Shoes, Shimmer, and Shorts Skirts: What Men Want from Women

Joyce S. Tseng


Let’s face it: all movies are about gender. It is ubiquitous. Biologically, sure, there are only two categories of sex. But over time, gender has grown increasingly messy—increasingly transgressive. The simple issue of gender influences the reception of a movie more than we realize. Split-second assumptions are made about characters based on their gender all the time. We immediately assume the incompetence of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde to get into Harvard Law. And of course, power dynamics could not be established in the same way without the distinction between males and females. We aren’t as terrified of Harley Quinn as we are the Joker. Popular culture is embedded with gender scripts, reflective of evolved sexist stereotypes and attributions. However, there is a salient rise of gender fluidity in modern society—gender is much more confused than it historically has ever been. But what we see movies do with this reality is guide the colors back within the lines.

“Makeover movies” are a standard storyline of Hollywood films. I’m talking about the ones where the ugly, geeky girl is magically transformed into a sexy, chic woman. In these movies, the makeover highlights fashion as the driving tool—a stereotypically female-attributed matter. The movie’s message goes beyond the upgrade of a woman’s frumpy wardrobe though and proves the need for alterations in her personality and lifestyle too. These movies try to get at some sort of moral development of the woman, as a consequence of their makeover, tailoring them to fit the mold of the acceptable, ideal woman. Grease’s Sandy goes from a conservative prude to a leather-wearing fox—and this is praised.

If we turned our attention to feminine men, they have historically not done well in Hollywood movies, or at least, feminine men are never the protagonists. The disdained antagonist of Silence of the Lambs (1991) is a psychopathic transvestite. Dr. Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is depicted to be an alien transvestite, whose name is a clear spin-off of a classic gothic monster, but also alludes to a phallic symbol. Though male-makeovers are not as common, the idea of remasculinization is not new to Hollywood. The quintessential example is Clark Kent, a glasses-wearing newspaper reporter turned into a superhero hunk with perfectly gelled hair. Each makeover renders the image of the ideal, which has proven to be attractiveness-oriented and sexualized. Similar to the moral development of women, several movies have addressed the emotional, behavioral meaning of masculinity. Tyler Durden in Fight Club spends his days selling soap, but is provoked out of boredom to join an underground fight club. He uses fist fighting as a means of liberation, reverting him back to primal masculine functions. The film serves to show men what it means to be men. The popularity and prominence of makeover movies suggest that we, as consumers of film, desire to see people combat the threats to their archetypal form of gender. But, here is the problem. If we insist this demand and desire to be true, then we succumb to an inescapable, exclusively male point of view. Gender and cultural studies professor Brenda Weber asserts, “American masculinity has long been predicated on the values of the self-made man.” The male-makeover is autonomous and upholds individualism. However, in the case of women, the transformation is rarely self-made and actually works to serve men.

Let’s consider movies about women learning how to be women. Donald Petrie’s Miss Congeniality (2000) does just that. The uncomplicated premise of a female FBI field agent, Gracie Hart, who goes undercover as a contestant in the Miss USA beauty pageant sets the stage perfectly for the argument of guiding a woman to her idealized form. The specific casting of Sandra Bullock as Gracie asserts much about the character. Bullock’s charm is not one that fits the stereotypical symmetric, doe-eyed, blonde haired beauty; she brings an air of quirkiness and boyish athleticism with her presence, which becomes conspicuous in the scenes where is surrounded by the other beauty contestants. Gracie’s less than elegant mishaps and unfeminine mannerisms, like her pig-ish snorts when she laughs, pin her as a feminine outcast. Though her tomboyishness allows her to fit enough into the male dominated field of the bureau, it is clear she can never truly assimilate into the group because of her gender. She is notably asked by a stranger in a bar, upon learning of Gracie’s occupation, “Do all the women in the bureau really have to wear those masculine shoes?” Here and throughout the movie, Gracie’s occupation as an FBI agent is consistently reduced down to her body, etiquette, and fashion, forcing her back within the realms of femininity.


The irony of the plot lays in the notion that a woman can learn how to be a woman when taught by men. Gracie’s beauty pageant coach Victor Melling, played by Michael Caine, embodies the poise that Gracie does not. He “glides” when he walks, speaks with a posh British accent, and frequently sports immaculate suits with pink accents. He is the driving force of Gracie’s makeover: picking out the dresses she wears, teaching her how to walk gracefully, and introducing her to feminine products like plastic breast paddings. It is important to notice that Petrie intentionally decided for the pageant coach to be male, but more importantly for Victor Melling to be gay. He is essentially male, but not quite the archetype. He is the primary tool in the makeover but cannot be the ultimate goal of Gracie’s transformation—that is, she is not changing herself to woo Victor. But his function to the story makes it so that Gracie’s makeover cannot be “self-made.” The movie demands that Gracie is guided away from her boyishness and fulfill her female body as it ought to be, but makes a point to show that this package is a man-made construct.


We must realize that the plot of the movie conveniently makes it so that Gracie’s gender is the primary reason why she is chosen to go undercover when the Miss USA beauty pageant is targeted. The audience knows all along that Gracie is the one for the job, but it takes the male agents a session of computerized photoshopping of agents into a one-piece female swimsuit to realize the fact. The scene is comical, featuring a group of strong, grown men huddling around a computer, playing dress up. The agents cringe and laugh at different women of different shapes and ages as they are subject to their man-controlled game. The political implications here are clear. The men critique every inch that a woman aesthetically has to offer, and pass their judgment on what is acceptable or not. What is interesting is that Gracie also partakes in this activity. She plays along with the men, mocking the women on the screen, feeding into the fixation on the female body. When the agents finally settle on Gracie being the most believable option, Gracie’s amusement immediately shuts off and she tells the guys to cut it out. It is only when fellow agent Eric Matthews tells her, “Don’t kid yourself. No one thinks of you as a woman,” that she begins to take the mission seriously. So, here we have a woman, not wanting to be considered a woman because of the beauty pageant contestants carrying the implications of being unintelligent and materialistic.miss_congeniality_060

However, it is easy to miss that Gracie’s transformation actually revolves around Agent Matthews. He coaxes her and encourages by saying, after a couple of “butt-shaping exercises”, she would fit right in at the contest. The absurdity of this scene is because it takes place in the training room, while Gracie is kickboxing—an intensive, strength-oriented workout.  Here, Agent Matthews is advising an obviously physically fit woman to alter her workouts towards more aesthetic purposes and toning, as opposed to muscle building. It takes Agent Matthews’ comment that Gracie is not considered a woman for her to take the mission. Throughout the movie, he repeatedly pokes fun and ridicules Gracie during her efforts to become a believable pageant contestant, mocking her with doughnuts when she has to diet, sarcastically cooing at her when she is dolled-up. Yet—not surprisingly—by the end he falls in love with her and successfully asks her out on a date. To the audience, the movie makes clear that for women, turning yourself into something of a pageant girl will win you male recognition.

Thus, within the film narrative, the audience Gracie caters towards is men, namely Agent Matthews. But, Petrie also incorporates the literal audience of the movie and subjects them to a male perspective. Film theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of “the male gaze” claims that no matter who you are as an audience member, because the camera is treated as if it were male, you have no choice but to view the movie as a male too. Let me explain. Mulvey suggests that a film camera stimulates the voyeuristic tendencies of the audience; we are awakened and find pleasure in viewing others, specifically in private domains from which we are usually concealed. In Miss Congeniality, Gracie is set up with several spy cameras when she goes undercover, thus unlocking the backstage, dressing room world of the beauty pageant to the male FBI agents. The men gather around the screens, and in one scene even bring popcorn, to view the women in bathrobes, hairnets, and swimsuits. The way these sequences are edited place us in the shoes of the men, watching the room from Gracie’s point of view, which is also the view the male agents have an in on. We as an audience are included as peeping Toms, encouraged by the agents ogling at the women on the screen.


Admittedly, makeover movies tend to fall under the category of “chick flicks,” implying that they target a predominantly female audience; but if we delve deeper and ask what these movies are encouraging women to take away from the narrative, it is chiefly male-centered. By watching these films, women are taught to desire a materialism-triggered moment of recognition and men are reaffirmed of their approval of the makeover. Gracie accepting the “Miss Congeniality” award and giving a speech about how grateful she was to have been a part of the pageant and from the mission, how she has changed as a person for the better is the way the film reconciles its plot and gender dilemma. The award and what it stands for literally celebrates Gracie’s ability to have adapted to suit her personality and behavior to the taste of others. We go from watching a kickboxing, self-assured woman turn into a tamer, peace loving appeaser—and we applaud this ending and call it a success.



Ferriss, Suzanne, and Young, Mallory, Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. London: Routledge, 2008.

Ford, Elizabeth A., and Mitchell, Deborah C., The Makeover in the Movies: Before and After in Hollywood Films, 1941-2002. North Carolina: McFarland, 2004.

Weber, Brenda R., “What Makes The Man? Television Makeovers, Made-Over Masculinity, and Male Body Image,” International Journal of Men’s Health 5.3 (2006).


This essay was written in the style of David Foster Wallace.

This essay was peer edited by Dew Maskati.


A Fine-Tuning of Male Dominance: Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America”

       Eddie Murphy’s 1988 romantic comedy Coming to America was a huge commercial success upon its release, despite unanimous critical distaste for the film. The romance in the story falls flat, the comedy resorts to slapstick humor. Critics bemoaned the film’s mediocre acting, especially Eddie Murphy’s, whose characteristic liveliness was drowned in his own script. (Carlson) It wasn’t until recently, however, that people started talking about the film’s anachronistic and ahistorical portrayal of Africa– which gives the sense that the Africans in the fictional country of Zamunda are nothing more than Europeans dressed in Africanities, speaking sophisticated English and sipping champagne. The eurocentricity of the characters seems at odds with their location: outside of the palace, elephants and rhinos lumber across the background and a loud merchant sells Dashikis (Jacobs). The flaws in Coming to America are evident in its whitewashed portrayal of Africa, but cannot be articulated without assessing the position of women in the film– both African and American.


Prince Akeem is bathed by his servants

       The most objectified bodies are those of African women that appear early on in the film, before Eddie Murphy’s character, prince Akeem, leaves Zamunda to find true love outside of arranged marriage. The film uses the objectification and submissiveness of African women as grounds to permit their exploitation– their supposed inferiority legitimizes the male desire to dominate women through the male sexual utopia that is Zamunda. Aside from the queen, the only African woman that speaks more than one line in the film is Akeem’s initial bride-to-be, who is depicted as robotic and mindless— the only thing she says “no” to is Akeem’s insistence that she doesn’t need constantly obey him. Since she has been trained since birth to serve him, and is thus dependent on his existence, she refuses to see that she can exist outside of him. The rest of the African women have few lines, all related to their status as servants. In Zamunda’s generalized perception of Africa, unrelenting roots of colonialism and patriotic nationalism depict what is considered the lack of an obviously superior Western ideology– despite clear whitewashing, the customs of Zamunda are depicted as completely and irrevocably sexist. Inherent in the Africanness of the Zamundians is an extreme dichotomy of masculinity and femininity that churns out legions of uniformly obedient and mindless African women that accept their own exploitation (especially sexual exploitation) eagerly and unwaveringly. Zamunda, and presumably all of Africa, is so good at ingraining the virtue of obedience in women that Akeem feels he must leave the entire continent to have a shot at finding true love with a woman who satisfies his intellect “as well as his loins.”


Following Akeem’s order to bark

          The dismissal of African women as mentally incapable to justify their exploitation  permits their complete objectification, with the effect that the sexual enjoyment Akeem gets from his bathers is depicted not just as as erotic, but expected. The movie justifies this expectation through the characterization of Akeem as singularly righteous– a symbol of progressive, western thought trapped in a backwards society. The most central and thematically well-represented example of this is his reluctance to have an arranged marriage, a major part of the plot that highlights Zamunda’s foreignness. Arranged marriage is a custom widely-regarded by viewers as barbaric and existent wholly outside of modern Western culture, and Akeem’s rejection of it and general dissatisfaction with the culture (that is rigidly obeyed by others around him) aligns him with the Western audience and fuels its perception of his moral integrity.

         This conception of Akeem is crucial when he details his qualms with palace life to his father, saying that “it is not just [the rose petals thrown wherever he walks] it is everything. The cooking, the pampering, the dressing, the bathing…” before admitting slyly that he actually “rather enjoy[s] the bathing.” Clearly his qualms with life in the palace stem from a desire for autonomy rather than specific ideological differences with the culture of Zamunda. Not to mention, his desire for autonomy and individualism strengthen the perception of his westernness and masculinity. His admitted enjoyment of the African servant women ultimately permits the viewer to desire or accept their exploitation by trusting Akeem’s moral correctness due to his distinction from the flawed, but erotic traditions of his country.


Akeem’s conversation with his parents

        Thus the crucial bathing scene is the most direct depiction of an erotic male utopia in which men are allowed the desire to dominate African women. They are absolved of guilt over this  desire by the perception of African women as mindlessly compliant sexual servants and  the fact that Akeem (a symbol for western thought, and righteousness) holds the desire himself. With this, the fundamental core of the scene becomes clear– Akeem’s exploitation of African women is acceptable only because their culture (which is inherently inferior to western culture) is one that is less intellectual, thus creating mindless and valueless women who are seen as nothing more than ornamented bodies with which to have sex. This idea of intellectual inferiority, as depicted primarily through Akeem’s arranged almost-wife, draws an uncomfortable connection to a colonialist mentality and the obsession with the “exotic” and “forbidden” African woman’s body (through which the will to dominate a country was, and still is, expressed as sexual violence against local peoples (Nih)).  

          The extreme irony in this is the film’s premise is a clear attempt to avoid the issue of colonialist thought: Akeem’s riches challenge the trope of poor, starving Africans, and his position of wealth is utilized to mock white people who visit Africa. “Look! Real Americans!” he says as he observes three old men bickering in a barber shop. Putting a black face on a movie whose plot is reverse-colonialist in so many senses, and supporting this character in his rebellion against his homeland’s culture, allows for a comparison of Western and African ideology that affirms the West’s superiority without carrying racial implications. Men are thus allowed to overlook the implications of their own sexual desires and pin them on the ideological inferiority of Africa as a whole, which in turn manifests as the inferiority and justified exploitation of African women.

         The film shifts its message about women as Akeem arrives in America– the dominion of men over women here is refined in a way that begrudgingly acknowledges the empowerment of American women, presented in the film through the punishment and stigmatization of female sexuality. After arriving in New York, Akeem and his servant Semmi go to nightclubs to meet women in scenes that function comedically in characterizing the women at the bar as deviant– be it sexually or in some other social regard. From devil worshippers to narcissists, they reveal a fear of female sexuality that renders a woman expressing her sexual desires as cheap or degraded. Semmi, as Akeem’s foil and the prototypical horny guy, smiles at one woman’s statement of interest in a threesome, while Akeem, serious about finding a wife, frowns. This distinction ties into a male perception of female sexuality– it is put on show not just for comedic purposes but also to demonize sexual women, to denote them as unworthy of anything but sex (Gummow). While American women are not mindless like African women, those that are not “clean” and go to clubs do not warrant a man’s respect. Another woman worth noting in this scene downs two shots before proclaiming:  “Now that’s the problem! I can’t find a man who can satisfy me. Some guys go an hour, hour and a half, that’s it! A man’s got to put in over time for me to get off.”  A reflection of the cinematic trope of the angry black woman, she is the only one in this scene to have short, natural hair, and is clearly meant to be perceived as less traditionally attractive than most of the other women presented in the scene. The importance of this is that her comments can do nothing to hurt the masculinity of the viewer– her presentation as undesirable is exacerbated by her expression of sexuality, and, in addition to being tied to a form of blackness that is deemed undesirable, her short hair and sexual frustration liken her to a man. And as an almost-too-perfect culmination of this idea, the end of this scene features a sexually aggressive trans woman, instantly recognizable as the actor who plays Semmi in drag, detailing, to their disgust, how she’d like to “rip [Akeem and Semmi] apart.”


Sexually frustrated woman from the bar scene


Trans woman (played by the same actor who plays Semmi) from the bar scene


        The only primary character in the movie who is shown making sexual advances on men is Patrice, the sister of Akeem’s love interest. She is introduced dancing in her living room as questioning Lisa who she is having sex with when she receives a gift in the mail. Her characterization as a sexual being continues throughout the film– she puts her hand on Akeem’s crotch at a basketball game and has relations with Semmi. Patrice’s sexuality is so central to her character that the film ingrains the audience with a clear answer to her question of why Lisa “gets all the good ones”–  that it’s ‘by not being a slut.’ Patrice is also paralleled to the African women at the beginning of the film, especially in comparison to her sister Lisa. She displays her bodiliness as she dances sexually, critically antipodal to Lisa’s intelligence and respectability (think mindfulness) as she reads on the couch. Important to mention too is Patrice’s appearance: she has darker skin and curlier hair than Lisa, and is characterized (stereotypically) as sassy. Similarly to the sexually-frustrated woman portrayed in the club scene, aspects of Patrice’s blackness are shunned and tied to her sexual promiscuity. Thus, the film manages to propagate negative stereotypes about the sexuality of black women, despite having an all black cast, by using stereotypes and afrocentric features to delineate women considered by the audience as more prototypically black as sexually deviant and thus less valuable.





Lisa’s introduction in the film


Bikini Pageant preceding Lisa’s introduction








The film relies on the distinctions between Patrice and Lisa as a way to divide American women and determine whether or not they can be dominated by men. Patrice’s domination is rather clear from what was just discussed: as an impure and invaluable woman, the message is that men will continue to reject her in all ways except sexually– and her own actions are at fault for warranting this treatment. Conversely, Lisa, a “good woman,” is the only woman in the film with any sort of control. She rejects Daryl’s proposal when he and her father try to force her to accept it, and stays with Akeem despite her father’s initial disapproval. After the proposal, Daryl becomes a symbol of machismo– having told Akeem that all women “want a man to take charge, to tell them what to do,” and Akeem, by way of his character differences from Daryl, becomes one resembling a feminist stance (or at the very least, of anti-female domination).

         Not only does this late shift in the movie further bury the fetishized African servant woman as inconsequential, it gets the viewers of the movie to applaud the preservation of Akeem’s masculinity via the domination of African women while blending into American society, where such overt domination is culturally inappropriate. His departure from Africa is attributed to the mindlessness of African women, preserving his masculinity and reassuring the male gaze of its morality– which would be lost if the humanity or degraded position of African women was acknowledged. This and the film’s tenacious impression of Akeem’s integrity, which is so pervasive that he is a relatively static character throughout the film, implies that his character alone pits him against Daryl and by association against the control of women. This is why he never has to learn how Americans treat women the way he has to learn how to dress, work, and speak– his being on the virtuous side of this conflict is a given to the audience. So as Akeem experiences America and falls for Lisa, the message of the movie is not that all women are valuable and intelligent, but that most aren’t. A man who accepts and fantasizes about the domination of powerless women and the devaluation of sexual women is nonetheless capable of being considered the “good guy,” provided he doesn’t attempt to dominate a “good woman” like Lisa.




Carlson, Daniel. “Is It Just Me, or Does Every Woman in New York Have a Severe Emotional

       Problem?” Pajiba. Disqus, 05 May 2009. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Gummow, Jodie. “Unveiling the ‘Madonna-Whore’ Complex.” Alternet. N.p., 9 Sept. 2013. Web.

       7 Dec. 2016.

Jacobs, Sean. “Africa on Film: Coming to America.” Africa Is a Country. N.p., 14 Apr. 2015.

       Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Tih, Felix N. “Rape of Africans by Europeans: An Ongoing Colonial Habit.” The Anadolu Post.

       Anadolu Agency, 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 7 Dec. 2016. 

A Matter of Black and White: Race in the Twilight saga

The Twilight saga is a story with many threads. It tells the story of a love triangle between Bella Swan, a vampire named Edward Cullen, and a werewolf named Jacob Black. It tells a story of gender roles, as decisions about Bella’s well-being are often made by Edward and Jacob; not by her. It weaves together threads about abstinence, as Edward is afraid of having sex with Bella because if he doesn’t show restraint he could kill her. The saga even tells a story about Mormonism.

Operating in a manner that is sometimes more covert and often more insidious than these stories, however, is one about race. In “White,” Richard Dyer asserts that racial images pervade popular culture, even, or especially, where race seems unimportant. If Dyer’s argument is to be believed, then even though Twilight is not explicitly about race, it still tells a racial story and adjusts our attitudes towards it.
To assess Dyer’s claim, let’s examine how race is represented in three character types in the Twilight films: humans, vampires, and werewolves.


Cover art for Twilight



Twilight makes it hard not to be conscious of skin color from the opening minutes. As soon as Bella starts high school in Forks, Washington, she is subjected to the romantic and sexual advances of several boys. The advances made by these boys differ in tactics and in the response generated, and these differences parallel racial differences in the characters who make them.

A white character, Mike Newton, is always nervous around Bella and constantly fumbles over his words when he talks to her. Most of the time, when he gets the nerve to, say, ask Bella to prom, she simply blows him off. The one time she does accept his offer to go to a movie (on the condition that their friends can also come), Mike gets sick because the movie was too gory. With Mike gone, Jacob takes the opportunity to be forward about his feelings for Bella. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Mike in this case. He didn’t do anything wrong. The poor kid just lost his chance to get his girl.

The films picture different tactics that elicit different responses when a black student, Tyler Crowley hits on Bella. In one scene, Tyler runs up behind Bella at lunch and kisses her on the cheek; Bella responds with unmistakable annoyance. Tyler doesn’t ask her if she would like to be kissed, and he doesn’t seem phased by her annoyance. This kiss, between a black male and a white female, was sexual harassment.


Bella is visibly annoyed when Tyler kisses her on the cheek 

Besides Tyler, the only other named black human in the saga is a man named J. Jenks, who makes fake IDs and passports. Black humans in Twilight commit crimes. One role of white humans in the series, then, is to hold black humans accountable for their actions. Bella’s father, Charlie, is a cop; it’s his job to arrest people like J. Jenks. And when Tyler kisses Bella on the cheek, Mike Newton is the one to chase him away.



The vampires in the Twilight films are noted as having skin like porcelain or alabaster. An overwhelming majority of the vampires prior to Breaking Dawn are played by Caucasian actor. One exception is Laurent, who is played by a black actor (Edi Gathegi); however, Gategi wears makeup to lighten his natural skin tone. It seems that the act of being made into a vampire confers a special paleness or whiteness. This notion is strengthened by the color symbolism prevalent in the films: vampires are represented by white. Breaking Dawn extensively uses white and red to represent vampires and humans, respectively. When Bella is turned to a vampire in part one, the film shows her red blood vessels crystalizing and becoming white. Part two opens with several scenes that juxtapose white and red, like the dawn on a snowy mountain top. Vampires are extensively associated with whiteness in the films.

According to Dyer, white people are depicted as pure and god-like, and as transcending the body. He also notes that whiteness is fraught with paradoxes. If Dyer is correct, then we should be able to see these observations come to fruition in the Twilight films.

Vampires are often associated with god- or Christ-like qualities in the films. In the sunlight, their skin shimmers and sparkles. In the texts, Bella uses the word “angelic” to describe Edward when he shows her this (Wilson); Bella’s reaction in the film appears to capture the same awe Meyer describes in the books. Some vampires add to the Christ-like metaphor by resisting the temptation to feed on humans by instead feeding on animals. Edward’s father Carlisle even has the discipline to be a doctor, constantly tempted by human blood. In a similar manner, Jesus was constantly tempted to sin, but through immense discipline was able to avoid doing so. Furthermore, Edward and Bella never do more than kiss before they marry, in part because Edward doesn’t want to test his restraint and risk killing Bella, but also because he has somewhat traditional (read: Christian) morals, which champion abstinence. Christian morals are seen elsewhere in the series: in Breaking Dawn, Rosalie encourages Bella not to try and terminate her pregnancy despite the fact that it may kill her; she’s staunchly pro-life, a stance which has been associated with Christians by modern popular culture. There is a clear association between vampires, especially the Cullens, and Christianity and purity. Vampires also often transcend the body using special abilities. Edward can read others’ minds, and so his being extends to the minds of others. Alice can see the future, and so her awareness transcends time itself.


Edward’s skin shimmers in the sunlight

Dyer notes that whiteness is also paradoxical. As a color, whiteness is both the combination and the absence of all colors. The manifestation of this principle in race is messy and varied, allowing whiteness to appear pervasive and attainable for all. One example of paradox has already been explored: how can one be granted the ability to transcend the body by their skin color, a characteristic of the very body they transcend? There are other examples of paradox in Twilight; for example, despite their strong association with whiteness, vampires (unlike all other species in the series) can be doubly associated with blackness. This distinction serves to demarcate the good vampires (those like the Cullens who feed on animals) and bad vampires (those who feed on humans). While the Cullens and other “good” vampires are extensively associated with white, other vampires that feed on humans and are otherwise coded as bad are associated with blackness. The Volturi are one group of vampires that are associated to blackness in addition to whiteness. One way that blackness is coded into the Volturi is that they all wear black robes. Such blackness carries connotations of evil and corruption: the Volturi are depicted as the corrupt oligarchs of vampire-kind, who act in their own interests, and also feed on humans. In Breaking Dawn, they attempt to destroy the Cullen coven for having a half-vampire, half-human child. They justify their politics using a rhetoric of fear: humans for the first time have weapons capable of destroying vampires, so it is more important than ever to keep secret. Anything that produces uncertainty, then, must be destroyed.

The story of Laurent, the black vampire, adds to the vampires’ sense of paradox. Laurent is a friend to the Cullens: he travels to Forks in New Moon to warn them that one of the vampires in his own coven is coming to kill Bella. Despite his occasional goodness, Laurent also does things that are contrary to the characteristics that the saga idealizes in the Cullens. In addition to feeding on humans, Laurent is impulsive (in contrast to the restraint shown by vampires who feed on animals). In New Moon, he crosses Bella in the wilderness and after telling her of Victoria’s plan to kill her, he said he couldn’t resist the urge to do it himself. This led intervention by a werewolf, who killed Laurent. Later, at Bella and Edward’s wedding, one animal-feeding vampire tells Edward that “(Laurent) wanted to be like us.” Laurent, it seems, envied the restraint, the likeness to Christ, the whiteness embodied by the Cullens.

The effect of the double-association granted to vampires like the Volturi is that, while they are unmistakably associated with whiteness, they are not strictly confined to it. As such, the actions of one vampire can hardly be made to represent all vampires – if a vampire does evil, that’s blackness; not all vampires are like that. Other characters, like the werewolves, are not afforded such flexibility.



If whiteness represents likeness to Christ, transcending the body, and paradox, we expect the opposite to be true for blackness in Dyer’s model.

Sure enough, these associations with blackness are seen in the case of the werewolves. Werewolves are the natural enemies of vampires, and so there is plenty of juxtaposition between the two groups in the films. On the whole, the werewolves are thoroughly associated with darkness. They are without exception Quileute Indians, having copper skin and dark features. Sam Uley becomes a jet black werewolf, and Jacob’s last name is even Black.

With the associations between werewolves and darkness in mind, let’s examine how the associations with whiteness seen in the vampires are flipped for werewolves. In vampires, likeness to Christ equates to Christian morals and restraint, and werewolves possess neither of these things. Melissa Burkley points out in Psychology Today that Sam Uley (whose wolf form is jet black, furthering his association with blackness) is an especially immoral character. After learning of Bella’s pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, Sam decides that Bella and her unborn child must be killed for no other reason than that he doesn’t know what to expect from a half-vampire child. Note that Sam has the same response as the Volturi, who are characterized by the double association with white and black. Sam’s immorality is furthered by his history of domestic abuse. His wife, Emily, has a scarred face from one instance when he was angered and struck her (presumably in werewolf form). This particular instance of immorality also begins to illustrate the werewolves’ lack of restraint. Of course Sam didn’t intend to permanently scar his wife; he got upset and it just happened. Impulsivity in werewolves extends beyond Sam: it is inextricably linked to their nature. When Quileutes first transform into werewolves (usually in their late teens), they act erratically and sometimes lose control of their own actions. Just before Jake transforms for the first time, he nearly starts a fight with Mike Newton for no reason in particular. Werewolves, in their darkness, are immoral and impulsive.

Furthermore, the films place a heavy emphasis on the bodies of the Quileutes. Bella greets Jacob in the beginning of New Moon: “Hey, muscles. You know, anabolic steroids are really bad for you.” Bella makes the viewer acutely aware of Jacob’s very muscular build, and the film builds on this by taking every opportunity to depict Jacob and the other young Quileutes with their shirts off. So the Quileutes’ bodies are sexualized in a way that the vampires’ bodies are not. Even though the Quileutes are shapeshifters and can literally escape their bodies, the films make an impressive effort to tie their identities to their bodies in the minds of the viewers. Ironically, vampires cannot escape their bodies in the same way as the Quileutes, but the films still lead the viewer to associate them with transcending the body.


Jacob’s body is often put on display for the viewers


While Twilight is not about race, it is still inundated with racial undertones. The racial story told by the saga associates whiteness and blackness with the characteristics Richard Dyer proposes in “White.” Given this, it is evident that race and racial associations are at play even in places where we wouldn’t expect to find them.



Wilson, Natalie. “Got Vampire Privilege?: The Whiteness of Twilight.” SeducedByTwilight. WordPress, 2010.

Burkley, Melissa, PhD. “Is Twilight Prejudiced?: Is Racism a Major Theme in Twilight?” Psychology Today (2011).

From Batman’s Nemesis to Transgender Hero

By Tristan Colaizzi

Since the creation of the Joker in DC Comic’s original Batman in 1940, he has been known as the green haired villain to the bat. From the original comics to the most recent round of batman movies and now Suicide Squad, the Joker has been played by many actors and characterized by numerous artists, taking on a variety of different forms to fit the changing times. Canonized by his purple coat and manacle laugh, the Joker is on par with Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter as one of the most recognizable villains of all time. A quick internet search will show the breadth of following and obsession that he has created and the variety of forms he has taken on. In the most recent interpretation, even the villainry of the Joker is modified as he’s portrayed as a hero, not an evil villain. His desire throughout Suicide Squad is to save Harley Quinn, and when he comes so close, but fails to and dies, we feel devastated. In the end, however, the Joker returns and rescues Harley Quinn from her cell.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in a turbulent world pertaining to the rights and discrimination of sexual identity and queerness that the latest rendition of the Joker does not fit the heterosexual male mold he has in the past. In Suicide Squad, while still maintaining the classic image of the Joker, he, or rather she, becomes the villain you root for in a movie that has flipped good and evil, straight and queer.  In order to deconstruct the movie’s gendered sub-plot, a revenge of the transgender, let’s focus on three key elements of his character: the actor who plays the Joker, the physical appearance of the Joker, and the actions of the Joker.


The Actor

Suicide Squad’s Joker is not a cartoon from a DC comic. Instead, He is a Jared Leto, a carefully picked actor. It is important to note the associations that Leto carries with him. Although being known for looking like a twenty-first century Jesus, Leto is a rumored bisexual, and although that is a very different identity from that of being trans, it still falls under the category of queer, or rather not heteronormative. More importantly, Jared is known for his Golden Globe and Academy award performance as Rayon, a transgender dying of AIDS, in Dallas buyers’ club. Rayon is always in drag, focused more on her beauty and femininity than her life threatening disease. She is the trans that millennials know best and conforms to every trans stereotype imaginable. Jared’s association with Rayon cannot be overemphasized, as it is an identity that will now color ever performance he does. The casting directors of Suicide Squad are undoubtedly aware that they not only are casting Jared, but are also in a way casting Rayon.  Furthermore, Jared’s facial structure, although a male face, caries feminine traits. His narrower nose and thinner, sharper lower facial structure is far from the idealized masculine face as reported in The Morphometrics of “masculinity” in Human Faces which found that, “male faces with a higher masculinity attribution tended to have wider faces with a wider inter-orbital distance, a wider nose, thinner lips, and a larger, more rounded lower facial outline.” (Mitteroecker) This distinction is clear when comparing Jared’s more feminine face to that of Matt Damon’s masculine facial features below. It cannot be ignored that the new Joker is played by a man that is most associated with not being a man. In many respects Rayon is the prelude, of sorts, to Suicide Squad’s Joker. From her facial structure to hair to dress to makeup and everything in between.


The appearance


The Joker’s appearance can be read as a distancing from the old Joker, and into a new Joker dressed in Drag. It must be noted that, “Modern transgender performance is most widely known through drag” and therefore when examining a cultural piece such as Suicide Squad any crossdressing or drag performance can be equated to being transgender. (Miller 42)

Notice his makeup, his clothing, and his hair as they are unlike any Joker’s that we have seen before. His lipstick is noticed first, in 2008 the Joker had red lipstick sloppily drawn across his face that covered literal scars he had cut into his cheeks, making him look especially villainous and evil, like he was wearing a mask. In contrast, the new Joker’s red lipstick appears to be carefully applied, like a woman at a ball. The new Joker’s eyeshadow is quite light and tasteful, sexualizing the eyes instead of demonizing them as the old Joker’s eyeshadow does. Finally, there is the matter of paleness that all Jokers have on account for being a clown. The 2008 Joker has cracks in his white foundation and other makeup clearly smudging around his face. It appears as though he did a poor job applying clown makeup. In sharp contrast, the new 2016 Joker’s foundation can almost be missed on account for how well it was put on. The appeared effort and cleanliness, as well as feminine manner that new Joker’s makeup is applied is easily relatable to the makeup of Rayon in her drag.  By making the two characters look so similar, the director is intentionally forcing you to picture the new Joker with any non-male person in mind, particularly Rayon.

Paying close attention to the new Joker’s hair reveals that it is much more similar to the style of Rayon than that of the 2008 Joker. In 2008, his hair is longer and is a faded disheveled green, falling in front of his face, whereas Suicide Squad’s Joker has well-kept slicked back hair. There are a few places that we can see this style of hair. One is in the early twentieth century where men often slicked back their hair as it was the popular style of the day, however, more likely (as this movie holds no other similarities to that time period) is that the Joker’s hair is slicked back because it is ready to be put up in a do rag, like the one we see on Rayon, or it is being prepared for a wig, as any short hair would have needed to be controlled and minimized to make the appearance of the wig natural.

In the final layer, the Joker’s famous purple jacket, we can see an important distinction between the two interpretations. In 2008, it was put over a green vest, dress shirt and tie. The three-piece outfit was dirty and too big, but nonetheless masculine, turning the joker into more of a twisted businessman than anything else. But, in 2016 we see no shirt, not tie and no vest. His jacket, now made out of alligator skin, a material largely associated with high feminine fashion, is shiny and unbuttoned with a popped collar and is much longer, going all the way to his shins, resembling something closer to a ballroom gown with too much cleavage than a three-piece businessman’s suit. Particularly noting that the Joker’s jacket almost always covers his nipples, but nonetheless shows a striking amount of cleavage, allows us to draw close analogy to the dress of Rayon as pictured below. This all is to say that the Joker is dressed in drag, complete with a gown and makeup only different from Rayon in the lack of brunette wig, which the Joker could never have and still fit the comic book picture that has existed for over 60 years.


The Actions



The masterstroke, and final peace to the puzzle that turns the Joker from male to transgender are actions. The clarifying scene is in what appears to be a penthouse living room. The scene is pictured above and shows the Joker lying in the middle of a circle with a hammer and lightbulb, surrounded by knives, roses and baby clothes.

The lightbulb and hammer go hand in hand to symbolize an idea or rather a desire for enlightenment facilitated by a tool that is the hammer. It is not the physical hammer that will achieve the enlightenment, but rather the idea that technology and tools are needed to achieve enlightenment.  The brilliance of this shot comes from the layers of items that surround the Joker. At the center, are the knives, which traditionally symbolize destruction, and in a movie where the Joker never uses knives as a weapon, their placement in this shot must be purely symbolic. The knives exist to destroy, or rather surgically cut away, the part of the Joker that restrains him from becoming transgender. In destroying that part of him, his penis, he can reach the next level of the circle, that of the roses. Roses are symbolic of love and in this case self-love of a physically transitioned Joker, because he has moved through the layer of knives to get to the roses. The roses complete the circle that really isn’t a circle, but rather a womb.  The womb having only one opening that leads out of the penthouse. The Joker’s exiting of the penthouse is therefore an exiting of the womb, a rebirth into a new physical state as well as mental state. Then there is the matter of what is outside of the womb, three baby outfits. The inclusion of these outfits only further solidifies the concept of rebirth into a new body. The joker has destroyed the part of him that he dislikes and in doing so is enlightened as he has found self-love in rebirth.

In the next scene, immediately after exiting of penthouse, the Joker takes on much more sexual, feminine, and queer characteristics. She enters the next scene purring at the man who is being interrogated. The Joker then presents her hand to be kissed. It is important to notice how she presents her hand, not as a fist, but rather like a queen or woman would present her hand to a man. By making the straight man kiss her hand the Joker, now fully transgendered, is asserting dominance over the heterosexual norm. This concept is completed when the Joker sits on the man’s lap, crotch to crotch and sexually growls again. Her dominance in this scene, although subtle, sets up a new power dynamic in the movie. It does so because the man who was being interrogated once held all the power over Harley Quinn and therefore, by the Jokers obsession of freeing her, the power over the Joker. The establishment of this power dynamic is completed in the final scene of the movie, where the Joker breaks into the jail that houses Harley Quinn and frees her, giving the Transgender the final move and final laugh.

Taken together these three elements create a new Joker that we have never seen before. We have a transgender villain that instead of being a villain is the hero that we root for, and in the end is the person with the most power. We see a movie that has redefined gender dynamics in a comic book world where men have historically ruled.

As a movie it is entertaining.

As a story it is revolutionary.



Written in the style of Jake Romm

Edited by Abby Lloyd



Miller, Jeremy Russel. “Crossdressing Cinema: An Analysis of Transgender Representation in Film.” PhD diss., Texas A&M University, 2012. Accessed December 13, 2016. MILLER-DISSERTATION.pdf.

Mitteroecker, Philipp. “The Morphometrics of “Masculinity” in Human Faces.” PLOS one, February 11, 2015.

Ledger, Heath. Dark Night. Directed by Christopher Nolan. DC entertainment, 2008.

Leto, Jared. Suicide Squad. Directed by David Ayer. DC entertainment, 2016.

Leto, Jared. Dallas Buyers Club. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Voltage Pictures, 2013.



As He Stood Rapping

The song came out of the album, following the others through its production. It made its way half a decade later than the first of them, but it fared better than the first ever could. “Without Me” came right from his mouth to the market with not even than three months in between. The song is an introduction, three verses, and a chorus throughout all of which there is a beat that runs so cleanly it gets inside the mind of everyone who tries to give it a listen. Eminem’s song stands back from the rest in its desire for change, trying to be different, hitched to the idea that it can make a change in this world. “Without Me,” like all that came before it, wants to rebel against a system, but what system at first is a mystery. In its creation and content inside, “Without Me” follows the rap, rap, rap, of the song and the beat while all the while saying it the opposite.
Everything can be reduced to the timing in the analysis of its creation. Eminem put “Without Me” into the world right when he finished with his production of 8 Mile, which he created to honor none other than his own story. All the production came intertwined with his story in a movie, a movie about himself no less. Whatever it is, announcing “Guess who’s back/ back again/ Shady’s back/ tell a friend” sure has a nice egotistical ring to it. If that man were honestly trying to break some kind of system, he would surely not announce it with the fullest intent of getting caught, about which he does not stop bragging. All while announcing his intentions in his actions by making a movie, Eminem surely could not be rebelling in earnest.

Onto the structure of the song, something seems a bit out of touch the way he tries to cram words together into a pattern that he can make fit the message. All the rhymes seem complicated in a way that shows off and provides some form of inaccessibility to whomever tries to emulate the style. All the words come together in a pattern that flows like a stream but is as easy to figure out as thick mud. The rhymes and rhythms take on lives of their own as they twist and turn and ebb and flow through a song on top of, what seems at first, seems to be a simple background beat that gets wildy more complicated the more it is examined. A man trying to rebel and start his movement would keep things simple, but this one cannot be just a regular person. He has to be an icon. Whatever attitude of rebellion he tries to claim goes whish, whish, whish right out the door with those lyrics all strung together in their unnaturally neat and unnaturally tidy order. Every rhyme and every word in it is too complicated to be simple.
All the ways the words come together comes with the words themselves, organized into three not-so-neat verses and a chorus desperate to carry meaning.
The first verse of “Without Me” enters rebellious, strong, and willing to incite anger. A violent alter ego named Slim Shady takes control of the words in his attempt to return from a limbo land between albums and between influences. Shady insults the then-Vice President, all the while screaming about his heart problems and his wife; the words desperately trying to take on insubordinate lives of their own. Even while Eminem seemed to know he was making something for the mainstream, Slim Shady insists on being a nonconformist with his claims that he is “on the rag and ovulating.” Right at the end of the verse the words come together to threaten to take action against the Federal Communications Commission, immediately and harshly. This piece of music tries to intimidate the mainstream while actually being a part of it, the words ending while perpetually lingering.
The song then turns to the second verse after it makes its way through the chorus. Slim Shady or whoever is narrating stops his cause of actively rebelling with his self-conscious incitements of anger to shift over to a mockery of the rebellion he has just been trying to emulate. The words narrate a child, one who is “embarrassed” his parents still subscribe to that old-time rebellion and “listen to Elvis.” The words go on to tell a story of watered-down rebellion, the kind that those who are the mainstream continue to embrace. How bad it is to be a “rebel” when everyone is buying millions of copies of a song and providing a nameless man millions of dollars in profit. At the end of the second verse, the story goes to a line with the illuminating power needed to analyze the song. After that line the song gets easier, more understandable. The narrator offers his “ten cents, [his] two cents is free/ a nuisance, who sent for me?” The first half of the line deals with money and advice, advice and money. The advice is to get money somehow. Earn a ticket out is the advice. The second half provides the attitude toward rebellion that Slim Shady takes to extreme in the first verse. The rebellion is desired and wanted, feeding on consumers to make it happen, waiting for someone to buy the song and embrace the thinned version of rebellion it tries so hard to present.
The rhyme structure and the lyrics all lead down a path toward a fake revolution that is not one but pretends to be. No real rebel would come within a mile of “Without Me” and its central message, but the song tries to be devilish and fool listeners into thinking some would. Rebellion has become an official aesthetic of consumer society. The ones who are against consuming and consumerism are the spokespeople for it. According to some psychologists, rebellion against a perceived authority in this fashion “is really an act of dependency” (Pickhardt). “Without Me” and its claims to be rebellious are fictitious declarations stemming from consumerism acknowledged by the end of the song in its final verses.
In the 1950s, a theorist named Richard Hoggart published The Uses Of Literacy in which he argues revolution is a commodity with which to sell consumerist cultural products. Watered-down rebellion is thickened blood of mass-produced culture. 1) According to Hoggart, culture-producing corporations take money. 2) They drain the actual revolutionary spirit. 3) They replace it with fake cries for revolution. 4) The new fake revolution enters the marketplace masquerading as what it used to be. 5) People like the fake revolution and succumb to it. 6) Except. 7) Not all people are stupid. 8) Some people can deal with stress. 9) Eminem is not stupid and can deal with stress. 10) “Without Me” criticizes the fake revolution. 11) So the fake revolution does not go unnoticed. 12) Fake rebellion sells culture. 13) It weirdly makes sense.
Over thirty years after Hoggart wrote The Uses of Literacy, Dave Marsh, a song critic, published The Heart of Rock and Soul in which he analyses songs for their components. Everything from the artist to the album to the beat to the lyrics to the remakes to the general influence of a song is something for Marsh to consider as he ranks which songs are the best and which ones deserve to bear the honor of being one of the one thousand and one most influential songs the world has so far seen. Songs that cross racial lines are often good as far as Marsh is concerned for the purposes of his list. The 1950s was arguably the first time that white Americans created culture including songs with influences from other groups instead of trying to erase the culture and styles of people previously deemed inferior. Songs since the 1950s are Marsh’s study, and many of them are good. “Without Me” is a song by a white American written well after the 1950s.

“Without Me” has revolution against the old like many songs. The first verse comes from an angry alter-ego, its voice forming words that clash with the notions of control, of regulation, of restricting what gets played by radios or people’s mouths. The vice president and his wife are subjects for derision and anger, venting, screaming, protesting. The system almost buckles crack, crack, crack as it is under attack.
What “Without Me” provides is an acknowledgement of the co opted rebellion that forms its industry. The narrator becomes less hostile and acknowledges the new form of culturally allowable rebellion that has taken hold of the industry that the first verse laments. The difference between the old and the new, the actual rebellion and the sanctioned form, become apparent in the words of the song as with the song itself. Rap is not the rebellion it used to be; is has had a “tremendous influence on mainstream” (Blanchard). “Without Me” shows the issues presented by mass industrial rebellion to be too complex, rebellion industry some could call it.
Rebellion is no longer the act of rebellion it used to be but instead a central aesthetic of a consumer society. Opponents of the system are now its controllers and ideologues. “Without Me” starts with rebellion, if rebellion ever was there, then shifts to mocking the rebellion it proposed. In so many ways, Slim Shady is the definition of anti something or rebelling against whatever. Loud, strong, aggressive, insouciant. In so many other ways, though, Slim Shady is the opposite. Sanctioned, permissioned, mainstream, warranted. All of Slim Shady or Eminem’s “lawsuits are settled.” He has no more issues with society or consumer culture in the way it twists him or them into the image of defiance it so desperately wants to convey. At least he was smart enough to realize what was happening. At least he knew that whatever watered-down form of countering something he produced was what listeners wanted to hear. The FCC may have tried to ban him, but he got airplay nonetheless. Marsh knew it. Hoggart knew it. Apparently the real Slim Shady knew it too.
The song is a rabbit.

Death in Utopia: How Pop Culture Gets Away With Murder

The promise of a perfect world, a perfect society free from social ills and injustice, the utopia has enchanted and enthralled humanity for generations. Since the publication of the novel that coined the phrase, Utopia by Thomas More, it has fixated the imaginations of creators and audiences alike for centuries. In modern media and popular culture, there are few attempts to create pure utopia. Instead, authors, screenwriters, directors, carefully infuse their work with utopian elements. This trend reappears countless times throughout modern pop culture and one, perhaps somewhat unexpected example, is detective fiction.


Since trying to argue my point with every detective story as proof would quickly become messy, I will focus on one specific series: Death in Paradise. The show follows a reluctant English Detective Inspector (D.I.), Richard Poole, who is “temporarily” relocated to an island in the Caribbean called Sainte Marie to work with local law enforcement.  In each episode, the team is confronted with a new impossible, wildly creative murder that only the brilliance of the D.I. and the tenacity of the team can solve. So, though it has a few distinguishing features that come with the paradise locale, it fits the general detective fiction trope rather nicely, not at all out of place amongst the dozens of other detective shows the BBC airs.


A core goal of utopian societies is a concerted effort to perfect institutions. This seems an inherent part of the detective story. The detective serves as something of an indicator species: a brilliant member of the police force who unfailingly solves crime and locks away dangerous criminals is evidence of an institution operating at its highest possible capacity. And when they start watching, the audience takes it on faith that, in the end, the detective and his team will stop the bad guys. Their belief in the detective is transferred onto the police force as a whole, allowing them to experience a second-hand utopia through this perfected institution.

Further than just believing in the ability of the detective, the audience must trust his goodness. The main detective of a show is never corrupt and often storylines will revolve around him rooting out misconduct amongst his peers. Death in Paradise tackles this trope in the first episode of the series. D.I. Poole’s first case ends in the arrest of one of the local police officers for abusing the benefits awarded her position to smuggle goods into the country and for murdering her accomplice. This one episode very deftly proves to the audience the virtue of the remaining members of the team and assures them that the D.I. will prevent any future corruption of the system.


Professor George Grella analyzes a final way in which detective fiction perfects the system: the act of the murder itself and the concluding capture of the murderer. In his paper “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” Grella writes that “the detective novel features two expulsions of ‘bad’ or socially unfit characters: the victim and the murderer” which in turn “ ensures the continued happiness of those remaining” (Grella 41). Grella reasons that to merit being killed, and to make a compelling story that involves multiple suspects, the victim must either be a particularly detestable person or have done something particularly detestable. A possible exception to this is if a person is murdered accidentally, but even then, the murderer believes they are killing the horrible person, not an innocent stand in. For example, in season one, episode two “Wicked Wedding Night,” a hotel butler mistakes a newlywed bride for a serving girl who had refused his advances but actively sleeps with other people in the hotel. Though the bride had done nothing wrong, she was killed in the butler’s attempt to eliminate someone who had violated the social code and in the end, the maid ends up dead.


In this sense, death in a detective series serves a very different function than death in  perhaps a drama or a thriller. In these types of stories, the audience is meant to empathize with the victim and detest the murderer for killing them. In detective stories, the victim must be viewed unfavorably by the audience because they are meant to remain impartial, the death serving as  merely an opportunity for them to test their wits and logic. This disparity is the reason death only exists as utopia in detective novels.

So, by killing the victim the murderer completes the first “expulsion” and the detective then completes the second by arresting him. The murder is necessary for the first expulsion because the victim is truly only guilty of social infractions and is therefore out of the detective’s hands. By killing a socially undesirable person, the murderer serves a function in the utopia but in doing so, they have themselves committed a violation, risking the security of the society which can only be restored by their removal. In season one, episode seven “Music of Murder,” the lead singer of a local band is killed before a reunion show. In the exposition scene, D.I. Poole reveals motives for five of the six suspects. The victim had wronged nearly everyone close to him but none of his actions directly violated law. His death was the only way to expel him from society to ensure the happiness of those around him. The detective then comes along to tidy up the mess by removing the person who killed him. In this way, each installment of detective system cleanses the system.In these three ways, detective fiction offers the audience a partial utopia.


A second, essential feature of the utopia is that it must be felt universally. The word itself derives from “eu-topos – denoting a region of happiness and perfection” (Munker). Linguistically, the term encompasses the entirety of a place, not simply a single person which implies that there must be a general sense of well being and goodness. The means of achieving this widespread happiness inevitably varies from person to person but the overall effect must always be the eradication of injustice. Detective fiction does this neatly and rather surprisingly. Murder, and the resulting bubble of suspicion, crosses all social bounds. Anyone can be murdered, anyone can be guilty. By confronting us with humanity’s universal flaws and weakness, detective fiction forces us to regard everyone, regardless of real-world social stigma, as existing on the same plane. While this method is crude and not as sunny as many imagine a perfect system should be, it is, undoubtedly, equalizing. Beyond this fundamental equality, there is a sense of universal improvement that comes at the end of every story that ties back to the “expulsions” mentioned earlier. A systematic and habitual purge of all the bad apples must mean that the remaining society is, as a whole, good and therefore better.

Death in Paradise, along with many other modern detective series, particularly American ones, has taken the theme of equality further and has made concerted efforts to diversify their casts and advance the roles of women. The show holds true to Caribbean demographics. Three of the four members of the Santa Maria police force, as well as the police commissioner, are of African descent, leaving the detective inspector as the sole primary Caucasian character. This in not merely for the sake of appearances. Within the show, there is an ingrained appreciation of local knowledge.  Dwayne, the longest standing member of the force and the show’s primary source of comedic relief, frequently relies on his contacts in the local community to move along a case, despite facing derision and judgment from his fellow officers. In season three, episode two “The Wrong Man,”  a key witness refuses to speak to the police without first being offered a bribe. Fidel, Dwayne’s superior officer refuses to pay despite Dwayne’s insistence that the man will never budge otherwise. The witness only spills because Dwayne, while sitting down for beers with him at the end of the episode, pays him under the table saying, “ I knew [Fidel’d] never get it out of you any other way.  It’s only his first few months as sergeant.”  The show makes the point that without an intimate knowledge of the local community success is unlikely.


As for the roles of women in the show, again in “Wicked Wedding Night”, Detective Sergeant Camille Bordey effectively reminds D.I. Poole, and therefore the audience, that women are equal to men.  After he spends the first 10 minutes of the show bossing her around and dismissing her inputs, Camille  pulls D.I. Pool aside and tells him frankly:

I am a Detective Sergeant in the Sainte-Marie Police Force. I graduated top of my year, I have three

commendations for bravery, I have been shot twice and I could almost certainly beat you in a fist

fight. Whereas is you, you are rude man. You are ignorant, full of your own self-importance,

expecting everyone to follow you around and hang on your every word? From now on, you treat me

with a little more respect I’ll be forced to forget that I’m a police officer.

This scene sets a precedent for mutual respect  between men and women that carries on throughout the show.


A final, vital characteristic of the utopia is a replacement of the repetition and dullness of the current system with newness and excitement. A detective show changes every week: new victim, new murderer, new suspects. This demands that the series constantly introduces new characters and new adventures. Thinking of increasingly brilliant murderers gives the writers artistic freedom to think up unimaginable scenarios and so the show is never stagnant, never dull. More than that though, detective stories are so appealing because they can be interpreted to possess a comic function. In his analysis of the genre, Grella writes:

The central puzzle provides the usual complication, which the detective hero must remove; and its

difficulty ensures a typically comic engagement of the intellect. The whodunit’s plot, full of

deceptions, red herrings, clues real and fabricated, parallels the usually intricate plots of comedy,

which often depend upon mistaken motives, confusion, and dissembling; it also supports the

familiar romantic

The complexities of a detective story have the same effect on the audience as the twists and misadventures of comedies. In this way, each installment is a rejuvenation of the system.

There is one way in which the detective fiction is repetitive: it always has a happy ending. Though the detective might be stumped for most of the story, in the end, he will pull through. This is true of all 40 episodes of  Death in Paradise. However, it is important to distinguish this repetition from the repetition of the system being replaced. By repeating the motif of victory in every episode, the show reinforces the sense of the reliability of the institution (police force) and the safety of the general society. It gives rather than detracts from the utopia.

What this all boils down to is a reinvigoration of the current system in which it is purified, equalized, and charged with a sense of excitement. By watching a show or reading a book which revolves entirely around murder and crime, people are truly experiencing a partial utopia.



Pursing Propaganda: The Danger of Films

By RJ Shamberger


The United States promises its people many freedoms and presents itself as the land of opportunity where anything is achievable; however, the United States portrays itself as far greater than it is through constant propaganda. The propaganda is everywhere. In our television advertisements. In our history textbooks. In the words of our politicians. And in all forms of our entertainment. The real United States is not a reflection of the image it portrays, and there are immense problems especially of social mobility and racial injustice. The United States is not perfect, yet the movie industry often misrepresents the hardships and inequality in the country. Many Hollywood films downplay the significance of social mobility and racial inequality issues, and this leads to further problems in the country.

Take the movie The Pursuit of Happyness as an example of the constant propaganda that American entertainment feeds the unknowing public, as it perfectly guides its viewers into believing in the presence of social mobility. The Pursuit of Happyness tells the miraculous rags to riches story of Christopher Gardner Sr. whose net worth compounds over a million times fold within the two-hour movie. The film details perhaps the harshest year possible for anyone as Gardner loses his home and wife and goes to the streets with his young child, Christopher Jr., yet he somehow holds on to his hope, and the American Dream beautifully rewards his efforts with riches through his hard work and perseverance. Within two hours the audience witnesses Gardner seemingly rise from the working-class into the middle-class as he invests his savings in a company that sells bone density scanners in 1980s San Francisco. The investment leads to his eventual financial downfall as the scanners become more of a burden than an asset as Gardner learns that he cannot sell the machines to earn a steady income, but he remains under contract as a salesman. Eventually fed up with his inability to provide, his wife who financially supports the family chooses to leave Gardner and his son behind for New York. Without her, Gardner finds himself homeless and caring for his son, all while engaging in a competitive internship at Dean Witter Reynold’s stock brokerage.

The film carefully detracts from Gardner’s actions to continually remind the viewers of the magical promises that the American Dream promises. The film’s opening image is a glimpse of the Declaration of Independence, and the title pays homage to the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” quotation. Further resembling a perfect piece of propaganda, the movie neglects telling its audience that Gardner’s actions are miraculous as it never addresses the social injustices he faces or reasons to his severe poverty.  Through consistently conveying the idea of social mobility being a direct result of hard work, the film avoids challenging the words of the Founding Fathers or the reason behind Thomas Jefferson’s specific wording as the title suggest.


Below is the opening scene (beginning at 0:20). Through proper sequencing, the scene tells the audience everything they need to know in the film as it first shows the Declaration of Independence then Gardner and his son. Through analyzing the images, the film outright tells the audience that the plot will be about the United States and its greatness first – evidence of its most important document – then about Gardner’s story.



Instead of dealing with the apparent inconsistencies and conflicts in the United States, The Pursuit of Happyness carefully dances around the problems modern society presses on its main characters. The film completely neglects to acknowledge that Gardner is indeed a black man in the United States during the Ronald Reagan era. There is no instance in which the film addresses Gardner’s blackness, and no one ever refers to him as poor or struggling. In fact, I believe the film scoffs at his poverty in various moments. One scene, in particular, shows an office executive badgering Gardner for cab fare when he exiting the office building. Gardner checks his wallet only to find around eight dollars to which he then gives five of to the executive. In a way, the film says to Gardner “hey, we get it you’re poor, but that doesn’t matter.” Knowing Gardner cannot afford to lose any more money, the film detracts from his reality by forcing him into a moment where his poverty does not matter and instead he must please the executive. In a different scenario, Gardner does not lend the man any money in a more thoughtful decision since he legitimately cannot afford to lose any more money. In fact, this exact situation happens a second time in the film as Chris rides in a cab along with another office executive who then does not pay his fare leaving Gardner with the burden. Obviously unable to afford the fare, the film embarks on a comical section as Gardner must run away from the cabbie and loud profanity aids the moment. Throwing Gardner into near identical scenarios then laughing at him shows how the film wants the audience to his poverty – it doesn’t matter.

Also, the audience must acknowledge the film’s time placement – the Ronald Reagan era. Driven by the uprising of the stock exchange especially on Wall Street in the 1980s the United States’ economy steadily grew under President Ronald Reagan; however, there were still flaws in Reagan’s administration such as worsening race relations and the wealth gap between the rich and ordinary Americans which grew significantly. These were two apparent conflicts in the United States during the Reagan era and given the perfect character and platform to address them the film blatantly fails. No matter how the film tries to portray him, Gardner exists in the period in which there are prevalent social mobility and racial injustice issues, yet the film acts as though the problems do not exist. Yes, Gardner thrives under his situation, but there are underlying issues that he faces throughout his struggle.


In actuality, The Pursuit of Happyness‘s blatant ignorance to the country’s turmoil during the period is quite utopian. Through refusing to address the issues, the film creates a utopian like the world for the audience to infuse themselves into. In the movie exists a society abundant in social mobility and racial equality, and it uses Gardner’s situation as a platform to prove that the two are present even in perhaps one of the most difficult time periods for such to exist. The film engages its audience into the world that is massively better despite the hardships Gardner experiences. There is no utopia as there can never be complete equality of opportunity and no discrimination amongst people in the real world. So the film presents the issues that Gardner faces. However, it does so inadequately because it includes utopian aspects that do not exist. Even though Gardner miraculously does make it out of poverty, the film does not show the truth of the situation that many people similar to him face on a daily basis and are not as fortunate to make it out of poverty.


More than the film, the entire American movie industry is at fault for selling its audience a utopian world that does not exist – a world that is massively better – and selling it as the reality in the country. The movie industry produces an abundance of propaganda without evident government intervention and through films the country maintains a belief that anything is possible, and that the institutional absence of social mobility or equality for certain groups is a minor problem. Feel good movies like The Pursuit of Happyness are mere pawns in an industry that consistently teaches the audience that the United States is good enough as it is. Throw in a few quotes by the Founding Fathers, taken out of context, and the America the film presents becomes a reality to the audience. By glossing over the negative aspects of the country, the movie industry helps frame the United States as a near utopian society, and that individual can always overcome any of the nation’s problems.

There are repercussions of the movie industry’s actions, and they are dangerous. The person who does not witness struggles similar to Gardner are unable to adequately understand his situation or the barriers he faces before eventually bringing himself out of poverty. Often those very same people who simply do not understand the struggle find themselves in positions of power and their actions or inaction in some cases leads to the recreation of Gardner’s situation for many other people. Maureen Grzan, Rachel Lee, Kevin Pham and Tasha Mamoody support the idea with the following quote from Film as Propaganda in America during WWII: “Movies completely inject into the minds of viewers, with no personal filters or ability for the viewer to think for himself. This leads to a general fear of movies and the ways in which they could control the public’s way of thinking.”  The creators of The Pursuit of Happyness do not positively affect the lives of those similar to Gardner because they portray his tale through an incomplete lens. Thus films give propaganda detailing the lack of crucial issues in the United States a route to spread to those unknowing individuals. The film and many others like it continue to misrepresent the situation of black people and those in poverty in the United States and do not provide outsiders with a proper understanding of their status.

Although the movie industry may not directly cause social mobility and racial inequality problems in the United States, it does play a significant role in moving towards a solution which it has not. Instead, the movie industry creates even more issues that reach the greater community of those who are unaware of the struggles of particular people in the country and cause them to neglect the issues just as the industry does. Through consistently misrepresenting the stories that it tells, films present more danger to the United States than most realize and the audience must become aware of the propaganda the films present.





“The Pursuit of Happyness.” Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, James Lassiter, and Will Smith. By Steve Conrad. Performed by Will Smith. Accessed November 24, 2016.


“Film as Propaganda in America during WWII.” History of Information. Accessed November 24, 2016.


Vidal, David. “Propaganda in War Reporting on the U.S. War in Iraq.” Stanford. Accessed November 24, 2016.



Latino Punk: A Subculture Within a Subculture?

“Because you’re young, you’re angry, you can break a bone and you just don’t care. If you like punk rock, kids that are angry, primal stuff, backyards are like the place to do it. Nobody’s going to tell you what to do. They’re going to applaud you” (Cuevas). From the outside, punk represents a certain aesthetic: Angsty yet apathetic teens in unkempt clothing sporting multiple piercings and worn-down spiked leather jackets. This one-sided view, and lack of understanding of its origins thereof, have spurred a general aversion to the seemingly dark, haunting group, and fueled an antagonistic attitude that has led to a rise in school bullying incidents and public scorn/disapproval. This omnipresent attitude directed towards punk culture, coupled with society’s perception of them as ‘other’, serve to justify the ostracization of the social group. This isolation is a defining characteristic of what it means to be considered a subculture: a community that subverts mainstream norms by creating a safe environment for what is usually a particular type of deviant self-expression.


Examples of punks

The punk subculture can be dated all the way back to the 1970’s, when it emerged from musical, philosophical, and political movements in the United Kingdom, Australia, and United States. Original participants embarked on a quest for independence from the culture industry, which controlled rock and roll in the 70’s. As part of its individualist doctrine, the punk lifestyle aims to renounce hypercommercialism and the prevailing media culture, which are known to be suggestive of mass behavior and standards for the norm (Moore). Punk culture thus counters mass consumption, and promotes one’s personal agency. Supplementing these notions, the punk ideology follows a ‘do-it-yourself ethic’, which in part encourages an insistent avoidance of major corporations and media outlets. The scene’s original product distribution consequently earned the admiration of thousands of teens and young adults who valued unrestricted means to “create [their] own identity and be in a network of like-minded individuals” (Moran).

Furthermore, since procuring punk music involves little to no money at all, the community appeals to those who come from low income backgrounds. Punk music is the epitome of subculture, spreading its ideas and messages through its own form of art that is almost always produced with minimal effort – a DIY approach that supports anybody’s ability to contribute (Moran). In fact, the group’s promotion and endorsement of its ideologies depend on the socialization that their original works generate. Thus, music enables the subculture to distribute media without relying on mass production. This gives the members of the subculture a sense of accomplishment because they can entertain the punk community independently. As a part of this type of production and distribution, many independent punk record labels have been established, ultimately building a social network between punks in which the musicians can travel to various cities and venues to keep the subculture alive on a worldwide scale (Moran). Fanzines, amateur-esque magazines and other “expressions of self philosophy,” are also distributed throughout the punk community to promote the importance of self-expression and individuality. The DIY production of fanzines and music in the punk scene caters to a group of people who do not have an incredible or unique talent or skill to feel included in the subculture; anyone has the capability to do anything, without the prerequisite of any singing, performing or writing expertise – everyone can share their songs in front of other punks or distribute their writing as entries in a fanzine (Moore). As a result, everything produced in the punk subculture is raw, natural, and all-inclusive – a testament to the core punk values of abandoning popular culture, deviating from commercialism, and countering mass media.


Despite punk’s goal of addressing the needs of a certain minority, the reality is that this community is predominantly white. From the start, punk has appealed to middle-class “straight white boys,” who think that they are too good for mainstream rock, yet still feel inclined to express themselves through music (Nomous). Because the punk culture preaches individualism and resistance against the norm, part of this behavior is exercised by punk teens as an additional rebellion against parental authority and to what is usually the white middle-class privileged lifestyle (Nomous). Therefore, the teens that are breaking from both their privilege and parental authority are trying to escape something they are exposed to on a daily basis. These are the kids who, overwhelmed by consumerism and mass production, have the flexibility to break free and seek individualism through controversial norms such as the punk scene (Nomous). Hence, the punk scene proves to emerge from a place of concentrated privilege and financial security, explaining the racial exclusivity of the culture in that white punks have different aspects of life to worry about than punks of color.

Not only is punk culture mostly white, but it also fails to include minority groups or directly address the marginalization they face. Because race is a social construct that creates deep-seated divisions, the punk community makes an effort to disregard race by denying its existence altogether, assuming that everyone, regardless of race, can be a part of the group as equals (Nomous). Despite this attempt to unify everyone by disregarding race, ignoring this significant piece of identity actually makes punk exclusive, in that it assumes everyone has the same experience or background.

Otto Nomous, a punk of color, recalls an experience he had with white punks during the anarchist movement:

I have received quite a few very negative and defensive reactions from white anarchists whenever I would mention the words “white” and “middle class” in the same sentence. Some of them defiantly point out that they’re actually “working class” because they grew up poor or have to work. What they fail to realize is that it doesn’t change the fact that they are able to blend in and benefit from the current anarchist scene which is predominantly middle class, and from white skin privilege (Nomous).

Nomous explains a conflict between the subculture’s ideologies and practices, in particular how the element of race contributes to the homogenized subculture and why this intentionally excludes racial minorities. Although the community aims to be inclusive, they simply cannot cater to issues beyond those within a “white” sphere – unifying all white people across a spectrum of economic backgrounds. Frankly, race begins to unfold into additional problematic layers when analyzed from a socioeconomic perspective, which is why the group simply cannot accommodate to race-related issues in the backdrop of its predominantly white following. While other white members can participate in the unity of the punk scene regardless of socio-economic standing, and have the privilege of commonly being the support and not the ones needing it, a person of color has a completely different identity that they must reconcile to even feel included. There is no mask of uniformity to hide behind in the group (Nomous). The possibility of being subjected to these identity and inclusivity struggles thus exemplifies how the punk scene fails to represent those of other races who may want to join the subculture. In response to this lack of representation, smaller sub-groups that have representation from various different minority groups have emerged. They have also managed to keep in line with a similar “punk” aesthetic and means of communications. Take for example, the punk scene in East Los Angeles – an area teeming with crime and poverty where day-to-day survival is a real concern (Los Punks). In this community, punk has helped teens and young adults to cope with the present hardships of their upbringings in a much more local and radical way than what’s seen in white punk subculture, or recognized by the general public.

Jorge Herrera, born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and lead singer for The Casualties, performing for hundreds of Latino punks.

Corrupted Youth, from East LA, performing in a backyard venue

In predominantly Latino-populated communities such as the one in East LA, music has become a pivotal aspect of the punk subculture. This medium of communication not only creates a safe space for those who refuse to conform to the mainstream, but also enables Latinos to address shared social issues and personal experiences in the community. The documentary Los Punks, takes a closer look at the underground punk music scene, in which dirty backyards are the main attraction for those in the subculture. In the Latino punk scene of East LA, bands travel around the city and perform in backyards for little to no money, with the exception of very small entrance fees. There are many instances in which the money collected during these events have been used to fund a wide range of needs, such as a loved one’s funeral, medical treatment for sick relatives, or charity for of impoverished families in the community.


Los Punks “We are all we have” encapsulates the importance of the subculture in Latino communities

The punk subculture serves as a panacea for “La Tristeza”– a concept that encapsulates the “sadness of living in the hood” (Los Punks). This term was introduced in the documentary by Boyle Heights native and lead singer for Rhythmic Asylum, Gary Alvarez. His involvement in the punk scene was primarily conscious of what consciously-oriented, since he viewed the subculture as a facilitator of radical change. Moreover, the documentary discusses the stories of many who rely on the punk scene for temporary support and community while they hope for future accomplishments or resolutions of ongoing problems. One member of the Boyle Heights scene explains that he plans to attend law school to help fight injustices among disenfranchised groups. Another Latino punk member, Alex, who is the lead singer of a punk band called Psyk Ward, mentions that his participation in the punk subculture gave him a reason to live after several suicide attempts. The Latino punk subculture provides a community for punks of color to learn from each other and discuss social issues–an opportunity that isn’t typically available to them through other institutions. Many white punks quickly criticized people of color for creating such a subgroup–calling it “self-segregation” (Palafox). They use the scene’s DIY ethic to address all type of concerns and thus enable those in the scene to interconnect, whether it be through music or fanzines. Such a scene does not correlate with the predominately white one, because the struggles of a minority group is something that white people simply cannot relate to (Palafox).

Los Crudos speaking out on the injustices of marginalized people through their songs and performances

Thus, does the racial divide between the Latino and white punk subcultures insinuate that the Latino punk scene is in and of itself a separate subculture altogether? From its definition, a subculture promotes rebelling against the mainstream, but do so as a predominantly white group. Aside from punk, predominantly white subcultures such as emo, goth, and hipster feed off the minority culture, via their music, clothes, etc. and use it to create a community that solely revolves around their problems –as white people appropriating unfamiliar ideas and lifestyles considered deviant from the norm (the norm being inherently white as well). Hence, such subcultures are exclusively white and uniform in their ideologies and beliefs. Latino punk thus has only one thing in common with its predominantly white counterpart– and that is rejecting mainstream media. Except in their case the mainstream is the homogenous white punk scene of the media and history. Their use of the very basic punk aesthetic and founding ethic – to promote a different function of the community – challenges their being simply subculture, because they’re not white. Therefore, against the backdrop of the white punk subculture, the Latino punk scene ultimately proves to be a “subculture within a subculture” (Palafox).









Works Cited


Moore, Ryan. “Postmodernism and punk subculture: Cultures of authenticity and

deconstruction.” The Communication Review 7.3 (2004): 305-327.

Cuevas, Steven. “Documentary Reveals L.A.’s Secretive Backyard Latino Punk Scene.” KQED

News. N.p., 10 June 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Moran, Ian P. “Punk: The do-it-yourself subculture.” Social Sciences Journal 10.1 (2011): 13.

Brinkhurst-Cuff, Charlie. “Why Is the History of Punk Music so White?” Dazed., 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.

Nomous, Otto. “Home – Colours of Resistance Archive.” Colours of Resistance Archive. N.p.,

n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

Los Punks. Dir. Angela Boatright. 2016. Film.

Palafox, Jose. “Screaming Our Thoughts: Latinos and Punk Rock.” Alternet. N.p., n.d. Web.

22 Nov. 2016.



Better off a Conformist: Analysis of Hipster Culture

         Azar Dixit

          The title of a popular Onion article, “Two Hipsters  Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster‘”, quite humorously and simply highlights an interesting curiosity about hipster subculture: there seems to be a pretty good understanding of what it means to be “hipster,” yet no one group of people accepts this label as their own. Hipster subculture is unique in inspiring universal discomfort in a way that few other subcultures or trends of today can even come close to; the modern conception of the average hipster is convinced of his pretentiousness and annoyingness to the point that even those who subscribe to the understood beliefs, styles, and actions of this subculture consider the label an insult to their authenticity (Greif 1). Mark Greif, New York Times writer, attributes this response to the fact that the label “calls everyone’s bluff” in terms of authenticity and taste. This assertion seems to largely fall short of an entire explanation; the sweeping discomfort brought about by the development of the modern hipster runs much deeper and echoes societal tensions to a degree that a simple distinction between genuine and unoriginal fails to embody.


Examples of hipster style, specific to Portland, Oregon

          The hipster subculture is primarily composed of affluent millennials who tend to be college educated and politically liberal, live in gentrified neighborhoods, associate with indie/alternative rock music, and dress in styles that subvert mainstream fashion. The crux of hipster ideology is to portray an entirely unique state of being and nonconformity through personal taste, often through choice of music, fashion, and alternative lifestyles (Grief 2). As one of the most prominent new subcultures of the elite, hipsterdom is known for recycling past trends and styles of historically ostracized and oppressed groups, as is seen in the resurfacing of trucker hats and wifebeaters, both of which were previously typical styles of working-class, white Americans.  The word “hipster” itself has a history that reflects this pattern – the term was first used to describe black subcultural jazz artists in the 1940s, and eventually extended to include those artists’ white fans, who embraced the realm of new, exciting, and exotic energy that they admired in their favorite black artists. Hipsters in these decades, both black and white, were convinced of the powerlessness of minorities to make choices about their own lives and insisted upon the importance of personal knowledge gained before being influenced  by what society teaches (Wailer). The term resurfaced in 1999, again likened to the value of knowledge gained before societal influence, now tied to “discovering” fashion and lifestyle trends before the mainstream (Grief 2). The fact that elite culture determines its stylistic preferences in light of both current and historical subcultures of common people is an interesting change. It puts the hipster in an unfamiliar realm – directly in between the recycled aesthetics of other, rebel subcultures and the underlying elite privilege of the dominant culture.

          In his essay, Grief begins to decipher the cultural phenomenon of the hipster by defining taste as the central drive in its appropriation of marginalized cultures, and as their own brand of a seemingly paradoxical elitism. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu claims that the notion of the elite possessing a superior taste can be explained by the elite’s usage of it ‒ as an affirmation for their right to power and privilege ‒ to oppress the lower class and maintain societal divides. Bourdieu found that taste can accurately be predicted by socioeconomic factors (specifically one’s class at birth and achieved education level), making it predominantly a reflection of environmental factors rather than a representation of individual expression or assertion. Moreover, Bourdieu observed that a sizeable portion of highly-educated French elites showed a marked preference for flea markets ‒ a finding largely reminiscent of the “thrifting” trend brought into the contemporary mainstream by hipster subculture(Bordieu). Bourdieu’s argument would suggest that the hipster notion of cultural supremacy stems solely from economic motives, but this assertion contradicts the quintessential “hipster” as antipodal to those with mainstream tastes and lifestyles, invariable to equivalent social class. Even though the hipster subculture distinguishes itself from others by taste, and therefore has inklings of classism through the implication of superiority over those with lesser taste, it furthers its distinction by separating itself from those in the same class who do conform to the mainstream through intellectual superiority. This doesn’t mean that the “hipster” is a cultural figure that is free of elements that suggest the inferiority of the poor (e.g. few working class people actually have the time and money to maintain the exacting form of authenticity that is tied into being hipster), but rather that its underlying assumptions are, as Bourdieu describes, more a product of the hipster’s place in society than any sort of idea or image specific to the subculture itself. The rejection of those of an equal social class on the basis that they embody the mainstream is a feature of hipsterdom that has been noted by the television show, Portlandia. In a 2011 skit, the show featured a disgruntled hipster who furiously proclaims “It’s over!” after witnessing a clean-cut, white collar man enjoying the same activities and interests as him. The hipster continuously renounces the reflected aspects of himself until he has completely taken on the other man’s original appearance and behavior. What’s interesting about this skit is that it wouldn’t really work if Portlandia’s writers had casted a black man to play the hipster’s counterpart, since “the professional white man” is the mainstream that the hipster avidly avoids.


The disgruntled hipster writes “IT’S OVER” on a window to the confusion of the white-collar man sitting in a cafe.

          The hipster’s perception of the lower class innately possessing a lesser taste brings up the question of how race is perceived in the context of this intellectual elitism. In being a supposedly counter-cultural and decidedly liberal subculture, the modern hipster outwardly embraces ideals of racial harmony and progressive reform for marginalized groups. However, the commercialization of hipster culture in recent years has led to controversy over the style’s tendency to appropriate the cultural figures/practices of ethnic minorities, without attempts to credit their origins or appreciate their cultural sanctity. The subculture’s persistent growth has thus begun a trend of increasing rates of cultural appropriation, or at least increasing its publicity. This is particularly so in the fashion of music industries, as concert-goers and performers alike are now more commonly wearing bindis, traditional headdresses, and other culturally significant garb during concerts and music festivals (e.g. Coachella, Burning Man, Lalapalooza, etc.). Although the current version of mainstream cultural appropriation may be new in some ways, it nonetheless derives from a combination of intellectual elitism and liberal political leanings, that together have created an ironic refusal of political correctness amongst its proponents. This tendency has led to the phenomenon coined “hipster racism,” which occurs when racial stereotypes are used ironically under the pretense of a person’s self-perception that he/she is not actually being derogatory (Quart). This can be explained by noting that the higher standing hipsters feel they have over others may have easily evolved into a penchant to diverge from social norms as well as established guidelines of political correctness. There is present a fundamental belief that they have progressed so far from common bigotry that they are permitted to make remarks that would normally even be considered racist, when coming from others less forward-thinking than them. The principal problem with this guise is that the comments are most often representative of discriminatory motifs – the humor in jokes is not always clearly ascribed to any ironies or understanding of minority sufferings. One of the most infamous perpetrators of this kind of disregard for political correctness is the trendy and self-proclaimed “hipster” clothing chain: Urban Outfitters. The company once sold a hugely offensive board game entitled “Ghettopoly,” a knockoff of the classic Monopoly board game, that propagated harmful stereotypes about African Americans who live in ghettos. Land properties in the game had titles like “Cheap Trick Avenue” and “Smitty’s XXX Peep Show,” and bonus cards had descriptions such as “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50” (The Week). Only through the false perception of their being above discrimination could this have had success in a store that attracts droves of young liberals. The underlying justification for the production and sale of this inarguably racist product boils down to blatant acceptance of prejudiced sentiments, with the assurance that the buyer is obviously not prejudiced. In this way, the liberalism of Urban Outfitter’s clientele, alongside the store’s trendy image, overpower norms of political correctness, due to the commercialization of the hipster’s modal “ironic” thinking. The end product of hipster racism, as seen through the example of Ghettopoly, is just as damaging as displays of prejudicial sentiments by poor, right-wing Americans that the consumers of Urban Outfitters would normally be quick to fervently condemn.


Image of cover of the board game “Ghettopoly” carried by Urban Outfitters

The hipster as a modern symbol is not much more than a quirky makeover of problems that have challenged American society for years. It is a refined representation of the oppression and “bad taste” of the poor that has allowed elitism to hold hands with progressivism. It is a response from elites that embodies styles of the common people’s subcultures and cherry-picks trends without respect for their sanctity or meaning. They trivialize issues such as race in a way that puts those at the top of society in a position to liberate themselves from political correctness and justify their prejudicial actions. It is heavily implicated that this justification can only occur amongst the intellectually “superior”, while the intellectually “inferior” are labeled backwards bigots for expressing the same ideas. This dichotomy of racist versus accepting or backwards versus progressive is obviously likely to result in broad generalizations that work to either support that elites are so removed from bigotry that they’re entitled to tell offensive jokes while not being part of the problem, and that less educated people displaying similar sentiments are racists or sexists who represent all that is wrong in society. Thus, the strong and largely unanimous discomfort brought about by the initially subcultural figure of the hipster is not just the product of it questioning everyone’s sense of taste, but also of the consequential classist and racist undertones that exist within the concept of taste itself. And if you’re still not exactly convinced of the extremely political existence that hipsters possess, you should check out the German Neo-Nazi party’s recent adoption of hipster style – combining the trendiest hipster fashion and lifestyle with classic Neo-Nazi ideals, the group also differs from American hipsterdom in that it readily accepts the title of “Nipster” (Smith).


Advertisement for a Nipster T-shirt line

Works Cited

Bordieu, Pierre. “A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” (1984): 9-169. Harvard University Press. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Greif, Mark. “The Sociology of the Hipster.” New York Times. New York Times Company, 12

Nov. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

Greif, Mark. “What Was the Hipster?” New York Times, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Quart, Alissa. “The Age of Hipster Sexism.” The Cut. New York Media, 30 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Smith, Kyle. “10 Alarming, Hilarious Facts about Nazi Hipsters.” New York Post. NYP

Holdings, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

The Week Staff. “15 Urban Outfitters Controversies.” The Week. N.p., 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 16   

Nov. 2016.

Wailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” Dissent Magazine. Dissent Magazine, 20 Oct. 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.


Up, Up, and Away through Utopia

Bright colors, funky fonts, catchy music—these are the staples of modern day advertisement stunts that are aimed towards a calculated target audience. Children are the next generation of our population and possess the most malleable of minds, arguably making them the easiest and most effective group in society to manipulate. Toy advertisements and picture books inculcate deep, hidden ideological values and beliefs that are extremely subtle. To the average consumer, it is nearly impossible to recognize that we are being fed such propaganda. An equally, if not more widespread, tactical method of expressing these ideas are carried in children’s films. We are persuaded to identify with the film’s characters through their hardships and are drawn towards the visually appealing, happy endings, often times subconsciously supporting the existing social structure. As M. Keith Booker points out, “many American children’s films can be quite effective as works of art, aesthetically fascinating and potentially enthralling to young viewers” (187). The aesthetic appeal to children provides an easy way for these films to ingrain and shape “the mainstream values of our society, which are to an extent constantly in flux, continual change and innovation being a basic and inviolable tenet of consumer capitalism” (184).

Pixar’s 2009 blockbuster Up is a typical children’s film that seems innocuous at first glance, but contains hidden ideological statements and engenders desires for an alternative to the status quo. The film begins with a young boy, Carl, who stares open-mouthed at the adventures of explorer Charles Muntz flickering on the black and white screen of Movietown News, “Spotlight on Adventure.” Carl lives vicariously through his hero, pretending to overcome mountains and canyons with rocks and cracks on the sidewalk. He is consumed by his childish fantasy of growing up and becoming just like Charles, and his passion for adventure is complemented by that of his childhood friend and future wife, Ellie, an equally ambitious and imaginative dreamer. Carl promises Ellie he’ll take their future house to Paradise Falls in South America in a blimp, and they’ll explore the wilderness together there. On the surface, this childhood fantasy seems harmless, but it is rooted in imperialism. Just as the United States has continued to extend its control internationally through economic, cultural, and military imperialism, Muntz embraces the ideas of imperial conquest by going to South America to conquer and catalogue its inhabitants. These values are superimposed on Carl through his idolization of Muntz.

A young Carl is enraptured by the adventurer Charles Muntz

A young Carl is enraptured by the adventurer Charles Muntz

The film first mimics the repressive social structure of our own society by taking us through Carl and Ellie’s life together. Through the years, they build a house, open a zoo, and try to have a baby (but are not successful due to a miscarriage)—perfectly normal decisions to make as serious adults. But at the same time, their dream of becoming adventurers like Muntz and placing their house by Paradise Falls is never fulfilled. Their childhood visions gradually slip away as everyday distractions of adult life occupy their time and exhaust their savings. What happened to their fervor for adventure, for an imaginary world, that they held onto so tightly as children? The mundane tasks of life inevitably overcame this dream, a common occurrence reflected in our own lives.

Here, the movie introduces a utopian solution that appeals to us—an alternative to the nonstop work that takes over our lives. Ellie’s death catalyzes a painful transition for Carl, who believes that by letting go of their childhood fantasy, he and Ellie did not have the chance to live up to their expectations and dreams. Ellie’s death painfully reminds Carl of his broken promise, causing the fantasy to resurface. As Carl wakes up one typical morning, his bored facial expression and dreary surroundings point to the repetitiveness of his life. He eats bran cereal, cleans the house, and goes out to sit on the porch, void of any excitement or expression. The tune of “Habanera” from Carmen plays in the background, whose unheard lyrics sing of fickle love that “comes, goes, then it returns / you think you hold it fast, it flees.” This scene in particular, plays with the utopian desire to “fly away” from the passive, structured life that engulfs everyone around Carl—the construction workers, the shoppers in the city, and the window cleaner. Carl surprises everyone who only thought of him as a senile old man by doing the unexpected: he leaves this modern age and travels, figuratively, back in time to the nostalgic era of exploration and of Charles Muntz.

In our society today, capitalism has taken over our practical desires, but we still have innate impulses to do the unexpected and escape the rigidity and passivity of mass consumerism. Russell, a young Asian American boy who joins Carl in his adventure in order to earn his “Assisting the Elderly” badge, has never camped outdoors and does not even know how to build a tent despite being a Wilderness Explorer. Russell’s inexperience with the wilderness suggests our capitalist society’s detachment from nature. Matthew Arnold believed that reading about agrarian society such as poems on nature cultivates us towards the natural world that is not focused on commercialization, thus “through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow stanchly but mechanically” (Arnold 5). Similarly, when Carl decides to fly his house to a far-away land untouched by civilization, the film inspires utopian fantasies to revert back to a time when we were not entirely entrenched in commercialism. The grand depiction of thousands of colorful balloons rippling across the sky contrasts with the gray, static metropolitan society, encouraging utopian hopes and an alternative to the culture industry.

Although the audience is presented with this utopian vision of freedom through Carl and Russell’s crash-landing in South America after enduring a thunderstorm, this dream is slowly but surely deconstructed as they continue on their journey to Paradise Falls. Carl indeed fulfills his promise to his late wife when he lands his house, which he affectionately calls “Ellie,” next to Paradise Falls, but it is a very melancholy achievement. A worn-down Carl enters his house, now in shambles from the bumpy journey, and sits down in silence in the chair that once offered comfort and joy. In a desperate attempt to save the house and preserve the promise to his wife, he relinquishes the human values of family, interdependence, and collectivity by giving Kevin, the “Monster of Paradise Falls” indigenous bird that Russell effectively adopted, over to Muntz. Carl reverts to the individualistic, isolated character that he was at the start of the adventure. In our own society, capitalism prioritizes individualistic gains and tendencies, and we lose sight of communal ideals. The sense of isolation that Carl faces is reflected in us, and we are thus drawn towards the film’s utopian solution of social bonds. Carl ultimately realizes his dream of moving to Paradise Falls is unsatisfactory and worthless compared to the danger of losing his friends, and abandons his imperial fantasy.

Carl finally achieves his dream, but is more broken than before

Carl finally achieves his dream, but is more broken than before

In “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” literary critic Fredric Jameson argues: “the works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be so manipulated” (144). Ideology or utopia cannot exist without the other, for utopian solutions are needed to manipulate the audience into complacency with existing conditions. Indeed, Up initially leads the viewers to cheer for Carl’s initiative to embark on an imperialistic adventure under the cover of a utopian alternative to the culture industry. At this point, the film manipulates our desire for adventure and spontaneity in order to portray imperialism in a positive light. However, the film diverges from Jameson’s argument that “mass culture [is] a transformational work on social and political anxieties and fantasies which must then have some effective presence in the mass cultural text in order subsequently to be “managed” or “repressed” (141) when the communal ideals overcome the film’s initial support of imperialism. Not only does Carl leave his beloved house behind on Paradise Falls, the movie also portrays Muntz, an embodiment of the imperialistic spirit, as ruthless and single-minded. When Carl finally meets his hero, he learns that Muntz’s search for Kevin, the bird that he has been accused of fabricating, has driven him mad; Muntz has been killing off explorers who come to Paradise Falls, thinking they are trying to steal the elusive bird from him. The audience is supposed to root for Muntz’s demise, for he stands against Carl’s utopian values.

It is also important to note the rejection of the elementary family throughout the film, and especially after Carl embraces social bonds over his childhood dream. The elementary family consists of a man and woman who are married to each other, and their biological children. This family structure has been historically touted as bringing stability to society, especially after the advent of industrialization and early capitalism (“Traditions and Encounters”). Carl and Ellie live happy lives even though they are not able to have children, and Carl’s family ultimately consists of an old white man, an Asian American boy, a talking dog, and a South American bird. This utopian alternative to the patriarchal, monocultural idea of family is made attractive to us because Muntz, whom the film portrays as the antagonist, tries to break apart this family. The film thus reflects our own desires for social progress.


Carl’s non-elemental family

Entertainment provides both an ideology and a utopian solution in order to contrast the two, but it does not mean that the utopian values are used as a cover-up for unsettling ideology that manipulates us into obedience towards the status quo. The film stimulates our longing for social bonds and acceptance, directly opposing the pro-imperialism sentiment at the beginning of the film, which was supported by the utopian desire to rebel against the culture industry. What is even more important to remember is what actually sparked Carl’s imperialistic fantasy in the first place—the cinema. As a boy, he took in the cinema’s portrayal of the imperialistic Muntz as a righteous and patriotic adventurer who promises to regain his honor after being denounced as a fraud by bringing back the “Monster of Paradise Falls.” By actively choosing to leave behind this fantasy generated by the media, Carl refuses to let his desires be controlled by the culture industry. Instead of manipulating us to be satisfied with our current social structure, Up leaves us with an anti-culture industry stand only made possible through the utopian feelings of interpersonal relationships.



Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Oxford World’s Classics: Culture and Anarchy. Oxford, GB: OUP Oxford, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 November 2016.

Booker, M. Keith. Disney, Pixar, and the hidden messages of children’s films. ABC-CLIO, 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text, no. 1, 1979, pp. 130–148.

“Traditions and Encounters; a Brief Global History.” Reference and Research Book News 22.1 (2007) ProQuest. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.


Pictures were screenshot from DVD

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