A “Problem Like Maria”? Maybe Just the Opposite

Cultural theorists have taken interest in an approach to an understanding of gender that deemphasizes evolutionary theory. Rather than tracing gender and sexuality to biological features, a more recent approach places culture at the crux of what dictates the social roles we adopt as gender. What counts as man and woman is mutable because it is a social construct. The culture around us informs our perception and internalization of gender identity. Shouldn’t we try to understand the culture that constructs gender – such a central component for most people’s identity?

Gender is not stable in The Sound of Music. Gender ambiguity is conveyed through the gender scripts of characters, camera shots and editing style, and audience identification with various characters. The characters are recognizable on a gender spectrum, and not fixed in traditional gender roles. The main character – Maria – deviates from a traditional gender script in her independent and stubborn behavior, but still displays a warm, maternal instinct. She cannot be “tamed” by the Church – nuns at her convent commiserate about how to “solve a problem like Maria” – her unpredictable free spirit does not belong in the abbey.

Camera shots and editing style further blur gender lines. Laura Mulvey argues that controlled camera shots force audiences to view the world through an exclusively male perspective. However, in The Sound of Music, camera shots and editing do not rigidly occupy a man’s perspective. Stacy Wolf, in her book A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, posits that the camera work “does not eschew the [male] gaze but rather opens it to variously gendered gazes and then turns it around” (Wolf, 229). Camera shots first force all characters and audience members to scrutinize Maria, but eventually switch this editing style. By the end of the movie, characters and audience members are not directing their gaze upon Maria, but sympathize, admire, and identify with her.

Since the camera jumps around to different perspectives; so in turn does audience identification with characters. An interviewee for Wolf’s book explains her own flexible cross-identification: “In some ways I identified with [Maria] but she was too femme for me, and in some ways I wanted to be the Captain and sweep her off her feet. [Maria] was totally freaked out by her feelings and didn’t know it. There [is] part of me that [is] freaked out by any sexual feelings at all too” (Wolf, 216). Gender representations in The Sound of Music are flexible and ambiguous – but this ambiguity takes on different forms. What is determinant about the ambiguity? Examining our attitudes towards the various types of ambiguous gender representations reveals our deeper anxieties about gender.

The Captain’s gendered transformation is one of the most compelling and heart warming of the movie. Our first introduction to the Captain conveys him as too rigidly male: he’s cold, strict, powerful, and emotionally incompetent. He carries his position as a Captain – a traditionally masculine role – over to his personal life and treats his children as if they were officers in his rank. Watching the Captain summon his children using a whistle is distinctly uncomfortable – for the other characters – Maria and the housekeeper – as well as the audience members because we want him to be more emotionally warm and receptive. Our discomfort with his overt masculinity makes his transformation so easy to root for. Watching the Captain open himself up to romantic and familial love – and start singing again – is one of the joys of the movie.

However, his character development is layered and complex: there was a failed and a successful attempt to transform him. The Baroness – his first romantic interest – fails to touch his heart, while Maria succeeds. Audience members might not pay much attention to the Baroness – Elsa – because the characters and audience are so obviously cheering for Maria and the Captain’s love story. But why are our attitudes towards the two women so different?

The two female characters both lack traditional femininity, but in different ways and to different extents. Elsa is described by Wolf as the “quintessential vampire lesbian” – she is literally the palest character, and her voice and air are cold and raspy. Another distinctly uncomfortable scene comes again from an inability to interact with children: Elsa’s inherent and obvious discomfort with her step-children-to-be cannot help but make you cringe. Her idea of parenting is sending the seven children off to boarding school so she does not have to deal with them. In contrast, Maria’s diminished femininity is represented through her short hair cut, and her spunky – maybe even “wild” – impulses to run around outside. The first scenes of the movie demonstrate all the ways Maria is not “how she should be.” The convent – a symbol of female purity – cannot tame Maria’s free spirit. However, Maria’s maternal warmth is evident; watching her relationship with the Von Trapp children develop make for the most jovial and pleasing scenes. Maria understands exactly what the children need, and they learn to love her as much as she learns to love them. Although both women deviate from traditional femininity, the characters in the movie and the audience members fondly receive the female character that does not deviate from maternal characteristics, thus revealing our dismissal of a woman who rejects motherhood.

The other main distinction between the two women is their class and status. Elsa is marked as wealthy and sophisticated – yet again explained by her “vampire” aristocratic qualities. Her title – the Baroness – is a hereditary title of honor; she is comfortable on the arm of the Captain as she confidently navigates large social gatherings with important Austrian figures. While the Baroness is seen smoking – a sign of sophistication at the time – in her elegantly styled clothing, Maria is seen in her humble clothes made out of drapes gallivanting around outside. She is in her element climbing trees and singing in the streets; she has no prominent status or title and could not care less. Elsa has wealth and status independent of the Captain, while Maria has neither. By linking money and status to motherhood, the movie gets us to dislike the more extreme feminine deviation that Elsa embodies. The movie literally excludes the Baroness from the joy of the movie by never having her sing.

Anne McLeer explains why we reject the Baroness’ wealth and status: Maria is not a threat to the male breadwinner as the Baroness is, which reveals our deeper anxiety (McLeer, 87). We celebrate Maria because her short haircut and adventurous personality do not actually disturb the social order in the way the Baroness’ money and status would. We cheer for the love interest that we know can eventually conform to the gender social hierarchy. And what relies on the gender hierarchy remaining in tact? Man’s power and control. Maria’s maternal instinct and humble status allows the Captain to remain in the public sphere while there is clearly no place for a non-maternal, wealthy woman.

Maria stirs up some trouble, but ultimately stabilizes the social order. She finds what she was looking for – a husband and motherhood – and settles down. She sings a duet with her new step-daughter Liesal about being a woman and falling in love, singing “low and behold you’re someone’s wife, and you belong to him.” The “problem” that Maria was once perceived as is resolved, and the nuclear family is restored because she now belongs to her husband. Therefore, the emotional transformation of the Captain – into a more loving and compassionate father and husband – does not come at the expense of him losing power or control. This inadvertently appeases the anxiety of audiences – a man can become more emotional without risking his power and control, as long as there are women to be mothers and keep the nuclear family in tact.

One might point out that the gender ambiguity in the movie is insignificant (and not importantly existent) if the gender hierarchy survives. How unstable can gender be if the hierarchy remains stable? And furthermore, the character most recognizably on a gender spectrum – the Baroness – is cast off in the end anyways; gender is stable for the central characters, and the unstable gender is literally removed. The ending’s reinforcement of traditional gender roles does not refute the movie’s gender confusion – they do not come at the expense of one another – rather, they work together to make the movie so popular. The gender hierarchy had to be temporarily in danger and unstable in order to be restored – the heartwarming satisfaction we feel at the end – as well as the Oscar for Best Picture – is contingent on the resolution of the gender confusion. The gender deviation – albeit subtle at times – makes us feel okay with the fact that we are accepting and celebrating the submission of a woman to the patriarchy. The ending is that much more satisfying because our anxiety about a dismantled gender hierarchy was appeased.

Works Cited:

Wolf, Stacy Ellen. A Problem like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2002. Print.

Mcleer, Anne. “Practical Perfection? The Nanny Negotiates Gender, Class, and Family Contradictions in 1960s Popular Culture.” NWSA Journal14.2 (2002): 80-101. JSTOR. Web. 18 May 2016.

Laughter: The World’s Worst Medicine?

We have all been told that laughter can be the best medicine. Researchers have connected laughter with a physical response that significantly improves your mood, and have concluded that if we laugh more, we’ll be happier. But the research can also be interpreted to support the opposite claim. Laughter cheats happiness because it temporarily tricks your body into thinking you are happy; it is a vehicle that enables you to avoid confronting pain and suffering. Adorno claims that the mass production of consumer culture “replaces pain, which is present in ecstasy no less than in asceticism, with jovial denial. Its supreme law is that its consumers shall at no price be given what they desire: they must laugh and be content with laughter.” Adorno’s claim is devastating. Laughter – what we take as an outward expression of happiness – actually indicates unhappiness. What does this mean for those of us who have laughed – as I presume many of us have – at least five times today, and expect to laugh at least five times tomorrow?

Laughter and misery can converge in the form of stand up comedy. Comedians utilize their ability to reach a wide audience to present social commentary, drawing on historic and contemporary social patterns and inequality for material. Dave Chappelle’s famous comedic commentary on racial and gender inequality in America repositions the interplay between laughter and misery: he tries to use laughter to attack suffering head on. What does it mean to laugh at a joke rooted in misery and unhappiness – both for our society and our own personal happiness?

In his stand-up routine “Killing Me Softly,” the audience’s laughter validates the truth to Chappelle’s social commentary, acknowledging the general unhappiness present in our society. During one bit, Chappelle describes how his white friend has no fear of the police – and has even asked a policeman for directions while completely intoxicated – while Chappelle hides out of fear of persecution. The audience laughs because they can, in some capacity, imagine this happening; we understand that racial inequality manifests in police treatment of civilians, and we laugh. Our laughter exposes Chappelle’s commentary as rooted in some real reality – if the joke is so out of left field that it is incomprehensible, we wouldn’t laugh. So what moves us to respond to this commentary by laughing? If we are laughing at an expression of unhappiness and pain, then this laughter cannot be an expression of happiness. Can it be possible that we are actually deriving pleasure from suffering and misery?

John Limon offers a different reason for why we laugh at pain in his book “Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America.” He argues that the art of stand-up revolves around the abject, or the incorrigible parts of our identities that strain our sense of self. However, another layer of abjection emerges from his analysis: Limon describes laughter as the “social equivalent to pain” because it minimizes the weight of your abjection. Laughter can temporarily relieve your incongruous understanding of yourself, or your desire to rid yourself of the role in your life that you believe has become your only character.[1] In other words, comedy and laughter – by revolving on the subject of the abject – abjects, or casts off, pain. Furthermore, “the specific benefit of laughter is obliviousness. In this respect, laughter has a strange intimacy with pain…the use of laughter to combat disease must have something to do with the capacity of pain and humor for creating exclusive, hence mutually exclusive, worlds.”[2] Humor and pain are spheres that push each other away – so using humor (which we are inclined to do because it feels better than pain) – keeps pain at a distance.

The argument that laughter pushes pain away does not necessarily place laughter in a negative context – trading laughter for pain seems like an obviously easy trade to make. However, laughter in the context of stand-up comedy and social commentary has negative implications because, as Limon explicitly says, it makes us oblivious; laughter allows us to brush away specific ideas that are too important to ignore. It allows us to push away pain that cannot just be pushed away because it is so deeply systemic and important to understanding the individuals and communities of our society. The pain and suffering that Chappelle draws on for material should not be ignored because it the pain of ourselves and the pain we feel for others.

So how does humor distance us from our pain and what implications does this have for our happiness? In their research entitled “Humor Theories and the Physiological Benefits of Laughter,” Julia Wilkins and Amy Janel Eisenbraun explore the physiological basis of the humor theory – which can be broken down into three main segments: the relief theory (humor is outlet for tension in order to provide relief), incongruity theory (laughter from contradictions between expectations and experiences), and the superiority theory (laughter derived from sense of supremacy over others).[3] Their research supports the relief theory and suggests that one of the main reasons we value humor is for its physiological relief of tension: laughter is a social coping mechanism that allows us to distance ourselves from pain and unease.

Stand-up comedy has many moving parts: the comedian on stage, the audience comprised of individuals, and future viewers. Laughter in the context of stand-up is social. Dave Chappelle described a situation about being brought “to the ghetto by a cab driver” and finding himself in the middle of a drug deal. I (watching on a computer), along with the audience, laughed at this segment, even though I have definitely never been in that situation, and I would guess other audience members could also not explicitly relate. The joke creates a divide between those who share this experience with Chappelle and those who don’t. I found myself laughing because the joke repositioned me in relation to Chappelle and other audience members: I was made aware that my privilege has kept me out of this situation, but that the same could not be said for Chappelle, or likely other audience members. The joke exposes a division of experiences and privilege, which creates tension. Each audience member may each be partaking in complex laughter for different reasons, but we are laugh together in order to release tension.

Laughter can also distance us from pain felt by our society by marginalizing our role in the specific issue of the social commentary. During his routine, Chappelle often switches from playing caricatures of stereotypical black and white men. The humor theory’s third facet – the theory of superiority – would suggest that audiences laugh at his attempt to satirize a classically racist white male out of a sense of superiority. The racism portrayed seems so explicit that it seems impossible to fathom acting that way yourself. The group laughter denotes Chappelle’s portrayal of racism as ridiculous – we laugh because we think it’s just an exaggeration, and hold ourselves to a higher moral standing than the actions and attitudes of the caricature. We believe that racism as Chappelle portrays it is not a real issue for us because we are above it. The distance between us and the reality of suffering grows.

In this sense, humor positions negative situations in a more positive perspective, and thus it also enables us to hide from the truth of the social commentary. Although comedians like Chappelle try to utilize the lightheartedness and inclusivity of comedy as a platform to address important social issues, comedy actually pads the issue because we as a society are not ready to just address them head on. In the police-officer routine mentioned above, Chappelle says with a straight face, “we, as black people, have very legitimate reasons to fear the police.” Cue audience laughter. The cold and simple truth – sandwiched in the context of a stand-up comedy routine – produced laughter; if the statement had been delivered in a different arena, it would be considered far from funny. Laughter takes away the sting and discomfort of seeing the truth in plain sight because the truth.

Another avenue to humor and pain is asking what would happen if we did not laugh. If we don’t laugh at the joke that satirizes racism – if the room just has an air of solemn silence – then the weight of that joke and it’s roots in real suffering crash down on us. The realness of the issue hits hard and fast…unless we laugh. Our laughter instead reduces the heaviness, acknowledging the situation as “not that bad” – we detach ourselves from the responsibility of actually trying to do something about changing the issue. Even if we were ready to see the truth of the joke, laughter enables complacency in the face of social inequality. And so it becomes even more evidently clear: laughter – even as a means of attacking pain straight on – cheats us out of happiness by distancing us from our pain and enabling us to not put in the work to make ourselves happy.

But we never have to face these truths head on because we have laughter. Chappelle seemed to come face to face with this realization when he decided to cancel his show Chappelle’s Show in 2005, during the peak of its success. He realized that his show – and caricatures of black stereotypes – gave audiences permission to laugh at real suffering. He revealed on Oprah that he felt like “some people understood exactly what he was trying to say with his racially charged comedy…while others got the wrong idea.”[4] When he puts a line or joke in his show, it is immediately released into the public hands; using humor for social commentary can have effects out of the comedian’s control. The joke or caricature can be taken out of the context of the comedian’s greater social commentary and lose its greater significance. It becomes relegated to the comedic realm with very little chance of having any real agency over social change. The very real suffering that served as the basis of the joke is marginalized and allows people to be complacent about the misery.

Comedy has become a socially acceptable platform to present grievances with social orders and hierarchies; but why can’t an explicitly bold and polite presentation of social commentary be just as acceptable? Sure – it is tense when someone comes out critiquing and exposing privilege – but maybe if we resisted the (natural) urge to diffuse the tension and just sat with it, we could actually be moved to make changes. Now seeing that Adorno’s arugment holds truth, are we going to remain content with laughter as a consolation prize for happiness? Perhaps we prefer the immediate (physiological and psychological) gratification of laughter – and pushing pain away – over putting in the effort and hard work it takes to reconstruct and initiate social change. So, are you ready to give up laughter for the sake of a life worth living – for yourself and generations to come?



Works Cited

Limon, John. Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

Wilkins, Julia, and Amy Janel Eisenbraun. “Humor Theories and the Physiological Benefits of Laughter.” Holistic Nursing Practice 23.6 (2009): 349-54. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

“Chappelle’s Story.” Oprah.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Chappelles-Story#ixzz46WSC4qTH
















[1] Limon, John. Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

[2] Ibid, 104.

[3] Wilkins, Julia, and Amy Janel Eisenbraun. “Humor Theories and the Physiological Benefits of Laughter.” Holistic Nursing Practice 23.6 (2009): 349-54. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

[4] “Chappelle’s Story.” Oprah.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly…Or Maybe Not

Our most prized possessions are our identities. Whether we know it or not, we treasure the ability to understand and define who we are, and how we relate to other people. So what happens when a threat is posed to our identity, to what we think makes us unique? Cultural theorist Theodor Adorno posits that since industrial society started mass-producing culture, art – valued for being an outlet of individual creativity – is in danger of becoming all the same. The sameness does not stop at art – the industrial production of culture for mass-public consumption indicates that we, as individual as we might feel, are just part of the mass consumers, all conforming to standard molds of taste and interests. So we’re now faced with the depressing thought that the culture industry is churning out mind-numbing entertainment, enabling us to not think too hard for ourselves and just go along with everyone else. But if you look closely enough, a glimmer of hope can be found in art that manages to present an alternative to the monotony.

Diane Arbus, a self-proclaimed “photographer of freaks,” presents us with art featuring people on the fringe of society exposing and embracing their “abnormalities.” Skeptics of cultural ingenuity (and believers of cultural sameness) might ask: isn’t she commercializing and exploiting people with physical abnormalities? What makes her work different from Freak Shows common in the 19th century or American Horror Story: Freak Show – culture that draws on and exhibits “biological rarities?”[1] Arbus was met with disgust when her work first came out – people could not understand why she chose to capture ugliness (many refused to even call it art). Reception of her work has drastically changed and is now widely revered for giving a voice to underrepresented people and outcasts. But this same claim could also be made of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Arbus’ work goes deeper than just exhibiting striking abnormalities like Freak Shows, or even breaking down the stereotypes and boundaries of “normal” like American Horror Story: Freak Show. Her photographs force viewers to confront their own anxieties about how others perceive them and examine their own happiness and paths of existence. Arbus’ art shares real stories – the stories of her subjects, of herself the photographer, and of any view who engages with it. Her work is not broadcast across the country at a scheduled time every week, but if you do happen upon her subtle art you will be rewarded with an alternative to the sameness of entertainment.

"A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx" N.Y. 1970

In an optimistic and most positive assessment, American Horror Story: Freak Show is like any piece of popular art aiming to break down the stereotypes of an outcast group. The show details the lives of a group of “freaks” trying to stay relevant in the dying Freak Show industry. The ostracized characters because of their physical differences and who are not immediately relatable – but crafted with dimensions to identify with. Storylines are interwoven with dramatic human emotions that tug at your heart strings: you root for the “freak” and “non-freak” who fall in love; you empathize with freaks learning to love and embrace who they are. Boundaries and associations of the label “freak” are broken down by a character that is outwardly and physically “normal” – and has led an economically and socially privileged life – but has clear psychological “freakishness” and disadvantages. The line that distinguishes “freaks” from “non-freaks” is even further blurred in our minds.

While American Horror Story: Freak Show redefines normal and promotes tolerance, it engages you with characters whose realities are evidently distant from your own. You might temporarily lose sight of this distance as you sit enraptured for sixty minutes, but are abruptly brought back to reality and left sitting in front of a screen. Any real emotional investment you had7 in the story has suddenly dissipated. And this viewing experience is probably just what you wanted from the show. It evoked exciting and fearful and dramatic emotions for sixty minutes at the end of your day. The word “entertainment” in German translates literally to “underholding,” or “what holds you under” – the show has held you under its spell for the perfect amount of time to “relax”, and then releases you back to your “real life”. You might establish a connection with the storyline and characters, but it is a detached connection at best.

And this is where we see Arbus’ work diverging from commercialized “photography of freaks” – she has crafted a story that cannot just be turned off and release you back to reality because it is reality – the reality of the actual subjects, the reality of the photographer behind the camera, and the reality of you – the viewer.

Arbus’ work and American Horror Story: Freak Show are different manifestations of art in their intended purpose and end product. The writers and directors of American Horror Story: Freak Show create characters for mass audiences to connect with and storylines to increase viewership; Arbus’ work portrays real people and their stories. Arbus does not view her art as the end in itself – the subject is more important than the actual photograph – and the experience of connecting with her subjects is in a sense the art. In some of her most famous works such as “A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, N.Y. 1970,” or “A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966,” subjects reported one of the most striking aspects of Arbus’ craft was how she invited and expected her subjects to get to know her in the vulnerable way she was getting to know them. Arbus firmly believed that she and her camera were temporary guests entering the lives of her subjects: “‘I work from awkwardness,’ she said. ‘By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ That arrangement is about humility: you don’t change the subject, the subject changes you.”[2] She acknowledged that she was entering existing lives and that those lives existed independently of her art. In American Horror Story: Freak Show, the story and the characters – and our attachments – are contained and bound to the art itself. The “realness” of engagement with the show ends not far from where it began. Arbus’ art rests on the premise of natural, empathic, genuine human connection and interaction. When you can have that, do you even need mind-numbing entertainment?

A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, 1966.

Her attitude towards her art allowed her to access her audience in a unique way because it begs viewers to confront their personal insecurities and fears. Arbus proposed a theory of the “gap between intention and effect” –her photography makes viewers consider the gap between what we want people to see and what cannot helped but be seen by others[3]. She made her art with the intention of advancing her subjects’ and audience’s understanding of themselves and the way they relate to others. Reception of her work also illuminates fears that our society has: expressed discomfort exposes layers of anxieties about our own freakishness and abnormalities, as well as the discomfort we feel from seeing someone else so exposed and vulnerable. Sometimes viewing her photographs feels unnatural – like you’re looking into a window of someone’s life that you shouldn’t be, and that reaction stems from our inclination to push back and close the door on unconventional intimacy and vulnerability.

Child with a toy Hand Grenade in Central Park" N.Y.C. 1960.

American Horror Story: Freak Show and Arbus’ photography demonstrate common interpretations and cultural value. It is very possible that for some shared viewers, each piece of art achieve the same effect. There are probably people who might not think twice about what a photograph of “a giant with his parents” has to offer them. But in the midst of the cultural industry infiltrating our minds with sameness, we have to take advantage of the genuine art that is simply commenting on the basic human condition. So while this is on one hand may seem like a love letter for Arbus’ work, it is a call to take Arbus legacy in stride. She understood that the art itself was a merely closing the distance between us and the people we share this world with.

[1] “Freak Shows.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

[2] Kim, Eric. “11 Lessons Diane Arbus Can Teach You About Street Photography.” N.p., 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

[3] “The Photography of Diane Arbus.” The Inkling The Photography of Diane Arbus Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.us/