Tag Archives: gender roles

Race and Power in Madonnna’s “Human Nature”

This is a cross-post from mah Tumblr (which you should be following if you want to get bite-size feminsty, social justicey goodness from me on the regular).

Andreas and I watched Madonna’s “Human Nature” video together last night because we wanted to listen to the song. I’ve seen this video a bunch of times, but this time around I noticed some interesting stuff going on with race.

Background: Human Nature is a song all about how sex, sexual urges, fantasies, etc. all that sexy stuff is natural and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, yada yada. The video has lots of leather and BDSM imagery. On to the analysis:

First of all, Madge has dark cornrows, a traditionally African hairstyle, throughout the video:

Rockin the white-girl braids

The intent is obviously to make her look more severe and aggressive (because POC are totally aggressive, amirite?). Another thing going on in this video is the “artistic choice” to have her extremely pale skin and the white background contrast with both the black leather and the skin tones of the people around her (be they POC or just tanner-than-her white people; everyone in this video is a shade or two darker than Madonna):

Madonna as the blazing white center of everything

But then things get even more weirdly, racially suggestive. At one point, Madonna is tied to a chair, being ravished by two men. Their physical placement is below her, but she still isn’t a place of sexual aggression or power, which is made especially obvious when one of the men pushes the shit out of her head and she looks pretty pissed about it.

Aggressive women get their shit tied up and dominated

The issue here isn’t about how consensual the act is. Everything in this video is implied to be consensual because the song is about fantasies and sexual kinks. But here’s where it gets… fishy. In the very next scene Madonna is the sexual aggressor. Her cornrows are now less “aggressive”-looking and poof out in the back in sort of a faux-Fro, still a less “ethnic” looking hairstyle than the previous one. She’s dominating the one clearly Black woman in the video. There are two women in the video other than Madonna, and both are darker than her, but with the one who gets tied up and dominated by Madonna, it’s immediately obvious that she’s a Black woman.

Not to mention the way that the WOC is tied up is much more uncomfortable and exposed

WOC as furniture for Madonna to lean on

This part really does seem to go on and on

LOL, I love representing white superiority! Having a black sex servant is AWESOME and HILARIOUS

So now I’m sitting here thinking about the implications of these “artistic” choices. It’s hard to believe that they chose the Black woman to be tied up and dominated by the lily-white Madonna by accident or coincidence. Even if the thought process was “it goes along with the choice to contrast skin tones and scenery,” that’s still problematic. And the more I think about it, the weirder and ickier it seems: when Madonna is ethnic and aggressive with her white-girl cornrows, she’s dominated by men. But when she looks less aggressive and threatening, when she’s smiling and laughing, she gets to dominate another woman, a WOC.

There’s fucked-up power shit going on here: men who are darker than Madonna, but not Black or extremely dark men, dominate women—even aggressive women. And white women—even non-aggressive, cutesy women who carry little dogs with their whips—dominate Black women.

Also, it’s fundamentally problematic to have a room full of darker-skinned people and have the center of all of their sexual desire be a blindingly pale white woman.

Bish needs some vitamin D, in a motherfucking hurry.

WTF, Madonna. You got some weird racial shit going on in this video.

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Link Dump: #53

Hey, it’s Kirara, Sango’s demon-cat companion from InuYasha! Pretty old-school, right? Brings back memories of watching Adult Swim at 2 AM. (For me, anyway.) She’s here, in her cute diminutive form, to welcome us into December. And to entreat you to check out this compendium of fun, fascinating links:

And we’ve got search terms! Like “creepy distorted face music video.” Which, c’mon, doesn’t that refer to like 95% of all pseudo-avant-garde music videos? We had “define:pussy”—FYI, Google says it’s “2. vulgar. A woman’s genitals.” And finally, “satanic whore gets fucked on pentagram.” I’m sure there’s porn out there for that. Or, again, music videos. Lots and lots of awful music videos.

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Things That Confuse and Anger Me About The Harry Potter Series: Half-Blood Prince Part 1

So, we are slowly but surely reaching the end point of this project of mine. Rereading this book was a much more pleasant experience than rereading Order of the Phoenix, obvs, but I still had quite a few problems with it! So without further rambling, here’s the first part of my critique of HBP.

1. I am four chapters in and I have found nothing to say yet. This is pretty astounding. Especially considering that in Order of the Phoenix it took me about 3 pages to start bitching. What an improvement. (Oh, my God, I’m into the sixth book and I’m still talking about book five. I think this reread has made me hate that book. Okay, maybe not hate—I don’t hate any of them—but it’s made me realize that it’s my least favorite and probably the worst in the series.)

2. This is something that is a bit of a joke between Andreas and I: the way J.K. R. just cannot stop herself from describing how fat Slughorn is every single time he’s on the page. Like…seriously, there is always like five different mentions of his huge stomach or fat hands or how he resembles a walrus or…something! We get it! He’s fat! We got it the first fifty times you mentioned it. She might as well write “Slughorn fatly moved his fatness across the room and he was fat while he did it. FAT.” This kind of connects to something else that I have an issue with: almost every single fat or larger-than-average character is mean or unpleasant. Dudley, Vernon, Aunt Marge, Millicent Bullstrode, Crabbe and Goyle, Peter Pettigrew, Myrtle. Even Neville doesn’t get “cool” and more confident until he’s older—and thinner. I’m surprised she didn’t go all the way with the “fat=bad” shit and make Voldemort a 400 pound snake-man who swoops in on a flying bed covered in ice cream and Cauldron Cakes.

Hit the jump to see who gets unfairly hit by the “implausible love” train, Harry being a dick (shocking, I know), Ron’s ugly jealousy and more…

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Eric Rohmer and Love’s Madness

This is my contribution to The Late Show, a blogathon being held by David Cairns of Shadowplay. The premise is simple: it’s the end of the year, so let’s write about the ends of filmmakers’ careers. Thus, I have for you a true swan song: the late Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), a film about love, loyalty, beauty, youth, and all the other themes that preoccupied Rohmer across his half-century film career. It’s also extraordinarily beautiful in a way that recalls Rohmer’s many collaborations with cinematographer Néstor Almendros, like Love in the Afternoon (1972) or Claire’s Knee (1970, my favorite). It’s also, quite simply, a charming and lovable movie.

“Love is mad,” says Celadon. This film is about just that: love’s madness and its many forms. Based loosely on a 17th century novel set in 5th century Gaul, Astrea and Celadon traces the path taken by the titular shepherdess and shepherd, each of whom is intractably smitten with the other, as they’re separated and must fight to be rejoined. Their trials all start because Celadon – per his parents’ commands – must pretend to be in love with another shepherdess; Astrea thinks this charade is real, and doubts Celadon’s fidelity. To prove his love, he throws himself into the river, only for his body to be discovered by a trio of castle-dwelling nymphs, one of whom is lovelorn.

From here, they must overcome one obstacle after another. Finding no body, Astrea thinks Celadon is dead – a belief that persists until the film’s final moments. Celadon, however, cannot reveal the truth to her, because of her last, spiteful order that he stay away. So one misunderstanding leads to another as the two mixed-up lovers puzzle out the shifting rules that guide human relationships and wander across the blooming Gallic countryside. Meanwhile, through its peripheral characters, the film makes detours into religious rites, divinity, and the differences between pure and impure love. As always, Rohmer – a Renaissance man, like other members of the French New Wave – has a lot on his mind, and he’s not afraid to explore it through dense, meandering conversations.

Unlike a lot of last films, this is a swan song worthy of its director’s oeuvre. It’s just as delicate and understated as any of his work, and is bursting with intellectual inquiry and creative energy; despite being 87 when he made it, Rohmer had lost none of his artistic spark, nor his ability to sympathetically portray impulsive, lovestruck youth. Like his Six Moral Tales, Astrea and Celadon is about desires and choices, lies and truths. Like those films, it confronts its characters’ romantic decisions and their consequences. During one erotically charged sequence, for example, Celadon stumbles upon Astrea, his lost love, sleeping blindfolded in the woods. Slowly, fearfully, he bends over her and, just as their lips are about to touch, she wakes up. He runs away, but she catches a glimpse of him and believes she has seen the dead Celadon’s soul.

The stakes of this scene are high, but entirely intangible. No one’s going to die, and no war is going to be lost. But Celadon, if caught, will break an immutable contract between him and the girl he loves, and that matters as much as anything. Through nuanced characterization and slightly tricky plotting, Rohmer can set up tiny, even imperceptible actions as the objects of great importance. Love, as Celadon says, is mad; it’s irrational and self-contradictory. Rohmer’s lovers grow closer and closer, but must stay apart for reasons they don’t fully understand.

Toward the end of the film, a helpful druid organizes one last charade: Celadon, with his feminine features, will pose as his daughter Alexia. Thus disguised, he spends day and night with Astrea, who suspects nothing but feels an instant rapport with her new acquaintance. Through this duplicity, they are able to know each other anew – and Rohmer can also engage the complexities of gender relations. He doesn’t treat the cross-dressing frivolously, but as a new way for the lovers to find and understand each other, and through this, the film’s last few seconds (the last few seconds of Rohmer’s whole career) are profoundly satisfying.

Celadon’s transgressions of gender norms are not forgotten, but folded into the happy ending. Astrea finally sees the girl she’s been kissing as the male love she presumed dead, and everything shifts into place. It’s a “God’s in his heaven / All’s right with his world” moment, and in true Rohmer form, it’s fully realized just as the credits begin to roll. There’s no fanfare or swelling music, but the ending’s impact still penetrated my emotions. That’s the magic of Eric Rohmer at work. He makes no concessions to Hollywood-bred clichés or received wisdom about how to film romance, but nonetheless makes love stories like no others.

And make no mistake: Astrea and Celadon is a strikingly, rapturously beautiful movie. Shot on location in rural France by Diane Baratier, it feels authentically like a Renaissance understanding of ancient Gaul, with little on the soundtrack but birdsong, footsteps, and human voices as its characters trek through miles of sunlit greenery. (The cast members, as well, universally match their surroundings’ beauty.) It’s as pastoral as a movie can be, filmed so gently and sweetly that it plays like a visual sonnet cycle. Once you enter this world, you don’t want to leave. You just want to hand yourself over to Rohmer, and sink into his idyllic vision of the world. He may be gone now, but at least he left so many films behind to comfort us.

Addendum: for what it’s worth, there’s no consensus on the title of this film – i.e., whether there’s a “The” at the beginning, or whether it’s “Astree” or “Astrea” – so I just went with the title on the DVD case.

And so, what about you? Are you intrigued by Rohmer’s vision of love and loss? Have you dipped into earlier areas of his filmography? All comments are welcome.

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Filth, Fame, and Divine

I really really love John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). It’s one of the most infamous cult movies of all time; it’s also hilarious, unrelentingly in-your-face, and endlessly enjoyable in the most tasteless ways. Hell, I love it so much that I wrote a 12-page paper on it a week ago called “Divine, Pink Flamingos, and the Politicized Body.” Therefore, I’d love to share with you what I learned from this paper. The fruits of my intellectual labor, if you will! And better yet, I’ll present them via a bulleted list, as my gift to you.

  • The mother: Within the film, Divine’s body is squeezed into a lot of roles. She’s a loving mother, a sexy starlet, and a mass murderer. The conflation of these gendered identities subverts them all, making for some pretty acrid social commentary. Babs Johnson’s brood is the American family run amok (complete with incest and chicken-fucking), and she’s an exaggerated, parodic portrayal of the ideal suburban homemaker – June Cleaver as a fat, foul-mouthed drag queen.
  • Sexualization: Divine (the character) isn’t just a mother; she’s also a horny gal raring for some action. Or as she puts it: “Why, I’m all dressed up and ready to fall in love!” She embraces a clichéd 1950s image of what attractive women are, and how they act, even if that image is self-evidently ridiculous. Like the film as a whole, she undercuts social norms by claiming as her own the lowest, tackiest, most degraded forms of cultural discourse.
  • The transgressive body: Early in Pink Flamingos, Divine buys a slab of meat and warms it up “in [her] own little oven” by holding it between her legs. Later, she barbecues the meat and serves it to her family for dinner. She’s the homemaking matriarch, but she also rubs food against her genitalia, licks furniture, and eats shit. The actions don’t suit the role, but Divine does them anyway.

  • Violence: As Michael Tinkcom points out in Working Like a Homosexual, John Waters totally anticipated the tabloid glamorization of criminals, and did it better than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Divine and her family are a pack of fugitives, “the filthiest people alive,” and this only compounds her sex appeal. As Pink Flamingos sees it, there’s no difference between pin-up and wanted posters. (Female Trouble delves even deeper into this – “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself!”)
  • Celebrity: Pink Flamingos is really about the cult of celebrity. In Divine, his cinematic muse, John Waters blends Jayne Mansfield with the Manson Family. (The film quotes a scene from the Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It [1956], and it’s dedicated to “Sadie, Katie, and Les,” three of the Manson girls.) By mixing sex, violence, and press coverage, Waters is essentially writing a love (or poison pen?) letter to postwar mass culture. (Also, for what it’s worth, I think Divine might be the Lady Gaga of the 1970s.)

So there you have it! It’s my reading of Pink Flamingos in just a few bite-sized pieces. It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the general idea. I talked about Rachel Adams’ Sideshow U.S.A., especially her take on Zoe Leonard’s photographs of bearded lady Jennifer Miller; also, I included this very vital quote from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble:

The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original. Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of ‘the original,’… reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original.

So remember that the next time you have to write an academic essay about drag! Finally, I noticed a great visual tidbit in the entryway to the Marbles’ house in Pink Flamingos.

Yes, that’s right: next to that poster for Joseph Losey’s campfest Boom! (1968) is an Andy Warhol print of Elizabeth Taylor. Since I had recently written a paper on Sixteen Jackies (1964), I was very cued into Warhol and his ties to celebrity culture, mass production, and drag. Like Pink Flamingos, Warhol’s work frequently links consumer culture with death, albeit in subtler, less over-the-top ways. More importantly, the grids of near-identical faces in his many series of celebrity prints (like those of Liz, Jackie, and Marilyn) resonate with the ways that Divine imperfectly embodies the personas June Cleaver, Jayne Mansfield, and Charlie Manson.

My ideas about Waters vis-à-vis Warhol aren’t fully fleshed out quite yet, but there’s a start. After finishing this project, I adore Pink Flamingos more than ever, from Ms. Edie’s demented, egg-centric babbling to Connie Marble’s intense bitchiness (“my kind of people, and assholes!”) to, of course, the divine Divine. A final note: If you want to learn more about drag, Divine, Warhol, and everything else, I highly recommend Marjorie Garber’s indispensable and entertaining Vested Interests. It’s a fantastic book.

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Link Dump: #8

[Via Nordenwald]

I’m not shy about my love of George Sanders. His worldly, acerbic presence was the cherry on top of many great movies. And hey, since it’s October, why not think about all the great scary movies that got the George Sanders treatment? Like Rebecca (1940), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Lured (1947), Village of the Damned (1960), and many more, especially toward the end of his career. Sanders was always witty, even with bad dialogue, and wit is one of my favorite traits in a horror movie. Plus, he voiced worldly, acerbic kitty in a Disney movie. What’s not to love? Now, for this week’s links…

  • Last week was Banned Books Week, but don’t forget that some library books are just awful. This hilarious website shows some of them. (Of course, even the most awful books shouldn’t be banned; that’s just silly.)
  • To follow up on our coverage of Satoshi Kon’s passing a few weeks ago, here’s a piece from Filmwell discussing his all-too-short career.
  • Look! Weird Danish comics!
  • This is truly incredible: the theme from Psycho played on a church organ.
  • In the last Link Dump, I mentioned Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project. Well, it’s inspired a flood of responses. Here’s an article on Jezebel defending the project against criticisms from within the LGBT community; a new project called Make It Better that takes Savage’s one step further; and two very powerful, touching pieces on the film blogs Billy Loves Stu and I’m Not Patty.
  • If there’s anything we love to hate, it’s wacky fundamentalist websites. Movieguide.org is like Jack Chick writing movie reviews; I can’t recommend it highly enough. It gave me hours of lolz. Princess Mononoke is “demonic”? Palindromes is “putrid”? Oh yes, and there’s more ahead! (Hint: If a movie has any queer content… outlook not so good.) Alas, their web design is not as immaculate as their souls, so the site’s pretty hard to navigate.
  • Speaking of fundamentalist wackos, here’s a satirical piece about the evils of Glee. Best line: “Sports are essential for keeping fit, strong and attractive!”
  • And still speaking of fundamentalist wackos, here’s a story about a teacher who was driven out of her job by censorship done, you know, in the best interest of the children.
  • Jezebel has the scoop on the smutty side of Edith Wharton.
  • Everybody loves gendered stereotypes, right? Here’s a Twitter feed full of them called GuysTruths! Sample tweet: the classic “Fellas, when you see a girl cry, just hug her.”
  • Super Punch had a Calvin and Hobbes art contest, which includes awesome Let the Right One In and The Sandman parodies; the last entry on here (reading “Playtime is over”) is by a friend and former classmate of mine.
  • Finally, do you like webcomics? Do you like them funky and sexy? Scott has what you need with Funky Sexy Jazzmen, updated weekly.

On the search terms front, the last couple weeks haven’t seen anything especially exciting. I think I’ve seen “nipple masturbation” and “pregnant gore” juxtaposed so often that I’m officially desensitized to all the words involved. However, one search did manage to weird even me out: “fire extinguisher pussy.” That phrase has unpleasant implications I don’t want to explore. Somebody searched for everyone’s least favorite kind of hipster, the “public masturbation hipster.” I hate those hipsters so much, always masturbating in public! Some cool news: Pussy Goes Grrr is officially the #1 hit on the search “emilie karsunke,” which is the real name of Mieze from Berlin Alexanderplatz. And lastly, someone posed the all-important question, “how big is a whales pussy”? I’m stumped on this one. But, for some fascinating whale pussy-related trivia, I turn to Spencer Tinker’s Whales of the World, page 96:

A very unusual structure called the vaginal “plug” is found in the vagina of some toothed whales (Odontoceti), but does not occur in any known species of whalebone whales (Mysticeti). This puzzling structure is formed by secretions from the wall of the vagina and is composed in part of hard, calcareous substances. The purpose of this “plug” is doubtless related to reproduction, possibly copulation.

Thank you for reading.

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Sexy Nihilism in Onibaba

[I wrote the following as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like samurai skeletons at the bottom of a pit.]

Kaneto Shindo’s horror masterpiece Onibaba (1964) is set in a world gone to pieces. Ravaged by civil war, the farmers of rural Japan must sacrifice the last vestiges of their pride, trading whatever they can scavenge for a sack or two of millet. This may sound like Seven Samurai territory, but Shindo indulges in none of Kurosawa’s humanism. Nope: this is a pitch-black vision of brutality and despair, right down to the corpses piling up in that deep, dark hole.

Onibaba is loosely adapted from a medieval Buddhist allegory, and traces of this remain in the film’s deceptive simple narrative. An old woman with a shock of Bride of Frankenstein-white hair (Nobuko Otowa) and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) trap the weary samurai who pass through their field of tall grass while fleeing the war. After swiftly murdering them, they dispose of the bodies using the film’s central symbol and plot device (the afore-mentioned hole), then barter the armor and weaponry for food. It’s a lifestyle born of desperate circumstances that seals the women together in a symbiotic relationship.

But then Hachi comes back. He’s an old friend of younger woman’s husband who claims he saw his companion killed. Played by Kei Sato, Hachi is lecherous and self-interested, a fitting addition to a family that has become barely human. His horny interest in the younger woman threatens to break up the partnership, and drives the three of them into a series of sexual power plays. Then, one night, a samurai clad in a demonic mask shows up, and throws the movie on a whole different path.

I’ll be honest: Onibaba is one of my favorite horror movies. Like of all time. Like ever. Like I started cackling in glee when I saw it was the new FGFC choice. It’s so unrelentingly dark (tonally and visually), but it has a sense of humor that cuts like a knife. It’s a horror movie where the status quo is monstrous, and we just go straight down from there. The masked intruder is easily the film’s most sympathetic character; as for the older woman, she’s at her scariest when she’s suffering the most, brought down by her own instinctive self-preservation.

And oh man, do I even want to dive into the political and sexual intricacies of this film? Yeah, I guess I do. It convincingly builds up this image of a world “turned upside down,” where all values have been debased, where all institutions – marriage and family included – have been corrupted. From there, the characters’ inhumane actions flow organically; they’re natural responses to such a toxic environment. It’s in this environment that the hole becomes of tantamount importance. As women, our antiheroines are expected to keep the homefires burning until their patriarch returns from war.

But they refuse to lie back and wait like Miyagi, the patient wife in Mizoguchi’s beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari. The field and hole are functional extensions of their own bodies, territory and tools that they possess. The hole is such a multifarious image: it’s (first and foremost) a vagina, it’s a mouth, it’s the last stop in a socioeconomic system. (It’s capitalism!) It’s an all-consuming entity perfectly suited to a time of war. (Also, full disclosure: a couple years ago I wrote a term paper for a Japanese Cinema class with the uncreative title “Life During Wartime: Gender and Violence in Onibaba.)

All of this proliferating symbolism doesn’t feel overbearing, though, because it’s conveyed with such a light touch. Shindo, who was peripherally associated with the Japanese New Wave, makes this centuries-old tale feel unexpectedly modern through his kinetic directorial style, some jarring jump cuts (especially in the film’s closing moments), and a dissonant, sometimes jazzy score. Shot in high-contrast black and white, Onibaba is a distinctly sensual film, filled with beads of dripping sweat, blades of swaying grass, and not-infrequent moans of orgasmic pleasure.

Did I say sensual? I meant “carnal.” The main characters are creatures of the flesh in the most literal sense possible. When the older woman says that Hachi is “like a dog after a bitch,” we believe it: he barks, sniffs, and humps like Marmaduke in heat. Yoshimura’s performance as the younger woman is easily my favorite, though. She has only a handful of lines or facial expressions throughout the film, communicating mostly through her eyes and body language. (This subtlety is a stark contrast with Sato’s hysterics.) She scarfs down her food as if it’s a sexual act, and seems totally removed from any “civilized” society – she’s the noble savage archetype turned on its head.

And, in one of the film’s many convoluted ironies, she’s no more monstrous than her more worldly mother-in-law and lover. Indeed, it’s the mother’s self-serving appropriation of anti-sex religious puritanism that leads to the anguish and mutilation at the film’s end. In Onibaba, eroticism and nudity are among the unavoidable facts of life; as the younger woman says about sex, “Everybody does it!” The two women sleep topless side by side, and it’s totally nonsexual. They do it because it’s hot outside.

With a healthy dose of dark humor, Onibaba sets about inverting everything we take for granted, whether in contemporary society or in horror movies. It’s so sexually and morally perverse, a monster movie told from the perspective of three pathetic, childish monsters. It’s sexy, it’s understated, it’s disgusting… what more could you want? I’ll close with my favorite moment from Onibaba: it’s a line of dialogue that I find emblematic of everything great and scary about this movie.

P.S. – The younger woman’s first line is “Serves him right!”; later, after dropping the masked samurai down the well, the older woman laughs, “Serves you right.” Could this be a thematically resonant repeated line? I think it could!

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