Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Beauty and subversion: Can privilege be subversive?

Montevidayo is publishing responses from the women featured in the New York Daily News article. They are interesting and worth reading. But there's a definite sense that the poets are defending themselves against attack (see also here and here), which I find to be an annoying distraction from the real issue. If I critique a representation of a woman in the media, it should be clear (even if I don't explicitly say so, which I did) that I'm critiquing the representation, not the woman herself*. Critiquing sexist male-gaze culture that foregrounds appearance over writing is a way of "supporting women poets."

Specifically, I'd like to address this comment by Monica McClure:
So many images of women in the media do disturb me as much as they mesmerize me, and my poetry tries to air out both sides of that. I cringe at Miley Cyrus’ twisted performance of a manufactured sexuality, the pro-patriarchal garbage spewing from the mouths of Fox News blondes, the ubiquitous battered, raped body of the black woman in 12 Years A Slave, and on and on. 
On the other hand, there’s power in the images of themselves that girls put online, even when they’re highly decorated or their flesh is on display. Does that mean they are in collaboration with the culture that hurts them? Sure they can’t control whether their image will become an affront or a pleasure object, but they’re beating the culture to the punch anyway.
I agree ... but the article in question is not a case of "images of themselves that girls put online." We're not critiquing the women's Tumblrs, we're critiquing a story on a news site. The poets did not create or control those images. So how exactly is it different from the Miley Cyrus performance? In both cases, "agency" seems beside the point when it's an image being broadcast to the masses for the profit of media companies, not the women on display. 

This morning, Drew Gardner linked to an interview with Pussy Riot, which includes this quote:
GQ: Does it bug you as feminists that your global popularity is at least partly based on the fact that you turned out to be, well, easy on the eyes?
Nadya: I humbly hope that our attractiveness performs a subversive function. First of all, because without "us" in balaclavas, jumping all over Red Square with guitars, there is no "us" smiling sweetly in the courtroom. You can't get the latter without the former. Second, because this attractiveness destroys the idiotic stereotype, still extant in Russia, that a feminist is an ugly-ass frustrated harridan. This stereotype is so puke-making that I will deign to be sweet for a little bit in order to destroy it. Though every time I open my mouth, the sweetness goes out the window anyway.
I kind of hate this idea that a privilege (and beauty is a privilege) could be subversive. It may be a stereotype that all feminists are ugly; nonetheless, some feminists are ugly (in the sense that they're not attractive by conventional standards). So take two women who have the same feminist beliefs, one of them "ugly" and one of them "beautiful." We're supposed to believe that the beautiful feminist is somehow more subversive, just because she breaks the stereotype? No, I don't buy it. All her beauty means is that she's relatively lucky, both in terms of genetics and, since what we call beauty is mostly manufactured and a force of effort anyway, probably wealth.

This reminds me of Frederick Seidel, whose own wealth is his main subject. This too is often seen as subversive; Billy Collins, for example, said Seidel "does what every exciting poet must do: avoid writing what everyone thinks of as 'poetry.'" So, if poets are expected to be rich white men writing about nature and feelings, a rich white man writing about being a rich white man is subversive? I guess he gets by on a technicality.

*Even if, for the sake of argument, I were critiquing the women's actions, instead of the culture, I'm tired of this idea that feminism is purely about women's choices, in the sense that whatever women feel like doing is fine. As Sandra Simonds said on Twitter recently, "it's market enforcement in the guise of liberation." Or, as Chris Rock might put it, "Women are supposed to be beautiful." So how is that subversive?

13 comments:

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  2. Some students I had at UGA thought that the confederate flag they wanted to hang in their dorm rooms had nothing to do with racism because they didn't want it to mean that (their explanations about what it meant to them as individuals were quite often convoluted/complex and nuanced/ambivalent -- but their personal relationship to the symbol was never the point). I get very uncomfortable when the rhetoric of feminists (I am a feminist) reminds me of the those students... ;)

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    1. I think this is a great analogy. Another similar case -- remember when kids used the word "gay" to mean "it sucks"? If questioned they'd say it had nothing to do with homophobia or gay-bashing, but ... you don't get to control the connotations!

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  3. I think I understand the confederate flag thing. I'm attracted to that image myself--to many things southern, since the maternal side of my family is very deep-south. Doesn't mean I approve of George Wallace. And I'm not Catholic, but I like Catholic stuff--crucifixes and Montanes retablos and so on. They give me a goth frisson or something. I totally relate to Jim Morrison going on stage wearing a cross just because he liked the image and liked confusing people.

    Why anyone would think feminists tend to be ugly I don't understand. I associate feminism with higher socio-economic status and higher levels of education, which are in turn associated with physical attractiveness. Prole women aren't too feministic in general.

    I'm too aware of my own duplicity to feel comfortable contributing to a feminist discussion. Often I'm seeking something like a mystical experience, trying to tap a reservoir of elan vital or what D.H. Lawrence might call the wisdom of flesh and blood; and for me that search necessitates indulging sexist impulses and attitudes. I think it helps me write and draw better. A man has more than one personality; he's a Pirandello-like mixed bag.

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    1. I associate feminism with higher socio-economic status and higher levels of education, which are in turn associated with physical attractiveness.

      I think that's a really interesting point. Probably ties in with the problem a lot of people have with feminist culture, that it's too white.

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  4. Feminism is inherently attractive because it's what evolution is doing right now to assure survival of the species. Males are adjusting, slowly and cautiously, because that's how it works. Traditionally beautiful feminists are also adjusting, slowly and cautiously, to the fact that being a beautiful feminist will provide little advantage, because beautiful will imply feminist, and feminist will define beauty.

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    1. Not sure I follow your evolution argument.

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  5. Elisa, Had you been so (in your view) irresponsible to have participated in the article you would not have only stolen the show but the reporter wouldn't have been able to have found a bad passage in your work to quote as she seems to have done with some good poets.

    One of my first reactions to the piece is how the view that poetry should 'take a cue from showbiz' conflicts with the poets' internet-era tendency to dissect and set parameters for its publicity when people who self-identify as poets outnumber critics. American entertainment is profitable in part because it sets very low standards for the thoughtfulness of its coverage including exploitive, apocryphal, and malicious coverage that asks very little of its audience as well as reporters. I think for a moment of the risk of scaring publications with high circulation from reporting on poetry because 'they only get angry at you if you do.'

    But the complaints by you and others seem to all stem from how the template of what the Daily News does is applied to the literary art, as the article is trying to fit poetry into the standards of newsworthiness and treatment of entertainment and fashion. This and the O! Magazine feature (which appears to have stolen its idea from Kate Durbin but didn't include her) attempted to make womens' poetry (in a way that excluded, it should be said, men) compatible with fashion modeling, a factory that churns out increasingly interchangeable anorexic/ bulemics devoid of personality. Once you accept (if you do) that an article would focus on young female poets, the possiblility that a poet that's 'plus-sized,' not conventionally attractive, or not attractive, would write a book that rewarded readers' attentions more than someone who fits what a modeling agency looks for is not considered. On the other hand, you have instances like Kate Zambreno writing in her book about how she is annoyed by how Ford Madox Ford seemed unconcerned about his appearance but then thinks he has the right idea - Ford would be read a lot more if he looked like Kerouac or Hemingway (and his subject matter would be different) so there's no reason to be unhealthy and superficial appearance affects life and emotional content.

    When I read Vendler complain about Dove's anthology that there should be more white people in it but she's not sure who they would be, it hits home how poetry like the other cultural networks places its system above the importance and recognition of what individual writers do. Criticism and reporting should attempt to discern what is most vital in art and culture without subjecting it to its own template and expectations. Heavily promoted art shows get very crowded, but Daily reporters are told they're not supposed to write about an important book of poetry or poet because that's not how it's done, so they try to make poetry resemble what they actually do write about and how they write about it.

    I'm not sure I agree that beauty is privilege - underprivileged people may actually be more attractive. Laurie Anderson write once "if I was queen for the day I'd give the ugly people all the money" but if you check out a gathering of rich people they're usually pretty ugly. The anorexics on the magazine covers are the window dressing around that phenomenon.

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    1. I think you're correct that the problem with the article is trying to make poetry and poets fit the usual content of the publication (where images of women are usually models or actresses). And I think a lot of the response to the response has been basically "What did you expect? We should be happy they're featuring poets at all" but I guess I don't set my bar that low.

      When I say beauty is a privilege I'm referring to people who meet the culturally accepted standards of beauty; people who look "marketable." The GQ reporter's phrase is "easy on the eyes" -- the implications are pretty interesting there, it's like beauty as pablum; familiar, not challenging. That doesn't necessarily mean they would be physically attractive to some random guy you pull off the street.

      I keep going to Kate Durbin as an example of someone who really does play with beauty and the male gaze in a subversive and challenging way.

      Thank you, by the way, for the compliment on my work. But I'll reiterate that I don't hold the poets themselves responsible for the outcome of the article.

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  6. You've made some really good distinctions here . . . it occurs to me that while you're absolutely right to take issue with the idea that a privilege can be subversive, it seems like sometimes privileges DO provide an occasion or opportunity for subversion, since privileges generally manifest themselves through the accrual of positive expectations and the avoidance of negative ones. Where there are expectations, there can be subversion.

    It also occurs to me that people often have a tendency to use the word "subversive" when they really mean "provocative." There may be some value in a provocation that makes apparent an inequality or an injustice or a power relation that's generally hidden or ignored, but that's barely a first step toward changing it.

    I'm thinking about this w/r/t Seidel, but also w/r/t Tony Hoagland and the poem of his that Claudia Rankine took issue with a couple of years ago, a poem that has been widely defended as being misread by Rankine as racist when it was actually just ABOUT racism -- a contention that's supported neither by the text nor by Hoagland's comments about it. And even if it IS "about racism," is that enough to qualify it as somehow admirable or valuable?

    Rankine made a really complex and valuable point in her remarks that I don't think got enough close attention during the ensuing shitstorm. Taking off from a remark of Judith Butler's, she said, "For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague's poem, my colleague's words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him."

    I've been thinking a lot lately about how a privilege is different from a right: it's granted (or withheld), rather than claimed (or violated). To be privileged is to be the beneficiary of power; it does not necessarily mean that you HAVE that power. To be privileged also generally means to be visible: to be recognized as the recipient of the benefits that are coming your way. Power, however -- and I'm talking about REAL power; not the symbols or the spectacle of it -- is always invisible.

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    1. Your connection to the Claudia Rankine/Tony Hoagland incident is interesting, because I've been thinking about the ways we sometimes excuse racism or sexism by framing it as being "about racism" or "about sexism." Sometimes, of course, art really is about racism or sexism. But it's beyond bizarre to me than anyone is invoking those arguments in this case, when we're not looking at anyone's art; we're looking at a shitty faux-news story. Whatever is going on in these poets' work and their performances, that's not what the critique was about; it was a critique of the article, which was not in their control.

      You make a very good point about the difference between "provocative" and "subversive." I'll be thinking about that (and other points you've raised). Thank you for your always smart input.

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  7. I too am disgruntled by people claiming that looks well within the realm of eye dessert may be subversive. I for sure see how it can produce normative rewards (rewards which are not cancelled by critiques), but not how it challenges. I firmly believe ugly--ok, not good-looking--"public" figures, especially when they're women, have the most potential to subvert; I don't think the USA poetry world knows, well enough, what un good-looking can do--surely too often "it" doesn't feel the right to get on "the stage." For this reason, I wish author photo culture would jump a cliff; yes, it's nice attaching a human face/body to poems, but it others me that I am often very aware of what writers look like; it dovetails all too perfectly with branding/marketing, and seems very likely to, again, create opportunity for the pretty ones, or decent enough looking ones, but again to imply that the very unlovely is not worth attending. What if one is too embarrassed for author-photo culture--how does that work when so often publishing venues request a photo? Is it, for a slight extension, going to lead to reading series in which only a certain arc of the aesthetic (looks not writing style) circle is likely to get on that stage?

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    1. I'm glad you made this point about "author photo culture" -- every web journal these days includes a prominent author photo for everyone, this didn't use to be the case. While in some ways I like it, it's a base kind of liking, like "FEED ME IMAGES, EASIER THAN WORDS" -- and yeah, of course it favors pretty people.

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