Monthly Archives: October 2017

The ‘Burbs: the self-atonement of racism

Nothing depicts the American Dream quite like green lawns, white picket fences, and white neighbors. This depiction, for many people, seems like the natural progression of American Society yet we are still recovering from the consequences of this abnormal story. The story of suburbanization and housing is the story of Americans; I Americans and Americans of color. This story is still being determined; through the present distribution of subsidized housing, neighborhood funding of schools, and zoning laws that disproportionately expose communities of color and low-income white folks to harmful toxins. Depending on where you are positioned in the social hierarchy of America based on race, class, gender, and sexuality, your take on each chapter of this story is different from those of another position. For some, the struggle for decent housing is still pending while for others the “good ol’ days” seem to be gone. Enter The ‘Burbs, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Joe Dante, showing the last great strides Anglo-Americans took to preserve their luscious green lawns, as well as their rising property values from, Cannibal doctors? If you follow me through this, I’ll hopefully show you how a seemingly heart-warming film about an average Joe, or Ray Peterson for this matter, protecting his neighborhood from strange new cannibal neighbors is actually a self-atonement for the mistreatment of non-Anglo’s in suburbia during the 60’s and 70’s.  Yes, the 60’s and 70’s, of the 20th century, of course, meaning the era when your parents or grandparents were either trying to move into suburbia or trying to keep people out. And, Yes Tom Hanks, the guy we know and love from movies like Forest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and The Terminal.

The Suburbs, I think, can be analyzed as the last ‘great’ struggle by the Anglo-Americans to maintain their socialized foothold in wealth and racial superiority. I’m not going to argue that this is the only method used, as aspects of white supremacy have, and still manifest itself through the prison industrial complex, school to prison pipeline, food apartheid and many, many more issues. Instead, I am arguing that suburbanization was based on previously conceived frameworks of racism in so far as it also created new foundations for massive disparities in housing, schooling, food, and health access that moved the realm of racism into a seemingly ‘non-racial’ topic.

By the end of the second World War, the American Veterans were returning to a post-war economic boom. The government implemented the 1944 G.I. bill helping aid many veterans in their path towards new careers, college education, and buying their first homes. Suburbanization took off as G.I loans provided low-interest rate and small down payment; As the highways cut through thriving non-white neighborhoods to allow for quick commutes into the city, along with more cars being used with the continual decrease of oil prices, and as Levittowns keep springing up that relied on non-unionized workers building houses in an assembly line fashion created the perfect setting for suburbanization. The American standard of living was rapidly rising. But the same story was not true if you were black. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein explicitly shows the condoning and enforcing of neighborhood segregation. The G.I bill, for the most part, excluded non-whites and further engrained the entrance into potential markets for wealth accumulation. Banks did not loan to families in black neighborhoods so they had to buy homes in installment plans, which often lead to numerous evictions. If black families were able to get loans, they could not move into many suburban homes because many of their neighborhoods had racist housing covenants that excluded renting or selling to non-whites. And if they were able to buy disregarding the covenant the local government yielded its power to enforced the racial convents oftentimes evicting residents. But, even after all of that, and a non-white family managed to move into a suburban neighborhood, they faced a lot of social and physical harassment. In the documentary film, Crisis in Levittown, reporters interview residents of Levittown Virginia who are having a black family move into their neighborhood. There are those that support the new family claiming, “They will not bring down property values, the majority; white families, not wanting to buy homes near them will impact the values. The values are determined by the majority no the minority.”  While others responded to a similar question by saying they should “get them out” or that they have heard rumors that NAACP had paid them or that the reds had paid them. In the end, the reporter poses a potent question, “If a negro family can afford what you are having, how do you justify your feelings of superiority?”, and Rothensiten makes the claim that “If young people are not taught an accurate account of how we came to be segregated, their generation will have little chance of doing a better job of desegregating than previous ones.” (The Color of Law, 199).

Enter the first iteration of the suburbs though The ‘Burbs, a quite Anglo neighborhood being depicted through Mayfield Place; similar to Mayflower (but this connection might be a stretch) is troubled with some new neighbors who keep to themselves, don’t maintain a nice green lawn, and have strange rituals. They have become the talk of the street without being introduced for the first 15 minutes. The ‘protagonist’ of the film is Ray Peterson, a middle-class male with an entire week’s vacation played by a young Tom Hanks.

Supporting characters are Art Weingartner, the invasive neighbor who is a gun-wielding suburbanite willing to go to any extent to protect his property from the crow that was only bothering him,

and Mark Rumsfield, a gun-wielding veteran with an intense jealousy of his Walter’s, his neighbor, lawn.

All three men’s whiteness and belonging is not questioned in this suburban setting. The implementation of racist government policies allowed for their exclusive Anglo neighborhood to flourish, while the exclusion of people of color, Jewish people, and other marginal European communities made claims that allowed Ray, Art, and Mark’s presence to go unquestioned. This natural position is juxtaposed with the determination by the viewer and the cast, of the Klopeks’ Foreignness; Ray immediately, after learning his new neighbor’s last name asks, “Klopek, is that Slavic?”. The directors really went out of his way to ensure the Klopek family was embedded with difference, making them strange, dirty, and a family of only men while depicting Ray as the average suburbanite with a wife, child, and dog. Apart from their familial structure, the occupations of the Klopek are unknown. Even after finding out Werner Klopek is a doctor they still question what type of doctor he is and the reliability of his credentials, all while the viewer is given no information about the Mayfield neighbors’ own occupation. To really hit this foreignness home, the three men are depicted as non-Anglo’s; Their accents show their foreignness with the English language, their food shows a less western European tradition with tea being supplemented with sardines; which were eaten by many poor Eastern Europeans, and the Mark keeps calling them the Huns or the foreigners.

When the Mayfield neighbors see Han, one of the Klopeks, for the first for the first time, the whole street stares at him and Art asks, “what is that?” (14:20). This embedded foreignness grows as the viewer and the Mayfield neighbors start to learn more about the Klopeks. Instead of learning more by uncovering truths, the movie moves us into more suspicion. The Mayfield neighbors witness the Klopeks drive their trash down their driveway in the middle of the night, and then cram it in with a hoe. Ray also sees the Klopeks digging in their backyard in the middle of the night, then Walter randomly goes missing and there is no sign of him. Finally, Ray finds Walter’s wig when they are all are visiting the Klopeks and this convinces them to intrude the Klopeks home while they are away. The only expression of wrongdoing in this situation is Art’s sarcastic comment on “breaking and entering” after Ray breaks the glass of the Klopek’s back door. This form of intrusion is what gets normalized through the film. This is the normalization of white suburbanites being able to re-appropriate the state’s claim to the “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence” early on Ray jokes that the “only thing [they] need to do is to burn a cross on their lawn” (27:00). You already know how that’s not a great joke… The rationalization of the Mayfield neighbors’ intrusion is coupled with the strange action of the Klopeks, leading them to believe the Klopeks killed Walter and will find out for themselves.

When the Klopeks leave for the day, Art, Ray, and Mark break into their home. When they begin to find nothing, Ray gets desperate and keeps digging deeper in the basement until he accidentally penetrates a gas line which explodes the Klopek’s house. By this point, the Klopeks had come back home with the police and find their home burning to the ground. At this point, the first look of sorrow is expressed in the film; Ray might be dead because he was inside the house during the explosion, and the Klopeks lost their house at the hands of nosy neighbors. But somehow Ray manages live through it and Art quickly presses him to tell everyone he found the bodies, and this time Ray snaps,

“Remember what you were saying about people in the ‘burbs, Art, people like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the 800th time, and then snap? Well, that is us! It’s not them. It’s us! WE’RE the ones who are vaulting over the fences and peeking in through people’s windows. We’re the ones who are throwing garbage in the street, and lighting fires… we’re the ones acting suspicious and paranoid… We’re the lunatics. US!!! Not them!!! It’s us.”

And for a second, everything seems solved. The reality seems that the Klopeks really weren’t cannibals and that the paranoid suburbanites are the problem. For a second, the viewer also feels guilty but not more than a second. As soon as Ray is getting settled into the ambulance Dr. Klopek enters and reveals that he did kill people and he needed to kill Ray because he thought Ray saw his skulls. Ray manages to escape and bump open the Klopek’s car trunk full of skeletons proving that once and for all, the actions Ray, Mark, and Art did; nevertheless questionable, justified their actions. And for white suburbanites of the 1980’s, the neighbors of Mayfield became their darling. He is what they were, and just as his harassment was justified, so was theirs’.

A Film to Transform You: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Can a movie be a great work or art, or does its format prevent it from reaching the same heights as great works of literature? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie that confronts an issue most will face in their lives, the excruciating process of separating with someone who previously completed you. Eternal Sunshine shows the introspective viewer the rewards yielded from confronting your past, and the costs of blocking your memories. Eternal Sunshine accuses apathy as the ultimate obstacle for human happiness. It is an obstacle that disguises itself in short-term bliss, but produces long-term suffering. Eternal Sunshine critiques apathy through its protagonist Joel Barish, and side character Mary Svevo. Each of these characters deals with their painful separations in the same way. They choose to permanently erase their partners from their memories. This act, literal in the movie, represents the process most individuals undergo after a relationship: shredding pictures, treating their old partner as strangers on the street, and pushing down memories. The difference between the characters in Eternal Sunshine and the ordinary individual, is that they realize their happiness won’t come by forgetting what they once had, but by reflecting on it. From all these valuable transformations of self Eternal Sunshine exemplifies, it proves itself to be ‘great work of art’. Eternal Sunshine provides a shining example that movies can match great works of literature. Eternal Sunshine takes advantage of similar elements used in writing, such as dialogue and symbolism, but it also incorporates elements from its own media, such as music, surrealist scene transitions, lighting, and costuming to reinforce its message. But, it is mostly through Eternal Sunshine’s characters can the average person can hope to overcome the temptation blissful ignorance has to offer, and see that they live their lives to happier more fulfilled ends.

A good place to start is the beginning. Relatable, working man protagonist Joel Barish, wakes up in his barren apartment. We can immediately tell Joel isn’t in a happy man, for the audience looks at Joel through an aggressively blue filter. Slow, lonesome piano music accompanies him out the door to his car, which has been badly scraped. Joel only groans, sticks a passive aggressive “Thank you!” note on the car next to his, and then drives off to work. Joel then begins his internal monologue. The tone of his voice drips with sadness as he reads from his diary entry. It’s Valentines day “a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap” (Eternal Sunshine). But Joel makes a bold move; he ditches work and takes a train out to the beach where he begins to cure his sadness.         

Already from this first scene Eternal Sunshine exemplifies the movie medium and sets its tone to be anti-industrial. Along with the blue filter, the objects in the first scene are overwhelmingly of a cool hue. In addition, the viewer is hit by the bluesy piano backdrop, and then Joel’s sad, sad voice weeps out of the speakers. Eternal Sunshine is taking advantage of senses literature just can’t hope to stimulate. Through the auditory and visual interplay of this dismal cinematography, the audience feels depressed with Joel. The color blue and the slow music have strong cultural associations with feelings of sadness. These associations subconsciously enter the viewers thoughts and feelings. Joel’s voice then enters their mind, triggering them to empathize with him, and to feel his sadness alongside him. This raises the stakes for the movie, for Joel’s quest for happiness is no longer his own, but also the viewers. Joel’s eventual transformation into a happier human has become more potent, for it is shared with the viewer. Thus, Eternal Sunshine proves that it can insert its audience into its characters as well as any classic piece of literature. Furthermore, Joel’s flight from work takes Eternal Sunshine away from the destructive philosophies of popular culture. These philosophies prescribe hard work, the latest Ford F-150, and addictive burgers as the key to human happiness. A setting where the path to happiness is found through the explorative introspection, and not through distractions and indulgencies is the foundation for any great work of art hoping to help our humanity.

The destination of Joel’s great escape is the beach. He walks alone except for the sad blue filter and piano music which accompany him. He eventually sees Clementine on the beach staring into the ocean, but doesn’t seem to recognize her. She’s costumed in a bright orange hoodie, a color that contrasts the overall cool hues of the Eternal Sunshine has presented so far. The orange hoodie acts almost like a beacon, for it provides an early hint to the audience of where Joel’s understanding of his happiness might be found. These visual cues pop up to the audience again and again throughout the beginning scenes. Joel leaves the beach, and enters the restaurant leaving behind the sad music, but taking with him Clementine. He continues to the train stop, and with that stops his depressing inner monologue, but follows him again is Clementine. Now, Joel finds himself on the train, and the audience finds the blue filter no longer present. He draws a sketch of the train car, which would be otherwise colorless, if he hadn’t markered in the fluorescent orange hoodie on Clementine, who sits a few seats down. Then Clementine hops over to Joel and in comes a playful brass section. Eternal Sunshine uses cinematic elements to draw the audience’s feelings gradually from a state of sadness to happiness. From this sensory guide, the audience is able to get a brief glimpse of the path to happiness. But, it takes Eternal Sunshine’s uses dialogue and its character transformations to reinforce this guide.

Joel and Clementine exit into the rainy streets of Montauk New York, take shelter in Clementine’s apartment, and begin to talk. They immediately engage in a dialogue exploring the how they live their lives.

JOEL: My Life isn’t that interesting. I go to work. I come home. I don’t know what to say. You should read my journal… I mean, it’s just blank

CELMENTINE: Really? Does that make you sad? Anxious? I’m always anxious I’m not living my life to the fullest. (Eternal Sunshine)

Already the movie is criticizing apathy. Clementine is constantly thinking, and considering how to make her life better, while Joel is just consumed in the stresses of work, and would rather live a distracted life than a fulfilled one. Eternal Sunshine shows the viewer Clementine is the happier of the two. When she talks about herself she is confident in her qualities. In contrast, when Joel talks about himself he doesn’t even know what to talk about. He barely even knows himself. A short while after this exchange Joel excuses himself saying “I have to get up so early tomorrow”. But Joel doesn’t leave without Clementine’s number, and soon after returning to his desolate, depressing apartment he realizes what he has to do. He calls Clementine back. They stay up all night, travelling down to the frozen Charles River, and Joel’s sadness begins to break away. By forgetting his obligation to work, he’s had one of the happiest nights of his life, and met a woman who might help him out of his sadness. From all this, the stage has been set for the real revelations and the real transformations to occur.

From Joel’s extraordinary first date the movie dramatically cuts to him weeping while driving. The steady melancholy bass from “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” by Beck is playing on cassette through the car radio, and the blue filter is turned back on. Joel chucks the cassette tape out the car window, and then his tears stop. This symbolic act shows to the audience the frame of mind Joel’s in. He’s not ready to learn this time; he’d rather reject the painful memories of his relationship then take the time to go through the sorrowful, yet self-developing reflection process. This is a common human flaw, choosing to forget rather than to reflect. But Joel’s forgetfulness reaches what the common person could only possibly dream of. His apathetic condition is exacerbated by the discovery of Lacuna inc., a company offering to erase any sad or traumatic memories from a person’s mind to give them the chance to “move on”. Through this science fiction aspect of the film, Joel is able to take the extra step most people wish they could make. He’s able to totally forget is past, and supposedly get a “fresh start”. But, over the course of the movie Joel’s mindset will change, and act as an example for the viewer that this is not the right course of action.

Eternal Sunshine is best able to change its audience’s mentality through Joel transformation. He enters the mind-erase procedure determined become blissfully ignorant towards his past. The procedure begins with Joel emptying out his apartment of everything that vaguely reminds him of Clementine. The result is the apartment is left barren, and devoid of all personality. One character comments: “This place is a dump… well not a dump, just sort of plain, uninspired” (Eternal Sunshine). Joel had been with Clementine so long, and so intimately that his person, his sense of self, had become entwined in hers. In forgetting her, he forgets a part of himself. This gives the audience a peak into the costs of the procedure. Even while Joel is getting screened for the procedure the doctor admits that “technically speaking the procedure is brain damage” (Eternal Sunshine). Joel is essentially destroying himself, by destroying his memories.

The audience experience’s the process from two settings, within Joel’s mind, and within his apartment (where the Lacuna technicians operate). Throughout the process Eternal Sunshine employs lighting changes, an elaborate set of surrealist scene transitions, and present a foil to Joel’s changing character, Mary Svevo. Using the scene transitions Eternal Sunshine shows the brutal nature of the mind wipe process, and using the lighting shifts it shows the transformations of character Joel undergoes. During the beginning of the process Joel starts with his most recent memory; the memory of him Clementine breaking up. Joel gets to experience the last conversation they had, and he gets to maintain the mentality that he’ll be happier once he forgets it all. “Look at it out here. It’s falling apart. I’m erasing you Clementine, and I’m happy” (Eternal Sunshine) But is Joel really happy with it?

As previously established, the color blue follows Joel in moments of sadness and regret. As these scenes unfold, Clementine is silhouettes by blue light as she leaves his apartment for the last time, and blazing blue streetlights illuminate the night as Joel pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. From Joel on the sidewalk, the camera pans suddenly to Joel facedown on the street. Joel’s body violently jerks up, and all of a sudden, he’s sitting on his coach with Clementine eating Chinese food. This aggressive transition serves to show the audience that Joel is not in control of the process. His apathy towards the past has swept him up, and has begun to wipe out important memory after memory.

In demolishing these poignant memories Joel is demolishing defining moments of his life. The memory of a morning conversation between him and Clementine is a perfect example.

CLEM: You don’t tell me things Joel. I’m an open book. I tell you things. Every damn embarrassing thing.

JOEL: Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.

CLEM: I want to know you Joel… I don’t constantly talk. People have to share things. That’s what intimacy is. I’m really pissed that you said that to me. (Eternal Sunshine)

Before this conversation goes sideways the lighting is neutral, but as soon as Joel’s insecurity is revealed a spotlight hits him. Eternal Sunshine uses spotlighting in this scene, as well as others, to indicate important moments of change for Joel. By reliving this conversation, Joel is able to reflect on his fears and flaws. One of the reasons Joel and Clementine’s relationship sank was his fear of intimacy, and his lack of assuredness towards his self. But, through this memory Joel can hope to face, deconstruct, and understand those flaws about himself. Too bad he’s chosen to erase them, and has essentially preserved traits that imped his ability to form meaningful connections with others, and subsequently his happiness. This same use of spotlighting is repeated, but to greater effect. When erasing the memory of Clementine and him lying on the Charles River together. There Joel realizes something: “I could die right now Clem. I’m just so happy. I’ve never felt that before. I’m just exactly where I want to be” (Eternal Sunshine). At this moment Joel realizes he’s only ever felt true happiness when he was with Clementine. Like many others throughout human history, Joel discovered the liberation and the salvation in finding someone who completes you. And, from reflecting on that memory before it’s erased, Joel changes his mind. Eternal Sunshine hits Joel with that familiar spotlight, for he’s a changed man now.

He wants to call off the operation. He throws he’s arms in the air, begging like a man begging to God to stop the procedure. From his relationship with Clementine Joel learned how to feel. He experienced the world in its fullest, and from that experience he was utterly satisfied, and utterly happy with his life. He’d transformed himself into a happy human being. Now he’s about to erase it all, and he’s afraid. This heartbreaking realization Joel makes hits the audience hard. Throughout the movie Eternal Sunshine has guided the readers emotions, sympathies and realizations to follow Joel’s using precise cinematographic elements. As Joel understands what made, and makes him his happiest self, so does the viewer. Joel’s transformation transforms the viewer. The appeal of becoming numb to one’s past is destroyed by Joel’s character transformation. And, Eternal Sunshine further proves to the viewer the catastrophic consequences of living with the idea that ignorance somehow equals bliss through Mary Svevo’s character.

With Mary, Eternal Sunshine is able to present the arguments advocating for the blissfully ignorant, and then subsequently refute them. She occupies the technician setting during Joel’s memory wipe. She envies Joel is wiping his memory, and “profoundly” quotes Freidrich Nietzche: “Blessed are the forgetful, for even they get the better of their blunders.”

But how true does this tightly packed “inspirational” message prove to be? Joel has shown that the forgetful absolutely do not get the better of their blunders. By forgetting his follies and flaws, Joel loses the opportunity to correct himself, or, in other words, to get the better of his self. The mentality Mary holds is best summed up by thinker Mathew Arnold: “They should think it enough to follow action for its own sake, without troubling themselves to make reason” (Arnold 35). What Mary is doing by quoting Nietzsche is being apathetic. She believes her life will just unfold in front of her, and if she makes a mistake in her actions or decisions, well then there’s nothing to do about it except try to forget. But, as Joel has shown, this mentality is exceptionally destructive, especially towards one’s happiness, and sense of self. Your sense of self is invested in your mistakes and how you respond to them. If you don’t respond to them at all, not only do you make your self meaningless, but you also destroy your chances at happiness. As Arnold describes, you must reason out your actions, you must reflect on them as Joel has, and transform yourself for the better. If the viewer wants to strive for perfection, they must act as Joel has acted and become reflective, not apathetic. Also, from Mary’s reliance on neatly packaged quotes Eternal Sunshine exposes another wrong to the viewer. The pursuit of happiness is not achieved through quick little epithets of inspiration wisdom. If the viewer hopes to achieve “perfection” they must study comprehensiveness that great works of art have to offer. A sentence has no revolutionary power. A viewer, or reader, must invest themselves in the characters, and elements of a great work of art, and transform with those character if they at all hope to reconstruct their deconstructive mentalities.

Ultimately Mary comes around to discover her mistake. It’s revealed to her that she had the operation done when she tries to reconnect with the man she erased. She hates herself for erasing her memory, realizing just as Joel realized, that she was truly living her life, truly happy, and truly a human being when she was with that person. Thus, again does Eternal Sunshine advocate for reflection over apathy.

Eternal Sunshine is as a must watch for anyone struggling to come to terms with their past, just as Siddhartha is a must read for anyone struggling to discover themselves. Eternal Sunshine is uniquely a great work of art. It holds fast in opposition towards the wave of industrial distractions, and fights to prove itself with its expertly used cinematographic elements. Through the medium of film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind performs as well as any piece of classic literature. It ties its audience to its characters, and takes them on a journey of self-reflection and transformation that’s ultimate destination is happiness.


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew, and Jane Garnett. Culture and Anarchy. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Gondry, Michel, director. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 2004.

Powerful Messages in Pop Culture

Perfection is what humans inevitably strive to accomplish in their lives for even the most menial tasks—and the Great Works are the means to do so. Through the Great Works of art and of literature, people can become the best versions of themselves and of humanity. Matthew Arnold, one of the proponents of this idea, believes in the power that inspirational authors and artists have in their works to change peoples’ lives. Through this belief, Arnold describes the human necessity to seek perfection through constant improvement of oneself and those around him or herself, which he describes as “culture.” As he unravels this concept in his writing, he says, “But the aspirations of culture, which is the study of perfection, are not satisfied, unless what men say, when they may say what they like, is worth saying,—as good in it, and more good than bad” (Arnold 38).

This view is undoubtedly the manifestation of Arnold’s belief in moral realism—the belief of the objective and independent standards of what is right or wrong in terms of what can lead us into our own happiness. Through the constant self-improvement of human beings, they work towards their goal of being happy; because whether people know it or not, some things are meant to positively or negatively attribute to your happiness, even when you yourself do not realize it. Arnold enforces the ideology of what constitutes this belief—the ideology of human perfection—by advocating for the things that ultimately lead us into this path, the Great Works of art and of literature.

Yet, what are these Great Works and why are they alone considered the passageway towards a better future? Are these Great Works considered to be based solely on the works of the past? Can today’s culture be a part of them? How does one begin to strive for human perfection—and happiness—without the means? Some people are still unable to read and write in today’s world. Most of the time, the majority of people cannot afford to bother with the Great Works. In today’s world, it is not uncommon to see many individuals in the working-class struggle to barely support themselves and their families. In this case, if one struggles solely on this, how can they even begin to think about the inequity of their current condition; of the means needed to improve their lives to a standard worth living? If these great works are not readily accessible to everyone, will those who cannot obtain them ever be able to progress in this journey? And if there are groups of people who are lacking the ability to progress, then is human perfection still achievable? After all, human perfection requires social unity to be achieved. Without a universal capability to do so, humanity would never be able to achieve the state of “what men say, when they may say what they like, is worth saying” (38). It is difficult to answer what is the correct way to go about constant improvement, especially when not many alternatives are not made known. But perhaps Arnold failed to identify some of the merits that exist in today’s culture, with its broad capabilities in spreading information through the use of media, and some of the facets that leave pop culture desirable to most.

Arnold and F. R. Leavis, another major advocate for the importance of literature, both agree that art and literature of exceptionally high standards are a “salvation” to people because of the pre-industrialized mode in which it is conveyed in an industrial society, which they deem to be a self-detrimental weapon, due to its widespread dehumanization and desensitization of people. And while Arnold sides with the necessity of social unity to achieve the objective of culture, Leavis has instead adopted a more channeled focus on the minority of people who can, in the end, save Western Civilization (Leavis 1). Although these two points contrast in the means to achieve so, they share the same goal to strive for human perfection—or, in other words, to save Western Civilization through the use of the Great Works. The Great Works are the classics in which Arnold and Leavis both advocate for and although they mostly refer to past works, they leave the possibility of exceptions in modern art and literature. Popular culture, on the other hand, is neglected and ignored, as it is believed to serve no purpose in establishing positive connections to what they define as saving the Western Civilization or the path to human perfection.

Pop culture is looked unfavorably upon because of what it represents. Contemporary pop culture is the result of the industrial societies, who have overshadowed the traditional societies that provided a richer culture. It is understandable why, however, Arnold and Leavis feel so strongly about this, as the industrialization of societies have destroyed the deeper sense of interconnection between people. As such, it is easy to lose focus of the merits of an industrialized society in the midst of its inhumane capabilities—of which render it able to have humans ignore the plights of others and instead treat these plights as common occurrences with no relation to themselves, a stark contrast to traditional societies where people recognize and feel, where people are unified. It is also easy to compare this situation with a quote from Joseph Stalin, Marxist and former dictator of the Soviet Union, where he once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” In this quote, he refers to the disconnect that people feel with a large number of casualties. With one individual, it is possible to get to know more about him or her and feel sorrow for them. However, once the numbers reach the point that humans find it difficult to relate to, the compassion people hold may find itself to be severely cut off. This is how Arnold and Leavis find industrialization. Due to the dehumanization that often characterizes industrial society, people no longer feel as sense of sympathy or compassion to one another, feeling disconnected from everyone else. People do not recognize, or simply do not care about, the injustices that may be occurring to those who make their clothes, or those they pass on the street, or even those who live right beside them. Looking at it from this point of view, pop culture is simply self-destructive.

But the facet of pop culture that so brings people to a level of culture is through media—much of which was made possible through industrialization. Although Arnold and Leavis preach looking for classic literature in order to imitate living as a non-industrial person in an industrial society, they fail to recognize the merits brought upon this ability to communicate so broadly with others. Media has given humans the ability to interact with someone on the other side of the hemisphere. People from different cities, countries, and backgrounds are able to speak to each other simply by dialing a number on a cellphone or sending a quick text message through Facebook. They are able to find information of virtually anything on the Internet. And even with those people, who are not as privileged as others, who are unable to afford these luxuries, messages can still be sent out to them through this pop culture. And within this pop culture, examples—of which not only fail to provide anything beneficial to our lives but instead may react negatively with us— that argue against its very essence are common, from rappers to athletes who are infamously known for their problems with drugs, domestic abuse, and more. Examples in pop culture, which preach messages that are beneficial in guiding people towards a better life, are also not nonexistent, however.

Sir Robert Bryson Hall II, otherwise known as Logic, is a famous American rapper, songwriter, and record producer, who became internationally-renowned for one of his most recent songs, “1-800-273-8255,” named after the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPF) and featuring other well-known artists, such as Alessia Cara and Khalid.

In this song, Logic goes from being the voice of a desperate teenage-boy contemplating suicide to a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hoping to persuade the boy otherwise. The music video tells the real story, of a young black male struggling to come to terms with his sexuality in the face of bullying from his teammates on his track team and the disapproval of his father. Once his father found out about his sexuality, the disappointment and anger were too much to face for the teenager, as he ran away and even became homeless for a period of time. Although he does gain some support from his track coach and teacher, his coach could not do much until he talked to the boy’s father, convincing and talking to him about the things his son was going through. The black teenager ends up going to the house of his attraction, a white boy from school, and sleeping with him after having dinner with his family. At this point, the father of the other boy finds them, leaving both teenagers distressed. The black boy rushes out, while the father of the other helps him out, although visibly disappointed. The story of the music video has thus covered the distress that may often occur when faced with a different sexuality than what others may expect, while advocating for interracial relationships and confirming for others that it is not an abnormality to have these things happen to you.



Through all this confusion and pain and frustration that the boy goes through, he finds life too difficult to go through. Without knowing what to do, he brings a gun to his, coming close to ending his life.

Near the end, however, he wishes for and finds a glimpse of hope by calling the NSPF. And as this progression occurs, the lyrics change, from the young boy’s perspective, from “I don’t want to be alive” to “I don’t wanna cry anymore, I wanna feel alive, I don’t even wanna die anymore.” By realizing that there was support out there, somewhere, he stopped himself from killing himself. At the end, we can see him marrying, who we presume to be, his teenage crush with his parents supporting him by his side, and then holding a baby with his parents and husband. The message this music video sends is for everyone to hear. It tells you, that no matter where you are and what kind of place you are in, you are not alone. Even when you do not know what to do, there is still hope at the end. This message struck me as one of the best aspects of pop culture.

This piece breaches the rigidness and insensitivity that people have built up in response to this industrialized age and spreads a message to an international audience. In the past, in a pre-industrialized society, it would have been far too difficult to send this type of message—both because of people’s prejudices of the time and because of its magnitude. The dehumanization of others is thus challenged, as Logic shoves this story into the eyes of the world and forces them to recognize issues that no one wants to address. He plays on their emotions by sending them images of a boy trying to run away from everything that causes him pain, directly relating him with so many people who have tried to do the same, while also forcing them to recognize the consequences that their negligence on the issue may cause. Classic literature could not encompass such a wide audience, simply due to its constraints, of having the time to read such pieces or of having the ability to read and write, and further into understanding what usually comes across as cryptic messages. That is not to say that the classics and the Great Works are unable to fulfill their purpose, but it is to say that pop culture is not completely without merit, possessing the ability to spread the messages that perhaps the Great Works could not, in the way that Logic did—through media.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew, and Jane Garnett. Culture and Anarchy. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Bentley, Eric. The Importance of Scrutiny: Selection from Scrutiny: a Quarterly Review, 1932-

  1. 1948. New York University Press, 1964.

LogicVEVO. “Logic – 1-800-273-8255 Ft. Alessia Cara, Khalid.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 Aug.



From a House You Didn’t Build and Can’t Control

When culture is mass-produced, all art is in danger of becoming the same.

The historical deepening of capitalism has led to the homogenization of culture.  At least Theodor W. Adorno—a German critical theorist— thought so.  In “The Culture Industry,” Adorno argues that “each branch of culture” has become “unanimous with itself,” as the burgeoning of mass production and mass consumption have developed hand in hand (Adorno 94).  Adorno’s “culture industry”—a theoretical system that weds technology and economics—is a structure of domination in which those with power exercise their capacity to shape the mentality of the public (94, 95).  It is in the interest of capital to reduce dissent, to create easily satisfied desires, and to perpetuate itself.  And so, Adorno argues, potentially “unruly” forms like art, literature, and music are driven inexorably to sameness (99).  The result, in Adorno’s view, is that “great” and “serious” art has been replaced by shallow forms that lend themselves to large-scale reproduction.  Art is “subordinate[ed] … to [a] formula” and the masses learn to be satisfied with that (99).

Many contemporary music critics would agree with Adorno.

Digital delivery means that consumers can stream or pirate the songs with the best hooks; music services rush to provide pre-selected playlists that further universalize the listening experience of consumers—less and less aesthetic or intellectual effort is required of the audience (Hosenager; Serra; Collins). Much contemporary popular music does indeed deny listeners—in Adorno’s words— “any dimension in which they might roam freely in imagination” (100).

In other words, we like what Apple or Spotify wants us to like, while the profits roll to the shareholders.  But is it really that simple?  Modern music has trend-buckers as well as conformists.  Consider Vampire Weekend, an indie rock band whose most recent album, Modern Vampires of the City, embodies many of the qualities that Adorno associates with great art: complexity, a willingness to counter prevailing ideologies, and the presumption of an engaged audience. Has Vampire Weekend found a way to escape the homogenizing forces that Adorno identified?  Or is their resistance only a qualified success, limited by the mass production landscape in which they necessarily function as commercial artists?

No question that Vampire Weekend embraces complexity, a quality that Adorno sees as a primary casualty of capitalism (101, 96).  From the beginning, Vampire Weekend has blended intricate lyrics and sounds.  The band—formed by Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, and Chris Tomson while they were students at Columbia University—launched their career with work that melded post-punk guitars with African pop music and ska, layered with wry vocals that addressed upper class life in New England and New York, composed by four men in Polo sweaters.  The interplay of elements in tension—vividly evident in songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Giving up the Gun”—is at the center of Vampire Weekend and Contra.

Modern Vampires of the City
, released in 2013, is more intricate still.  The album is fundamentally concerned with the interplay of opposites, Adorno’s “tensions between the poles” (102).  Musically, the album is constructed dually around pianos and muted guitars—and auto-tune, which is used to distort Koenig’s vocals and provide syncopated rhythms.  While more somber than the band’s earlier releases, the melodies themselves are lighter—which contrasts with the dark content of the stories they tell.

The album opens with “Obvious Bicycle,” which follows a man who Koenig sings “oughta spare [his] face the razor / Because no one’s going to spare the time for [him].”  The song is a set-up for considerations that come later in the album, but it perfectly embodies a tense relationship between music and the lyrics—the piano is soft and in the background, creating a dramatic contrast that emphasizes the harshness of the story itself.  Indeed, “Obvious Bicycle” plays on that sharp contrast.  The melody is pleasant and quiet, but the narrator tells his friend he no longer has a reason to live and that he might as well “spare the world a traitor.”  This surprising  interplay—between the lightness of the music and the darkness of the message—is the sort of “unresolved dissonance” that the culture industry seems designed to squash (Adorno 101).

Vampire Weekend’s fascination with opposites and ambiguity is matched by a predilection for social critique.  Those criticisms are often implicit in their early work, where the contrast between the lyrics’ preppy concerns and the world music overtones speak quietly about power.  But in Modern Vampires of the City, the band more powerfully and directly challenges prevailing beliefs about class and religion, calling into question Adorno’s claims about the inevitable ideological sameness of mass produced art (136).  Modern Vampires suggests there are real choices to be made—and real consequences to consider—about faith, about aging, and about our relationships with one another.

Pushback against social constructs preoccupies much of the album.  Koenig starts locally, arguing for the autonomy of the individual—himself—above the group.  On “Step,” Koenig finds himself fighting against the judgements of the  “punks who would laugh when they saw us together,” and the relatives who would only admire “tales of a past life,” finding solace in himself and his own growing up.  And on “Diane Young,” Koenig flips the narrative structure, condemning an Irish girl “with the luck of a Kennedy” and others whose youthful exuberance has led them to “torch[] the Saab” and go “tottering off into that good night,” all while the “government agents surround [them] again.”  Between the two songs, Koenig finds himself distinct from the old and new, and is satisfied in that.

The album’s most trenchant critique, though, is an ideological one.  Vampire Weekend rails against religion in an arc that stretches across three songs.  On “Unbelievers,” Koenig recognizes that he “will die [an] unbeliever” in “the fire [that] awaits,” and wonders whether this was really “the fate that half of the world [had] planned for” him.  Koenig undercuts religious ideology, asking in effect whether it was moral to be condemned for not believing what “the world” had told him to believe.

And his argument becomes more drastic as the album progresses.  “Worship You” and “Ya Hey” are directed towards God.  In “Worship You,” the narrator alludes to John Milton, demanding if God with his “red right hand” would provide a “little bit of light to get [them] through the final days”, or whether they really would “see [him] once again.”  The song is an angry criticism of a god who wasn’t there when the narrator needed him—but it’s “Ya Hey” when those sentiments are made real.  Koenig argues that he “can’t help but feel / That you’ve seen the mistakes / But you let it go,” hinting at conflicts in Israel in an surreal aside where, like a DJ, God changes songs “on the festival grounds” from Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” to the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown.”  The song in particular calls out the god of Judaism, using Ya Hey as euphemism for Yahweh, and accusing an inept God who “won’t say his name” by quoting back the Hebrew meaning of his name: “I am who I am.”

There’s no question that  Modern Vampires of the City wants to rebel against the “rigid invariants” that, according to Adorno, typically make up popular music (98).  Invoking the Old Testament in juxtaposition with characters who collectively explore their own mortality and ennui, Modern Vampires subverts the traditional pop song, or—at the very least—criticizes the same kinds of folks that would slam the “Orthodox girl who fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop” on “Finger Back.”  

Adorno reserves his most damning critique of the culture industry for its effects on the intellectual capacity of the public.  Because mass produced art demands minimal alertness from its consumers, Adorno contends, such art contributes to the “withering of imagination in the consumer of culture” and “crippl[es] the faculties” of reason (100).  By questioning his own beliefs and filling Modern Vampires with religious and personal doubt, Koenig disrupts and engages his audience, forcing us to think critically about our own lives and our own beliefs.

This is, in the end, Vampire Weekend’s strongest claim for subverting the culture industry.  Adorno allows for the value of such ‘countercultural’ art—indeed, of avant-gardism, Adorno claims that “the devices used in a work of the avant-garde … unlike those of the hit song, they serve the truth” (102).  But—despite their merit—these arguments fail to assuage Adorno’s largest concerns.

Adorno questions whether the countercultural can ever divorce itself from the culture industry: “Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, [countercultural artists] belong to it as the land reformer does to capitalism” (103).  In other words, Modern Vampires may appear to be revelatory and rebellious, but we recognize those qualities only in the context of popular culture—MVOTC is only different in that is different than something we all recognize. In this sense it is difficult for us as listeners (and surely for Koenig himself) to draw a line between what Koenig himself has offered us, and what the culture industry in turn has supplied him.

The second stanza of “Obvious Bicycle” goes like this:

No one’s gonna watch you as you go
From a house you didn’t build and can’t control
Oh you oughta spare your face the razor
Because no one’s gonna spare the time for you
You oughta spare the world your labor
It’s been 20 years and no one’s told the truth.

In the end, the man is advised to “spare the world a traitor” and “thank … the rich ones who were kind,” while Koenig himself is left “wondering if anyone could begin / To listen.”  Koenig is clearly self-aware enough to feel the irony in that statement, but can no more escape the culture industry than the subject of “Obvious Bicycle” can escape the “house he didn’t build and can’t control.”

Works Cited:

  1. Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford University Press, 2002.
  2. Collins, Nick.  “Modern Music Really Does Sound the Same.”  The Telegraph, 26 July 2012,
  3. Hosenager, Kartik, et al. “Will the Global Village Fracture into Tribes?: Recommender Systems and Their Effects on Consumers.”  Management Science 60.4, 2014,
  4. Serra, Joan, et al. “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music.” Scientific Reports 2.521, 2012,
  5. Vampire Weekend. Vampire Weekend. XL Recordings, 2008.
  6. –––. Contra. XL Recordings, 2010.
  7. –––.  Modern Vampires of the City. XL Recordings, 2013.

Billy Learns to Dance

After pouring over Dance with the Devil by Immortal Technique for the better part of the last few days, I felt uneasy with the very premise of the story. This discomfort actually doesn’t begin with the song itself, but to its incompatibility with my general idea of stories. A pretty straight forward example of the prototypical story for me goes back as early as kindergarten, and the fairy tales my mom would make me read before bed. In Little Red Riding Hood, a seemingly simple tale, the story has a very distinct hero, villain, conflict, and resolution. Red, an innocent young girl, gets attacked by a wolf. The resolution to the story then comes in two parts: First, is for Red to distrust the imposter and take steps to save herself. Second, Red is saved by a friendly lumberjack bystander.

When I was young, I enjoyed this tale because it felt like a complete story. Red, the obvious protagonist, is saved from the villain, in equal parts by her caution and by a man coming to save the day. The story is a simple case of a person being wronged by a villain, but coming out on top due to outwitting or overpower their adversary. As I have gotten older, I can see it as an analogy for many things, most prominently, sexual assault. By outsmarting her pursuant, Red can be safe long enough for the good people to come and save her. Does it suffer from antiquated beliefs that the only savior for women are men? Of course. But in the end, we are provided with a resolution to solve an issue. This idea of stories having the simple hero, villain, and solution is reflected all throughout our media. Dance with the Devil, on the other hand, rejects that notion.

The song begins by explaining how William, our main character, was raised by an addict single mother and turned to selling drugs to live a lifestyle of money, sex and power. He eventually is caught and confesses his crimes to the police. This tarnishes his name in his neighborhood so, to rebuild his reputation, he attempts to join a gang. To join, the initiation ceremony is raping and killing a woman with a cloth over her head. Williams does the initiation, but right before he shoots the woman, he takes the cloth off of her head, revealing that the woman is his mother. He then jumps off the building in grief.

Tech’s song, on the surface level, is a commentary on the conditions in poor neighborhoods, the first of which referenced is the rampant drug use. Within the first stanza, drugs are implicit in both splitting up families, as seen with William’s mom and dad, but also sentencing a young man and more broadly, his community to time in prison. Secondly, the song references gangs and the violence that their presence ensues. We see these gangs replacing the support system that the failing families and schools are supposed to provide. So much so that William feels the only way to be respected is to join this gang. Third, and most evidently, sexual violence and how rape can become a sport-like activity for some predators. Although all very important, these ideas are very much apparent to the listener and are not the true focus of the piece.

Our feelings towards William are what truly brings complexity to the song. We have always known stories to have a conclusion that wraps up the message into a neat, digestible package. A story’s mode of transportation for this message is the hero and villain comparison. In taking note of the character traits and actions in a story that define the hero and villain, one can determine the ideology the creator of a piece of media is trying to portray. With Little Red Riding Hood, the ideology that can be extracted is that curiosity is positive and looking after one’s safety is important. We can see this is important from the protagonist’s perspective. Another point to be taken from the story is that sexual assault is wrong, and this is obviously pointed out by this being the defining characteristic of the antagonist. The main reason it is accessible is because we have these clearly defined roles of hero or villain.

This is in stark contrast to Dance with the Devil because, at first examination, we cannot tell who the villains or the heros are, if they even exist. The obvious first choice for villain would be William, seeing as he assaulted and raped someone, an inexcusable offense. Yet, everything thing from lack of variation in the instrumental, or intonation in Tech’s voice, both of which symbolize changes or decisions, aids in the idea that what happened to William was bound to occur, almost independent of the decisions William makes.

In the simplest sense, he truly is a product of his environment. From the opening stanza of the song, Tech establishes that not only is William growing up in a single parent house, but that his mother was a former addict. Then furthermore, he turns to drug dealing and dropping out of school. These two actions are presented as such a common occurrence that it seems almost inevitable. Eventually being arrested, snitching to stay in prison for as little time as possible, and finally trying to gain his reputation again, all then seem like the next progression of the lifestyle that he did not originally decide to lead. Of course William made the wrong decisions, but to a certain extent, Tech makes it seem as if William’s life is simply a function of his circumstance.

If not William, who then is the villain of the story? To disprove the other gang members as the main villain, or at the very least to relegate them to side villains, one must only substitute those members for William in the previous argument. Like William, to an extent, they are products of the environment and although inexcusable what they did, Tech does not place as much emphasis on them either. They act as cogs in the machine of the story, nameless and emotionless. By dismissing all probable characters from the villain role, we must find another culprit to find our villain. In dissecting William’s death, the true villain, and furthermore the ideology that the song is putting forth, can be brought to light.

Being the end of the story, most would conclude with the solution to the supposed major conflict. In this instance, the rape and murder of William’s mom. But, this story does not do that. William’s death does not resolve the fact that his mom was raped and murdered. Nor does it absolve William of the lives he may have negatively affected in trying to mend his reputation. Alternatively, his death does provide a solution to the actual conflict and villain of the story. The true conflict, is that society is set in such a way that made William’s life possible. In this instance, culture is both the conflict, the social interactions between the people in the story, and also the villain, the force that allowed people to be put in the situation to begin with. This idea is made especially evident in the chorus of the song;


Dance forever with the Devil on a cold cell block
But that’s what happens when you rape, murder, and sell rock
Devils used to be God’s angels that fell from the top
There’s no diversity, because we’re burnin’ in the melting pot


Tech makes it quite evident, that no matter who you are, be it God’s angel or the Devil, you are stuck in the melting pot that is this culture of need for sex, money and power and the willingness to do anything to achieve that goal. Even if you are one who seems innocent and pure, or are trying to turn your life around, like William’s mom, you can still be hurt by this culture. In the end, all of the characters in the song are victims, in a broader sense, of society.

The solution that Tech than provides, is for William to kill himself. Even this though, is flawed, as Tech points out that “He jumped off the roof and died with no soul/ They say death take you to a better place, but I doubt it.” The idea of trying to leave the culture by killing himself does not work for Williams. Instead he is left soulless and in a worse position than when he began. Ultimately, we see that Immortal Technique seems hopeless that there is a solution to the dance with greed that our culture breeds other than staying vigilant and not trusting others.

How then, does this story, one with no happy ending or solution to the crisis it points out resolve itself? It doesn’t, which is exactly its point. The effectiveness of this piece is that because you are not given the answer and are ultimately not told how to feel, you are left to puzzle over a solution. Dance with the Devil leaves the listener with a discontent that can only be satiated by finding an answer to the problem of the culture. The final push that Immortal Technique gives to the people is that the listener must find the solution.



Langley, Jonathan, Jacob Grimm, and Wilhelm Grimm. Little Red Riding Hood. New York: Diamond Books, 1998.

Despacito in the American Cultural Horizon

Each year, the music industry works tirelessly to synthesize a catchy melody to a song that will attain a monumental title. This title will assure that it will not only be a hit, but it will have the potential to define a generation. That title is the song of thesummer. While there are always many alluring contesters, it was clear this past summer that there was a song unlike the rest. This was not only because it wasn’t traditional “pop” music, but because it was unlike any other song produced in the United States. This song was “Despacito”. Originally, this simple word was stuck in Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Luis Fonsi’s head and as he worked with Panamanian songwriter Erika Ender and Daddy Yankee, he created what became the first Spanish crossover hit to the United States since “Macarena”.[1] It is fundamental that we examine beneath the surface of this four-minute song and consider the political implications this megahit bears and what this says about the state of American society.[2]

The Top 40 stations of the United States are not renowned for their diverse sounds and musical variety. In fact, there are very few songs on the radio that do not have the same electronic beats and repetitive lyrics. This feat is even greater, as only a few Spanish songs have made Top 40, with only three to have ever hit number one in the United States. [3]This is particularly fascinating if one is to contrast it with the Latin American radio market that is constantly dominated by American-produced songs. How is it that a song that wasn’t originally produced to be a Spanish cross-over hit reached the dimension of being the most viewed song of all time?

To understand how this song fits into our society it is important to consider the discernible details generated by the song in relation to American society. Right up front, despite the fact that 78% of the lyrics are in another language, the broad acceptance of the song is intriguing. What is it about this foreign song that has music listeners yearning for more? Is it the tropical sounds or the slowed down tempo as the song hits the melodic “des-pa-ci-to”? Or is it the fact that Justin Bieber, an idol of American Pop culture, thought the song to be absolutely infectious? To further investigate this question, it is fundamental to examine the American public’s response to this song. The reoccurring reactions are positive, describing the music as sensual and catchy. Although such descriptions are raised in other American pop songs, in “Despacito” it is done in a much subtler way because its unique feature of being in a foreign language inhibits most to analyze the lyrics in a literal manner. Hence, American listeners are drawn to the familiarity but also intrigued by the cultural differences of this masterpiece. Moreover, “Despacito” does the incredible by employing the powerful idea that fans do not need to understand the language to enjoy and appreciate music.

Nevertheless, there are an abundance of songs produced in Latin America that contain captivating and provocative melodies in Spanish, yet very few are able to attain the grand honor of American Top 40. Thus, what truly differentiates “Despacito” from other crossovers is that it is an absolute rule breaker in all senses of the word. It is impossible to truly classify the song into one genre as it is packed with several influences of reggaeton, hip-hop, dancehall, reggae, salsa, cumbia and pop. This fusion grants the song heavy beats, vocals, rap and even a swing rhythm when Justin Bieber slowly sings the word despacito at the beginning of the chorus.  Subsequently, the instruments utilized are combined in an unprecedented manner. The song begins with a Cuatro guitar native of Puerto Rico, which is chopped to sound more urban. Then a guïra and guache join in, which are percussion instruments used in cumbia and merengue music. This is followed by cowbells and timbales, which are single head steel drums used in salsa music.

Additionally, the song takes an entire minute in order to arrive at the catchy melody, which is incredibly uncommon in pop music. Grasping the listener’s attention with the rich music, the song thrusts them into the adrenalizing chorus. Furthermore, the fact that the song was not originally intended to be a crossover, but was conceived once Justin Bieber contacted Luis Fonsi to become involved in the piece, is particularly unusual in the music industry. This union between Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee allows for there to be a synthesis of cultural and musical ideas. The musical producers of “Despacito” noted that the manner in which Justin Bieber sings the introduction is completely unexpected especially for a reggaeton-pop song, however, it is successful and revolutionary.

Thus, after having contemplated the possible reasons why Despacito reached success in the United States, it is logical to try and understand how this song fits in relation to American society. The remix of the song was released on April 17, 2017 at a time when the United States had just elected a president that called Hispanics “bad hombres” and criminals and incited sentiments of xenophobia. Hence, with its Spanish, soft and cheerful sounds, “Despacito” provided a stark contrast to the harsh realities in the country and grim news headlines. Its overwhelming popularity helps promote the advancement of Latin American culture in the United States for several reasons. First, it displays Latino culture in the forefront of American pop culture and generates important conversations about Latinos in a positive light, straying away from the negative stereotypes generated by politics and the media. Many music experts, such as Julissa Lopez from the Washington Post, pinpoint “Despacito” as havingpaved the way for other crossover Spanish songs, especially J. Balvin’s “Mi Gente”, which has now surpassed “Despacito” as number one on the Top 40 on Spotify.

This, however, does not take into consideration how the Latino community has responded to the song, which has ultimately generated mixed reactions. Some in the community have looked at “Despacito” as assurance that the United States still values Latin Americans and the diversity of American society. Yet, many have negatively received Justin Bieber’s involvement in the song as almost “colonizing” the song, essentially taking credit for the success of the song. In fact, many in popular media have declared the song to be Bieber’s when it was the contrary.  What is still intriguing is that, although he did not write the song, Justin Bieber was a key piece to the puzzle of breaking into American Top 40, serving almost like a bridge amongst Latin Americans and the American public.

The music video of the song, which is now one of the most viewed videos of all time on YouTube, focuses on the island of Puerto Rico showing the beautiful beaches, people and women. It acts almost like a travel agency promo of the island, which is especially meaningful considering the current state of Puerto Rico, which is currently facing a huge debt crisis and struggling to rebuild itself after Hurricanes Maria. Although produced independently from the remix, this video became increasingly popular through the success of the remix, which generated a 45% increase in tourist interest in Puerto Rico.[4] This economic development is metaphorical forwhy the song was so triumphant, because just like Puerto Rico needs the help of the US in these times of trouble, Justin Bieber was able to help the already stunning “Despacito” achieve success in the United States.

 Examining the lyrics of the song, there is a common theme of the Caribbean lifestyle, specifically the Puerto Rican life, in lyrics like “this is how we do it down in Puerto Rico”, that focus on taking it slow and enjoying each moment and step “pasito a pasito”. The message behind these lyrics could be a vital aspect of “Despacito’s” success, as it could be that many listeners are nostalgic of a slower time where they would stop and savor each moment. With industrialization and capitalism, there are very few times where we are not rushed by the different errands and jobs we have to do. “Despacito” provides a stark contrast and reminds us to slow down every once in a while, as life and love are better taken despacito.

In this case, however, by looking at how “Despacito” fits in relation to the United States, it is less likely that many Top 40 listeners were deeply analyzing the lyrics and themselves yearning for a slower life. Thus, it is important to focus on Justin Bieber’s effect and what his incorporation in the remix signifies. Despite being born in Canada, Justin Bieber is a product of the American music industry, as he was discovered at age 13 by Scooter Braun and Usher. With these adults not only supporting him, but constantly coaching him on how to handle fame and his public image, their American influence is prevalent. Justin Bieber has been in the music industry now for over 10 years with multiple Top 40 hits at only 23 years old. While he has endured countless criticisms by those that say he is simply a teenage heartthrob thriving off of teenage girls and involved in multiple encounters with the law, he is also a savvy businessman with contracts with Adidas and Calvin Klein. There is no question, however, that Justin Bieber has defined popular culture, especially through his image and music. His engagement with “Despacito” and Latin American culture and the personal decision to choose to sing the chorus in Spanish represents a major shift in ideology for Americans, especially Millennials, a group that is more drawn to diversity and to un-conventionalism.

“Despacito” was a song manufactured to signify a switch in Luis Fonsi’s music from soft pop ballads to a pop-reggaeton-esque sound; it was never intended to be a political statement, but many citizens took it to be political, especially with the current political atmosphere. With the language of Spanish currently being politicized and many Latinos being harassed – even beaten -when speaking Spanish in the United States, the popularity of this song serves as a protest to Trump’s America. This shows that our demographics are changing, and we are becoming increasingly diverse. American culture is no longer solely European-influenced culture.  Additionally, the fact that Justin Bieber, a man in the music culture industry, took it upon himself to voluntarily adopt Spanish is in itself an act of political assertion. For many, Spanish is seen as the language that is invading and soiling America; however, “Despacito” defies this ideology, spanning past demographics and giving Americans something to hold on to – maybe with the slowed down lyric of “despacito”. Through this adaptation, Justin Bieber highlights the fact that America is changing, though slowly, in an ultimately refreshing way.




[1] Leight, Elias. “‘Despacito’ Singer Luis Fonsi On Surprise Spanish Smash, Bieber Blunder.” Rolling Stone, 2017,


[2] This argument is adapted from Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious


[3] Abad-Santos, Alex. “How “Despacito” Became The Biggest Song Of 2017.” Vox, 2017,


[4] “El Increíble Efecto “Despacito” En El Turismo De Puerto Rico.” Infobae, 2017,


Imaginary Realities

Have you ever really thought about where our societal norms and rules come from? To get even deeper, how our personal identities form? I never did either before this year, but it’s definitely something worth thinking about. When you look to the past and compare it to the present, you’ll notice that the general concepts of society very minimally change. So, what mediums are used in order to make sure it stays the same through all of the generations? Althusser, a French philosopher, seems to have the answer to all of these questions.

To understand what I’m going to talk about you have to understand Althusser’s philosophy. To put it simply, he believes that we are all governed by an ideology. An ideology is the tool by which other things reproduce, and it controls us and not the other way around. Ideologies support our societal relationships by reinforcing them through movies, TV shows, books, songs, and stories. Most people are not aware that this is what’s happening because it’s all happening subconsciously. It’s so engrained in our culture that we don’t notice it unless we take a deep look at what we’re watching/reading (ENG 117). What we’ll be doing in this essay is figuring out if the movie Rudy has an ideology, and, if so, what the ideology is.

For those of you who have never seen Rudy, it’s a truly touching movie about a football player who has big dreams of playing football for Notre Dame. No one really believes in him, including his family, but he works abnormally hard to get into Notre Dame and eventually play for the team. The movie ends with Rudy making a tackle in the final play of the game for Notre Dame. In this scene, he gets carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates with his dad in the stands crying tears of joy. 

At first look, you may think that moral of the story is to work hard and all of your dreams will come true. But when you look past the heart-warming scene of Rudy finally being able to step on the field for Notre Dame, and start to think like Althusser, there are a few underlying messages that are not as happy doo-diddy as the movie makes you feel. 

It’s pretty apparent that in the movie, Rudy represents a kid from a low-income household who was only supposed to be a factory worker and nothing more. The other Notre Dame football players, on the other hand, weren’t necessarily portrayed as wealthy, but it is evident that they were better off in all aspects of life than Rudy. There’s a scene in the movie where Rudy tackles the quarterback during practice and the quarterback starts yelling at Rudy telling him how he’s only a practice player and how he’s going to hurt someone if he keeps practicing like that. The coach then grabs the kid by the helmet and tells him that if he had half the heart that Rudy has then maybe he would be an All-American and not a sorry excuse for a football player (Rudy). There’s no hiding the fact that Rudy is the most hardworking player on the team, but even so he only gets to step on the field at the very end of the season for a single play. Our first instinct at the end of the movie is to be happy for Rudy that he finally gets to accomplish his dream of running through the tunnel for Notre Dame, but think about it, he doesn’t nearly get as much out of it as he put in. So, what’s the underlying ideology of this movie that’s being put into our brains?

The ideology of this movie is that no matter how hard lower class citizens work, they’re never going to be good as the upper class citizens who don’t nearly put in as much work. There’s always going to be a divide, and the poor are always going to be working for the rich. At one point in the movie Rudy is asked why he’s killing himself at practice when he doesn’t get anything out of it, and he says, “if I cool it out there, then I won’t be helping you guys win next week’s game” (Rudy). This quote pretty much sums it all up: lower class citizens are there to help the rich. As sad as it is, this has always been the case throughout history.

Another ideology in this movie reinforces the role of the church. When Rudy has no idea where to go or what to do when he finally makes it to Notre Dame, all signs point him towards the priest. Father Cavanaugh is the one who gave him his only chance of getting into Notre Dame. He enrolled Rudy into the local college, and that’s where Rudy got good enough grades to get into Notre Dame. There is no one as influential to Rudy, besides maybe the groundskeeper, in this movie. Also, whenever Rudy felt low-spirited and lost, the church is where he went. This movie puts into our brain that the church is our savior. Another aspect to take into consideration is that Notre Dame is a highly religious school and all Rudy wanted to do was get into this school. In this movie, the school represented Christianity in general. If this is true, then this movie puts into our mind that in order to be truly happy, we have to be “accepted” by God.

Some of these statements may seem absurd to you. That’s how I felt when my English class figured out the ideology of the Terminator 3, and Titanic. Who would’ve ever guessed that the Terminator supports male dominance and rape culture, or that the Titanic reinforces the class structure? I didn’t before I thought about the ideology of these movies, and now these claims seem very evident to me. This is exactly what Althusser, and other philosophers, were talking about when they said we don’t know that we’re being controlled by these ideologies. Unless we try to find the ideology, we don’t notice it, and, therefore, it unknowingly becomes a part of our daily thoughts. This is dangerous because our daily thoughts makeup our personal identity. And since these movies are being watched by thousands of people, we all start to have the same daily thoughts and so it naturally becomes a part of our society. The next time you watch a movie, try to figure out what the ideology is; you might discover something very few people have.


Rudy. Dir. David Anspaugh. 1993. Film.

Guy Talks Minecraft on YouTube: Art?

Ethoslab—a YouTube channel based upon the motto “Minecraft done technical”—demonstrates that we might not be doomed to eternal consumption of worthless drivel. Etho, as he goes, a mysterious, deep-voiced Canadian, takes viewers through a deliberate, yet purposeless investigation of the possibilities of the blocky world of Minecraft. One of his defining characteristics comes from a unique tendency to not shy away, as most others do, from Redstone, a metonymy for a set of materials in Minecraft that can complexly coalesce, like a circuit board, to form a variety of functions from calculating square roots to moving blocks. Etho’s calm and inquisitive style jarringly contrasts that of other Minecraft YouTubers, like the child-oriented StampyLongHead or the rowdy, raucous TheSyndicateProject, providing subtle brilliance in a sea of loud vacuity. Some might argue that his uniqueness is superficial, that his work, published by means of a multinational corporation and based upon a hugely monetized game, lacks meaning, echoing the thoughtless style of all gaming videos. But, having spent thousands of hours watching people play video games, I’m going to show you that his channel is special, and even more so because of its position at the center of virtual mass production.

YouTube provides a vehicle for content creators to reach a large audience of viewers while generating revenue through ads. The ultimate goal, therefore, is to generate the greatest number of clicks, rather than create the best content. To do so, YouTubers may embellish their videos with ridiculous titles and thumbnails. Take, for example, MomoFifaHD, whose second-most watched video is, “191 RATED IMPOSSIBLE FUT DRAFT GONE SEXUAL !! FUT DRAFT CHALLENGE,” with two females lustily kissing as the thumbnail. To paraphrase one astute commenter, not a single thing suggested in the title comes to fruition in the video. Everyone knows that clickbait of this nature is nothing new, but the brazen money-grabbing of this particular channel might flabbergast even internet veterans because MomoFifaHD has created an online shop for virtual currency in Fifa, and he sings about it at the beginning of every video to make sure you know. Basically, after watching an ad, the viewer is treated to another ad preceding badly-made clickbait.

The offending video

I bring this example up, not to suggest that all other YouTubers possess such blatant avarice, but to juxtapose the beauty of Ethoslab. When you go to his channel, every video is classified according to a series, with a well-thought-out title. To give you an idea of what that entails, here’s a title from one of my favorite videos: “Minecraft – Project Ozone 2 #47: Automate Inosculate.” Lo and behold, in the video, automations are fitted tightly together (“inosculate” means fit tightly together). Now, you might say that many YouTubers can make specific and clever titles, so how is this guy different? Rather than distinguishing him entirely, this tendency illuminates his sui generis orientation towards what some call purposiveness with no purpose[1] (Adorno and Horkheimer, 127).

Before I dive into the content of Etho’s videos, I would like to briefly return to greed in the world of YouTube. Some might argue that in such a highly-controlled medium, in which it’s obvious that everyone tries to make as much money as possible, a “different” YouTuber is simply impossible. To an extent, even in Ethoslab, the power of capitalism is evident; Etho does release unedited, half-assed videos with friends, videos no different from the rest of the bland Minecraft landscape. I would like to say that I propound Ethoslab as an escape from the mass production of shitty YouTube videos, not on the basis of those half-assed videos, but on the basis of what I will call his main series. These main series, full of passion, can take weeks, even years to create; to support them, he does release lower-quality content, but this should not devalue his magnum opus. His conformation is simply a struggle against the culture of YouTube, a struggle which makes his purposiveness with no purpose even more magnificent. Perhaps a cynical person might say that this is a tragedy in itself, but I would say the opposite. What detractors of modern culture seem to have gotten wrong is that even in the belly of the beast, original work is possible, and that makes such work even more impressive.

A half-assed video from Ethoslab

So, you might be wondering, what do I mean by purposiveness with no purpose? As we have already discussed, there are those YouTubers that are motivated entirely by profit. Then, there are those that focus on creating the best content for their viewers. All YouTubers fall somewhere on this spectrum from total profit-maximization to altruistic content creation—except Etho. Ethoslab reintroduces “l’art pour l’art” (“art for art’s sake”), the intentional creation of content for the sake of the content itself, something his environment notably allows for. Look at the medium in which Etho publishes. On YouTube, he can upload any video without subjection to censorship (at least of videos of this type). Moreover, in Minecraft, after one covers the basic needs of the player—food, light sources, materials for crafting, etc.—the player can have “virtual leisure” in a world where literally everything can be modified. Basically, the player has the freedom to pursue any idea. So, when Etho uploads, he can do so without censorship and on his own virtual time: the perfect setting for creativity in this technological era.

We must now take note of the astounding amount of work that goes into each video in his main series. Etho attends to everything. Watch an episode of his longest-running project, “Etho Plays Minecraft,” and you’ll see that even the transitions are made deliberately. Off-camera, Ethos does a ridiculous amount of simply unnecessary work because he refuses to utilize “creative mode,” in which the player becomes a sort of Minecraft god—having the ability to break any block, create an infinite amount of any material, and even fly. There is no rationale for not using creative at times. In one project, to create a massive storage apparatus called the “Nexus,” Etho needed hundreds of thousands of Redstone and iron materials, which would take hundreds of hours to procure through simply playing the game. Instead of getting them through “creative mode,” he spent months getting the materials off-camera, making the viewers wait, and slowly making progress.

An episode on the huge “Nexus” project

Etho doesn’t create content for his viewers. He doesn’t show his face (which people incessantly demand) or talk about his life, outside of trivialities, because the focus is clear: content. Take for example, an episode of one great Ethoslab series, “Feed the Beast 2.” Etho has a choice: create a railway to transport materials, or use a virtual teleporter. The former being difficult and time-consuming and the latter being effortless and efficient, Etho decides to make the train track. Note that Minecrafters like to have the greatest efficiency when building anything, so Etho’s decision made me, as a viewer, uncomfortable and slightly annoyed. If entertainment or utility were either of the benchmarks for video quality, this decision would hinder both. Yet, in hindsight, I consider the decision to be a beautiful one, in its humanity, which highlights Etho’s purposiveness with no purpose. Though, perhaps that example could be construed as trivial or random.

To give a better sense of what Etho does so brilliantly, I’d like to bring up the “Dance of the Rolls” from the 1925 Charlie Chaplin movie, The Gold Rush. During one of the gags, as Chaplin sits down to eat (and charm a pretty woman), he picks up two bread rolls, puts a fork in both, and makes them look like a ballerina’s feet. It’s a surprising moment, when the viewer can simply appreciate the art of film, human and complete in itself, and Etho manages to create such moments with surprising regularity. Causing heated arguments in the comments, my favorite example of this becomes a staple of Ethoslab: Etho makes a point of destroying what he calls “blue, shiny rocks”—diamonds, the most valuable resource in the game—in favor of Redstone and iron, which have practical functions. In fact, he places diamond ore around his main base, making sure to let the viewer see, but never actually explaining the presence. In doing so, he creates a mystical allure that completely surprises the viewer, causing an appreciation for something done deliberately with no purpose.

Clip of the “Dance of the Rolls” from The Gold Rush

A compilation of Etho’s treatment of diamonds

Ethoslab is universally loved by its entire fan base, and in fact, I believe that the channel has the most appreciative viewers of any channel on YouTube. Seriously, go to any of Etho’s videos and look at the adoring praise heaped upon him. To quote viewer Seth Lol in response to Etho, “Thank you for giving me hope in humanity” (Seth Lol, 2015). Still, Etho’s channel (which has 1.9 million subscribers) has been stagnating of late. The infrequent uploads have decreased the number of committed viewers, pointing to a flaw in the mass production of YouTube videos: the necessity to produce all the time, which hampers the ability of individuals to create beautiful, purposeless art. Yet, Ethoslab resists and persists. Art survives.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, 2007, pp. 94–136.

Seth Lol. “Re: Etho Plays Minecraft – Episode 403: Castle Gate.” 16 Apr. 2015. Comment on video.


[1] This concept seems to be rooted in Kant, but that is outside the scope of this paper.

Ogres, Onions, and Their Lack of Layers

Not too long ago, the Mattel fashion doll “Barbie” was a young girl’s favorite toy.  Barbie and Ken could be found in nearly every toy chest, children using their imaginations to play out perfect fantasies with the dolls. And that became the goal, to not only obtain such a fantasy, but to look like Barbie. Unfortunately, that is entirely impossible. According to Daily Mail, if Barbie were an actual human, she would be “incapable of lifting her neck” due to her length to thickness ratio, her oversized head, the fact that there is “only have room for half a liver” due to her waist size, and due to her small feet in proportion to the rest of her frame she “would have to walk on all fours.”1 Children are left with a highly impractical notion of what is considered beautiful, chasing a dream which cannot be caught.

Similarly, traditional children’s movies have undergone some criticism for the ideologies they tend to push upon the impressionable viewers. On a casual viewing, they may appear to be simply good-hearted and inspirational, but realistically they are far from as innocent as their target audience. Rather, they do not remain free from society’s grasp; they are still fervent with ideology. These movies promulgate orthodox standards of beauty and fairytale dreams, which are often unrealistic and as a result, leave children with dreams that will ultimately fall short. However, it poses the question: is this always the case?

The Dreamworks film, Shrek, attempts to reject these beauty standards by having ogres as its main characters. So, this means the movie must be free from the shackles of restrictive gender norms then, right?

        Indeed, Shrek is not your stereotypical idea of Prince Charming, which Princess Fiona even acknowledges when she first sees him take his helmet off. Yet when examined further, this break from the stereotypes is fairly surface level. Initially, when Lord Farquaad is searching for who he should recruit to rescue the princess, he gathers all of the top knights in DuLoc. He says to his guards, “Gather your best men.”2 This already insinuates the idea that the only members of society that could be tough enough to undergo such a quest are males rather than females. Such masculinist ideas are not uncommon, but are worth pointing out nonetheless. Further, even though Shrek is not one of the knights chosen by Lord Farquaad, let alone a knight at all, he still defiantly defeats all of the knights. In this way, he is not some meager being on this journey, even though he is slightly portrayed as the scrappy underdog figure when he sets out on this adventure. Rather, he is taller and stronger than any of the other knights that had been up for selection, making him in some ways an even more masculine figure than the others, pushing this perspective of height and strength being necessary for the valor.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the movie presents the proverbial plot with a princess in need of rescuing. While Princess Fiona is displayed later to be slightly more self-sufficient than previous movie princesses, she is still depicting as needing the help of some valiant person to free her, and is incapable of doing so on her own. This notion seems to be mostly in her head, as when Shrek arrives at her chamber, she closes her eyes and pretends to be asleep while she waits for him to kiss her, willingly submitting herself to this fairytale idea of a helpless damsel in distress. Throughout the rescuing process, she criticizes the situation for not being “how it’s supposed to be” as if life is not worth living if it is not in accordance with these fairy tale ideas.2 This ideology has been pushed upon her, manipulating her for so long through this royalty and magic community, and with her behavior in these scenes she continues to perpetuate and support these ideas. The princess has spent so long in this tower awaiting her happily ever after, and even with the ever so slightly more unconventional path taken to get there, at the finale of the movie the princess and her savior are pictured riding off into the sunset in their carriage. Happiness, in the case of this movie, is consistently associated with the finding of true love. The song playing while Shrek goes to the castle to rescue the princess even states, “I’m on my way from misery to happiness today.”2 Essentially, all of the sadness portrayed in the beginning of the film is chalked up to simply being loneliness while waiting to find true love, as if that will immediately solve all problems.

These clichéd gender roles are omnipresent throughout the film. Even before we are introduced to Princess Fiona, the magic mirror presents the “eligible bachelorettes” to Lord Farquaad as if they are prizes on a gameshow, then insinuating that these women are up for his ownership.2 In this case, the women are worth nothing more to Farquaad than a path to the crown. Essentially, Farquaad dehumanizes women by treating them as property or like a farm animal. Later, when they arrive at the castle and are searching for the dragon, Donkey asks Shrek, “Where is this fire breathing pain in the neck anyway?” to which Shrek retorts, “inside waiting for us to rescue her,” once again poking fun at women and their value to society.2 And these examples only continue. On the way back from the castle, the princess is constantly very demanding, and complains until Shrek physically shuts her up, demonstrating the idea that women are annoying for their chatter, and further that it is acceptable to exploit their physical dominance over a woman if she is being annoying. When Fiona feels bad about her actions in the morning, she wakes up early to cook breakfast for the males, which is yet another stereotype about how women belong in the kitchen, and that women’s worth is to carry out minor tasks for the man while the man’s job is to provide. In the same fashion, when they make camp at night, Fiona remarks that she needs to add some “homey touches” to the place, reinforcing the typical role of women as homemakers, as women can only be trusted for tasks such as decorating and cooking.2 Even in a movie where they attempt to make the princess seem like less like a classic royalty figure, with her willingness to belch publicly for example, the alterations made to her character are still fairly surface-level, not going any deeper than manners and the ogre exterior at night. Even as they try to make her seem tougher, when she fights Robin Hood’s men, the camera cuts to slow motion in the middle of a high-kick so that she can fix her hair. The directors cannot even manage to provide a full scene of the princess behaving in an independent, tough manner without throwing something in that resorts her back to the feminine role, showing her caring just as much about how she looks as she does with her own survival in this adrenaline-filled scene.

In addition to the reinforcement of the stereotypical gender roles of women, Shrek ridicules deviations from idealized masculinity. Lord Farquaad’s character embodies the penalties of toxic masculinity in drawn out and exemplified physical form. Shrek, being the tall, strong masculine character, consistently pokes fun at Lord Farquaad for his lack of height, a recurring point of humor in the film. For example, when Shrek and Donkey first arrive at Farquaad’s castle in DuLoc, noticing how oversized it is, Shrek notes, “Do you think he’s compensating for something?”2 While it is clear that he is speaking toward Farquaad being so small in stature and most likely his size below the belt as well, this insinuates that small stature is a deviation from the masculine ideal requiring compensation. Thusly, the film equates masculinity to height, reinforcing these notions of male gender roles in juxtaposition to the previously established female gender roles. Examples of this are sprinkled throughout, demonstrating Lord Farquaad’s attempts at “compensation,” such as when he has fake armor legs built into the side of his horse so that he looks tall when he arrives in front of Princess Fiona for the first time on his steed. Even on their wedding cake, Lord Farquaad has his cake topper set at the same height as Princess Fiona, to which she responds by pushing his further down into the cake.

All of this still equates to show the same principle, that being short is something that should be hidden, something that a male should find embarrassing because it is seen as a weakness.

A more intriguing point, however, can be made when it comes to the relationship between the fairytale creatures and the people of DuLoc. In the beginning scenes when Donkey is first introduced, the guards are lining up and enclosing the creatures in cages in exchange for money, as the townsfolk sell away the freedom of these creatures in a very inhumane manner. This is notably reminiscent of times throughout history with mass genocide, where the group that is inpower, considering themselves “normal,” sells out the other group as if they are merely objects, ostracizing them for being different. Lord Farquaad states that they are to go to “designated resettlement facilities,” which seems quite similar to how the Nazis called their camps for the Jewish people “concentration camps,” painting them in a much nicer light than what they really were.2 Essentially, Lord Farquaad is also trying to exterminate the magic creatures for being different, as they interfere with the “perfectly” white community that he is striving for. Even at the information booth, when the automated figures sing to Shrek and Donkey about how “DuLoc is a perfect place,” it is a figure full of all identical, white humans.2

The connection can then be made that everything is perfect when all differences are eliminated, continuing this Holocaust-reminiscent idea.

From a surface level view, Shrek makes some strides in a positive direction by avoiding a stereotypical princess or knight in shining armor, but their change in appearance is superficial, not belying any deeper subversion of gender norms. The persistent use of stereotypical gender roles accompanied by the clichéd notions of a happily-ever-after implant such ideals into the audience’s heads. And to top it all off, the movie even attempts to make a version of mass-genocide seem much more innocent and cartoonish, slipping in this idea in such a way that it does not appear to be as outright cruel and inhumane as it is in actuality, making it almost seem okay to the youngviewers that likely have not been taught of the Holocaust yet. Even “progressive” children’s movies apparently are much more tainted than they would initially appear to be.



1. Golgowski, Nina. “Bones so Frail It Would Be Impossible to Walk and Room for Only Half a Liver: Shocking Research Reveals What Life Would Be like If a REAL Woman Had Barbie’s Body.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 14 Apr. 2013.

  1. Barbie Doll Statistics

2. “The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb).” The Internet Movie Script Database,

Statues and Stuff

The political climate has become dangerously nasty here in the U.S, and all of that animus came to a head in Charlottesville last August. It doesn’t need much explaining: we all heard about it; we were all outraged by the events. It definitely was a low point in our public discourse. Now, one of the immediate effects of Charlottesville was to bring the issue of statue removal out into the open. The whole Charlottesville fiasco revolved around a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and since a person was killed over that monument, statues must be a pretty big deal. And in fact, they are a big deal for our culture, because they are supposed to represent the ideals that we respect, revere, and hold dear. So naturally, when a group feels that a monument does not reflect their values, they will attempt to replace it or rid themselves of it completely. While on the other hand, people will vigorously defend a monument when they feel it’s worthy. But how exactly does a person make a decision upon the acceptability of something like a monument?

Well, the way I conceive of it, it all comes down to two different scenarios. Either a person will rely heavily upon pure ideology and emotions, or a person will rely primarily upon logical thinking based on facts. (In the context of this argument, I’m taking ideology to be the ideas and frames of thought that we fall back upon subconsciously. Essentially our inherent intellectual biases.) Now, if we look at which is the dominant method, it would be the former because social and cultural life are “governed by ideologies.” This occurs largely because in order to guide our choices, it’s convenient and comfortable for us to pick from the things we know. Especially in extremely emotional situations like Charlottesville, our instincts grab for the quickest reaction from the framework of our mind – our ideologies. Now, this becomes a problem when we consider the philosophical claim that ideologies operate by thinking about things as though they don’t have histories. For example, when we go and buy a shirt we never stop to consider its (likely) history of being made in a sweat shop in Vietnam or Honduras. It just does not cross our minds. Similarly, the statue controversy is also evidence for this claim.

To see why this is the case, consider that in the aftermath of Charlottesville, we saw a swift movement by many city councils across the country to remove Confederate monuments in their towns. One personal instance of this is my hometown in Montana, where a Confederate fountain was promptly removed following Charlottesville. But what was also promptly removed was the public debate concerning the removal of the fountain that had been going on for years prior, since the Ferguson riots. In an instant, a logical debate about the merits and drawbacks of the fountain evaporated and was replaced by a view of it as simply a racist object – no history, no facts, just racist. Similarly in Durham, North Carolina, a statue of a generic Confederate soldier was torn down by protesters. And then for good measure, the protesters took turns stomping on the bust to really teach it a lesson. Obviously these peoples’ actions were dictated solely by their ideologies. What I mean is that most would not classify stamping down on rocks as logical behavior. Really, all these people knew was that the item they were dealing with was racist and that it must go; thus, no thought was put into the history and context of the object. In effect, they only took in a portion of the statue’s qualities because their political ideologies took a front seat in their thought processes.

Now you – the reader – are probably thinking that in the case of these statues, it’s a good thing that people are acting on their ideologies because Confederate monuments really are racist and should have no place in America. Well, you would be correct….to a point. To see why, consider that if ideology does shutter us from seeing the full picture of an object, and if we are relying on ideology in our assessment of statues, we are not getting the full picture of this problem. Therefore, to illustrate how we can get a wholesome analysis of a statue or historical figure, I will outline with two examples how we can use a logical and fact-based approach to come to a more informed decision.

First we will go to Memphis, Tennessee where there’s a statue of a Confederate general named Nathan Bedford Forrest. By any standards, Forrest was a bad dude. According to, before the Civil War, he owned several plantations and many slaves. He also amassed a small fortune in the horrendous trading of slaves. During the War, Forrest became a vicious cavalry commander. In 1864, at the Battle of Fort Pillow, Forrest slaughtered hundreds of Union soldiers – many of them free blacks – after they had surrendered. After the War, Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize freedmen and ensure the survival of the Southern tradition, becoming the group’s first “Grand-wizard” ( Given this information, we can make a logically informed decision about the kind of man Forrest was, and upon whether we should accept a monument in his honor to stand in a public space. And with these facts, any fair-minded individual would deem Forrest a traitor, killer, terrorist, racist, etc. and would find it repulsive to honor him publicly in any way. Really, all one needs to consider is the scenario where an African-American from Memphis has to walk by a statue of the founder of the KKK to go to the park, and it’s obvious that the statue must go. The only conceivable place where a Forrest statue would be warranted is at a museum or historical site. For example, at the site of the Battle of Ft. Pillow, a statue of Forrest complete with ample descriptions of his life would be tolerable for the purpose of preserving history, so that the world might not suffer from another Nathan Bedford Forrest.

For the second example, let’s get back to Robert E. Lee and examine him more closely. First of all, historical documents show that Lee was very torn over the issue of slavery. Around 1856 he penned a letter to his wife that included passages such as: “In this enlightened age… slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in any Country.” But also: “I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things” (Blount). So Lee exhibits the very common racist idea of the time that blacks need “instruction as a race,” but he also finds slavery to be evil and a drag on the morals of the nation. Also, in a twisted way he hoped that slavery would “prepare & lead [African-Americans] to better things.” The ambiguousness of this thought is astonishing because he seems to want blacks to have a better life, but also finds it acceptable to have them enslaved and oppressed. So it would appear based on this that Lee had a higher moral standard for his time and place, especially compared to men like Forrest. But this still does not subtract from his debased racial ideology. Turning to the Civil War, Lee was actually set to be on the Union side. Educated at West Point, Lee served in the U.S. Army for over 30 years; but when his home state of Virginia joined the Confederacy, he of course chose to side with his family roots (and the institution of slavery) over his country. This traitorous decision put him on the wrong side of history to be sure. But after surrendering to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, Lee was a proponent of reconciliation and accepted the abolition of slavery. He did not institute a reign of terror such as Forrest did by founding the KKK; rather, he strove for a peaceful resolution. His racist ideals did not improve however, as he believed that blacks were not intelligent enough to vote after they were freed (Blount). So overall, there is more to Robert E. Lee than one might initially think. Despite his ardent racism, Lee had some honorable qualities and wanted the African race to be better off – albeit in a sick and cruel way.

Back to the statue conundrum, we are now in a better position to decide what should become of Lee monuments. This one isn’t as easy as the Forrest situation, so it should come down to context and the citizens who own the monument space. If a public square has a statue of Lee on horseback bedazzled in Confederate regalia complete with battle flags and the like, the people of that residence have all the right to say: “you know what? This Robert E. Lee was very hostile to African-Americans and we feel that this statue doesn’t represent our values.” Another possibility could be to keep a Lee statue but have a plaque describing Lee’s history and his good and bad qualities. And then maybe at a place like Washington & Lee University, they might decide that a statue of Lee might be desirable because he was president of the college and that he was an honorable man in an academic context. Truly, any course of action is sufficient as long as it’s not subject to ideological authoritarianism and is made with full knowledge of the facts.

After considering these two examples, we see that both Confederate generals were more than just racist. Forrest was a racist, but also a brutal killer and tyrant. Lee was a racist, but also exhibited noble thoughts and actions towards blacks and his Northern opponents – a moral step above most white Southerners of his time. (Remember, this is not glorifying Lee in any way; it’s simply a logical observation based upon historical evidence.) When we obtain these more holistic pictures of historical figures we are no longer relying on raw emotions and blind ideology to inform our decisions, but rather logical and factual thinking are guiding us. Some people may not agree that this approach is preferable, but hopefully will see that it does have merit in that it relies on common sense and hard evidence.

The main issue with the ideological approach to the statues, – deeming them racist – although valid, is that it’s severely insufficient to simply discredit a historical figure as a racist. For in reality, we could classify almost every white American in the 18th and 19th centuries as racist from our 21st century perspective. This includes Abe Lincoln who would have been happy to preserve slavery in order to preserve the Union (fortunately that was not the case). In other words, there are two ways we can look at this issue: (1) we can classify every person that came before us as bad, or (2) we can acknowledge that those that came before us shared a bad quality and then differentiate the kind of people they were in a different way – in the context of their time period. Because really, Americans 100 years in the future will look down upon us for things that we do. Maybe it will be for fidget spinners, or for Youtube families – maybe even for dank memes. Either way, our progeny will look down on us just as we do our forebears. Anyways, if we refuse to make distinctions about historical people and want to tear down statues simply because they’re “racist,” we can knock down every statue.

But this, in all actuality, is the threat that our country is dealing with – the threat essentially of cultural cleansing. The Confederate statue thing is just the tip of the iceberg. Although we did talk about how there are other options for the Confederate monuments, most Americans recognize that those statues represent treason and oppression and that their time is up. But those that hate this country are setting their sights higher. The Founding Fathers and even the Constitution may soon be on the chopping block, for our Founders were racist, and the Constitution contains extremely racist and oppressive language (3/5’s Compromise). Just last month, the school district of Dallas, Texas announced they will look into changing the names of schools named after figures such as Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. How will these people make this decision? And how far will this go- how far are we willing to let this go? We are on a slippery slope. We can either kick down our legs and stop in the right place, or slide right down to the bottom.


Citations Staff. “Nathan Bedford Forrest.”, A&E Television Networks, 2009,


Blount, Roy. “Making Sense of Robert E. Lee.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 July 2003,