mortality, morality, fame, feminism, capitalism, modernity, (possibly incest) time and being, (maybe castration) time and spatiality in direct relation to a lot of the aforementioned, and some more I’m sure. He also revisits an experimentalism with horns and synth that was heavily prevalent in his Berlin Trilogy days.

Needless to say, I’m sure he knocked more than a few people on their asses when they put this album on. I know it happened to me.

So now I’d like to go through the album and discuss what I think ole Davie is getting at with each song. Now of course, subjectivity, subjectivity, blah, blah, blah, art is very open to interpretation, yada, yada, yada, just one opinion, you get it.

One thing in particular that I would like to touch on, though, before diving in is how I read lyrics in general, but especially David Bowie lyrics. I have found this particularly helpful, and perhaps you will too. Approach Bowie’s lyrics much like you would an Impressionist painting. Move in too close, focusing on a specific portions leads you to experience cerebral dissonance. It is only once you are able to remove yourself and observe from afar that the entire image begins to take form. This will make more sense when considering the lyrics as they contemplate the obfuscation that is modernity, or more generally: life. It also may add the pleasurable effect of interweaving yourself with the “work of art.” As you begin to interpret the piece, it begins to take new shapes, which then affects you in a new way, and a lovely interplay takes off.

So without further ado.

***

“Blackstar” –  The title track has a rather chimerical quality to it (like many Bowie songs). At first it purports to be a contemplation of mortality and religious iconography, not-so subtle hints of Scott Walker (no, not that one, this one–though sans the meat punching), and then an abstract doom over self-reflection, and introducing a vaguely Arabian phrygian scale, breathing faint whispers into our ears, acting like a trigger warning in this age of terrorism to conjure thoughts of the Middle East (Bowie has denied any allusions to ISIS), shapeshifting almost every other minute until falling back on what it originally started as: a contemplation of a death foretold. It’s atrabilious quality is matched only by its amorphous one. Then, halfway through (in lovely progressive style) he transcends once again from the sorrow, loss and brutality into a euphoric ascension of synth and vibes constantly reminding us what he is through a series of chants and negation: he’s a blackstar, he swears! But it leaves us to think: What is a blackstar, David? What can that mean? And as we press him for this existential meaning (by listening on) the repetition begins to present itself almost as a state of delusion, and by the time we start to doubt Bowie’s legitimacy our confusion is signaled by the ghoulish moans that fade in from the abyss and then we descend back into the darkness when the woodwind plays that familiar but unnamed phrygian scale again.

Bowie is knee-deep in a meditation on humanity’s impermanence, and the perturbation that unfolds from it. And similarly how in songs like “Warszawa”and “Neukoln” from Low and “Heroes” respectively, add to our sense of dread over the modern world (more precisely how they evoke imagery of the Cold War and nuclear hellfire), so too does “Blackstar” help us deal with our imaginations over impending calamity, unspeakable violence seemingly on the verge of takeoff at any point, hauling up these dreggy moments of human history and laying them bare on the foreground of our minds. And in addition to the fear of everything outside, we still have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that even on the inside, we’re a threat to our existence. Perhaps not the most exciting, fun topic to introduce right off the bat, but many Bowie album’s often have the opening track act as an informal thesis to the rest of the album. It’s no different here. And if certain people aren’t comfortable with that… well… then bring in the whores!

“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” – [Quick background: The song title is in reference to the 17th century Ford tragedy’s: “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”. Since it’s where I went, and I have no intension of implying I knew this information from the outset, I defer to Wikipedia to provide the Synopsis of the play. The relation to the song is discussed below.]

Again in a Walkerian maneuver, Bowie begins the song with a man inhaling and clearing his throat, this seemingly useless fricative noise then becomes utilized, looped and incorporated into the song itself along with the drumbeat, synth, and growling horns. This is important, it goes on to form the idea of the song from the outset: something ugly and unwanted (a guttural sound that would usually be cut out during the mixing process) becomes subsumed into the very fabric of “‘Tis a Pity” and takes part of a new form.

Bowie then starts to sing. His voice strains, at times gargles and distorts completely. He exposes his fragility. He struggles with notes, utilizing his vocals much like the horn section in a jazz session, or as Fitzgerald or Holiday might have. Here we have Bowie taking his approach to jazz much like he does with many different types of music he encounters: rock, soul, funk, disco, Krautrock, etc. We get to see his (what I’ll call) “Plastik Jazz” on full display, and it will remain with us throughout the album. He sings as an old man remembering the sexual encounter with a whore during a war. The lines “That was patrol//This is the war” repeat throughout. So through this repetition of opposing demonstrative pronouns we are to gather a sense of difference. What happened on patrol was somehow different from the war. But it is a slight of hand, a misdirect. They are as uncoupled as entangled, and with this understanding of paradox we can see the war as both literal and figurative.

The patrol was this single encounter between man and whore (I imagine the dark-haired Temptress of Romantic legends, the one who breaks the will of men, the quintessence of lust, of sin, more appropriately the powerful passions that emerge in the face of fatality). It was where he was able to experience this sexual encounter. A sexual experience that obviously moved him enough to sing about it, now in the elder stage of his life in this haunting nostalgic ode. Both during and apart from the war, from the world, he had this moment [Note: it is unclear what the sex was: consensual or not, pleasurable or not, between strangers or not, etc. etc. All we are left to gather is that they were uncouth by societal standards.]. The lines “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” imply his remorse over the loss of that encounter, that he will not be able to experience such a moment again: such a pity.

It is his “fate,” his “curse,” he tells us to have these taboo desires that can only be satisfied through the conduit of the market, aided by this demimonde, while he is “out on patrol,” (again think of the cleared throat at the beginning of the song and now think of how “patrol” useless on its own enters another context, “patrolling” for the next whore who can satisfy his lust) but in the larger context of the “war” this interaction cannot be allowed by women who are not filles des joie. What Bowie points towards is a topic of conversation in feminist circles that is: in patriarchy, men have sex, women provide it.

Of course, the whore in Ford’s sordid play was Giovanni’s lover/sister: Annabella. So, if we want to make a bridge here, we can swap the idea of man sleeping with whore to man sleeping with sister, or sister-whore, and the incestuous aspect of the song takes it in a truly Gothic territory, which is fun. (Again, think of the spirant introduction and how it changed within the song. The same evolution is taking place here with the lament: “‘Tis a pity she was a whore.”) The taboo remains, of course, and the lessons of patrol and war can still be applied–though in a darker turn.

However one chooses to infer, we cannot enter this whirlwind of concupiscence unaffected. The swirling attack of the horns and thunderous pounding of drums environ us in this horror story of depravity, but it is what spurs this untowardness that is most intractably interesting.

Again think of the imagery of war as a backdrop, with the threat of death on the precipice, human beings double-down on their obsessions for life. Facing the inevitable with existential uncertainty breeds a certain mania, which seems to breed certain perversions such as sadomasochism in an act of desperation. It lends a helping hand to the patriarchal in the form of prostitution, and even devolves in the ugliest fashions: incest, rape, gelding or other sexual mutilations. These are all on display in “‘Tis a Pity” and you begin to realize the present and past-tense application of “to be” in the song’s hook is meant more chronological than progressive in difference; that the behavior of men towards women (and vice versa in other cases) “is” just as much as it “was” when dealing with one another in life and death.

Speaking of life and death…

“Lazarus” – Once more we see Bowie utilize religious imagery to focus on the themes of life and death. Though here with “Lazarus” the song appears to be contemplating a career as well as human temporality. The song is also featured in the new play by the same title, which Bowie co-wrote and produced. It is a sequel of sorts to the film he starred in: The Man Who Fell to Earth (which one of the film posters was also the cover art for Low).

In a unique way, the song stands as a form of paralleling between reality and fiction. “Lazarus” (both play and song) follows the character Thomas Jerome Newton as he has to deal with his reality now decades removed from the events in Man Who Fell. At the end of the film, Newton was a drunken wreck, who failed in his mission to save his world and family, instead living lavishly in a penthouse on Earth, left only with the ability to drink his riches away.

At the time Man was being filmed, Bowie shared similar doldrums with Newton. He had wealth and fame, was living in Los Angeles and being afforded with the pleasantries celebrity can provide a rock star: in David’s instance, cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine. [There’s a particular story about Bowie that I find both tragic and fascinating. And that is while he was making Young Americans he was sustaining himself on a healthy diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk. And he kept his semen in jars out of fear witches might steal it from him. I don’t know if any of that is true, but hot ham and cheese is it a story!] Shortly after the release of the film, Bowie fled LA for the confines of France, and what would soon become known as the “Berlin Trilogy” as he started work on Low.

With this in mind, the song “Lazarus” becomes more complex than its face-value appearance of an alien, or ghost, angel, (Lazarus himself perhaps) who is looking down at the earth, reminiscing about his time spent down there, and he absentmindedly drops his cell phone down to the living world. A rather docile song about the interaction between earthlings and extraterrestrials, or living and dead, how the relationship between the known and unknown is an interwoven blur. The song instead, in the larger context (i.e. its relation to Bowie’s career and life) takes things one step further and looks to be about the rockstar (or ) coming to terms with himself, both past and present.

When remembering that Newton experienced his life in multiple times, perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think Bowie (through Newton) is exposing a simultaneous conflation of past and present Bowie. Nearing death, he can look back at a time in his life where he seemed both alive yet dead, in this purgatorial state (much like his Newton) and he had to be risen by force (in this case physically removing himself from Los Angeles) to become alive again–much like our biblical Lazarus. That his savior was music, which pulled him from the Cerberus-like clutches of a lifeless materialism and hedonism.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” – In keeping with this idea of a failed materialism, and the crisis of Self that arises from it, Bowie introduces us to “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” halfway through the album. This is key positioning, in my mind. “Blackstar” introduces us to the thesis of the album: coping with our existence: with the admittance of our ephemerality. “‘Tis a Pity” looks at how this knowledge affects the way we behave sexually (with specific focus on the male perspective). And the previous song reflects on how spatiality and time are simultaneous in the human mind, allowing us to contemplate our worth. Hanging on to this notion of worth, Bowie explores how we attempt to satisfy ourselves in the maelstrom that is modernity.

By far, “Sue” is the most frenetic song on Blackstar. The guitar and drums really drive the song along while the horn section lays out some of the most splenetic melodies (verging on cacophony), at the same time Bowie tries his best baritone crooning à la Walker. The kinetic nature of the music mimics the automized modern world, propelling us so quickly forward, heading straight on towards oblivion at high speeds. Before we know it, in that mad dash for accumulation and debt-aversion, we’ve managed to meet our end so abruptly.

On the surface of Bowie’s sad projections, we learn of a man who kills his lover for she lied about being with another man, or having another family; or it is a story about a woman who is depressed and takes her life while pregnant, or dies of an illness, or some combination of the two, or other impressions, it depends on how certain lines (“I pushed you down beneath the weeds” and “Sue, Good-bye”, “You went with him” and “You went with that clown”, and a few others) are interpreted. Perhaps the “him/clown” is a man, perhaps the angel of death. He might even be the ghostly Lazarus we left in the previous song. Who knows?

More importantly, we see the failure of the man as he tries to construct an alcove from the chaotic world around him through the auspices of wealth. He gets a job. He buys a house. He takes Sue to the doctor. He takes full advantage of the capital he has accumulated in this modern world to help satisfy Sue and bring about some level of comfort and joy in the world, but despite these best efforts, despite the best intentions of affluence, Sue still ends up dead (or, however you see it, he loses Sue).

His best is as meretricious as buying a tombstone. There he pays for the lapidary false admission of purity (“‘Sue the Virgin’ on your grave”). Even in this sentimental act, capital can only help bring about the end of life, not fulfill it. In the most obvious sense: “you can’t take it with you.”

The title points to this grim fact, and is laid out in the song. Exchange value renders human life null and void as monetization of a human’s being is reduced to a commodity, where satisfaction can only be realized through market practice of buying and selling. When the political economy eliminates the humanity from a society, we should not be surprised by the results, after all: “In a season of crime, none need atone.” So when Sue dies, or leaves him, or whatever, it happens while he is at work (“Ride the train, I’m far from home”), and all he worked for appears to be as full of meaning as the materials that helped him realize that moment.

The story of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” appears to suggest the limitations of capital and its helpless quality when facing our common malaise of modernity.

“Girl Loves Me” – This next song is perhaps the most pop of the whole batch. It’s no surprise as Bowie liked (or hated) to throw at least one or two populist bites out there in his more exploratory Berlin Trilogies–“Sound and Vision” from Low, “‘Heroes'” and “The Secret Life of Arabia” from “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” from Lodger. Though the switch is that this song will probably not be played on the radio. Despite the hypnotic bass line and drumbeat that permeates down to your toes and gets them a-tappin’ more than any other song on this album, and despite the catchy (though NSFW) hook of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and chorus “Girl loves me” repeated over and over again, the song intentionally plays more satiric than sensational–at least for mainstream airwaves.

Alongside the jejune melody, are largely nonsensical lyrics that evoke the slang of A Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. Bowie uses Burgess’s “viddy” and “cheena” and more throughout the song. He does so to disguise the more coeval lyrics one might hear from many pop songs today: mainly trying to sleep with women, get money, and/or score drugs. [Fun experiment: when testing the level of objectification a woman is experiencing in a song, simply see if the “woman” could be replaced with any other inanimate object that the singer seems to be equally keen on. For example, a man can easily “sleep with” a woman, just as he can “get” with her, “score” her, or “grab” her. In these instances, the woman is about as equivalent to whatever object the man covets. She’s just another form of fetishism. Ain’t sexism a bitch?] It feels as if Bowie is puckishly exploring our contemporary notions of taste in this brave new world of entertainment. And ultimately it is just superficial nonsense, and about as useful as the market in terms of trying to assuage our coming doom. [There might also be a nod to the Millennial generation in here. Whether it is a praise or damnation, I’m unsure, but I will confess this is probably my favorite song on the album…  :P]

The song also stands as a marker in the album. Here Bowie begins to ease us down from the headier, more macabre attention of the album into more tranquil, though still sullen tracks.

“Dollar Days” – In many respects, this acts as a coda to the previous songs in terms of lyrical meaning. Musically, it is Bowie’s atmospheric ballad for the album.

Bowie is looking back on his career as a musician, and the idea of making this album, trying to reunite that spark that made him want to be a musician in the first place, now with an added importance for the meaning it brings him so late in his life. He opens with an admittance of his wealth and fame, and with a bit of false modesty (or ernestness) he proclaims “It’s nothing to me//It’s nothing to see.” And if he does not achieve the goal he has set out (in this instance seeing the “English evergreens”–I think we can assume this is some form of paradise), it too will mean very little to him. He tries to convince himself by trying to convince us that he is rather irreverent about the whole thing, but the way he sings it, and the next lines suggest otherwise. He focuses on trying to write songs that audiences will enjoy “And fool them all again and again//I’m trying to” obsessed and frustrated with his own celebrity, and by the record label executives perhaps, or critics who claim he doesn’t care anymore, or is a hack. He vacillates between one moment being aloof, and then the next so impassioned. He is “trying” and “dying” to get to some ineffable something that he never tells us. We are only left to assume. But his message is genuine, the emotions all real. He is in the crepuscular phase of his life. The previous successes that he has reaped have little meaning for him at this stage, and he is now looking for some deeper connection with something and he knows it exists within him, and in some fashion is realized through his connection with the listener (“Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”).

He wants to hear those words just as much as we do. Like him, we too are “trying” and “dying” for something.

And what is it? Well…

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – The true final track on the album acts as a kind of afterword. Literally coming in off the tails of “Dollar Days” the synth ushers us in front of the Goblin King as he attempts one last time to hint at the cri de cœur of the album. Again the Berlin Trilogy is elicited as the harmonica from “A Career in a New Town” and the wailing guitar from “Red Sails” or numerous other Bowie tunes from that era book end the song. Is there something to gain from this allusion? “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he tells us.

We hear of returning pulses for prodigal sons, and “blackout hearts with flowered news” and wonder what he is pointing us to, which he simply replies: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Then in his most lucid stanza, he confesses to: “Seeing more and feeling less//Saying no, but meaning yes//This is all I ever meant//That’s the message that I sent” and the song shifts. Not melodically, it still remains the same, but in essence it changes from being about him to being about all of us. Bowie and the listener blend as we become the “I.” And when we return to the lines of prodigal sons and “skull designs upon my shoes” we see a portrait of people who only start to have a pulse when around extravagance, and how this materialism distorts our appreciation of our existence. Our privilege is standing in our own way of finding some kind of meaning. And the lines “I Can’t Give Everything Away” start to take a darker shade–one of bloated self-love and aggrandizement. The more we see, the less we start to feel, and our cynicism and desensitization allows our irony “saying no, but meaning yes” to run rampant adding to this effusive inauthenticity that becomes all we ever mean, and that is the message we send out to one another.

Me: Isn’t that right, David?

DB: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Me: Goddamn you!

But before we can get anything more out of him the instruments reach crescendo, and then fade, and next thing we know the album is finished. Leaving us to try and make sense of the remnants left behind.

***

So what to make of Blackstar? Well… right off the bat, this ain’t for everyone. Bowie fans who didn’t particularly care for his Berlin Trilogy, or some of his more experimental moments will probably not have any patience for this album. And that’s fine. I like Let’s Dance, too. It’s a great album. And for those who might be interested in getting into some Bowie, well, this is a great place to start if you like more progressive, art rock and lyrics that heavily focus on the above.

And the themes of the album are not foreign territory for the Thin White Duke. He’s visited and conquered these lands before. He is merely returning. He reconnects with previous albums from the seventies (specifically the Berlin epoch), as he also absorbs jazz and musicians like Scott Walker, reusing and altering all he knows to create something quite familiar, but brand new.

If all that sounds like something you want out of your David Bowie, then Blackstar is going to be right up your alley.

But with all that has been discussed, I cannot help but sit back and still ask: What is Blackstar? What does the word itself mean? What can be drawn from it?

It is a contradiction. An oxymoron. For it cannot be both the representation of the brightest form of light we have in the solar system, and the quintessence of its absence, and yet it is. And from this understanding we can both extrapolate its meaning outward to how the world behaves in blatant contradictions. And we can recall David’s words at the very beginning: “I’m a blackstar” and start to believe him now, and believe in ourselves. That we too are blackstars.  That such significance can be drawn from such meaninglessness (such tenor from a baritone!), is nothing short of miraculous. And yet… we still find ourselves logically insensate because of the impossibility of the task at hand–the answer is the work, not the answer. So we go back at it, time and time again. We forget the lessons we learned in search for the answer, taking search from a different angle, thought up in a new way, ignored, criticized, revisited, accepted, forgotten all over again, and again, and again, and again.

We go through it. Bowie too. He visited these thoughts over time, specs of them run heavily through his earlier work. They are present in the Berlin Trilogy. Like us, he works on these. Album after album, over the decades he has collected a library of his own thought on the subjects. Adding and erasing notions, only to return to them later, different but brand new. The aporia is, in a sense, what leads to the palimpsest. A paradox that cannot be rectified. A pathos un-pacified.

In German, there is a rather profound compound word: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” and it basically means “to cope with the past.” More specifically, though, the word is utilized by Germans when talking about reconciling their identities with their past in direct relation to the horrible atrocities of World War II, mainly the terrors of the Holocaust.

I’m not foolish enough to make a cursory comparison here, and state Bowie’s experience is in any way, shape, or form close to the philosophical, moral soul-searching German people have to go through as part of their identity. But I do like this idea of trying to come to terms with one’s past as a way of informing your current state of being–in a more general sense it’s what some people call “history.” With respect to Blackstar, I think their is an existential “Todesbewältigung” going on, a “coping with death” that Bowie is taking the listener through with him. He is struggling with the ideas, reaching back through his lifetime to help him better understand that this has been a Gordian knot he has been wrestling with all this time. In his intellectual sparring match, his search for catharsis, he has brought us along for the ride and with any bit of luck we too have participated in this dissonant thinking about our own absurdity.

Contemplating your mortality never gets any easier, especially when you draw nearer to it with every breath. To consider all the fame and fortune the man has wrought himself, the listener should take comfort in the fact their beloved Bowie shares a similar melancholy. And there is some comfort in that knowledge, at least for me.

The struggle is real. But you aren’t alone. David Bowie is there, too.

Tota mulier in… the Market

[Author’s Note: “To say anyone expected the kind of reaction to Camille Paglia’s The Hollywood Reporter article on Taylor Swift to be as big of a hit in the nation as it was would probably be disingenuous at best. But the now famous ‘Nazi Barbie’ article captured the country’s attention and fueled one of the hugest commercial successes ever.

Shortly after its publication, I was commissioned to do a story on the two about their thoughts and reactions. My story never ran. But it just seems like, considering all that has transpired, it’s a damn shame it never saw the light of day. So I’ve included the unfinished work below. Enjoy!”]

“Nazi Barbie: A Success Story”

    On a Tuesday evening I headed to the concert. I was given VIP access and allowed to park in the employee’s lot of the venue. It was a pretty large arena, one I never had seen any musician perform in before, only sports teams. Some fifteen thousands people were amassing outside the doors ready to see the blonde success story take stage that night. Taylor Swift was on the back-half of her tour. It was hard to state whether this was the height of this country-turned-pop star’s vertiginous career, or just another notch on her way to some other dimension of fame and fortune. Young fans clung to their favorite Taylor Swift albums, in their Taylor Swift T-shirts, at the merchandizing booths located all over the arena where they could purchase more albums (available in both CD-discs and vinyl), more T-shirts, Taylor Swift backpacks, posters, Keds, smart phone cases, custom sunglasses, candle sticks, picture frames, towels, Christmas stockings, bracelets, notepads, coffee mugs, and they could carry it all away in their very own Taylor Swift tote bags. In an atmosphere of endless conspicuous consumption of one person, it was hard to imagine anyone could possibly put a dent in this pop culture deity. Yet there I was to interview her about something some critic her fans didn’t even know existed (and probably wouldn’t until she acknowledged her) wrote about her in the entertainment industry’s (at times) third-most popular trade magazine. It seemed so silly, but that was journalism in the entertainment business.

    I was invited to watch the show from backstage. I barely paid attention, mostly checking my phone for football scores and if anyone said anything  about me on Twitter or Facebook. The crowd went exceptionally crazy at one moment when Taylor welcomed Drake and Chris Brown onto the stage during her performance of some song I had never heard before in its entirety. The production that went behind doing a single show was fucking mesmerizing. The level of labor that went into the two-hour show alone was dumbfounding. I could only imagine how much money I could have made off the VIP pass I was wearing around my neck (I mean, someone had to make this thing, too. It was customized, with gold lettering and little holograms and whatnot. Unbelievable.). I probably could have walked away with more than what I was commissioned to do for the interviews and called it a night. But something about integrity, or whatever, denied me that lucrative opportunity and I instead found myself in Taylor’s private room underneath the arena.

    Her manager took me back there before the encore, instructing me I only had a few minutes with her. “She’s very busy, and this tour is really taking a lot out of her. They always do, but she’s doing more shows than she’s ever done before.” I nodded my head, unmoved. “So just be as quick as you can. And no ‘gotcha’ bullshit please. I don’t want to have Security have to throw you out. Ya dig?” I nodded again. He opened the door to her room and let me sit on the couch near her seat in front of the large vanity mirror. “So just sit here and I’ll get her to see you soon. She’ll be there,” he said pointing to the chair. “Definitely don’t sit there when she comes in. That’d be rude. Don’t be rude.” He paused for a moment as if to reflect on his owns words. Then: “Please don’t be an asshole about any of this. Cool?” I flashed a thumbs-up. He left.

    Her table was crammed with every kind of bouquet I could imagine. A few acoustic guitars were leaning against the wall opposite me. A picture of what I could only assume were her parents and a younger Taylor was taped to the mirror. An entire case of Mountain Valley Spring Water was just underneath the table, unopened. Atop was an array of various beauty potions to keep her looks perpetually coeval. One in particular that caught my eye was an “FDA-approved” jar of pink and white hydrous substance that had some unpronounceable medical name to it. It looked like another anti-aging cream. Under the “Ingredients” section were more stupefying parlance, except one term I was able to make out properly: “manatee fetuses.” I almost dropped the jar when the door opened. I collapsed on the couch as Taylor and her manager came in. “OK. So like ten minutes tops, like I said.” I nodded.

    Taylor shook my hand and said hello, asking to be excused for her uncouth appearance due to her perspiration. I tried to set her at ease. After exchanging a few brief pleasantries, we got down to brass tacks.

Me

So by now, of course, you’ve heard about or read The Hollywood Reporter opinion piece. I’m sure you don’t really want to talk about it anymore–

Taylor Swift

And yet, here you are.

Me

Here I am. Have you given this a lot of thought? Do you care to share for the readers? Or do these types of criticisms not get to you?

TS

Well. I have given it a considerable amount of thought, actually. More so than probably justified. I mean I am trying to expand my art in different ways, too. I did just bring Drake and Chris Brown together on stage tonight. I think that was pretty powerful. The fans really seemed to respond to them coming together. I think that’s important for the music community, the fans, and society as a whole. I’m trying to use my music as a medium to bring about positive change in the world. So when I hear, and then read, about this critique of #GirlSquad, it bothers me a little. So, yeah. I’ve been thinking about it.

Me

And what have you concluded? Do you care to share that?

TS

Hmm… I’m still trying to work it out my thoughts in a cogent manner. This tour is kinda taking it out of me, intellectually–you know? It’s hard to try and wrap my head around things with this kind of schedule. But I suppose, to be short, I disagree.

Me

How so? How do you see #GirlSquad as a positive force for feminism?

TS

Well, it’s like this. I brought Drake and Chris Brown together on stage tonight so they could perform Kendrick [Lamar’s] portion on [“Bad Blood”]. And I thought that was particularly moving. When you consider the circumstances in which drove both guys to really be at each other’s throats over Rihanna (whom I adore), and then later Karrueche Tran, two guys fighting over two women. It’s just tired gender roles playing out there. Did you ever get a chance to read Gokova on gender stereotypes and the importance of breaking down those barriers?

Me

No.

TS

I was very moved by it. Especially when considering he wrote it in part to help men and women in Zimbabwe combat the horrifying HIV/AIDs epidemic that was ravaging the country. It’s a wonderful short piece. I’ll send it to you. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. So like, branching off Gokova, here this guy is talking about the importance for men to understand gender issues are simply not a battlefront for women alone. And that, on top of the oppression of women that patriarchy affords, it ultimately deprives men of their humanity, even though they are often the short-term beneficiaries of it. I mean, there was more to it, but that’s the gist. That men need to realize the negative impact they are suffering from as a result, too. I then I read this stuff between the two guys and I was like: “C’mon.” Right? So bringing them into the #GirlSquad, so to speak, was a big move. And I guess I just don’t understand what detractors have against that.

Me

OK. So do you think the crowd really got all that?

TS

How do you mean?

Me

I mean, that’s a particularly deep reading of two bros hugging it out tepidly on stage next to these fans’ idol.

TS

I don’t know if I’m their idol.

Me

OK, but you’re someone to these little girls–

TS

Boys, too.

Me

Sure. But mostly girls.

TS

Eh. I don’t know. But OK, whatever, go on.

Me

Right. Well… I suppose I’m wondering do you really think little tweens are going to understand the significance? Or… is it really as significant as you want it to be? I mean. This isn’t the “Jamaica Smiles” concert. You’re not Bob Marley standing on stage uniting the leaders of the JLP and PNP.

TS

I never claimed that. That’s on you.

Me

But you do think uniting Drake and Chris Brown on stage in front of a bunch of kids is going to stand as a larger representation of overcoming patriarchy?

TS

Yeah. Why not?

Me

Because twelve-year-olds aren’t reading Gokova.

TS

Doesn’t matter. They are seeing the moment happen before them. They see the representation of uniting over pettiness. That’s going to speak to them. I can’t, in the middle of my act, just bust out Mainardi and Goldman for them and explain the intricacies and permutations of sexism inherent in the system. They didn’t come for that. They came for “Mean” and “22” and all that. Not to be lectured about feminist theory. So, if I can drag out people and shed a positive light, however small the moment is, that acts as a contradiction to the horrid apparatus they’re subjected to on a daily basis–because they are. If young boys and girls see two grown-ass men get on stage and embrace and stand in front of them and acknowledge what they were fighting over (women) was stupid and primeval, then maybe they can return to their schools and recognize the pettiness they are either being subjected to or perpetuating in their lives. That’s what #GirlSquad is all about. That’s why I bring people out on stage. And share about my friendships on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter and all that. It’s about promoting a community. That’s why I brought Drake and Chris out tonight, and had them sing together on “Bad Blood.” Like, hello? The song’s called “Bad Blood” and here two guys who don’t like each other and getting together to share this moment, and embrace. They are overcoming a moment. And those fans are going to see that, and that’s going to resinate with them.

Me

But didn’t you write “Bad Blood” about Katy Perry?

TS

Oh Gawd. No. No that’s not true. I’m sick of hearing that.

Me

Sorry. Another woman then?

TS

Whatever. I wouldn’t read too much into that song, OK? It’s pop. It’s supposed to be enjoyed, consumed. Don’t read too much into it.

Me

But… that’s kinda the point. You want kids to read into the embracing and the hanging out with celebrity friends, and see those moments in a larger context of promoting equality… but then not see the picayune songs in anything other than their confectionary quality, disregarding elements of pettiness and anxiety over falling in line with a popularity culture and reductive gender roles. I think, in part, that’s what Paglia was driving at. That these moments are so facile, mockable they end up only adding to a counterproductive, or self-defeating, or confused narrative.

TS

Hmm. I guess I just don’t see it that way.

Me

How do you see it then?

TS

#GirlSquad is about equality. At least in the sense that I’m trying to show positive female relationships in a very toxic atmosphere. And it’s no different from the things Paglia was championing in her piece. I mean… “Girl Power” is a better representation of women’s rights than #GirlSquad? Fuck. Off. [The] Spice Girls were made up in some British boardroom for fuckssake. At least I came up with this. She wants to call me bourgeois for communicating my message through social media platforms, but she’s writing in The Hollywood Reporter. [Exhales in disbelief] She thinks I’m effeminizing the word “Squad”… what about Nazi Barbie then? What about claiming I’ve lost my solidarity with other women because I’m no longer pumping out kids and cleaning up around the house with all the other seraglios. That’s not an effeminate approach to viewing our society and gender roles? So, like, I’m a bad guy because I take some selfies with Blake Lively, and other gals… and that’s adding to the anxiety and isolationism of women in the country… but saying we should try and reunite to a period in time that formed the origins of our subjugation… and like that will help end our suffering? What the hell? The community of women was constructed as a direct result of our exclusion from patriarchal society, only to allow us to be used when it was deemed fitting by the male bourgeois community… I mean, have you read Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy? Shit, I mean even Engels was writing about this back then… if he could grasp this, how is it that Paglia is totally ignorant of it? That we should be studying male bonding techniques and learn from them… because they “…have escaped the sexual jealousy, emotionalism and spiteful turf wars…” that women have not. Are you fucking kidding me?! I just pulled two jack-offs on stage to show how dumb they’ve been for pissing all over one another because they both nutted on the same girls. Kanye disparaging Amber Rose because she wasn’t as classy as Kim K[ardashian]? Please. PLEASE. Nazi Barbie… what a fucking asshole.

Is it a cursory agitprop I’m doing? Sure. Guilty. I mean the contradictions abound, man. I don’t know how you want me to account for all of them. I mean this is the stuff that just eats me up. It’s easy to shit on hope, man. It’s really fucking easy. Maybe I am guilty of being glib. But I don’t think so. So what? I like taking photos with girls, and trying to promote a very simple message of sorority and fraternity. I’m trying to combat petty mean girl mentalities–the exact kind of bullshit Paglia is guilty of. [In a bad nasally impression] Taylor Swift is taking a cliquey approach to empowering women and helping the cause. That’s gross. I don’t like that. Let’s call her a Nazi Barbie. Are you out of your mind? I really just don’t get it. I don’t get how I’m guilty of backsliding women into cattiness and thwarting the movement, but she calls me a fucking Nazi Barbie and claims we should model ourselves off of men and harken back to the days when we were mid-wives and second-class citizens and somehow she’s the voice of reason here? Are you fucking kidding me? Why? Because she’s not “dumb” Taylor Swift? Because she has a column in The Hollywood Reporter? Because she’s been spouting this bullshit for so long?

What’s her beef? What’s her justification? Sure, they’re perfectly attractive women and have spent endless hours with scores of beauty teams to help perfect their looks so they can fit inside a mold that ultimately satisfies that tingle in every guy’s pants, and engenders further reductive labeling and expectations for little girls and what not. I get it. I really do. We’re all entrenched in this system, though. It’s like Earth to fucking Camille: you’re not living outside the system, pal! None of us are. So if I try to make the most simplest of optimistic gestures by corralling some other flawless celebrity babes to join my cause of #GirlSquad, to help women out there try to band together, then what’s the problem, right? Why am I the bad guy?

Me

I’m not sure Paglia was saying it quite like that.

TS

Did you read the damn article?

Me

Yes.

TS

Well then you know I’m not misreading it.

Me

But… I don’t know. I guess I’m at a loss. If you understand all this, if you understand the crisis you and others suffer and the contradictions that set you and others back, and how difficult all those are to break through… then… why not do a little more with the #GirlSquad? Why not have intellectuals, or regular everyday women and girls, more men, all contributing to your idea, why not do that rather than parade out celebrities on stage or in photos without any context other than the nebulous #GirlSquad label attached to it? You haven’t really defined what #GirlSquad is. It could totally be what you are saying right now and no one would be the wiser. Or most wouldn’t. Certainly not your tween fans. Wouldn’t it be better to just put it all out on the line? Say what you’re really trying to get after? I mean, what are you afraid of? Losing contracts, people’s perception of you? What’s the significance of #GirlSquad if it’s just going to be so limited?

    Taylor’s physiognomy was pensive. She thought about her next words. In seconds, though, Swift’s manager entered the room. My time was up. Taylor smiled and thanked me for coming out to the show and talking to her about the subject. I thanked her for her time.

***

    Meanwhile, in the sleepy town of El Segundo, at the headquarters of Mattel a board of directors were plotting the next new hit of their young girls’ toy line: the Nazi Barbie collection. Based off the excitement generated from the THR article, the board felt they could capitalize off the buzz. Nazi Barbie came equipped with some of the most well-tailored outfits ranging from black to red to white and had some undeniably attractive accessories: a Luger 9mm, Storm Trooper helmet, a mansion in the Bavarian Alps, a remote control Volkswagen convertible,  personal Reichsadler flag, an easy-bake oven, buttons with the Parteiadler and SS death head insignia, and much, much more! Almost as effect as all the accessories was the storyline that accompanied Nazi Barbie. Thirty-six individualized “paths” were available for any little girl who played the freemium online and app-based games Mattel provided. All the stories ended with Nazi Barbie throwing a successful (of course) Nazi Party where all the inhabitants (especially the incredibly handsome Herr Ken) congratulated Nazi Barbie.

    The Nazi Barbie became uncontrollably popular. It took hold of the imaginations of little girls across the nation. It was by far the most popular Barbie product Mattel had sold in decades. It doubled the corporation’s stock. Camille sued, claiming copyright infringement. Mattel countersued, and eventually a settlement was reached outside of the court. No store could contain the doll or its products on the shelves for more than 24 hours. Mattel trucks were attacked in the middle of the night on the side of interstates or rest stops. Congress passed an emergency bill that allowed Mattel truck drivers to carry armed weapons with them at all times and were authorized to use lethal force on anyone who threatened the safety of the property.

    American Girl tried to benefit from the craze, too, with their own special brand of American Nazi Girl dolls. No one seemed as enthused about little girl dolls based off Fritz Kuhn, George Lincoln Rockwell, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh, though.

    The success and proliferation of the Nazi Barbie toys was for all intents and purposes a huge and total commercial success. However, it did not go without its unpleasantries. Just before Mattel started shipping the doll to Canada, England, Germany, India, China, South Africa, Australia for test runs before international release, reports from all over the country were coming in about little girls being admitted to treatment centers because of their addiction to playing the freemium games, some took out loans from the Barbie Bank and now were as high as thirty thousand dollars in debt, others spent away their parents’ life savings, a few attempted armed robbery. More were allegedly getting sick from what their parents claimed were noxious gases coming from the Volkswagens, but when they ran the Barbie Smog-Check accessory (priced at $60) for the car the results always came back “Super-Positive!” In Kansas, a little faction of fourth graders defected from their class and began invading schools around the district, crying out something about “living space” as they busted into rooms and raided the cupboards and lockers for more Nazi Barbie outfits and bauble, once stabbing a teacher with a weaponized protractor (she survived her wounds). In Illinois, girls with American Nazi Girl dolls found their toys strung by the neck in the bathroom. The violence to the American Nazi Girl dolls was rampant. Some were found with burnt hair and melted heads, others dismembered. At one school in Mississippi, several girls found their dolls out back behind the school buried in a shallow grave with tiny bullet holes in the dolls’ backs. Girls started bleaching their hair without adult supervision leading to chemical burns and loss of hair. One article told the story of a little girl in West Virginia who tried to soak her entire body in bleach in order to be: “as pure as Frau Barbie.” In fact girls from every state were being hospitalized for trying to perfect themselves to the standards of Nazi Barbie. Tweens were found huddled in the corner of their rooms, strung out on tiny Nazi Barbie medicine cocktails, haunted by the image of their beloved.

***

    I reached out to Camille Paglia to speak about Taylor Swift’s comments and the recent success of the Nazi Barbie. Her publicist informed me she was very busy working on the script for Nazi Barbie: The Movie and wouldn’t be able to talk for very long. We spoke over the phone. After a quick congratulations, she thanked me and began telling me about the difficulties of writing a screenplay for the film. That her work was continuously sent back because the studio and Mattel wanted her to stick to the storyboards and character bios the toy corporation’s room of writers created, and that (if she was unable to comply with their vision) they could always get Christina Hoff Sommers to finish the script for them. So she was under a very tight deadline. “If it wasn’t for these manatee embryos, I’d hate to imagine what that might look like.” I thanked her for her time and summarized what Swift had to say.

Camille Paglia

She said all that?

Me

Yes

CP

Wow. I’ll admit. I’m a little more disappointed than before.

Me

Why’s that?

CP

It’s is abundantly clear to me that Taylor is suffering from the conventional feminist view point on a lot of things. I mean Mainardi, really? I knew Patty, we used to romp back in the seventies. She’s such a goddamn whiney prude. That’s a role model for her? No wonder she’s setting a bad example for everyone else.

Me

So you don’t think Swift has any point?

CP

Of course not. You see. I’m rock ‘n’ roll. She’s pop. She’s going to follow the simplest forms and methods and get by spewing that back out to the masses in the most obnoxious and superficial fashion imaginable. I’m rock ‘n’ roll. I play by different rules. That’s why I rub her the wrong way. I’m Led Zeppelin. She’s… Barbara Streisand. Get it?

Me

Well couldn’t you say that Led Zeppelin is pretty mainstream?

CP

Well… maybe now. But if you think about them at the time, no. You’re young. You’ll learn. I’m totally on a different level playing field than Taylor. Are you kidding me? Hello? Let’s get it together here. She read some books on whatever and thinks she’s knows some shit. Oh wow! Another person in their twenties who thinks they know it all. Get out of here with that crap.

Me

OK, but I think she makes two interesting points I’d like to talk to you about: 1) that you state in the article that feminists, or more precisely women feminists?, are too quick to blame men for their own faults and that women should admire and base their relationships off of male companionships, but she feels as though that is a form of idolizing the very structures that led to women’s plight in the first place; and 2) that you are just as guilty of superficial feminism and pettiness by labeling her a Nazi Barbie. That might all be rock ‘n’ roll, but it really doesn’t address her points. Care to discuss?

CP

You’re probably a huge Taylor Swift fan, aren’t you?

Me

Actually, I’m more of a Katy Perry guy, myself.

CP

Figures.

Me

How so?

CP

Come on. Don’t play dumb with me. It’s OK. I don’t care. You’ve got a dick. It’s all right. It’s like that one Rammstein song… how does it go? I love that song: [Singing in a bad German accent] “I’ve got dick-a, you’ve got a pussay. So what’s the problem?” Isn’t that how it goes?

Me

Uh… yeah, something like that.

CP

What’s the problem, big boy? You don’t like a little rock ‘n’ roll? Don’t worry, I’m not trying to fuck you over the phone. I’m too old and too gay anyway. But I’m not like these awful prigs you’ll come across at NOW.

Me

Uh… I love rock ‘n’ roll. I just don’t think you’re answering the questions at hand.

CP

What were they again?

Me

Let’s just start with the first one: do you not see a problem with telling women they should behave more like men, or male culture?

CP

I didn’t say that. I didn’t write that. That’s not true. You need to get your facts straight.

Me

But in the article you are stating the importance of female bonding is necessary because women have abandoned the old social structures that were in play which formed their communities, and now they are at the mercy of the “paparazzi culture” and “hypersexualization” and the “piranha shoals of the industry” but don’t you agree that the system in which all three of these areas exist is the same that forced them into their communities in the first place? Just a different manifestation of patriarchal society in which women are objectified and harassed by their male peers and scrutinized by females who try to hold themselves to these same standards. That is to say: don’t you think the problem is that women are comparing themselves to the male culture, which is what leads to their anxiety, their loneliness is directly impacted by “male malice.”

CP

Oh man. Another fucking moral Crusader. No. It’s not a guy’s fault that Taylor Swift pals around with other impossibly beautiful women, taking pictures, acting like little girls, sticking their tongues out and blowing kisses, and wearing all those hot, tight clothes, with their tits mashed together, legs and midriffs flashing, asses and vag’s nearly visible, all like something you’d find in a million different porn flicks. Projecting these images all over social media and so forth, isolating and making little girls that look nothing like that feel even more excluded and vulnerable. It’s not your fault Taylor Swift is doing this and making these girls feel like shit. Why are you defending her?

Me

Well if you want to take a sample of one, then I agree. I’m not the sole problem. But Swift isn’t doing that necessarily either. Those images are being utilized by the market, a market that is gearing particularly to males and which understands women will have no choice but to follow along with, it’s just a highly complicated form of fetishism of the female body, utilized and marketed to the appetites of male culture. You’re just sitting on the opposite end of the contradiction.

CP

Yeah. The winning side. Look. If you want to be a self-hating male, go right ahead. If Taylor Swift really wants to make a difference for women, especially young girls, maybe she should stop taking meretricious selfies and making cutesy, tootsy smiley faces and goofy looks and try to change the fucking world. She’s part of the problem.

Me

But aren’t you, too?

CP

Excuse me? I don’t have time for this bullshit.

Me

But you acknowledge the problems of inequality and the objectification of women in contemporary society, and yet you are claiming that the construct (or those who benefit directly from it) has no responsibility, but the burden of change rests on the shoulders of those who suffer. You’re not blaming the victim here? How can a society which is the cause for women’s alienation, the one that creates the callous paparazzi culture and renders the female body merely a tool for further exploitation not be at least partly responsible?

CP

Well men can be thrown into the meat grinder, too.

Me

Sure.

CP

Well then there you have it. Males are just as vulnerable to the market as women. So why in the hell is it their fault? Why can’t women work together and get past the sexualized market system?

Me

Because the market is devised to benefit men, not women. Sure, sometimes men become vulnerable, too. That’s not being disputed here. What’s being disputed is whether or not it is fair to hold women to a standard that disregards factors that add up to the disparity they deal with. Couldn’t the loss of solidarity women feel today be just as likely due to advancements of technology that lead to a “socialized” autonomy in which everyone is focused on themselves through the “sharing” market? Everyone can share their pictures, opinions, even labor time, they can all become friends with anyone in the most remote sense with the click of a button. Couldn’t that mixed with a further expanding neoliberal political economy, libertine social atmosphere, and all the while a continued industry that panders to the most basic impulses of men, couldn’t all of that contribute to the isolation and fear women feel in society? Isn’t that completely out of Taylor Swift’s control?

CP

It’s not her fault! Fuck. But she and all her other gal pals need to understand that they need to push past the superficial dilettantism they are promoting with their absurd social media bourgeois bullshit! It’s all bullshit. They aren’t doing anything to help the cause in any genuine, sustainable fashion. Fuck. Can’t you get that? How is liking a photo on Instagram going to combat the paparazzi culture? It just enables the fucking people to want more, you just cut out the middlemen in that instance. That’s about it. But that’s not enough. Why can’t you get that? Why is that so hard? She is supporting a jejune point-of-view that says [in a poorly constructed Valley-Girl Taylor Swift voice]: Look at me doing this little cutesy thing with this other Amazonian goddess, aren’t we cool? Isn’t this just like the coolest? Feminism, y’all! We’re fighting the totems of oppression one selfie at a time! Are you joking? Come on. Get real. She leaves her point void by virtue of this crude, thoughtless act.

Me

Isn’t that exactly what you did with the Nazi Barbie comment, though?

CP

Oh give me a break! It was a 1000-word opinion piece and everyone picked up and ran with two goddamned words. Two! Out of a thousand.

Me

Yeah, but your larger point was lost by the fact that everyone honed in on Nazi Barbie. Any point you were making, no matter how partially valid, got lost by that incredibly facile, offhand comment. Swift might be guilty of promoting silly publicity campaigns to better improve her career and ultimately not be aiding the women’s movement. But so are you.

CP
I’m not going to sit hear and get lectured by some lame, stupid self-hating popinjay. You don’t get it. I’m rock ‘n’ roll. I’m rock ‘n’ roll, and you’re easy-listening crooner bullshit. You just don’t get it. Come out of your shell and join me in the chaos, baby.

    And then she hung up.

***

    I walked out of the theater. It was dark, and cold, snow began to fall as evident in the thin layer coating the ground. So I pulled up my collar and zipped my jacket. The marquee shined in glorious purple, pink, and yellow neon. The black text read against the florescent white: NAZI BARBIE: THE MOVIE.

It wasn’t as bad as everyone was saying. The Rotten Tomatoes score was hovering around 14%. The plot was indecipherable, something about an evil group of “Party Poopers” trying to stop Nazi Barbie and her friends from throwing the greatest Nazi Party that could have ever been had. At least there were some character motivations, but each scene really seemed to set up another shameless corporate shill. I wanted to think about it all properly, but it was late and I was tired.

All I managed was to recall what I saw in the credits: Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Camille Paglia. “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift.