Weekly Feminist Smorgasbord: SlutWalk NYC, Wall Street, & Immigration

Stuck in a homogenized, tightly controlled and dehumanizing “total institution,” in sociology speak, wherein everyone wears the same thing, eats the same thing, and sleeps and showers in the same paltry conditions, the only means to autonomy is through hardened hypermasculinity.

  • Colorlines reports on the new, horrifying anti-immigration legislation that just made Alabama the most xenophobic state in the U.S. Now it’s a waiting game: will the Supreme Court uphold a state’s right to create its own immigration regime?

“Today is a dark day for Alabama,” Mary Bauer, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s legal director, said Wednesday in a statement. “This decision not only places Alabama on the wrong side of history but also demonstrates that the rights and freedoms so fundamental to our nation and its history can be manipulated by hate and political agendas – at least for a time.”

Keep your eye out for the October Issue of re/visionist, coming soon! In the mean time, “Like” us on Facebook. Takes 4-10 seconds, depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Deep Play: Katy Perry and the Revenge of the Candy Ravers by Brian Donovan

{Brian Donovan is a cultural and historical sociologist, author of White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-Vice Activism, 1887-1917, and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas.}

Cultural sociologists theorize that musical likes and dislikes tells us more about the listeners than anything inherent in the music. The music we adore mirrors and creates a lifestyle, or habitus, that we share with others and experience individually. Likewise, hating certain types of music and specific performing artists allows us to draw a boundary against groups or individuals that represent threats to our way of life and social position. A new wave of female recording artists (including Britney Spears, Ke$ha, and Lady Gaga) have remade the pop landscape and have helped album sales grow for the first time in seven years. Responses to Katy Perry, in particular, epitomize this cultural moment.

Katy Perry is the first artist to spend an entire year in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. She has a sold out 2011 summer concert tour, her own line of perfume (Purr), two hit albums, and legions of devoted fans. But critics love to hate Katy Perry.  Matthew Cole decries Perry’s Teenage Dream album as “maladjusted sleaze,” “a raunchy pop nightmare,” and “remarkably shitty.” Cole lamented that “pop music in 2010 already looks like a trainwreck of over-produced bad-girl debauchery, and Teenage Dream only adds to the pileup.” Greg Kot criticizes Teenage Dream’s “Frankenstein-like productions” and criticizes the hit single “California Gurls” as “relentlessly mechanical” with vocals “like a series of syllables digitally stitched together.” Eric Danton described the song as “piled high with buzzing synthesizers and relentless drum-machine beats” and he concluded that “that neither Perry nor her collaborators had much to say that was meaningful, or even particularly interesting.”

Critics’ rejection of popular music is unremarkable, but the terms of their criticism can tell us something about the contemporary cultural moment and the failure of a rock-and-roll aesthetic to make sense of it. This is why the criticism of Katy Perry by (largely) male music critics seems so off-key, like football referees judging a flower show. The main criticisms of Katy Perry represent and reproduce anxieties about dance music generally, its core audience (preteens, women, gays, African American, and Latinos), and the recent ascendency of dance music elements in popular music generally.

Critics typically launch two criticisms against Katy Perry: her music is overproduced (and therefore it’s not really her music) and her style is inauthentic (too derivative, too synthetic, too sexual, and/or too unserious). The critique of her music as overproduced emerges in reviewers’ discussion of her production team as “hired guns.” Kot, for instance, derisively refers to her “squadron of high-dollar song doctors.” The focus on music’s production clings to old notions of authenticity long discredited in electronic dance music culture. In fact, the term “overproduced” has no valance in dance music because it presupposes we should care about the production of music (at all). Simply put, who cares if Katy Perry (or Britney Spears, or Rihanna) uses auto-tune, a vocoder, or special effects? To followers of dance music, rock music critics who point to post-production practices as impure have already lost the argument.

Critics make a similar argument against her style, finding it derivative of past and contemporary female music icons like Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette, Spice Girls, Pink, Fergie, Debbie Gibson, and Tiffany. Perry also reflects the Deco styles of the 1920s and ‘30s, and the Old Hollywood glamour of Louise Brooks, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo. A third (and overlooked) component of Katy Perry’s style comes from dance music culture itself, particularly the “candy ravers” of the early-mid 1990’s. So-called candy ravers (also referred to as “kandi ravers”) embraced a childlike look replete with furry animal backpacks, multicolored sneakers, cartoon T-shirts, candied necklaces, and lollipop rings. As a group, candy ravers had an especially short patience for the production and authenticity arguments made against dance music and they often gravitated toward the “happy hardcore” subgenre of dance music known for its blip and bleep video game noises and its relentless 140+ beats-per-minute pulse. Candy ravers share a family resemblance with the costume-play (cos play) Japanese streetfashion scene and its kawii aesthetic. Taken together, Katy Perry exemplifies a postmodern style marked by pastiche, eclecticism, and the fluidity of identity. Reports from her 2011 “California Dreams” tour indicate that Perry’s fans not only appreciate her cos play ethos but actively take part in it. Rolling Stone noted that a Katy Perry show “resembled not so much a pop concert as the largest bachelorette party in the world.” Like 1990s club kids and their day-glo makeup and plastic Hello Kitty! jewelry, today’s Katycats revive a sense of play and jouissance characteristic of legendary clubs like the Paradise Garage, but rarely found in the hyper-masculine social spaces of rock and roll.

In the mid-1990s, marketers attempted to hybridize rock-and -roll with dance music to create “electronica,” but they only managed to combine the worst aspects of both species (see, for example, the Chemical Brothers). As a former participant inChicago’s rave and club scenes, I experience warm nostalgia listening to today’s Top 40 pop music. It’s all there: the four-to-the-floor beats, the anthems, the hooks, the ear candy, the diva vocals, and the hallowed-out sounds of the Roland TR-808 synthesizer. Who knew that – twenty years later – the 808s would blast out of the radios instead of abandoned warehouses? Who could have predicted that the syncopated sounds of speed garage and two-step garage would reappear 10-15 years later as “dub step?” What was once underground is now, simply, ground. Pop artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga, along with music producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin, have successfully harnessed house music to make it their own. Unlike early electronica experiments, artists and producers have revived the spirit of house music by embracing, instead of running from, club culture’s sense of play, its purposeful rejection of authenticity, and its postmodernist bricolage. Instead of reproducing the ignorance and latent misogyny of the rock-and-roll curmudgeons, we should embrace Katy Perry and her newfangled candy ravers with open arms.

BRITNEY: A MANIFESTO by Caroline Biggs

{Caroline Biggs is a graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, fashion addict, pop cultural junkie, and girl-about-NYC.}

Britney Spears changed my life. At first, this sentence may seem absurd to you for reasons including (but not limited to): 1. I am nearly 30 years old, 2. It is 2011, 3. I am an educated, self-described feminist, as well as an art, music, and culture-snob, and last [but most frequently] “how on earth could Britney affect anyone other than by providing something to dance to at last call or to make fun of when skimming through Us Weekly at the doctor’s office?” I understand where you are coming from. Defending the idea that Britney can affect anyone positively (above the age of 12 or of any intelligence) can be a daunting task, one that I have been confronted with for almost ten years. That being said, I am not here to sell you a Britney Spears download (although her newest album, Femme Fatale, is worth its weight in gold). Instead, I would like to offer insight as to why you have been socialized and conditioned to dismiss Britney’s value and/or more importantly, how you may have a thing or two to learn from her.

A lot of things are uncertain in this world, but here is one constant: Britney’s fans are the most loyal in the world and will defend her to the grave. Fail safe. To fall in love with Britney involves a lot of time, effort, and awareness–all of which have little to do with her music. Instead, it becomes about articulating your love for her in a society that has encouraged you to reject Britney for what she represents, while forcing her upon you from every which angle imaginable.  And anyone with half-a-brain knows that true devotion is always born of mass resistance and in turn, met with even more opposition.

Case in point: any Britney Spears concert you ever attend (July marked my third) will be sold out and filled with screaming, crying, and overly-protective fans; all of whom are most likely over the age of 20. They have been defending, admiring, and obsessing over Ms. Spears for a long time now—and her shows are a true place of celebratory demonstration. There are tons of joyous tears, fanatical dancing, and a loving-energy that remains unrivaled, in my experience–despite having attended countless shows of the cultish persuasion (Ani diFranco, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, anyone?).  This is because to know Britney is to love Britney—and her performances are some of the only times in life where one can vocalize support without defense (for at least two whole hours!).

Here is another certainty in life: society is always critical of strong, successful, and powerful women—including the ones that do so while embracing their femininity and prescribed gendered norms. Certainly this is not to suggest that subversive or androgynous women don’t have their own uphill (if not greater) battle (see also: “gaga has a penis”) but rather that we tend to condemn female social power based on appearance (and sexuality) without considering the backlash of the male gaze (and perhaps just as detrimental—the female gaze). Or more aptly put: WE (both men and women) tend to be a lot more critical of the gendered ideal forced upon us by our very own practices—and who has been more sexualized, idealized, and pushed upon us in the past decade than Britney Spears?

But who has been more debased than Britney Spears? First, there was the controversial David LaChapelle photo shoot depicting a 17-year-old Spears stripped so bare you could see the hairs on her tummy. Without any regard for the artistic vision of the famed photographer or Rolling Stone magazine, Britney became the teenage personification of our deepest Freudian Madonna-whore complexes.  And then there was the tumultuous break-up with Justin Timberlake–where the public treated him like the new Michael Jackson (sans the obvious)–yet, despite his talent, he still felt the need to dump all over her publicly to sell his records. By the time she was 21, Britney had become the living, breathing manifestation of our deepest sexual paranoia. She wasn’t the virgin that her publicist and record company made her say she was and as a trained gymnast/dancer (and poster child for the idealized female form) she could DANCE and ENTERTAIN and BE PROUD OF HER FIGURE (heaven forbid she do the job she’s paid to do). Then,to top it all off, she wasn’t apologizing for it. The world was obsessed with her and hated her for it, too.

But anyone who wasn’t born in a cave yesterday knows that you can machete Britney’s public image into two parts: BEFORE and AFTER the nervous breakdown (B.B. and A.B., respectively). Britney B.B. was ostracized for being a sexualized “virgin” who embraced her appearance and her career as an entertainer (Gaga went through Heathrow in a thong but because she doesn’t fake-bake was off the hook) and hit levels of fame that kept her confined to her own diving bell of celebrity. And then she lost her mind (as most of would under that level of scrutiny) making it superlatively heartbreaking to watch her crumble.

That being said, any person who has taken a Psych 101 class should have a pretty good grasp on what Britney A.B. was doing. Having been a child star, developing a sense of self based on others less-than-stellar perceptions can prove a scathing task (um, Dubois, anyone?) So, like most of us have and would–she looked for love in all of the wrong places, got mixed up with some bad crowds, and acted out in ways never before imaginable. Then, after losing custody of her children (followed by a very public hospitalization) the world decided they preferred their Britney a virgin-whore after all. And the world watched in horror and anticipation as the paparazzi and collective industry took on a whole new level of invasiveness.

Britney’s seventh Rolling Stone cover (a feat rivaled to date only by Madonna) in March, 2008 pictured an almost obituary-esque black and white photo of Spears with the macabre headline: “Inside an American Tragedy.” Except that she wasn’t dead, in fact, she was alive and fully aware of the way she was being presented. Britney had gone from virgin to whore, to crazed, bald, umbrella-bearing freak, to terrible mother, to fat, to now the object of public pity all in less than nine years.  The most alarming development of Britney A.B. came with the unprecedented but terrifying decision by the State of California to grant her estranged father legal conservatorship over her life, money, career, home, and physical self (a ruling normally reserved for quadriplegics on life-support not 29-year-old, successful women). Even the law had rendered Britney helpless. Suddenly, the world wanted nothing more than the resurrection of our fallen American-icon, despite still wielding the bloody murder weapon.

And born again Britney was.  Within three years she went from proverbial public trash to the Second Coming—complete with sold-out tours, platinum records, a new doting- boyfriend, and children in tow. And although from the outside she seems to be doing it happily and effortlessly, one should not ignore that she is still under her father’s complete legal control—a one-woman assembly line, providing jobs for hundreds under the guise of “See! She’s all better!” Despite being thrilled for her public turn-around (don’t call it a comeback!), it’s hard to not see her like a broken but bandaged-up baby-doll in the right lighting.

In fact, it’s bittersweet (and quite emotional) as a devoted fan for ten years to be writing this piece on the eve of the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards–where they have been relentlessly plugging a tribute to the legendary Spears. Apparently, just as there was money to be made off of her downfall, there is plenty to be gained from her reclamation. The very people that plotted for both her success and subsequent demise have equal stake in her eventual triumph.

And so, as a feminist and fan of Britney Spears, I have spent over a decade watching and observing what exactly happens when a woman tries to make it on her own by doing exactly what society asks of her. She bleached her hair, stayed fit, danced when asked, made records, and did it all while we hated her for it. And when she tried to deviate from her own circumstances, we punished and pitied her—called her “tragic” in the very magazine that used her image six-times prior to boost sales and circulation.

That being said, I want to be careful to not portray Spears in the oft-criticized second-wave-feminist “victim” role that we are so desperate to subvert and infuse with agency in current feminist activism. Rather, I would like to suggest that Britney fell into the impossible “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” binary that plagues most women today—where she was wrong for embracing her beauty, sexuality, and career and even more at fault for not being able to stay that way.

Not to mention that everything we attack Britney for–whether it be her sexuality, boobs, motherhood, or vagina–is inherently female and (more often than not) a manifestation of our own projections of what female should or shouldn’t be. Or perhaps most importantly, we are jarred by the possibility that what made us so fascinated–and yet so critical–is that deep down, we all have a little Britney in us.

Especially now, as we celebrate “Britney Spears: the Phoenix” rising from the ash of our worst fears and transforming into a near-perfect shell of her former self. It’s hard to use words like “full circle” when you know that at 30 years-old, she still has no legal control over her own life. That’s why I can say unabashedly that “Britney Spears changed my life.” She showed me from a very young age what happens when you follow the proscribed rote of womanhood—complete with a career, looks, and a modern family–where you can do everything right and everything wrong and still not be certain of the difference it makes.

Another Body Talk

by Robert Leleux

One of the most peculiar things about The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls is that it seems, at times, to have been written by your Great Aunt Rose. Joan Jacobs Brumberg is an accomplished historian and an enlightened thinker, but she sometimes expresses a tone of agonized propriety that I can’t recall having heard since the days when Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds. Take, for example, the following sentence, delivered absolutely without irony in the course of an impassioned plea on behalf of sexually exploited teenage girls: “The way in which a society handles young girls in trouble,” she writes, “is…revealing.”[1] The “trouble” to which Brumberg is referring to is, incredibly, the “Is she in trouble?” kind of trouble. The kind of “trouble” that always comes with quotation marks around it, even when it’s used in conversation.

Except, I haven’t heard that kind of “trouble” used in conversation since I was a small boy in Texas, playing under my grandmother’s dining room table, and listening in on the conversation of the old ladies in my family who still considered “pregnant” an unsuitable term for that “delicate condition.” Likewise, “out-of-wedlock births,” another Eisenhower-era phrase of which Brumberg avails herself several pages later.[2] In fact, The Body Project is sadly, but revealingly, littered with such creaky, antiquated expressions. Never more so, I’m afraid, than in the very, very unfortunate section devoted to body piercing, of which the following sentence is perhaps the most mortifying: “Teenagers today,” Brumberg explains, “grow up in a world where rigid dichotomies between gay (homosexual) and straight (heterosexual) behavior are disappearing.”[3] Oh, dear, dear, dear. Statements like this remind me of the kind of “talks” ladies used to give on current events during monthly luncheons at the club. Continue reading

Freeing Society in “They Don’t Care about Us” by Michael Jackson

by Monica Stancu

In Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault argues that there is a direct connection between the modern legal system and power relations. According to him, the legal system, with its police, prisons and constant surveillance of the population represents a manifestation of power and is used as a political tool to further restrict and repress society. Foucault’s philosophical principles may be applied to the reading of Michael Jackson’s controversial video, They Don’t Care about Us (1996), which was set in a prison. In the video, the singer claims that the dominant class in America uses its political power to abuse and manipulate the people by keeping them not only in a physical jail, but also in a “metaphorical” psychological jail by withholding information and making false accusations. Continue reading