Every summer the guitars and ukuleles appear in the garage of the cabin by the lake. She calls a tune, he asks for a brush-up on the chords, a new arrival joins the circle, and we sing. Somebody makes up a new verse. Another takes a uke solo. Yet another pulls out a harmonica and draws excited exclamations. Everyone’s involved; we even gave the young’un an egg shaker.
Down the road a teenager listens to music in his room. It makes him want to dance. It’s background for homework. It lets him tune out from his problems. He’s not musical; his descriptions might contain the words ‘catchy’ and ‘beat.’ He’s just as likely to refer to a song as an electronic file. But he can appreciate the skill and creativity it took to compose, arrange, and perform. Listening to other musicians, appreciating their contributions to the world of art, can be valuable, right?
Not entirely. When entertainment becomes a commodity it becomes oppressive. Music becomes just another consumer good, something to be bought and sold. That guy in his room is being oppressed by his own earbuds; a ‘culture industry’ is forcing sameness and passivity down his ears with every piece of entertainment it mass-produces.1 Adorno argues that any choice we think we have in popular culture is really the choice between two similar molds; the choice between two top-40 songs is as meaningless as the choice between two different parking spaces at the mall. The German word for entertainment is Unterhaltung: ‘holding under.’ The culture industry, by providing such entertainment, can take away freedom, suspend thought, and block happiness, because there are a thousand other ways to be and we don’t know what we’re missing.
Does the guy in his room get any leeway with Adorno? One might argue that some music doesn’t suspend thought and render us passive; we are actively involved, part of the music. Singer-songwriters make it easy for us to insert ourselves right into their music because they sing directly to an individual: “Baby, we found love right where we are,” “I’m yours,” “Don’t let me be lonely tonight,” “You are the only one,” “You are my only one.” The list goes on. It’s easy to feel like Ed Sheeran and James Taylor are singing only to you, and the intimacy of the genre makes you important, makes them vulnerable, makes you believe you’re seeing the real them. We are made to feel individual, but everyone is hearing the same “You are the only one;” everyone is the same individual. This is the paradox, the trick of the culture industry: they are making us feel like individuals while perpetuating uniformity. Consuming this type of music isn’t actually any better than others, singer-songwriters just try to hide it.
If there isn’t a genre that escapes the industry, then what about live performance? If passivity is to be avoided, interactive and improvisatory performances could be the alternative. They’re unique, fleeting, and full of spontaneous energy. Performances can’t be recreated, which someone could argue removes it from the culture industry’s sameness. However, we’re still passive at a live performance. The fundamental problem with performances that make them little better than recordings is the divide between—the existence of—the producer and the consumer. Performances sell us the illusion that we’re a part of the music that’s being made; we applaud every solo, we sing along, we touch hands with the singer. But really, that divide is clear as can be at a live performance. It’s a show. There’s an audience, a stage, spectators, applause; these things separate us from the music as consumers. We are just observing, being entertained, being held as a servant to the culture industry.
I am concerned with culture that cannot be industrialized; culture of which there is absolutely no way to corner it into becoming a commodity. Performances, shows, hit singles, iTunes, stages, applause—only when those are absent have we reached a free and independent culture. Such a culture erodes to the point of destruction the line between the artist and the spectator, the producer and the consumer. Music is at its most valuable when it is not a commodity, and can’t be made one. The way to achieve this is not by focusing on the ‘what’ of music, but the ‘how.’ Adorno1, and even Adorno’s critics3 concern themselves with the structure of the music itself, and seem to assume that only particular people can produce it.
On the contrary, more important is our interactions with the music and with each other. Yes, the singer-songwriters and jazz musicians sell us an illusion, but it’s the illusions of something that we can indeed have. If the industry makes us passive, then the most thoughtful and interactive music will be the most conducive to opposing it. Of course, I mean the best music is the music we make. Music is meant to be made and shared, not consumed. Active, participatory, communicative, and interactive music is impossible to commoditize and as such is outside the culture industry’s clutches. It’s not just an alternative to the industry, several qualities make it the industry’s opposite.
The culture industry suspends thought and perpetuates sameness. Folk and jazz music done right encourage thought and dialogue. When the guitars come out in the summer we listen to each other, use each other’s ideas, twist them and make them our own. Our minds are alive, anticipating and responding, interacting with the music and the circle.
Music is language;2 we must speak it and understand it in order to have any use for it. The best jazz music is a conversation:2 from Kind of Blue to Boss Tenors it’s wonderful to hear the rhythm section players communicating with each other and with the horn players. Bill Evans takes a rhythm Miles played, Jimmy Cobb latches on, they hold it for a few bars then let it go. (If someone doesn’t speak the language, they can be taught. People who ‘can’t sing’ usually just mean they forgot. Sing to an eighteen-month-old and they will more than likely sing back in the same key.)
You might think me contradictory for praising mass-produced recordings. But the purpose of listening to recordings is to observe. The tracks on Kind of Blue are all first takes; the spontaneity and creativity are palpable right from the opening bass riff of “So What.” But that’s the players. For them, the music is worthwhile because they aren’t under the hand of the industry. For us, it’s not enough to just listen, because the tracks are set in stone, able to be repeated. For us, it becomes the same as the rest unless we learn from the masters and then do it ourselves.
The essence of ‘circle music,’ including folk and jazz, can’t be captured and mass-produced. Sure, you can record people playing such music, but then it can become just as oppressive as any other music. That’s why everyone interested in music needs to play and sing and experience it themselves. The opposite of the culture industry is the campfire. If we do it ourselves we might find thought and freedom and connection in the art that is music.
1Adorno, T. & Max Horkheimer. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1944.
2Monson, I. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago, 2009.
3Witkin, W. W. Why Did Adorno Hate Jazz? Sociological Theory 18:1. Washington: 2000.
Gender may be explained down two different avenues: one as biological and the other as a social construct. Working down the latter avenue one must be more concerned with behavior rather than body parts and these behavioral standards are a direct result of the culture in which we, as individuals, live in. Often, our first exposure to gender constructs is delivered to us through everyday social interactions but more times than not, through a screen at our most malleable stage in life, childhood. Disney movies are just one example of the various types of on-screen vehicles and Disney princess movies, in particular, really drive the idea home of how a traditional male and female should behave. Some of Disney’s earlier princess movies (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937, Cinderella, 1950, and Sleeping Beauty, 1959) display the female princess to be the typical damsel-in-distress character who needs a strong male prince. Flash forward to more modern times, however, and Disney princess movies have become increasingly more progressive with the release of Mulan and, more recently, Frozen.
The “one-sex” argument claims that we are not defined by the differences in our biology, the gender category that we place ourselves into are a product of behavior and not concerned with surface differences between male and female. With that being said, the characteristics I will assume to be associated with a male figure will be: assertive, smart, and the rescuer and those that I will assume to be associated with a female figure will be: affectionate, tentative, and emotional. The confusion of genders popular culture touches upon is when a female character displays male-associated traits or vice versa.
Contrary to classic Disney princess movies, Frozen’s characters do not fall neatly into well-defined, stereotypical gender roles. Rather, Anna and Kristoff defy said gender roles and prove that gender is a spectrum and gender identification, flexible. The film begins with the introduction of the main characters in conventional gender roles: Elsa’s hyper emotions are frowned upon and concealed within the castle so as to say a woman’s tendency to overreact should be hidden, Anna wants to marry the first man she meets, which is reminiscent of older Disney movie romances. But as the movie progresses, Elsa’s, but more so, Anna’s character transforms into something that resembles gender ambiguity. Kristoff, however, begins the film feminized and remains so until the conclusion.
Anna’s transformation is one that speaks volumes to gender instability. She begins the film entranced by Hans and very much within the boundaries of a typical female figure but is ultimately revealed to be much more than just a pretty face. One of the very first character transformations we see in the film is when Anna asserts herself and decides to search for Elsa on her own despite the pleading of her then-fiancé, Hans. In the older Disney princess films, a female character is never the one who makes the long journey to save the princess, or in this case, the queen. It is always the prince who rescues the princess, never the other way round. Another instance when Anna displays an act of masculinity is when she commands Kristoff to take her up the North Mountain. She is smart in that she bribes him with goods he originally wanted to buy at the trading post and assertive when she refuses no for an answer. Anna continues her growth when she successfully assists Kristoff in fighting off a pack of wolves attacking their sled. In many instances in that particular scene, Anna is seen saving Kristoff, something completely opposite from older Disney movies or traditional male roles in general, where the male character is almost always seen saving the female. Her final moment of gender ambiguity comes when she single-handedly saves Elsa without the help of a male. Anna embodies the definition of gender instability in her ability to maintain her femininity, through her eventual love interest in Kristoff, while also embracing the masculine aspects of gender norms, through her successes in saving Elsa and her home. Anna’s transformation completes when she punches Hans after he betrays her love for him in hopes of acquiring the kingdom for his own. She sheds her initial feminine attitudes and realigns her priorities past romance, destroying stereotypes in one punch. Anna’s metamorphosis into an androgynous character is easily traced over the course of the film; but, Kristoff’s gender growth is not as traceable because he began the film feminized.
Kristoff is introduced as Anna’s guide but quickly becomes her equal and eventual love interest. Through these different stages in Anna’s journey, however, his character is consistently feminized by displaying the trait of affection. Kristoff has a strong bond with his reindeer, Sven; his only friend until Anna. In comparing this observation with older Disney movies, the prince almost always rides an animal but the animal in question is never more than just a noble stead. Kristoff defies this by caring deeply for his reindeer, playing him songs on his ukulele and sharing the occasional carrot with him. Kristoff’s femininity is further shown when he tentatively asks Anna if they may kiss forcing her to take control and kiss him first. Kristoff’s character remains constant throughout the course of the film but his character is not at all a well-defined male; his behaviors are ambiguous just as what Anna’s evolves to be.
Frozen’s progressiveness thus lies in its development of its protagonists and their subsequent behaviors. Scholars, such as Richard Dyer, argue the complete opposite, claiming that entertainment’s utopia doesn’t reside in the narratives but in its musical numbers. The musical numbers in Frozen, however, are not at all utopian in the sense that they support traditional gender roles. They are a setback in the film’s seemingly forward movement. “Love is an Open Door” is a song that sums up the love stories in most of the older Disney movies. It seems to poke fun at “love at first sight” but nonetheless describes a romance prevalent in the film subjecting Anna and Hans to the same stereotypical gender standards as historic Disney films. “Fixer Upper” is the song Kristoff’s troll family sings to him when he brings Anna home. The backwardness of this number lies in his family’s assumption that Kristoff only brings Anna home to announce their engagement. “Let it Go” is considered the breakout song of the film but actually holds some puzzling connotations. On the surface, the song seems progressive in breaking down traditional gender roles because of the independence Elsa gains by singing the song but it is actually a song about her disease. She invites the audience to realize that she abandons her kingdom on the day of her coronation, leaving them to die in the cold. These songs, although catchy in tune, do very little in terms of supporting gender instability, most of the numbers do the complete opposite and support traditional roles. Even in Disney’s Mulan, which also has a strong female lead, the musical number, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” spells out the stereotypical woman adding to the list of backward-thinking songs Disney chooses to include in its forward-thinking films. What I can say about the musical numbers in Frozen is that the characters that are seemingly trapped in the constructs the musical numbers impose on them are shown to break free based on their following behaviors; Anna realized there is no such thing as love at first sight (and thus concrete gender roles), Kristoff fights his family’s assumptions throughout the entire number, and Elsa learns to control her powers.
Some might also bring attention to the film’s physical representation of the characters, especially the aesthetic of the female characters. Both Elsa and Anna’s waistlines are unrealistically small and their eyes shown to be bigger than their wrists. Animated films “[are] not an innocent art form: nothing accidental or serendipitous occurs in animation.” Animation is a unique type of entertainment in that every part of the film must be fabricated and, as a result, controlled. Elsa and Anna’s unattainable physique is indeed a testament to their femininity but it also allows for further ambiguity in their overall gender. The film, in portraying the two sisters in this way, juxtaposes their physical femininity to their transformation into something more masculine.
The concept of gender is a delicate one as only recently have aspects of culture begun to introduce the idea of gender instability as opposed to the black and white gender roles from cultural artifacts. Gender is not biologically assigned but rather a consequence of an individual’s behaviors. Disney’s Frozen is but one example of the evolution of modern films and shows a stark difference in character portrayal from its older princess movies. Its musical numbers, although regressive, give the audience a taste of what stereotypical gender roles are and allows the characters within the numbers to break free from said stereotypes. The film concludes with two acts of heroism, both performed by the two female characters; Anna single-handedly sacrifices herself to save her sister and Elsa performs an act of true love to save Anna. Elsa’s act of heroism was particularly interesting as she broke down crying, the quintessential distressed female reaction. The film, however, spins this act of hyper emotion into something heroic so as to say the advancement of gender norms in society is one of female transformation and not male.
 Descartes, Lara; England, Dawn Elizabeth; Collier-Meek, Melissa A., Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses. 2011 (will refer to as “Descartes, 2011”)
 Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press. 1992
Igor Stravinsky, the modernist descendent of the Russian school of composition, has found himself at the heart of a cultural debate. Having been trained in composition and orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, a stalwart defender of the Russian conservatory method, Stravinsky rose to fame through his work with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, the company that premiered The Firebird and Petroushka. But it was with The Rite of Spring, premiered in 1913, that Stravinsky issued an artistic declaration. The Rite was an affront to traditional artistic standards; with its chromatic melodies placed in the extreme registers of the wind instruments in the opening passages, its repeated dissonant chords in the strings in the “Dance of the Young Girls,” and the disjointed thrashing of the final movement, it was an insult to what the typical bourgeois audience-goer would have expected at the ballet. Indeed, The Rite famously caused a riot, with audience members screaming in shock after only a view minutes; after all, turning the ballet, the most effervescent of performance art forms, into a grotesque display of a pre-civilized humanity was an insult to good taste. But The Rite did not just cause a riot in a purely social context; it encompasses, indeed instigates, a philosophical discourse regarding the nature of modernity and the political implications of artistic development.
When The Rite premiered in 1913, of course, Europe was on the cusp of World War I; within the next year, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated in Sarajevo, and the continent would systematically tumble into a war of unprecedented destruction. But as Europe witnessed the ruthless slaughter of its own young men, it also witnessed the disintegration of its social order and the dissolution of its cultural identity. As political conflicts developed between European states in the turn-of-the-century world, so to did conflicts develop in the cultural sphere: in the social realm, certainly, between the bourgeois and the proletariat, as well as in the artistic realm, between the established traditionalists and the modernists. If World War I was a battle over Europe’s political future, culture became the battleground for its identity, the realm in which a devastated European society sough to make sense of itself.
It is through the lens of this cultural battle that we must view the work of Igor Stravinsky. Central to the discussion of Stravinsky’s modernism is his 1918 work L’Histoire du Soldat. Scored for a septet of oddly-combined instruments (violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion) as well as a narrator, actors, and dancers, Stravinsky wrote L’Histoire simply to make money; it was written for a touring theatre company to be performed on a circuit of Swiss towns and villages, a sort of modernist minstrel show. The libretto, written in French by C.F. Ramuz, is based on Russian tales published by Alexander Afanasiev. The story goes like this: a soldier, on leave for a few days, encounters the devil, disguised as an old man, while marching home. The devil trades a magic book for the soldier’s fiddle, granting the soldier new wealth through his magic – but the soldier, lonely after leaving his home, soon realizes that riches do not lead to fulfillment. The soldier gets the devil drunk, steals the fiddle, and uses it to cure the princess of the land; the soldier fights the devil away by playing the violin and driving him to convulsions, and he and the princess marry. But, although he had been warned not to do it, the soldier, having been coaxed by the princess to visit his old home, is captured by the devil the moment he steps over the town line. The moral, as the narrator says during the Grand Chorale, is this: “You must not seek to add to what you have, what you once had; you have no right to share what you are with what you were.”
Though the story is nothing more than a fable, it is interesting if only for its political undertones – the Grand Chorale, in which the narrator shares this moral, becomes a platform for a monologue about the evils of greed. In doing so, as Richard Taruskin observes, the narrator issues direct moral commandments to the audience against desire; “the devil,” Taruskin writes, “triumphs not out of devilhood, but assumes the role of some sort of avenging angel exacting a just moral retribution upon the soldier’s hubris.” The story is concerned with the relationship between the victim and authority, seemingly manipulating its audience into trusting the moral regulation of the devil. But the work’s concern for the individual becomes all the more interesting when considered in terms of its aesthetic quality, for only when considered in terms of aesthetics does the relationship of the story to the music achieve its ultimate political significance.
In considering its composition, however, we are left with a major problem: the most important aspect of L’Histoire, at least that is directly relevant to its place in the modernist cultural battle, is that it does not fit neatly into any distinct musical idiom; it straddles the divide between the competing ideals of reversion to traditionalism and the rejection of tradition. This can be demonstrated most clearly through the contrasting idioms of the various movements. The Grand Chorale, after all, may as well be an exercise in neoclassicism, recalling, albeit with modern dissonances, the harmony of Bach; contrarily, however, the Dance du Diable and the Triumphal March recall the grotesque aggression of The Rite, with their use of the extreme registers of each instruments, their unrelenting dissonance, and their abandon of tradition. The idiomatic disagreement is only further confused when viewed in the context of the chronology of Stravinsky’s work: indeed, L’Histoire would be Stravinsky’s last composition before he turned to the devout neoclassicism of his Pulcinella and Oedipus Rex and away from the revolutionary modernism of The Rite. This dichotomy presents us with two different versions of Stravinsky: Stravinsky the revolutionary and Stravinsky the neoclassicist. L’Histoire gives us both.
The debate over his true artistic identity hinges on the interpretation of Stravinsky’s legitimacy as a revolutionary. As Christopher Butler notes, Stravinsky was revolutionary to the extent that he produced innovative work that revealed new possibilities for the basic techniques of his art form. This claim, however, splits into two opposing stances. The first celebrates Stravinsky’s rejection of standards of beauty in favor of modernist innovation; it paints Stravinsky as a producer of scandalous, discordant, outrageous originality. The second holds that such apparent innovation is truly a guise for a reversion to the past. This second claim is the central argument of Adorno’s scathing critique of Stravinsky in his Philosophy of New Music. Put simply, Adorno did not like Stravinsky; he found him a conformist, having succumbed to the false idea that music could be restored by reconstructing an authoritarian authenticity that recalled past stylistic procedures. The result is a regression that “replaces progress with repetition,” a failure that leaves the work devoid of life itself. This problem, to Adorno, is not relegated just to the explicitly neoclassical; on the whole, Stravinsky follows a pattern of “objectivism,” which recognizes the alienation of the individual and the negation of life by the explicit return to styles of the past, be it neoclassicism or the folkloric, to restore harmony and order. The Adornian critique holds that this objectivism, characterized by a parody of the past, transforms into an aesthetic of non-identity; as David Roberts writes, “the death dance of nonidentity wears the mask of parody.” Indeed, the essence of Adorno’s argument is concerned with Stravinsky’s liquidation of the individual. The music’s sole concern, he writes, is “its mere existence, and the concealing of the role of the subject beneath its emphatic muteness;” the subject, having been seemingly liberated through the restoration of authenticity, has actually been subjected to authoritarian conformity such as to succumb to its own annihilation.
Regarding L’Histoire du Soldat, Adorno viewed the piece as indicative of this dissolution of identity as Stravinsky’s thematic models became degraded to the commercialism of the market:
The defective conventions of L’Histoire are scars resulting from the wounds of everything which was viewed as common sense in music during the bourgeois epoch. They reveal the irreconcilable break between the subject and that which musically stood in contrast to it as an objective factor – the idiom. The former has decayed to the same level of impotence as the latter.
In this sense, this false authenticity – the liquidation of the subject posing as its own liberation – becomes the aesthetic of a modernity of the cultural market; the market appropriates an aesthetic of liberation under the guise of conformity, the art itself functioning as its own propaganda for bourgeois authority; art consumes itself while subconsciously consuming its subject. Adorno is right to be concerned with the piece’s relationship to the market. However, the central irony of his argument, by which he claims that the work’s apparent authenticity hides its liquidation of the individual, has one further implication. If Adorno is right, then L’Histoire is inescapably regressive, appealing to objectivism to find a modernism that can survive in a market that sought artistic harmony and social order. But the true irony is that Stravinsky’s revolutionary innovation is hidden within this regressive aesthetic. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, thwarted by modernist techniques, can be taken as the ironic rejection of traditional classicism, a classicism that expresses its resentment over its status as a commodity by pursuing it, parodying it, and mocking it – there is an ironic meaning to the very absence of subjectivity that Adorno targets. Adorno’s argument, manipulated by this opposite irony, flips on its axis: by subjecting his art to the confines of the market, Stravinsky places on the market a modernism that necessitates the demise of tradition. Stravinsky repurposes the aesthetic of traditionalism for his own purposes, and in doing so, he pushes us past the dichotomy of revolution against traditionalism: he at once reconciles the extremes and juxtaposes them, showing that their apparent union is a guise for their irreconcilability. When the market absorbs Stravinsky’s apparent appeal to order, it is actually told that order can no longer survive.
If we approach Stravinsky from this aesthetic viewpoint – that Stravinsky’s apparent regression is truly a parody of its own failure – then we must also reevaluate Adorno’s conception of Stravinsky’s subjection of the individual to social conformity. Stravinsky does not hide the liquidation of the individual behind its apparent liberation through order. Rather, his music mocks this very concept: it is concerned with the plight of the individual in at the modern world, a world that, according to Stravinsky, has been failed by traditionalism. The liquidation of the individual is transformed from the unintended consequence of Stravinsky’s aesthetic to its primary concern. This is the aesthetic most primarily demonstrated in L’Histoire, casting it as not just a pivotal work, but a work that defines his own modernist impulse.
Combining this aesthetic quality with the political undertones of the narration, we arrive at the fundamental significance of L’Histoire. As previously observed, the story serves to furnish the devil with the power of moral regulation; the devil becomes the authority by which the soldier’s ultimate failure is captured as just. Similarly, we have now concluded that the work’s aesthetic characteristics do demonstrate a concern for the plight of the individual. Stravinsky hides this concern in the ironic neoclassicism of the Grand Chorale, which becomes a platform for the presentation of moral authority, and then carries out the destruction of the subject in the overtly grotesque Triumphal March in the Devil, which recalls the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring. It is ultimately the moral authoritarianism of the devil that kills the subject – and in hiding the death of the individual behind the guise of the grotesque, Stravinsky stakes out a claim on his own modernism: the individual cannot survive in a world dominated by traditionalist moral authority; the subject must submit to social conformity, thus sacrificing its own individuality, in order to survive in such a world. Stravinsky’s modernism becomes a means of repurposing tradition to convey his rejection of it; it displays ironic concern for the dissolution of the subject by condemning its demise.
The advancement of art towards its own enlightenment, as David Roberts writes, is characterized by the transformation of art into “self-reflection on the level of the system, that is, the critique of art qua art.” Put in political terms, such a formulation essentially means that culture becomes a political battleground, as was the case in the divide between revolution and regression, in the years following World War I. Amidst this cultural landscape, a European society grappling with the seemingly meaningless death of a generation of soldiers, Stravinsky, despite his apparent reversion to the authority of traditional order, reveals a deep concern for the individual; the soldier in the L’Histoire, victim of the authoritarian devil, may as well be an unknown soldier, a member of the lost generation. Indeed, Stravinsky’s music express an anxiety over the significance of the individual, a concern for the victim; and in doing so, it lays a claim on its own unique philosophy of modernism.
Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973)
Christopher Butler, “Stravinsky as Modernist” in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, ed. Jonathan Cross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Modris Eksteins, Preface to Rites of Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989)
Max Paddison, “Stravinsky as Devil: Adorno’s Three Critiques” in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, ed. Jonathan Cross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 195.
David Roberts, Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 110-111.
Michael Steinberg, Program notes for Stravinsky: L’Histoire du Soldat. Last modified January 2015. https://www.sfsymphony.org
Richard Taruskin, “Histoire du Soldat: The Concept” in Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, Volume II by Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)
In spite of her mighty kick towards knocking down pre-established gender roles in a patriarchal society, Fa Mulan ultimately winds up and misses, landing right back where she started. The modern retelling of an old Chinese folktaledating back to the Northern Dynasty (Brocklebank 277), Disney’s animated movie Mulan depicts the titular character in her efforts to break free of societal roles and expectations by fighting in her injury-plagued father’s place against the invading Huns. Familial honor is a highly held virtue in Chinese society, which incites Mulan to represent her ancestors despite knowing that impersonation of a soldier is an act of treason punishable by death. Mulan was widely marketed towards its audience as a movie that shows men and women have equal possibilities of being heroic. The New York Times review claims, “Disney takes a sledgehammer to the subject of gender stereotyping in ‘Mulan’, a film that not only breaks the cross-dressing barrier but also ratchets up the violence level for children’s animation” (Maslin). Unfortunately its efforts were flawed.
Mulan perpetuates male dominance in gender binaries despite its (unsaid) promise that identity does in fact move beyond gender. Males are still held in a superior position in respect to females. Even a movie that is marketed as a heroine’s journey towards gaining acceptance by breaking inhibitory societal expectations, it fails in delegitimizing the gender binary because “male” actions- swinging a sword, providing protection for your country, being a strong soldier- are all done when characters are portrayed aesthetically male. The perpetuation is subtle, created by certain cinematic choices made by the director, editor, producer, and other high position roles in the movie-production hierarchy. In her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey convincingly describes certain cinematic codes that creates the voyeuristic gaze of a woman (Mulvey 403). We see a female only through her relation to a male. In Mulan, both certain songs (with their extremely masculinized titles and lyrics) and the subtleties in facial distinctions between genders sustain this gaze, maintaining the repressive gender stereotypes. The hidden message is Mulan can only do what she does under the guise of a man. She isn’t a true heroine, but a masculinized female hero who learns how to spit and punch like a man in order to make an impact. Despite its promise,women are not empowered in the movie. Its reality is that women have to be masculinized in order to feel and be seen as empowered.
In Mulan’s society, the differences between honorable actions done by either gender are polar opposites. Men bring honor to their family by being a soldier while women do so by marrying a man with high social status. Simply put, honor comes when men are active and when women are passive. Indeed, Mulan brings honor to her family, but does so in an atypical way. Sparked by her decision to join the army, she breaks through stereotypes and brings honor by “being manly”.
The facial differences between Ping (her male counterpart) and Mulan is astonishing. Carol Clover states, “the perceived nature of the function generates the characters that will represent it” (Clover 13). The facial characteristics that the movie displays for Ping/Mulan sustain the notion that gender is defined by predetermined functional roles. Although Mulan can be “manly”, she actually has be a man in order to do so. The aesthetic representation of certain actions and/or decisions will influence the movie’s character depiction of choice; Mulan will attempt to be “womanly”, while Ping does “manly” things. Disney’s motive is that since Mulan cannot conform to gender stereotypes, she should be displayed as a man who will be accepted in society. Disney can spin a message about being progressive but is unconsciously maintaining conservative mindsets regarding the strength of gender through its aesthetic depictions being explicitly paired with the said characters actions.
“Sex proceeds from gender, not the other way around” (Clover 13). The subject of breaking gender stereotyping does not happen because females adhere to feminine actions (like when the women are lining up to be presented to the matchmaker), and vice versa. And the females that are characteristically “un-female”, such as the matchmaker- who is extremely dominant, assertive, and commanding, unlike most women- appears man-like. She has a beard.
In Mulan, identity comes from gender. Disney’s hopes backfired because the characters specifically look their part, undermining the message regarding equal potential for being heroic in regards to gender. In the scene when Mulan describes the qualities of a women as, “quiet and demure, graceful and polite, delicate, refined, poised- punctual… something a ‘proper’ young woman should possess” (Davis 195), her feminine characteristics are extremely prominent. She has long slender fingers, an angular face, a thin waist, and narrow, slanted eyes. Pairing demeaning female characteristics with a brushed up and glossed over version of a female does not exactly sell the message that women can be empowered. Rather, it sets the tone that women are trying to assimilate themselves into a society which does not have any functional use for them, changing their outward appearance to feel more accepted. They are stand-ins and fillers that occupy space but offer little of their own.
Now compare these aesthetics to Ping, a more manly and buff version of Mulan. The perceived appearance of Ping generates his function. He has a rounder and stronger jawline, rounder eyes, and has significantly more mass than Mulan. Thus, he appears in the scenes when the security and wellbeing of China is being protected: becoming the top soldier in Shang’s class and single-handedly destroying the majority of the Hun army. He can do those things because he is a man, further corroborating that purpose is directly correlated with appearance.
For the majority of the movie, success and failure are inextricably linked to aesthetic appearance. The song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is extremely misogynistic, not only in the message it sends with its masculinized title, but the way it portrays Mulan/Ping. When Mulan fails and helplessly embarrasses herself towards the start of her training, she appears more womanly. Shang sings, “Did they send me daughters/When I asked for sons?” Her muscle structure is not defined and her shoulders droop from the apparent burdens of struggling to prove herself. A woman cannot handle the strenuous tasks of a male soldier. But after overcoming obstacles and finally proving himself, Ping’s ferocity and manliness takes over. His arms and body appear noticeably bigger, and his clenched fist displays his readiness to fight anyone who proves a challenge for him. A character’s function thus comes after his gender has been portrayed, not the other way around. Gender stereotypes are affirmed rather than being challenged.
Lisa Brocklebank deals with issues of decreased femininity of Mulan in her essay, “Disney’s ‘Mulan’—the ‘True’ Deconstructed Heroine?” She delves deeper into the ideological constructs of gender stereotypes that may or may not affect Mulan. She describes that Mulan/Ping can, “coexist harmoniously, without sacrificing one aspect to the other… Mulan is neither one thing nor the other, but everything at once. Mulan manages to construct a tale which succeeds not only in inverting but also in escaping altogether the scripted gender reality” (Brocklebank 277). Unfortunately this is not the case. Harmony cannot co-exist with repression, just as Mulan cannot exist co-harmoniously with Ping because her femininity initially has to be repressed to gain acceptance from other men. The very instance of repression undermines the possibility of identity harmony in regards to gender.
Mulan alsoreaffirms gender stereotypes because she only temporarily escapes the “scripted gender reality”. She defeats Shan-Yu while being aesthetically portrayed in the movie as an extremely talented swordswoman. But this representation does not persist through the movie’s entirety. Disney does not maintain the notion of a strong woman who subserves the breaking of stereotypes. Instead, future marriage is implied when Mulan and Shang both end up at her home. Her journey, starting from an uncomfortable woman who could not conform, to a soldier who was successful regardless of gender, brings her directly back to where she started. Disney’s experimentation with gender in relation to societal success falls back on stereotypes in the end. Contrary to popular belief, it should be deemed as a failure.
Clover, Carol. “Carrie and the Boys”. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. 3-20. Print.
Davis, M. Amy. “Disney Films 1989—2005: The ‘Eisner” Era’.Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Changing Representations of Women in Disney’s Feature Animation, 1937-2001. Indiana University Press, 2011. 169–220. Web. 17 May 2016.
Maslin, Janet. “Film Review: A Warrior, She Takes on Huns and Stereotypes”. The New York Times 19 June 1998. Web. 17 May 2016.
Mulan. Dir. Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft. Buena Vista Pictures, 1998. Netflix. Web. 15 May 2016.
“Mulan- I’ll Make A Man Out of You (FULL HD)”. Youtube. Web. 18 May 2016.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 393-404. Print.
Anyone who claims that Kanye is not an influential artist in today’s culture industry must not understand the definition of the word influential. At least in the eyes of a college-aged consumer of popular media like myself, Kanye is quite the trendsetter. He has mastered the art of appealing to the people from the beginning of his career, introducing some relatively innovative achievements when the market asks for it and playing along with current trends when the industry is stable. “Stronger”, one of his most well known early career songs, is a great example of this.The successful video stays within the comfort zone of the still-popular trend of mimicking a stereotypical Japanese anime style of film. Yet, even as a trend setter, Kanye was not the first in popularizing Japanese themes in pop culture. Such appropriation was happening well before Kanye came along. In fact, tracing the roots of using Japanese themes in popular culture traces back well into the late 1800’s.
As Koichi Iwabuchi puts it, “Japanese cultural presence tends to be culturally odorless…” (Iwabuchi), the use of Japanese culture is more present than many people, including consumers, seem to recognize. As inconspicuous Japanese culture appears, however, and although Japan may seem a “faceless economic superpower with a disproportionate lack of cultural influence upon the world… [that] has money and technologies but cannot diffuse its culture…” in actuality it has “long been exporting cultural products overseas.”(Iwabuchi) Beginning as early as the early 1900’s, around the time of the Russo-Japanese war, with artists interest in Japanese painting styles, then the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as America rebuilt its relationship with Japan, with writers and poets, and now at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the incorporation of Japanese themes has been arriving to the United States in waves that appear to correspond with the U.S’s political relationship with Japan.
The emergence of Japan-inspired art in the final decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, however, does not connect with this idea of political ties to the cultural industry as well as other eras. It is difficult to identify one major political “stepping stone” that could have lead to the emergence of the interest of Japanese themes, suggesting that perhaps social movements are driving the waves. In fact, Koichi Iwabuchi addresses this idea, pushing aside the political correlation proposal and suggesting there is a cultural-social facet that makes Japanese cultural especially attractive to artists. He writes “While the spread of Japanese media culture into the United States and Europe has been a gradual and steady phenomenon since at least the 1980s, it has intensified in the new millennium, so much so that we have recently witnessed the rise of a “cool Japan”…” (Iwabuchi) But what is it that Americans suddenly find “cool” enough to appropriate?
Through appropriating Japanese culture, the American culture industry is repurposing traditional themes in a way that satisfies needs of the industry. In the current case, it appears the U.S. appropriates the culture of Japan in appreciation and in desire to explore its multiple “cool” characteristics, notably its advanced technology. Historically Japan has been at the forefront of many technological movements, and the U.S. culture industry plays that feature up in movies and music videos, often associating robotics and exclusive technology (like cars and computers) with Japanese characters, Japanese words and/or subtitles, or even cities within Japan itself. The appreciation of technology, however, doe not arrive alone into the culture industry in the United States.
Japan has also come to be known in American for its notable polar gender roles. To many people in the U.S., male samurais have developed into topics of interest, representing astonishingly tough manly qualities. Geishas, in a similar way, have become of interest as they hold a marked role in gender relations and have had the image of their subservient roles intensified by U.S media. Both roles emphasize honor and discipline in their own unique ways. Today’s infatuation with Japanese culture shows many signs of being based in technology, but also brings up the desire to explore these gender roles. As Roland Kelts of Japanamerica puts it, “There are always some americans interested in iconic totems of Japanese culture, like the bushido samurai tradition that emphasizes honor and discipline… it is the eccentricities, spastic canniness, and libertarian fearlessness of Japan’s creators of popular culture… that are attracting the attention of Americans.”(Kelts)
The infatuation, especially in today’s music video industry, however, has become more and more problematic in the things it focuses on when appropriating. Artists exaggerate features of Japanese culture making it seem much more childish through costume and prop choice. Paired with this we often see some other Japanese themes like sakura trees or kimonos, making the childish aspects seem like a natural not re-appropriated aspect of Japanese culture. Appropriating in such a way, as excellently put by Gayle Wald, using “Such infantilizing images of Japanese women rockers are, of course, [is] merely the benign complement to a more overtly and aggressively racist neocolonial portraiture of Asian femininity”(Wald)
Take Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl music video for example. The song, about not being the type of girl who responds positively to cat calls and such, is accompanied by a music video that starts with Gwen taking a picture of a group of exclusively Japanese friends and calling them “super kawaii.” She then breaks out into song and dance, with her Japanese posse always hovering in the background. The rebellious nature of Gwen Stefani, and showing her lead a group of asian women into rebellion, juxtaposes the traditional role of what appropriated Japanese themes are usually interpreted as. Yet, even through the “empowering” of her Japanese followers, there is a heightened sense that all other women who are not represented by Gwen’s crew are subservient. Gwen is contrasted to the background group in a way that makes her appear rowdy and takes orders from no one. The Japanese girls, on the other hand, are depicted similar to each other, trying to follow their leader, Gwen.
In more recent times, we see an even more intense use of Japanese culture to reaffirm the sub-ordinance of women. Katy perry, for example, in the 2013 AMA’s, wears geisha attire as she sings about an unconditional love, thus emphasizing the role of women as caring devoted figures in male life and emphasizing the idea of geisha subservience. Even the background dancers reaffirm this idea. Continuously throughout her performance, background dancers are running up to Katy Perry, dressed in their own kimonos, completing various tasks like brining her an umbrella, and fanning her, metaphorically screaming at the audience to look at their ability to obey.
The intensity of which Japanese culture is appropriated seems to only grow from there.There is no doubt Avril Lavigne carries a pop-punk rebel persona, and her songs are often about forgetting about any institutionalized systems and breaking the rules. Unclear if she does it to thumb her nose at appropriation, she still manages to fall into the group of artists that appropriates Japanese cultures in regards to gender roles with her video to “Hello Kitty”. Epitomizing appropriation of Japanese culture in the 21st century, Avril Lavigne bounces around in a cupcake skirt through candy stores and sushi bars. Lurking in the background of nearly every shot is a squad of identical looking Japanese girls that stay quite, and serve what seems to juxtapose Avril Lavigne. Performing for the pleasure of the viewer and stays quite and obedient as traditional geishas did, it appears they are modern day Americanized standard geishas.
An understandable argument raised when thinking about the appropriation of culture in such a way is how people are to express their appreciation for other cultures? In her performance of Unconditionally, Katy Perry includes other Japanese themes, such as waves reminiscent of the “Great Wave of Kanagawa” painting, and projections of Japanese style art in the background, showing interest in other aspects of the culture. As Perry said in one interview “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it … can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane?” (Rolling Stone) It does not seem likely that these artists are appropriating Japanese culture specifically to point out the subservience of women.
Appreciating the culture, however, is a difficult task to accomplish via industry driven performance. Taking themes out of context and reapplying them to new scenarios is incredibly hard to accomplish without either making a spectacle of the foreign culture or using it to represent some other value. The Chicago Monitor, in a notably blunt post, spelled it out well what “appreciation” in pop culture has turned into, “When she [Katy Perry] abuses her societal privilege as a white woman and associates geishas with unconditional love, she reinforces the patriarchal and Orientalist idea that Asian women are passive, docile, and childlike in their servitude to men.”(Mohamed) This is not to say that appropriation is all together a terrible thing that only ultimately results in creating a false image of other culture’s value, but the fact of the matter is that it usually results in reinforcing ideas that are not meant to be represented. It is not that appropriating should be entirely avoided, but it is hard to get it right. Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, and Avril Lavigne have all expressed some interest in feminism, and yet through their appreciation they exotics Japanese culture and depict it and advocate antifeminist themes.
Adopting one theme from a new culture is ultimately tied to adopting multiple themes to make the initial incorporation of said theme more natural. We chose to include Japanese driven technology into popular culture because it is cool and historically we associate Japanese with advance technology. Naturally, we can’t adopt that single aspect of Japanese culture without expressing some other realm of Japanese culture. Through such appropriation the purpose of Japan culture in the U.S. turns into a way of reinforcing misogynistic ideology, and develop the image of Japan into a place where women are childlike and submissive. The individual aspects of culture, like gender and race, are more closely tied together than we realize. The fact of the matter is that adopting one theme from a new culture is ultimately tied to adopting multiple themes to make the adoption of said theme more natural.
I would like to thank Williams College professor Anthony Sheppard for sharing his insight of the role Japan has played in the American music industry with me.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. “‘Marketing ‘Japan’: Japanese cultural presence under a global gaze” Japanese Studies 18.2 (1996): 257-258. Online.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. “‘Marketing ‘Japan’: Japanese cultural presence under a global gaze” Japanese Studies 18.2 (1996): 256. Online.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Uses of Media Culture, Usefulness of Media Culture Studies: Beyond Brand Nationalism into Public Dialogue”. Creativity and Academic Activism: Instituting Cultural Studies. Ed.
Meaghan Morris and Mette Hjort. Hong Kong University Press, 2012. 140. Web.
Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.s. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.
Wald, Gayle. “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth”. Signs 23.3 (1998): 585–610. Web.
“The Unbreakable Katy Perry: Inside Rolling Stone’s New Issue.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 30 July 2014. Web. 15 May 2016.
Mohamed, Hanan. “Appropriating Black, Asian, and Islamic Culture for Entertainment.” The Chicago Monitor. The Chicago Monitor, 6 July 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.
James Bond is the archetypical, suave, muscular, witty hero, who many guys only dream of becoming. He saves the day, gets the girl, beats up or kills a few baddies along the way. The 2006 reboot of the Bond franchise, in Casino Royale, depicts Bond (played by Daniel Craig) as an impulsive, yet clever, assassin, who lets his actions speak louder than his words. Craig’s character is not nearly as sexed up as his Bond predecessors, but he compensates with his brawn and brutishness. This is one of many subtle, but also drastic changes that the franchise has taken in the reboot. Historically, previous Bond films have been highly sexist and materialistic, portraying Bond as a comedic, likeable guy, who always seduces a beautiful woman, half his age. In Casino Royale, the story takes a modern twist, casting the woman (Vesper Lynd) on a progression towards the dominant role, and Bond on a path towards an emasculated shell of a man. The film goes against conventional Hollywood norms, initially portraying either character in their gender’s negative stereotypical fashion, subsequently sending Vesper to ascendancy and Bond to inferiority. Bond is castrated, and Vesper washed of her womanhood.
Until we get to the heart of the film, the casino locale in Montenegro, Bond is depicted as a ruthless, cold-blooded killer with few to no redeeming values. He gets his job done by being a high-testosterone, stereotypical male with a drinking problem. The opening scene is a pursuit, Bond chasing a bomb-maker across cranes, several hundred feet in the air, smashing through walls, exhibiting his crude, brute-strength (Amacker, Moore 145). He acts before he thinks, causing a shootout at an embassy, killing a man across international borders, etc. If anything, Bond is painted as an impulsive killer—like an abusive husband, he engages in violence without thoughts of repercussions. Mark Worrell and Daniel Krier recognize that, “Craig’s Bond was emotionally-detached,” depicted as a “cold, ascetic soldierly-male” (8). They go on to explain that Craig’s Bond was more focused on physically beating his enemies, taking each victim as an end, rather than a means to an end. For the new Bond, politics were unimportant; the mission was the target. Restating what I mentioned earlier, in Casino Royale, Bond is coarse and blunt, fitting the mold of the negative stereotypical male (i.e. physically aggressive). I need not mention his alcohol addiction problem, which further typifies him as a wife-beater.
Contrastingly, Vesper is initially depicted as delicate and stereotypically feminine. She readily bends to Bond’s will, dressing in a scandalous dress, subsequently approaching Bond at the poker table, and seductively kissing him. Essentially, her major role in the first chapter at the casino is to be a trophy to show off to the rest of the room. Vesper ceases to be human, in the sense that her purpose becomes more of an objectified, material intimidation. Furthering her stereotypical feminine inferiority, when Bond goes all macho, and kills the Ugandan warlord and his accomplice (with his bare hands at that), Vesper goes into shock. She breaks down into tears, like a damsel in distress. Clearly either character fits the mold of their negative gender stereotypes. Vesper is objectified, and any attempt of hers to be something more just causes additional problems. Bond is presented as callous, physical, and impulsive, and, more often than not, it is his stubbornness that gets him into greater trouble.
Following Vesper’s break-down over the bodies of the Ugandan militants, there is some progression in gender roles. Bond showers Vesper in order to wash her blood stained skin. The scene is highly symbolic, showing Vesper washed of her womanhood. Bond, in a sense, baptizes her. By cleaning her of her “weaker feminine qualities,” Vesper becomes more pure and capable. This is not to be confused with Vesper’s progression to masculinity. On the contrary, she is stripped of her negative, feminine stereotypes. Having been washed of her “menstrual inferiority,” we immediately see a change in Vesper’s character. Bond is poisoned by the antagonist’s girlfriend, and is unable to deal with his condition before passing out. Out of nowhere, Vesper comes to the rescue, fixes the defibrillator, and saves Bond’s life. In a matter of a couple scenes, Vesper goes from helpless damsel to hero. To a certain degree there is a role reversal, wherein Bond actually becomes the dependent damsel in distress.
Bond’s progression to emasculation reaches its climax when he is symbolically castrated. Near the end of the film, Le Chiffre (the film’s antagonist) repeatedly swings a weighted, knotted rope at Bond’s manhood as Bond sits, strapped naked to a chair. The scene is very sexed up, suggestively insinuating that Bond is getting raped. Two distinct shots show Le Chiffre dangling the knotted rope between his own legs, and then laying the rope across Bond’s chest, much like a phallic symbol (Amacker, Moore 146). It becomes increasingly evident that Bond is being castrated, and therefore emasculated, when Le Chiffre makes the comment, “there will be little to identify you as a man.” Before the scene comes to a close, Le Chiffre threatens to feed Bond his manhood, an act of fellatio, utterly effeminizing whatever sense of masculinity he has left.
Vesper, again, saves the day, striking a business-like deal with Le Chiffre’s killers, offering them money in exchange for her and Bond’s lives. Bond passes out as Vesper organizes their salvation, consummating his transition to fragility, and Vesper’s transition to fearlessness and independence. The relationship between bond and Vesper continues, after Bond wakes in a hospital in Venice. It is important to note that Vesper continues to assume all dominant roles, commonly associated with men in Hollywood films. Vesper initiates sex, asserting her dominance over the fragile, weakened Bond. Bond has fallen in love, embracing emotions, which were not central to his character earlier in the film. Furthermore, Bond, having resigned from his 00 status at MI-6, realizes he cannot hold an “honest job,” because he “has no idea what an honest job is” (147). His dependence on Vesper will continue. Symbolically castrated, and without his job, which, for that matter, allows him to assert his dominance, Bond becomes reliant on Vesper to care for him. He confesses to Vesper, “I have no armor left. You’ve stripped it from me.” Disarmed, disengaged, and jobless, whereas Bond was once a symbol of power and security, he now stands as a symbol of emotion and care.
We see Bond’s changed self in his failure to save Vesper, drowning in an elevator shaft. Whereas early-on in the movie we would have thought Bond would have no problem busting open a metal gate, by the end of the film, we know his emasculated self is nowhere strong enough to save the one he loves. Furthermore, his new-found emotions further disparage his mind from the inside. Neither physically nor mentally strong, Bond is thrown into despair.
Vesper reaches her full ascendancy by deceiving Bond. She has “grown the balls” to not only cheat behind his back (i.e. have a husband without him knowing, and strike a deal without him knowing), but she also has the guts to physically take her own life. She puts herself in a metal cage, like a diver swimming with sharks, protecting herself, isolating herself from the patriarchy. Vesper maintains her independence through the end. She doesn’t, however, take on the role of a male figure. Although she adopts dominant roles and attributions, she maintains her femininity, in a more independent manner. Unlike common Hollywood gender transitions, Vesper doesn’t become brutish and manly, rather, she preserves her beauty and wit from earlier on in the film. By her end, it becomes apparent that she has reached a level of dominance, and Bond has succumbed to impotence.
The argument could be made that, contrary to my thesis, Bond bounces back and regains his manhood, and, furthermore, the film as a whole suppresses women. For the latter matter, Amacker and Moore both conclude that, “Casino Royale…does more to undermine the status of women than any of the previous incarnations of Bond” (144). Such a statement is not easy to brush off in a matter of a few hundred words, assuming that my argument thus far has not already proven it otherwise. The reality is that Bond doesn’t bounce back. Having been effeminized, in his castration he faces a large degree of penis envy. After Vesper deceives him, he feels an obligation to compensate for the loss of his endowment. Even to this extent, when Bond pursues Vesper and her clients to the Venetian mansion, he both literally and figuratively gets nailed. One of the henchmen shoots a nail into Bond from behind, in one sense of the term or another, penetrating him. Bond, further emasculated, goes into a fit of rage, attempting to make up for his lost dignity. The film closes with Bond shooting one of Vesper’s clients in a sad attempt to regain his manhood, a task he knows is undoable. Bond approaches his target clutching a large gun, a phallic object, in an erect position. Bond’s insecurity is unmistakeable. If anything, Casino Royale undermines stereotypical gender roles, particularly going against those portrayed in past 007 films.
The Bond reboot discredits the common belief that Hollywood films are patriarchal. Casino Royale portrays both genders in their negative stereotypical fashions, but then puts either gender on tracks to transcend their norms. Femininity, represented by Vesper, ascends to independence and other qualities often associated with masculinity, whereas masculinity, represented by Bond, is effeminized. It is important to note, however, that Vesper does not come to represent masculinity, rather, she comes to adopt roles and qualities that men often exercise (i.e. business transactions, cheating, deception, financial independence, sexual instigations, etc). We see character transitions, when Vesper is washed of her womanhood (that is, when Bond washes the blood from her hands), and when Bond is tortured (or symbolically castrated). The film seems to reestablish norms by breaking the attributes that are hermetically sealed with either gender. Women can still be beautiful and emotional without succumbing to dependence and frailty. Men, on the other hand, can just as easily be emasculated, or in Bond’s case, castrated.
Amacker, Anna Katherine, and Donna Ashley Moore. “’The Bitch is Dead’: Anti-Feminist Rhetoric in Casino Royale.“ James Bond in World and Popular Culture: The Films Are Not Enough. Ed. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2011. E-Book.
Worrell, Mark P., and Daniel Krier. “The Imperial Eye.” The Imperial Eye. Fact Capitalism. Web. 16 May 2016.
Everyone loves an underdog success story. There’s something attractive about a team or player that overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds. This attractiveness likely results from the “feel-good” quality that exists in most of these stories. People love uplifting stories and unsurprisingly there’s no shortage of them in Hollywood. One story that touched the hearts of people all over America was made into the Hollywood award-winning film, The Blind Side. Originally told by Michael Lewis in his bestselling book of the same name, the movie examines the rags to riches story of Michael Oher, a black football player who grew up in poverty.
Michael Oher with the Tuohys
Race plays a critical element Oher’s life story. The book and movie so elegantly portray the heroic role of the Tuohys, a wealthy white family who rescued Oher and put him on the road to success. On the surface, this heartwarming story shows the coming together of whites and blacks. The goodness of the heart triumphs over racism. Many would argue that The Blind Side celebrates how far we have come in regards to race. A rich white family in the south adopts a black boy off the side of the street. They make him feel at home, send him to school, hire tutors, give him anything he needs, and most of all love him. Who could possibly say that this is not progress? This all happened in the racist south! And now Michael Lewis (white) and film director John Lee Hancock (white) have spread the story all over the nation, so that people of all races can rejoice in the unlikely success of Michael Oher.
Audiences across America loved the Michael Oher story so much that the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In addition, Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. There are a couple of issues here. First, the Oscars are notoriously white. In 2015 and 2016, only white actors and actresses received nominations in the top four categories. Secondly, the hero of The Blind Side was not Michael Oher. Aided by Bullock’s praiseworthy performance, Leigh Anne Tuohy had unmistakably been made the hero. Seemingly a story about the coming together of black and white, it became a story about the white savior. In The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in America, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes, “Stories about whites become stories about all of us. This is how whites frame these stories symbolically, but, of course, this is not the case in reality.”The Blind Side in no way celebrates an underprivileged black boy overcoming many obstacles to achieve success in the way that it seems. According to the film, Oher could not overcome any obstacles without the help of the Tuohys. Instead, the movie uses the cover of black success to tell the story of a charitable and honorable white family.
In a review of the film the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The Blind Side is interested only in that world as an occasion for selective charity, and it is only slightly more interested in Michael’s inner life.” This illustrates racial appropriation, where whites use black culture for their own purposes. New York Times columnist David Brooks, commenting on the use of the white savior motif as a plot device in pop culture, wrote,
[The white savior motif] rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades… It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
As far as Oher is concerned, the film stripped him of any nuance or complex character qualities. Insofar as he is incapable of leading his own life and (as we shall see) playing football, he needs Leigh Anne to save him. In order for him to be saved, he needs something to be saved from. Enter racial appropriation. Had Oher been white, there is not much of a story. But a cross-racial adoption in the south is (sadly) a big deal. Hollywood likes to pat white people on the back. What better way than to show a southern white family doing the amazing deed of adopting an underprivileged black child and setting him on the path to success.
But what really makes the Michael Oher story incredible? What attracted Michael Lewis to the story in the first place? The fact that Oher became a tremendous football player! Adoptions (even cross-racial ones) happen all the time. Very rarely does a homeless kid become an All-American in college and then a Super Bowl champion in the NFL. Although the Tuohys certainly did a great service to Oher, that’s not the real story here. White Hollywood took Oher’s journey and shifted the spotlight onto the Tuohys and away from him. While the Tuohys may have provided Oher with resources and a support network, the film exaggerated if not completely fabricates the true extent to which they helped his football career.
In one telling scene from the film, Oher’s high school coach watches with frustration as he struggles in practice. The coach whispers to an assistant, “Well at least he’ll look good coming off the bus, they’ll be terrified until they realize he’s a marshmallow.” Leigh Anne, watching from the bleachers, decides that she’s had enough and boldly marches onto the field. In an incredibly corny speech, Leigh Anne tells Oher to think of his teammates as if they were his family and that he needs to protect them at all costs. As if the dopey metaphor was all he needed, on the very next play, Oher had transformed into the high school version of Jonathan Ogden. What makes even less sense is that before her speech, Oher was having no trouble stopping the defensive players from reaching the quarterback. The only issue he was having was doing it within the rules of the game. Somehow her speech not only made him an unstoppable force, but also instilled in him a nuanced knowledge of how to play left tackle.
Pointing out inconsistencies and flaws in the scene is somewhat pointless because the entire scene is wholly inaccurate to begin with. Apart from the cuteness and humor of the speech, the scene makes a hero out of Leigh Anne and a bum out of Oher. Well, it turns out (unsurprisingly) that Oher didn’t need much help from anyone, including the Tuohys when it came to football. The real Michael Oher had this to say about the film:
I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it…I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football. Whether it was S.J. moving around ketchup bottles or Leigh Anne explaining to me what blocking is about, I watched those scenes thinking, ‘No, that’s not me at all! I’ve been studying — really studying — the game since I was a kid!’
In fact it’s quite clear why the director made these decisions. In pop culture, it is common for white people to selectively incorporate elements of non-white cultures, but reconfigure them for their own purposes. In the case of The Blind Side, the success story of a black athlete was used as a means to tell the heroic and uplifting story for majority white audiences.
But if the movie depicts the whites as saviors, how can we explain the presence of the Tuohy’s racist neighbors in the film? Why does Oher’s white high school coach fail to connect with him and is portrayed as a loser? Clearly the movie paints both positive and negative pictures of white people. Hollywood movies must maintain some level of integrity and realism for people to take them seriously. That said, the evidence for racial appropriation in The Blind Side is everywhere. This film does not truly celebrate the coming together of black and white. White Hollywood simply uses that cover for its own purposes.
 Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in Contemporary America.” Michigan Sociological Review 26 (2011): 1-15.
 “that world” meaning Oher’s life before he was taken in by the Tuohy’s
 Scott, A. O. “Steamrolling Over Life’s Obstacles With Family as Cheerleaders.” The New York Times. November 19, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/movies/20blindside.html.
 Hughey, Matthew W. The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.
 NFL Hall of Fame Left Tackle who played for the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-2007
 Holmes, Linda. “Beyond ‘The Blind Side,’ Michael Oher Rewrites His Own Story.” NPR. February 8, 2011. Accessed May 16, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2011/02/08/133590180/beyond-the-blind-side-michael-oher-rewrites-his-own-story.
Richard Dyer’s essay, “Entertainment and Utopia,” discusses utopian moments in entertainment, focusing specifically on musicals. His essay details the human desire for a better world as it is reflected in joyous musical numbers. He argues that these moments occur universally within all forms of entertainment. So then, do even dystopian novels, which by definition contradict utopian values, still support Dyer’s assertion that utopian values are present in all forms of entertainment? A quote from Margaret Atwood states “within every dystopia, there’s a little utopia.” Evidence of the truthfulness of that statement can be found in the following quote from Veronica Roth, the author of the popular dystopian novel, Divergent. Roth said: “Divergent was my utopian world. I mean, that wasn’t the plan… as I began to build the world, I realized that it was my utopia.” She could recognize the utopian ideals of her own fictional world. However, her utopia may be described as dystopian, considering that the world is not as peaceful and perfect as it initially seems. For her essay entitled “The Hunger Games as Dystopian Fiction,” Rena Nyman defined: “In contrast to a utopia, an imagined perfect world, a dystopia (from Greek root dus, bad, and topos, place) is defined as an imagined world in which everything is bad. Common themes include government surveillance, poor living standards, totalitarian regimes, brainwashing, concealing of information, class dichotomies (particularly with a clear distinction and repression of the mass by the elite), police brutality, and status crimes.” (Nyman) It is common for utopias to fall short of their ideals or conceal dark secrets that would throw the once utopian society into complete chaos, dissolving into a dystopia. Although the idea of a utopian society can be briefly imagined, this society could not sustain itself due to the unpredictable nature of life. As Professor Gregory Eck reflects, “Because… utopia is rooted in theory, it will not always work. In fact, more is written about the failure and impossibility of utopia than of its success, probably because the ideal has never been reached.” (Eck) Although we desire a world free of conflict and pain, it will never actually be achieved. The innate faults in our own human nature make it impossible for us to collectively strive for the same goal, despite it being for universal peace.
In Divergent, society is divided into five factions, each centered on a different core value: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Prior to the events that take place in the novel the factions have been able to live in peace for many years as each one plays its role in society; thus successfully creating a utopian aesthetic. The faction, Abnegation, values selflessness and constantly concerns themselves with serving others. Similarly, the Amity faction values kindness and peace as they focus on farming and community. On the other hand, Dauntless are the militant protectors of the society who value bravery and fearlessness. While Amity and Dauntless hold opposing beliefs about the use of violence, both factions are necessary in order to maintain the balance. Each one has a core value which dictates its members’ roles in society. The Candor faction values honesty in all circumstances, and Erudite values knowledge; its members enjoy scholarly pursuits, such as scientific research and medicine. In the roles that the factions take on, they demonstrate the need for balance in a utopian society. However, this balance eventually collapses resulting in the deformation of the once utopia society into a dystopian society. This shift is brought upon by a conflict between Erudite and Abnegation. This initial conflict uncovers dark secrets about each one’s past and sparks a revolution.
Another issue caused by the structure of this utopian society is the requirement that everyone must commit to a single faction for the rest of their lives. 16-year-olds must decide which faction to join; they can either remain with their family in the faction in which they grew up or they can leave their family forever to learn to live in a new faction. They first take an aptitude test which is supposed to reveal their core value and therefore the faction in which they belong. But the test is not always able to decisively place someone into any one faction. These “divergent” cases are considered rare and dangerous to the order of the society because of their inability to conform. However, it would be better to consolidate all the faction values into one community, rather than dividing them. In the film, Four, an initiate trainer for the Dauntless who develops a relationship with the protagonist, Tris, tells her “I don’t want to be just one thing. I can’t be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest and kind.” Although this mentality contradicts the societal structure in the novel/movie, it aligns with the ideal of a “well-rounded” individual. Unfortunately, Divergents are hunted, instead of celebrated, for their diversity of thought, and ideology.
Also unfortunate is that the factions begin to enact changes which contradict their core values and ideals. The Dauntless manifesto says that they believe in “ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.” However, in practice, the Dauntless are redefining their definition of bravery as complete fearlessness and begin to value obedience over courage. They also fail to recognize the importance of “standing up for another.” Tris stands up for a fellow initiate in her class who was about to be punished (by being challenged not to flinch as knives are thrown at him). She takes his place and receives the punishment for him. Instead of being rewarded for her courage and selflessness, she loses “courage points” for being disobedient. As Dauntless value obedience more, Erudite learns how to manipulate this fact for their advantage. One day, Four shows Tris the loading area for deliveries and they see a few Erudite members loading boxes full of a serum that would render the Dauntless mindless, turning them into subservient slaves controlled by the will of the Erudite. The next day, all the Dauntless are injected with the serum and unknowingly begin to attack Abnegation and even kill some of their members. This is the handiwork of the Erudite leader, Jeanine Matthews, who strongly believes in the conformity of the masses to social order and she believes that Divergents are a threat because they cannot fully conform to only one faction. Her insistent, selfish ideology disrupts the balance of the utopian society and causes it to become a dystopia. Again, this shows that Utopia is unsustainable due to the effects of human pride and stubbornness, which eventually destroy it.
A final dystopian aspect of Divergent is the existence of the “Factionless.” The factionless are those who fail the mandatory initiation process and therefore must live in poverty and exile as members of the “factionless.” Only the Abnegation are willing to help and serve the factionless by providing them with food and clothing. However the Erudite accuse Abnegation of selfishly using the resources which they say are for the factionless and so, with the impending revolution, the factionless are also in danger of losing even more resources. The existence of such a marginalized, unfortunate group of people in an otherwise ideal and affluent society blemishes the utopian image and reveals the innate dystopian influences in the society.
Even before uncovering the dystopian aspects of Divergent, the people seem to hold a constant desire for improvement. While this ambition ultimately causes the destruction of the utopian society in Divergent, it is also a necessary attribute for the creation of a progressive society. The paradox of desire as both a helpful motivator for progress as well as an inhibitor to social unity and tranquility in some cases further demonstrates the need for balance in order to sustain a utopian society. The moments when the film appears the most joyous for Tris occur when she feels liberated from the rigid social system and can truly enjoy the moment she is in. Tris was born into the Abnegation faction, whose members are often mockingly called “stiffs” because they are seen as uptight and over-zealous. While she believes in the value of selflessness in an abstract way, she has always found it difficult in practice. Therefore she chooses Dauntless because she desires to have new experiences among a new group of people. She had watched the Dauntless with admiration and longing for a long time, as she wondered if she would belong better with them. Near the beginning of the film there is a cafeteria scene in which, Tris and the other initiates are lifted up to crowd surf as they smile brightly, laugh, and cheer about being Dauntless. This is one of the most joyous scenes in the film. Another joyous scene was when Tris went zip lining through the city after her team won an initiate competition. Both of these scenes demonstrate the need for spontaneity and a sense of freedom. Although the societal structure of the Divergent world did create a utopia in which everyone can live in peace and harmony, it did not create a fantasy world in which there would be no conflicts or desire for more. Despite our ability to imagine a better world, we will never be satisfied with its implementation. A perfect utopia is not possible to be obtained because of the negative aspects of human nature, which are impossible to completely erase.
Despite the obvious negative connotations of a dystopian society, it is a naturally occurring, inevitable phenomena. Dystopian elements are necessary in maintaining equilibrium in a functional and progressive society. Although this may be counterintuitive, the previous examples demonstrate the need for a balance between the negative and positive aspects in order to vary the roles that members within the society must fulfill. Also, without dystopian elements, there would be no incentive to stimulate change and progress. This would create a stagnant society without innovation or improvement. Therefore, to avoid the creation of such a banal and fruitless society, the vital necessity of dystopian elements is apparent. As Veronica Roth once said, “If you actually succeed in creating a utopia, you’ve created a world without conflict, in which everything is perfect. And if there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading!”
Divergent. Dir. Neil Burger. Summit Entertainment, 2014.
Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Only Entertainment. New York: Routledge, 1992. 271-283. Print.
Eck, Gregory. “Utopian Studies: A Guide.” Utopian Literature: A Guide. N.p., 19 Apr. 2001. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Lavoie, Dusty. “Escaping the Panopticon: Utopia, Hegemony, and Performance in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.” Utopian Studies 22.1 (2011): n. pag. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Nyman, Rena. “The Hunger Games as Dystopian Fiction.” NU Writing (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
What’s so funny about the daily lives of a bunch of miserable middle-aged employees at a low-level paper company? For 9 seasons (201 total episodes), we watched these employees at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Inc. sit at their desks, make phone calls, go to meetings, pour their coffee, and go to the bathroom. As we grew to like these characters, we watched as they got fired, transferred, or had to work on weekends. What a grim premise for a show, am I right? Yet, The Office didn’t have a morbid feel to it, more the opposite. It made us laugh time and time again. So how did the show’s creators manage to turn a miserable day at the office into a 5-time Emmy winning comedy? Let’s take a closer look at a classic scene from the show, which occurs in the episode “Stress Relief” from season 5.
I want to highlight a few important moments from this scene. It is important to note that Michael (the boss, who’s roasting everyone) stands in front of the entire office and roasts each and every one of them, while they silently sit there and give him their full attention. Despite the inappropriate nature of his verbal jabs, no one says a word, as if they’re acknowledging his correctness (or more likely signifying his power over them). At first, Michael’s victims respond with puzzled looks. Once Michael says “Stanley, you crush your wife during sex and your heart sucks. Boom! Roasted,” Stanley starts to chuckle. His laughter gradually grows louder and others around the office start to join in. Before long, nearly everyone in the office is laughing, albeit not as much as Stanley. Michael wraps up the roast by saying, “Goodnight. God bless. God bless America. And get home safe.” Now that he has finished his “speech,” notice how the office breaks into a round of applause, implying a happy ending to what started off as a nasty roast. Addressing Stanley’s outbreak of laughter, Michael says, “They say that laughter is the best medicine, so Stanley you can throw away those pills, you are cured. Actually you better hold on to the pills just in case.” We’ll come back to that later.
Stanley is not laughing at Michael, rather he is laughing at himself. Poor sexual performance and heart problems epitomize a shitty life, so once Michael brings both of these personal issues to the attention of the entire office, all Stanley can do is laugh. Andy follows suit and breaks into a somewhat nervous laughter when Michael tells him that “Cornell hates you and you’re gayer than Oscar.” By the end of the scene, it’s clear that the office workers are laughing at their own misgivings. While the Michael’s roast appears to be liberating for the office, the feel good ending to the scene comes across as phony on account of how Michael “exits the stage.”
Several aspects of the scene point to Michael being a self-interested politician of sorts instead of the “friend first, boss second” role that he intended to play (Soper). Notice the silence and attentiveness of his “friends” as he roasts them in front of the entire office. The silence signifies the vulnerability and dependency of his audience, much like that of a politician’s supporters. Look at the round of applause he receives as he walks back to his office. People will applaud anything their preferred candidate says much like is the case in this scene. Michael’s employees applaud a speech in which he publicly humiliates all of them. The connection of Michael in this scene to a politician is driven home when he concludes the roast by saying, “God bless America and get home safe.” Ending speeches with “God bless America” has become a staple of most political speeches. The implications of this connection can drastically change the viewer’s perception of the scene (and the show). As we all (hopefully) know, politicians are often manipulative and have ulterior motives. What seems to be the truth on the surface may very well be a lie or cover. Maybe we should re-examine how we think of Michael. Maybe he’s not quite the fun-loving and caring boss we always thought he was.
In an essay for the literary journal, Studies in American Humor, Kerry Soper closely analyzes Michael. It’s clear that he wants to give the impression that his role in the office is to humanize the workplace. However, Soper notes that “each party, basketball game, booze cruise, awards ceremony, casino night, fun run, or other activity that he organizes is ultimately a front for either ulterior personal motives or a bland corporate agenda.” Let’s revisit the end of the scene when everyone is smiling and applauding. Are the office workers really any happier than they were before Michael arrived? On the surface, it sure seems so, but in truth they were just embarrassed in front of their friends and co-workers for no particular reason. At the end of the day, a politician just wants to keep his supporters happy. One easy substitute for keeping them happy is to make them laugh. Laughter can work as a substitute for happiness because in the moment, it’s difficult to separate the two. In this scene, Michael the politician cleverly uses laughter as an instrument for maintaining the support and loyalty of his employees.
Michael notes that laughter is the best medicine, that it can “cure” you of your problems. In other words, laughter can help one escape from the world of pain and misery. While the characters on the show are laughing at themselves, we too from behind our television screens laugh, because we are just like Stanley the salesman, Pam the receptionist, and Kevin the accountant. Earlier I described the lives of the employees on the show; they sit at their desks, make phone calls, go to meetings, and pour coffee. These are ordinary people! Look no further than the show’s all-encompassing title, The Office. The title forms an umbrella over a majority of Americans, and a vast majority of those watching the show. We love the show because it provides an escape and temporary relief from our own miserable days at the office. As Kevin Craft of The Atlantic put it, “The Office made its audience feel better about their professional lives by showcasing a workplace with even drabber décor and more grating coworkers.” In creating The Office, the culture industry (represented by Michael in this particular scene) replaces our potential happiness with laughter and forces us to be content with that. Adorno’s claim is that although laughter temporarily disperses the pain, “it also destroys the possibility of the ever-broken promise of happiness, and hence the culture industry makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness” (Coulson).
Best friend or self-centered manipulative boss?
Looking back on that scene, this claim makes perfect sense. Pam failed out of art school. Jim is tall and skinny. Angela is tiny. Oscar is gay. Meredith looks like a man. Kevin is fat and dumb. Dwight is a suck-up. Creed has stinky breath. Andy is gayer than Oscar. While none of them may be happy, they are all afforded the right to forget (embrace may be more accurate) their misgivings temporarily through laughter. But does laughter universally destroy the possibility of finding happiness? It’s not difficult to find a couple of strong counter-examples right in central storyline of the show.
For the first few seasons of the show, Pam was engaged to Roy, an unpleasant warehouse worker. Pam’s seemingly never-ending engagement was often a subject of Michael’s jokes. Despite the stale and humorless nature of her relationship with Roy, it showed few signs of ending. During the same time period, Michael had an on again off again relationship with Jan, who worked above Michael in Corporate. Their relationship was also humorless and mostly sexual. Neither Pam nor Michael ever seemed truly content with these relationships, but consistent with the premise of the show, they accepted what they had because in theory the everyday person doesn’t have a great relationship. As we will see, laughter allowed Pam and Michael to break out of their stale relationships into much healthier ones.
Pam’s relationship with Roy didn’t prevent Jim from spending a lot of time flirting with her at her desk to avoid doing work. They team up several times to play pranks on Dwight. The laughter that they often shared soon developed into apparent feelings, but due to circumstances and other relationships, it never seemed to work out between them. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, in season 4 Jim and Pam officially start dating for the first time. Their relationship grows and they eventually become married and have kids. In this case, a love of laughter helped spark the relationship, which gave both Jim and Pam happiness.
In a similar fashion, Michael discovers that his true love is for Holly and not Jan. Unlike his relationship with Jan, Michael’s relationship with Holly revolves around jokes, impersonations, and humor. Laughter is the driving force that brings them together. Unfortunately, like with Jim and Pam, several factors, including Holly being transferred to another branch make their relationship difficult if not impossible. In the end, love wins out and the two become happily married. Both couples manage to escape the walls of the office both figuratively and literally, since all four characters eventually leave Dunder Mifflin.
So even though Adorno’s claim seems to ring true most of the time, these two relationships prove to be exceptions to the rule. An Adornian might try to explain these counter examples in the following way. Kevin Craft said, “The Office‘s characters developed, and their individual stories gradually outshone the show’s focus on survival in a corporate setting. By Season 5, the show was struggling to transition from a narrative about a listless workplace to a comedy that just happened to be set in an office.” In other words, as the seasons went on, the show got away from its original mission. According to these critics, only the first three or four seasons were truly The Office. The rest of the seasons may as well have been titled The Michael, Dwight, Jim, and Pam Show. Neither of these counter-examples took place in the first three seasons, and only occurred once the show needed its characters to have life arcs in order for the show to maintain its commercial success.
Although this point may be valid, to suggest that the show had gotten away from its main premise in later seasons would be misguided. The scene analyzed earlier in this essay (which supports Adorno’s claim) took place in season 5, well after Jim and Pam started dating. To be clear, I believe that Adorno’s claim is usually true and quite insightful. I would just suggest that the full truth is a bit more complex, and that there are exceptions to the rule.
Now that we’ve concluded that it is possible for laughter to help propel people out of their misery and lead to true happiness, I wish to make one final point. Even those lucky ones who have been “cured” by laughter (Michael, Jim, and Pam) should not throw away their pills. Just in case.
Coulson, S. “Funnier Than Unhappiness: Adorno and the Art of Laughter.” New German Critique 34, no. 1 100 (2007): 141-63. doi:10.1215/0094033x-2006- 021.
Soper, Kerry. “The Pathetic Carnival in the Cubicles: “The Office” as Meditation on the Misuses and Collapse of Traditional Comedy.” Studies in American Humor No. 19 (January 01, 2009): 83-103. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/42573564?ref=search- gateway:321de5ae147119f926c135b3b84af10b.
Chance the Rapper is a product of his Chicago heritage. Born on the South Side, his earliest musical inspiration was Kanye West, a fellow Chicago native. In fourth grade, he discovered Kanye’s College Dropout, listened to it on repeat; from then on, he knew that he had to be a rapper. Now, he has emerged as one of hip-hop’s fastest-rising stars. His 2013 opus Acid Rap has propelled him towards fame, earning him festival appearances and a spot on Saturday Night Live, the first independent artist ever to do so. But even with his rising fame, he remains tied to his Chicago roots. Chance the Rapper has a mission: to be a voice for the marginalized black communities of the South Side. He is scared for the community that raised him; “the amount of violence – gun violence specifically in Chicago, “ he says, “nobody’s doing much about it. It’s scary. I want to voice it. I want to talk about it” (Taylor). The primary vessel for Chance’s political advocacy, for his expressions of solidarity, is his music, connecting him to a long lineage of rap artists who have wrestled with, spoken for, and written about the political dilemmas facing America’s marginalized black communities.
Indeed, rap music has always been a political exercise. From it’s origins in the South Bronx of the 1970’s, rap has been a political vehicle for the disenfranchised, a counter-public sphere for a black community that had been marginalized from the cultural and political mainstream (Bonnette 12-13). Fusing the jagged edginess of jazz with the lyric power of Langston Hughes, hip-hop became the dominant medium to capture the ethos of struggle and resistance among black Americans (Henderson 310). For music to be a mode of resistance from the dominant political ideology was nothing new in black cultural history; after all, slaves songs such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd” actually functioned as coded messages for liberation and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” captured painful images of lynching (Bonnette 32). But what began as a mode of expression for the commonality of oppression in the black community emerged as a means for the explicit expression of political goals. Following its ancestry in African American culture, hip-hop’s rise in popularity coincides with the reactionary conservative politics of the Reagan-Bush years and the recessions of the late 1970’s (Henderson 318). Artists from Public Enemy and Tupac to Kanye and Kendrick have taken up the political concerns of the black community, voicing discontentment with economic oppression and political neglect and expressing the desire for liberation. Hip-hop has become a place where social barriers seek to be torn down; it is inherently motivated by the desire for social transformation. Hip-hop that takes seriously its political implications, then, has one big question to answer: what exactly is it fighting for?
If rap music is reflective of a desire for social transformation, then it must advocate, explicitly or implicitly, a certain political solution. Chance the Rapper’s “Angels,” one of his newest singles, does just that. Layered over a Motown-stlye beat and gospel-inspired backdrop, the song’s argument is clear: in a society in which the political establishment has ignored its black citizenry, rap music, its political agenda intact, is the only remaining source of hope and solidarity for the black community. Chance is not just talking about rap as a genre, however, or the black community en masse – this is a song about Chance the Rapper, through his music, personally delivering a sense of solidarity and liberation to his city, Chicago’s South Side. “I got my city doing front flips,” he begins, “while every father, mayor, rapper jump ship.” This is, in part, a direct reference to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been widely criticized for ignoring Chicago’s black community after fighting to keep video footage of the killing of black teenager Jason van Dyke by a Chicago police officer from being publicly released – indeed, Chance’s message is that the white political establishment has abandoned the concerns of Chicago’s inner city black communities. Against a political system that has disregarded its black constituents, Chance is proclaiming his own allegiance to his city – unlike other rappers, who have left their origins behind in a quest for fame; “I ain’t change my number since the seventh grade” and “I’m still at my old church,” he says, pledging his devotion to his own roots.
Moreover, Chance casts himself as a hero, the “blueprint to a real man,” for the black community’s youth – the kind of idol that Kanye once was to him. Indeed, the rapper-as-hero is the song’s protagonist. This is made abundantly clear in the music video. It opens with an image of a young black child walking through city streets; he looks up to see Chance the Rapper flying – like an angel – above the Chicago skyline. He zips through the sky as he sings the first verse, ultimately landing on the roof of a subway car – which is carrying the same young child from before – as the video shifts to a cartoon-style illustration reminiscent of DC and Marvel comic books. The chorus hits, and the people on Chance’s subway car begin to dance along. It is Chance, like a savior, that personally delivers rap music’s particular brand of liberation to the South Side. The argument is that by engaging in the solidarity of hip-hop, Chicago’s black community can achieve the kind of liberation Chance offers. When Chance states in the chorus “I got angels all around me,” he is presenting a personal promise of hope, offering that his music can provide a sense of liberation in Chicago’s black community – especially for the young boy who, it seems, may as well be the young Chancellor Bennett. “Angles,” then, becomes an optimistic promise of hope for the black community – much like Chance’s “Sunday Candy,” a song about the importance of going to church, places of family and community, on Sundays.
But in offering liberation, Chance’s music must explain how it plans to do so – by what means and towards what ends the people of the South Side can transform their social circumstances. The answer lies in the music video’s replacement of traditionally white cultural icons with black characters. Indeed, the song casts Chance, a black man, as an angel – and in the traditional cultural notion of this religious allegory, black angels cannot exist. The realm of the heavenly is nearly uniformly portrayed in popular media as a white paradise, to the extent that exceptions to the rule must have serious implications as an alternative; in this case, the music video is presenting a savior, through a religious allegory, that is black rather than white. It does the same by turning Chance into a superhero, a role that through its various incarnations – Batman, Superman, and the like – has been uniformly reserved for white people. It is these dissident characterizations, the black angel and the black superhero, that deliver the promise of liberation to the people on the subway car – all of whom are black. These portrayals of black characters in traditionally white roles is fundamental to Chance’s offer of liberation. The political agenda it advocates depends on the replacement of society’s normative authoritarian whiteness with black characters; liberation, it argues, cannot be achieved in a social and cultural framework dominated by whiteness. Rather, for a community that has been abandoned by a white political establishment, liberation can only be achieved through distinctly black social and political systems. “Angels,” ultimately, is a song about the political agenda of black nationalism, the cultural and political independence of black Americans (Bonnette 54). And if we can tie this to a tangible political solution, we could say this: it imagines a distinctly black polity on the South Side of Chicago.
There is indeed a historical trend of hip hop artists promoting the black nationalist ideology. After all, the immediate predecessor of and primary inspiration for early hip-hop was the Black Arts Movement, which had as its primary goal the creation of an Afrocentric culture as a means of liberation; it was essentially an artistic representation of the political agendas of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (Henderson 315). With Public Enemy, one of rap’s earliest political advocates, black nationalism became central to hip-hop’s cultural identity. With “Shut Em Down” and “Can’t Truss It,” Public Enemy conveyed an alternative to the popular models of integrationist politics conveyed by the white media and Martin Luther King, which, as Errol Henderson argues, constrained thought and analysis on models of liberation (Henderson 327-328). Nas and Tupac later took up this political agenda; in “Thug’s Mansion,” for example, a verse from the late Tupac is explicitly utopian, presenting a black alternative to heaven. And today, as America continues to see its black population subjected to police violence and economic oppression, the black nationalist strands of Public Enemy have resurfaced in hip-hop’s cultural sphere, with Kendrick Lamar and Kayne West, current icons of hip-hop culture, both addressing the oppression of African-Americans and advocating racial solidarity.
Indeed, pop culture, and hip-hop specifically, has often been a matter of envisioning a utopian society, in which, by addressing a political problem and advocating a solution, it advocates a political agenda. This utopian vision, however, can be indicative of varying strands of political thought. In rap and hip-hop, artists have often advocated liberation by representations of the black nationalist ideology – whether explicitly in the lyrics or implicitly in the song’s representations of black nationalist attitudes of self-reliance of solidarity (Bonnette 58). Chance’s “Angels” may not present the black nationalist ideology as explicitly as, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” an anthem of solidarity from To Pimp a Butterfly, or Beyonce’s “Formation,” which makes explicit references to Malcolm X in the context of America’s police brutality epidemic. But through its vision of a black nationalist utopia, it’s implicit advocacy of distinctly black political and social structures, “Angels” presents the attitudes of black nationalism as the solution to the politics of racial oppression. At the end of the music video, Chance dances on the streets of Chicago along with a group of black dancers; the video concludes with the same young child it showcased in the opening looking up at the Chicago skyline. The only way that the black community can tangibly claim their city, it argues, is through the attitudes and policies of black nationalism. This is a song not just about solidarity and liberation, but about achieving those ends by the means of radical political change.
Bonnette, Lakeyta M., Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
Henderson, Errol A.. 1996. “Black Nationalism and Rap Music”. Journal of Black Studies 26 (3). Sage Publications, Inc.: 308–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 2784825.
Malone, Christopher and Martinez, Jr., George, “The Organic Globalizer” in Hip Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture, ed. Christopher Malone and George Martinez, Jr., 1-17. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Taylor, John, “Chance the Rapper Drops Acid,” Interview Magazine, April 30, 2013, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.interviewmagazine.com/music/chance- the-rapper-acid-rap/#_