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House of Cards, The Bachelor, and the Villainesses of TV

In reality TV, The Bachelor on March 9, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Melissa Sexton

On the surface, the two shows I have been watching this month don’t have much in common with each other. The Bachelor and House of Cards seem pitched to very different audiences and to engage in very different kinds of story-telling. House of Cards is a surprise innovation, the product of the new age of media that goes straight to viewers through Netflix’s online streaming platform. The Bachelor represents all the excesses of big studio television plus the excesses of reality television: expensive mansions, helicopter rides to exotic locations, and petty in-fighting highlighted by studio editing. House of Cards seems pitched to savvy viewers, male and female alike, with a longing for complex motivations and a streak of skepticism towards “the establishment.” The Bachelor, on the other hand, is a show unabashedly aimed at a certain imagined type of women. It simultaneously mocks and exults in drunk, emotional engagement, hosting live viewing parties and even crashing some viewing parties in LA.

Given all these differences, I would never have thought to draw any connections between these shows if not for the overlap in their airing: Season 19 of The Bachelor just wrapped up last week, while Season 3 of House of Cards was released [for real, this time] during the last week of February. And yet, watching these shows back to back, I noticed a striking similarity in how these narratives depict women. In both shows, women’s power is ultimately equated with emotional manipulation. But even when such manipulation gets the women what they want, the audience is encouraged to condemn these characters as villains. Such a morality tale is unsurprising in the world of The Bachelor. But in the shadowy, cruel world of House of Cards, Claire Underwood’s oscillation between a will to power and self-doubt is a striking contrast to the unrepentant manipulation of her husband Frank. Why, I asked myself, in such a dark world, is our central female character still under a kind of narrative pressure to be genuine – or, more particularly, why is she still pressured to be truly “nice” to the women who stand in the way of her goals?


This double-bind of female friendship and female competition is pretty much a staple of reality television programming. Think of all the cold, aspiring models, season after season, who announced their entrance into America’s Next Top Model by insisting, “I’m not here to make friends.” Long-time fans of the show can guess with some certainty that the editorial inclusion of such footage signals a young woman’s villainization; such ambition, even within a competition, inevitably suggests a woman who will become a “drama queen” or a “bitch” and find herself cut from the running. Read the rest of this entry »

“Look at Her Butt:” Nicki Minaj, Power, and Sexual Objectification

In body politics, feminism, hip hop, race on September 9, 2014 at 5:02 am


Melissa Sexton

Ever since Nicki Minaj posted the cover art for her new single in late July, I’ve been trying to finish a piece about the “Anaconda” controversy. Each time I had to push the project back, I feared that I had lost the relevancy so important to writing about popular culture. But sadly, there has been no lack of opportunity to reflect on issues involving women’s agency over the display of their own bodies.

Last week, unrepentant hackers posted stolen photos (real and photoshopped) of Jennifer Lawrence, Jill Scott, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and other female celebrities. The response was depressing if not surprising: mixed in with thoughtful critique, there were plenty of arguments about (men’s) free speech and (women’s) responsibility to protect themselves from exploitation by never, ever taking a photo of themselves or, ideally, never ever taking their clothes off outside of a private dressing bunker equipped with magnets to destroy photographic film and digital storage systems. It was a painful swirl of arguments that, to me, boiled down to a couple of confusing prescriptions for women: first, your body should never ever be publicly visible, so make sure that doesn’t happen; two, expect that men will do everything they can to make your body visible and be prepared to defend yourself; third, if your body should become visible, you will be held morally responsible, whether you chose to display your body or had your body displayed against your will.

This incident merely provides the most recent evidence that how we respond to the sexual objectification of women’s bodies is mostly about who is controlling the display. When women’s bodies are put on display by others, particularly men, we respond as though it is unfortunate but unavoidable. In the same way as victim blaming, this rhetoric figures the sexual desire of men as boundless and the moral responsibility of prevention as belonging to women. The female body is figured here as terribly powerful and terribly vulnerable, capable of short-circuiting men’s ability to act rationally or compassionately. The only way to deal with this power and vulnerability is through fear and containment. Wear long skirts when you go out and make sure your photos are inaccessible to hackers. Men don’t seem to be held culturally responsible for choosing to display women’s bodies when women fail to contain them.

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Being Brunette: PLL and the Dangers of Policing Identity

In ABC Soaps, feminism, Pretty Little Liars on September 4, 2014 at 7:52 am



Melissa Sexton

Pretty Little Liars’s Spencer Hastings and Hanna Marin occupy opposite poles within their fantastic friend foursome, as Sarah Todd wrote about earlier this week. These girls also occupy opposing sides of a binary that defines women in terms of either their looks or their minds. Hanna Marin is supposed to be the “dumb blonde” and Spencer Hastings is supposed to be the “smart brunette.” The two aren’t just different; their differences define each other. But lately, Sarah argues, PLL is breaking down the characters’ strictly defined identities. With Hanna acing the SATs and taking a leading role in the group’s ongoing investigation of Ali, A, and all related mysteries, the show pushes against the reductive way these stereotypes and Hanna’s own friends try to define and limit her.

But if the strict division between smarts and looks is breaking down in Hanna’s favor, what does that mean for Spencer? While Hanna has rocked her “dumb blonde” title unphased and full of confidence, Spencer has been constantly anxious of losing her “smart” designation. She’s over-caffeinated and overcommitted, trying to hold down spots on the lacrosse team and the Quiz Bowl, to secure herself early admission to U Penn–the university all the other Hastings attended–and to pad her résumé with awards and laurels.

This competitive drive, as Sarah points out, can make Spencer particularly invested in putting Hanna’s intelligence down. But to simply label Spencer as the mean one of the group seems, to me, to simplify the complicated story of friendship and mutual self-definition that PLL explores.  Sarah brilliantly points out the show’s deconstruction of “patriarchal archetypes,” and my hope in writing this is simply to build on her analysis by telling the flipside of Hanna’s story.

Spencer’s meanness is as much a product of reductive definitions as Hanna’s dumbness. It is the result of women being told that they have to choose one aspect of their identity and protect it at any cost, blurring their true complexity in favor of fitting in safely.

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“History Don’t Repeat Itself; It Rhymes” – Jay-Z and the Gatsby Soundtrack

In Uncategorized on May 8, 2013 at 1:12 am

Or yes, it is possible to have a PhD in American Literature, to have “actually read” Gatsby, and to be completely supportive of Jay-Z’s masterful new soundtrack.

Melissa Sexton

Note: NPR has taken down the livestream of the Gatsby soundtrack, since the soundtrack was released for purchase today.

I have spent the past two days in an ecstatic swoon, listening to the new soundtrack for The Great Gatsby over and over again. Haven’t heard it yet? NPR is streaming it on First Listen, giving the English majors of the world something to do with their media-time until the film FINALLY comes out this Friday. My love for the soundtrack is not surprising; when the first trailer came out last year, I was elated by its pairing of hip-hop and Prohibition-era glamor. I got that thrill – the one we go to the movies to get – when the trailer opened with shots of fast, glamorous cars careening to Jay-Z and Kanye’s menacing, pounding “No Church in the Wild.”

But not everyone has shared my enthusiasm. And as professional writers and passionate individuals alike began responding to the soundtrack and to early viewings of the film, I picked up on a pattern: to dismiss Luhrmann’s glossy, glittery remake and Jay-Z’s equally sequined soundtrack as somehow “inauthentic” to the original Gatsby – or, more subtly, as missing the novel’s entire point, reproducing the very American Dream that Gatsby was intended to critique (as we all dutifully learned in our high school English classes).

Now. I don’t do this very often. But. As someone with a PhD in American literature, I feel like I have some professional clout behind my own reflections on whether a hip-hop, cinematic orgy of a film can be considered “authentic” or “faithful” to an American modernist novel. And as someone with a developing love of contemporary popular music in general, and 21st century hip-hop in particular, I think I can talk about Jay-Z’s involvement in the project without the kinds of knee-jerk reactions I was noticing all over the comments sections of The New York Times and NPR – comments that were basically the equivalent of “You kids with your hip hop music! Get off my American literature! Now Maud, turn that NPR jazz hour back on!” But for once, I’m going to flaunt the professional clout. Because if I see one more Facebook post snidely asking if “anyone who liked the soundtrack had actually even read the whole book,” I am going to go all George Wilson on their asses. So. I’m not saying that Baz Luhrmann’s and Jay-Z’s take on Gatsby is THE right one, but I think it is A right one. And I want to explain why a trained literary professional can totally get behind this fusion of hip-hop with The Jazz Age.

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Life Reaches Out: A Better Vision of Love in Silver Linings Playbook

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Melissa Sexton

Real love tells you when you’re not being a standup guy.

Well, if you’re alive in the blogosphere or if you live near a television, at this point you probably know that Jennifer Lawrence took home the 2013 Best Actress Oscar for her recent role as the depressed widow Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook. And if you know me, you’re probably not surprised to hear that I love Jennifer Lawrence ferociously. I thought she was amazingly tough in Winter’s Bone and that she was perfectly steely in Hunger Games. I have loved her even more since reading her recent Vanity Fair interview where, despite the super-sexy photographs that accompany the article, she comes across as entirely human: a little goofy and awkward and just on the border of appropriate. And now, I love her beyond belief for biffing it on the stairs at the Oscars, and then beaming anyway. I love how her flustered acceptance speech feels so true to my experience: when the good things that you’ve always wanted happen to you, sometimes you just fall over in shock and forget how to be graceful. I love her hilarious post-win interview, where she destroys our cultural dream of actresses as poised princesses: they’re clumsy and flustered – they trip and curse. They aren’t decked out by fairy godmothers and gilded in dreams: they take a shower, take a shot, and take a fall, even when they’re on top of the world. In other words, her victorious Oscar persona has much in common with Tiffany, even though Lawrence is wearing Dior and Tiffany’s usually in sweaty spandex and sneakers: Lawrence in real life and Tiffany as a character both suggest that the most beautiful things come with some assembly required – come full of cracks and pockmarks, flaws, imperfections, pain, embarrassment, struggle. And that all that imperfection doesn’t have to be something we hide in order to find beauty, experience love, or build a better life.

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GLG Year-End Picks: Melissa’s Top Videos of 2012

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2012 at 6:19 am

Here are 10 videos that I enjoyed in 2012. 5 of them are by female artists: while two of them are from 2011, I included them in this list as “rediscoveries,” because they were part of this year for me. The other 5 videos are by male artists or mixed groups. Many of them have already been discussed on GLG, so I’ve included links where relevant.

*disclaimer – many of these hip-hop videos feature explicit lyrics. Don’t say you weren’t warned.*

Videos Featuring Female Artists That Rocked My World in 2012

M.I.A. – “Bad Girls”

I scoured the Internet for top video lists to see how mine stacked up, and there wasn’t a list I could find that did NOT include M.I.A.’s controversial and infinitely watchable “Bad Girls.” A perfect balance of epic and fun, this video underscores the song’s claims to swagger with depictions of hagwalah, the Middle East’s take on drifting. The car stunts are bad ass and M.I.A. is ferociously sexy. If you don’t wish you were part of the dusty, dancing crowd by the end, you need to take some kind of fun supplement.

Nicki Minaj and Cassie – “The Boys”

The bubblegum but bad-ass world that Nicki made famous in “SuperBass” reappears here as an escapist candyland for broken-hearted lady MCs. But don’t be fooled by the sparkly eyeshadow, cotton candy, and pink hair salons. If you use your “bust-up swag” to cross these ferocious women, you face possible retribution via flame-throwers, razors, and quick-swerving cars. The video is a perfect fit for this tongue-in-cheek empowerment anthem, which pushes women to succeed together while the boys waste their money on trying to win “love.”

Iggy Azalea, featuring T.I. – “Murda Bizness” [studio version]

While Iggy released an official video for this song, I still prefer the version that features her, T.I., and Chip playing around in the studio. There’s a light-heartedness to this video’s swagger as the three rappers hold stacks of money up to the camera, lean over each others’ shoulders to swap lines, and throw finger guns with glee. As Sarah T. has said before, “I kill pride/ I hurt feelings” is a fantastic line, and it encapsulates perfectly the video’s ability to sport attitude without taking itself too seriously. Read the rest of this entry »

Replay: Nicki Minaj and Cassie’s “The Boys”

In hip hop on November 9, 2012 at 10:15 am

Melissa S. 

From my first viewing of Nicki Minaj and Cassie’s new video for “The Boys,” I was in love – and I was pretty sure that this was the pop cultural artifact I had been waiting for in order to unload the thoughts about third wave feminism that have been building in my mind over the past few weeks.

In this case, when I say “third wave feminism,” I’m talking about the way that women now are wrestling to navigate femininity and masculinity, cultural power and identity, in a time when choices are greater and there are competing visions of what it means to be a fully actualized woman. We’re now at a point where (as this blog aptly demonstrates) women are interested in reclaiming conventional forms of femininity with pride, whether that’s crafting, sporting cute skirts, wearing makeup, or becoming moms. We believe and assert that we shouldn’t have to be tough, aggressive, and otherwise conventionally masculine in order to be taken seriously as smart and thoughtful people. At the same time, we recognize that patriarchal norms endure. The victories that second wave feminism won relied on strategic masculinization: breaking into male-dominated arenas of cultural power required women to prove that they could play by the rules and then start thinking about transforming institutions from within.

But now, should women act like tough men to succeed in a still-patriarchal world or attempt to change this world? Women live in a tension between conventional masculinities and femininities. The ideal empowered feminist today will be simultaneously tough and sexy; able to strut in high heels or suavely sport a suit; able to roll her sleeves up and duke it out or able to let her hair down and laugh with the girls. These contradictory imperatives also create tension in her relationships to others, both men and women. If she is heterosexual, she is supposed to simultaneously attract men and be their equal, existing in the resonant state between at-work pal and sex object, one-of-the-guys and bombshell. Her relationships with women are equally fraught: she is supposed to be their sister in solidarity and their competition. Somehow, she is supposed to attract every guy, even theirs, and yet remain best friends with everyone. Somehow, she is supposed to beat women at work and then listen to their secrets over drinks, to beat men at work but then soften herself at home. Impress the guys but don’t intimidate them. Beat the women but then befriend them. Such conflicting mandates!

What I love about “The Boys” is the way it playfully captures these tensions. I’ve talked before about how Nicki’s highly successful career has involved the exact kind of high-wire act I described above. She made a name for herself by out-rapping guys and girls alike, by stealing the show from rap’s biggest names (“Monster,” hello?) and by dissing the other ladies as unable to keep up. At the same time, she’s taken the hip-hop mandate for women to become super-sexualized “black Barbies” to such a parodic extreme that it breaks down, becoming its own mockery (Phoebe argued this once with me in regards to the “Starships” video that I hated, but now I have become convinced that she is right, even if I still hate that video, haha). But many of her early successes were big-name features on men’s songs. While she’s collaborated with other women, those aren’t the songs that define her as a serious artist, as more than a pop star. They’re not “Monster” (with Kanye and Jay-Z), “Hello Good Morning” (with Rick Ross and Diddy), “Turn Me On” (with David Guetta), “All I Do Is Win” (with every rapper ever making records right now), “Knockout” (with Lil Wayne). And while Pink Friday was a mega-hit, it a) featured a lot of collaborations with male artists, such as Eminem and Kanye; and b) seemed split between more tough, conventional raps and more poppy songs for radio play. This album wrestles with the gender dichotomies of the music industry: for her to be a serious rapper, she has to rap like a man, but for her to be a mega-star, she has to sing like a girl. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Responds to the Hunger Games: The Erasure of Violence from The Hunger Games

In dystopian literature, Hunger Games, PG-13 Ratings, violence on March 29, 2012 at 7:42 am

Like many of you out there, the GLG folks could not wait to see The Hunger Games on the big screen. And this last weekend, we did! Given our serious fandom of The Hunger Games more generally, and Katniss specifically, we thought we would do a little HG response fun. So we asked the GLG folks to pick a particular topic from the film and respond to it. This week, read on for thoughts on HG and violence, terrifying technology, Hunger Games fashion, and much more! And if you have a topic you want to discuss, post away in the comments or send us a question at

Melissa S.

When it became public knowledge that the film adaptation of The Hunger Games was earning a PG-13 rating, I spent a lot of time speculating about how the film would accomplish scenes such as Rue’s death or Cato’s battle with the muttations. These violent battle scenes would certainly have to be limited, sanitized, or changed in order to avoid an R rating. The only way I could imagine such scenes taking place was off-screen; this would allow the emotional impact of the scenes to remain but limit the blood and gore we saw as an audience. When I saw the film this weekend, what surprised me was how the film went a different route: sanitizing, downplaying, even erasing the violence from these scenes so that they felt more like typical action movie fodder. Instead of being slowly eaten by muttations throughout a torturous night, Cato suffers for only a few seconds before Katniss gets a shot off and ends his life. And instead of being skewered by a giant spear while cowering in a net, Rue is killed by a lethal yet tiny blade while Katniss exchanges fire with the District 1 tribute. As a result, neither death had nearly as much emotional impact on me as it did when I read the book. I felt sadness or relief, but not revulsion, horror, or outrage. My muted emotional response had me thinking about the use of violence in this novel, one of the savviest I’ve read about how the media manipulates emotions in order to achieve certain political effects.

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1776, 1964, or 2012? Race Relations in ANTM’s British Invasion Cycle

In body politics, girl culture, race on March 1, 2012 at 12:03 am

Melissa Sexton

At this point in my life, there are only two television series of which I have seen every single episode: LOST and America’s Next Top Model. As I sat down tonight to watch the first episode of ANTM’s Cycle 18, I had a sense of obligation and despair similar to the feeling that haunted me through the last two seasons of LOST. A long-cultivated loyalty to the show paired with a fanatical desire to keep seeing every single episode drove me forward, even though I was feeling acutely aware that the show had long since jumped the shark – heck, the show had probably been eaten by the shark at this point. But I just had to know how it ended…And so, I sat down to watch what I was sure would be a troubling cultural stew, the “British Invasion” cycle of America’s Next Top Model – a cycle that pitted 7 American models versus 7 British models as one new way to freshen the old modeling-show formula.

Culture Clash! Cowboy hats and cut-offs versus the Union Jack!

I’d say that Top Model has had a dramatic story arc. The show began airing in 2003, and the first few seasons were delightfully trashy. There were catfights galore. There was cheap cinematography. There were reductive representations of race, class, and religion. But while the melodrama and the catfights remained, the show that was on the air when I started watching in 2006 was a sleeker, smarter, and sexier version of the original model battle-to-the-contract. The photo-shoots became increasingly sophisticated, spectacular, and unreal; the models jetted around the world to exotic shooting locales and lived in swankier and swankier dream-houses that looked like they were furnished by grown-up Barbie on a credit card bender. The runway challenges became increasingly conceptual as the girls strutted in floating bubbles, across airborne walkways, and over runways ringed by fire. The girls participated in music video shoots, video fashion editorials, and television talk show spots. And meanwhile, the entire narrative of the show became increasingly streamlined, to the point where the cadre of longtime viewers that I watched the show with could predict episode by episode how each cycle would play out: the makeover episode; the major runway teach; the overseas destination reveal; the modeling go-sees.

The show’s underlying narrative of self-empowerment and self-love also became increasingly solidified. As I’ve written about before, Top Model became a place where girls were sold a weird mix of capitalist buy-in and self-empowerment. Such weirdness carried over to race and gender relations: the show embraced diversity as a deliberate challenge to fashion industry norms, but the importance of branding remained paramount. If you were black, you better read as black; if you were gay, you better read as gay. Think about, say, April from Cycle 2 – the half-Japanese model who wanted to represent mixed-race women but was repeatedly told that her branding was unclear. Was she going to look Asian or white? Or think about the plus-sized girls who are routinely told they’re not “plus enough.” The catch, of course, is that the modeling industry also embraces protean, ambiguous models: models of mixed ethnicity or with androgynous figures. So…apparently modeling requires girls to thread the same weird path between conformity and individuality that seems to shape all senses of individual identity in capitalist culture: be yourself, but make sure that self fits in a demographic and knows where it belongs. Be yourself, but know how to use it.

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Swagger Going Swell: M.I.A., Nicki Minaj, and the Blurriness of Cultural Appropriation

In race on February 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Melissa Sexton

Between the infamous middle finger that flew at the Super Bowl and the culture-colliding, controversy-stirring video for “Bad Girls” that dropped in early February, M.I.A. has been back on the cultural radar in a big way. And if The New Yorker’s assertion that M.I.A. should not have apologized for her television flip-off isn’t proof enough that her “swagger’s going swell,” then just consider the  infinitely danceable “Bad Girls” video as further evidence:

If you’re looking for swagger, you’ve come to the right place. While the chorus repeats a familiar bad bitch theme (“Live fast, die young – bad girls do it well”), there is something powerful about the video that goes beyond the usual rapper assertion of being “the best bitch doing it” – something about the dancing crowds and the spinning cars that makes me feel caught up in a moment of celebration. And yet, the general Internet response has not been to put this video on repeat and dance. Instead, bloggers and journalists have launched into a discussion of whether M.I.A.’s video is an example of cultural appropriation, even Orientalism or Arab-bashing. The question, as Faisal Al Yafai articulates so clearly in his Al Bawaba article, is what thoughtful people should “make of a big budget music video that depicts Gulf Arabs as anarchic, gun-toting, stunt-driving street-dancers?” He continues to frame a number of possible interpretations: perhaps the video is “a condescending take on a misunderstood culture through an Oriental lens,” but alternatively, the video might be “an interesting cross-cultural attempt to address social norms” and an example of “encouraging cross-cultural pollination.” In her defense of the video, Dina Dabbous admits that it is “laden with crass stereotypes” ranging from “Arabian horses” to “Arab men watching women misbehaving.” But she reclaims the video’s value for two reasons: first, the video’s accurate depictions of hagwalah racing culture; and second, its “original and fresh” translation of the usual “hyper worlds of gangsta culture” to “Arabia.” In other words, at least M.I.A. is doing something new with the old tropes of excess and debauchery, and at least she gets that new world right.

East-meets-West-hip-hop-gangstas? Or stereotypes of gun-toting Arabs?

But that very translation of hip-hop culture from American to Arabic streets (the video was shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco) opens up all kinds of questions  about the differences between appropriation and translation; about the fluidity of cultural tropes in an age of globalized music and exchange; and about the authenticity of ethnic and cultural identity in pop music. Why is it that translating gangsta culture to a Middle Eastern setting is a praiseworthy re-imagination of hip-hop stereotypes, but reversing that direction of exchange and using Middle Eastern cultural tropes like hagwalah to sell hip-hop is an insult to Arab culture? M.I.A.’s video points to one of the exhilarating and troubling qualities of pop music: the way it borrows from everything it can get its hands on, with varying degrees of self-awareness and caution. In the process, appropriation can and often does happen; cultural images get mobilized in ways that are reductive and offensive. Yet such appropriation can also be radical, creative, or community-building; it can challenge existing stereotypes by pointing to the richness of sub-cultures like hagwalah.

I believe that M.I.A.’s video can show us that automatically classifying cultural borrowing as reductive “appropriation”  limits our understanding of pop culture. Looking beyond strict separations of pop cultural identity into purified, “authentic” racial categories can help us see the double-edged potential of cultural borrowing: on the one hand, the use of cultures other than one’s own can constitute a form of  imperialism, where any culture can become grist for the capitalist money mill, a simple indicator of otherness or novelty. On the other hand, such borrowings can open up a liberating potential, expanding our notions of what beauty, success, and celebration can look like.

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My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Affair with Misogyny, Hip-Hop, and Post-Feminism

In race, Uncategorized, violence on February 14, 2012 at 1:49 am

Melissa Sexton

In the winter of 2011, I found myself in a familiar funk. It was my birthday and I was creeping ever closer to thirty; it was winter in Oregon, and the ceaseless rain had begun in earnest; and I had just gone through yet another break-up. But as I battled through the post-break-up blues with endless evenings of YouTube surfing, I stumbled upon Kanye West’s strange, strange film Runaway. I wasn’t into hip-hop yet; I didn’t know anything about Kanye, except that I’d seen his “Gold Digger” video a few times and that Rolling Stone was declaring “Runaway” the single of the year. But I was instantly hooked by the scenes of him zooming in a sports car beneath a pink sky, snarling, “The plan was to drink until the pain over…But what’s worse? The pain or the hangover?” I was hypnotized by the sarcasm, by the strange mix of excess and self-awareness. So I dragged my sorry self onto the bus and rode to a mainstream CD store, somewhere I could snag a cheap copy of My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy for myself.

And thus began my love affair with the cultural icon that is Kanye West – that quintessentially American asshole who declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and who was able to make “Let’s have a toast to the douchebags” into an anthem and an apology all mixed into one. I could not stop listening to this album. I was a poor graduate student with a strange penchant for old technology, so I was riding the bus around town with my blue Discman, listening to “Monster” on repeat, feeling the first inklings of reawakening fierceness. And while I certainly identified with the crazed, quicksilver rapping of Nicki on “Monster,” I also found myself getting some swagger and attitude by identifying with Kanye. I related to the strange world he sketched for us on Fantasy: a world of overindulgence, good intentions, bad tempers, failed relationships, loneliness, and compensatory swagger. I was having a strange, gender-bending encounter with an album that openly used women, that admitted at one moment, “I know I did damage” but that countered such self-awareness with Pusha-T’s bluff-call: “I did it – alright, alright, I admit it – Now pick your next move: you can leave or live with it.” Opening up a line of questioning that continued as I grew to love more and more hip-hop that was, at some level, misogynistic, I asked myself why I was feeling so powerful by identifying with an emotionally distant, explicitly male persona? Read the rest of this entry »

How to Be Awesome Like Spencer Hastings

In girl culture, Pretty Little Liars, teen soaps on January 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Melissa Sexton

As any viewer of Pretty Little Liars knows, Spencer, Aria, Hanna and Emily are a force to be reckoned with. To celebrate the return of our mystery-solving teens to regular television programming, several of the Girls Like Giants crew teamed up to crack the awesomeness codes of the core four.

Spencer Hastings is my favorite Pretty Little Liar, because I see a little too much of myself in her: skeptical, aggressive, competitive, driven, and rabidly loyal to the people she loves. Nobody else is as likely to drag the girls into hair-brained schemes that are aimed at vengeance or vindication…but that result in further complication. Her stubbornness and bossiness often create tension with the group of girls; her affection for older boys, especially her sister’s boyfriends, gets her into all kinds of family conflict; and yet she is a fiercely awesome leader and friend. So how can you channel Spencer’s awesome qualities?

Stand up for yourself and for your friends: Spencer often gets into trouble because of her smart mouth and her lightening-fast temper. On the other hand, though, she is a girl who knows how to stand up to the petty manipulation of high school and of murderers. She is the one girl that Ali feared because she refused to be bullied by her and because she would openly fight with her. Whether it’s standing up to Ali in the midst of sleepover, standing up to her sister’s husband Ian when she thinks he’s a killer, or standing up to her father when he refuses to tell her why he seems to be involved in sneaky cover-ups around Ali’s murder and is mean to her boyfriend Tobey, Spencer sets boundaries and speaks to them loudly. Sometimes her protective nature makes her seem bossy and controlling towards her friends, like when she goes to talk to Ezra Fitz about Aria’s budding romance with possible killer Jason; but as their reconciliation scene suggests, even then Spencer has her friends’ best interests at heart and will risk danger and open conflict to help them. Her penchant for conflict also comes in handy as the basis of many a ruse, like the recent season-re-opening battle with Emily that she stages to throw A off their conspiring tracks. Read the rest of this entry »

What it Takes to Come Alive OR What’s so Wrong About Rihanna?

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Melissa Sexton

Somehow, my year-end wrap-up list overlooked Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”  Maybe it was all the one-liners I saw on blogs and Facebook posts about raves, drugs, and typical Rihanna-video-scandal that scared me off; I hadn’t seen the video until a couple of days ago.  But, in my usual way, I wandered to YouTube a few nights ago after hearing “We Found Love” at least three times on the drive from the Seattle-Tacoma airport to my sister’s house. I couldn’t get the simple hook of the chorus out of my head; once I watched the video, I also couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Apparently, a variety of feminists and Christian pastors, as well as the French government, couldn’t get the video out of their heads either, though they weren’t celebrating, putting the video on constant repeat, and dancing around the living room.  France banned any playing of the video before 10 pm, claiming that it was too sexually provocative and promoted self-destructive behavior. Rape Crisis Center’s Eileen Kelly calls the video a “disgrace” since it shows Rihanna making herself a possession for men. Meanwhile, a number of pastors have claimed that the video promotes unhealthy attitudes about women and sexuality, teaching women that they should make themselves sexual objects to please men. Read the rest of this entry »

Girls Like Giants Presents: Our 2011 Preferences (Melissa Part 2 – Music Video Redux)

In Uncategorized on December 19, 2011 at 7:52 am

Melissa Sexton

My spare evenings are spent making people watch music videos that I love. My rewards for work assignments are revisiting old videos that are good friends. And songs that I love deeply often become even dearer to me if they’re attached to a great video. The following videos were ones by women that shaped my 2011 year. (Hilariously, many of the songs I picked also appear in Rolling Stone’s 2011 In Review list of Top Singles. Great list – check it out).

(in no particular order)

1. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”

Rolling Stone called this song the “Single of the Year,” and the video is certainly its equal in terms of artistic awesomeness. The song eats into your bones with its relentless bass line, its soul-ly echoing chorus, and the heart-tearing breaks at the edge of Adele’s raw-like-honey voice. The video gnaws similarly with its evocative, unclearly metaphorical house.  Yes.  Heartbreak does feel like a whole floor full of trembling water glasses. Like a faceless dancer swirling through smoky clouds of debris. Like dishes smashing against a wall in time to a constant beat. Like a half-finished room full of sheeted furniture. Like a perfect paper city that goes up in beautiful, heartbreaking flames. Just watching the swirling motions of the dancer could speak to my heartbreak for years. An amazing video that is symbolic without going over-the-top-arthouse and that beautifully showcases Adele’s physical, evocative singing.

(The video came out November 2010, but its 2011 reign made it seem like fair game). Read the rest of this entry »

Girls Like Giants Presents: Our 2011 Preferences (Melissa Part 1 – Film Characters)

In Uncategorized on December 19, 2011 at 7:51 am

Melissa Sexton

I like lists.  Perhaps far too much, as my expansive contributions below demonstrate. I’ve even split these posts up – this one will just be my film lists, and I have a whole extra one for music videos.  What can I say?  Enjoy?

Top Five Girl Heroes

Without getting too middle-school Honors English on you, I want to reflect on what makes a hero: confronting incredible odds and conflicts; demonstrating courage, determination, and strength; having to make sacrifices and hard decisions. In the 2011 pop cultural universe, there have been a surprising number of admirable girl heroes – not just females that do battle, but specifically young girls that face complex ethical and moral struggles that demand as much fortitude and ferocity as Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter ever had to show.  I specifically call them heroes because I think “heroine” can have certain quasi-romantic overtones…These five girls (and yes, I say girls deliberately, because all of them were teenagers!) were my favorites:

1. Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss!

Me as Katniss!

In the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, starvation is a constant threat and survival is the only goal. Even before the narrative of The Hunger Games starts, Katniss is a hero for learning to hunt (illegally) and thereby rescuing her mother and sister from death in District 12. And when Katniss replaces her younger sister as District 12 tribute in the Hunger Games – a gladiatorial wilderness battle between adolescents from across the nation – her heroism grows. In the Games, Katniss weighs loyalty against survival; her emergence as one of the strongest contestants in the Games, armed with her remarkable capacity as an archer, is a breathtaking portrayal of a woman for whom physical prowess and an incredible capacity for empathy emerge simultaneously. Women in this world can fight for themselves, their friends, and their family all at once, and Katniss does. While the books have been out for a while, 2011 saw the release of the film trailer and Katniss’s emergence into wider pop-cultural discussion. Read the rest of this entry »

How to be awesome like…Olivia Benson.

In gender on December 8, 2011 at 2:44 am

Melissa Sexton

So, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write about anymore “bad-ass” chicks – I was going to try and branch out, embracing the lessons I taught myself in writing about Bella: women don’t have to be armed to be awesome.  I even made a good-faith effort and started writing about my favorite rom-com heroines, and how many of them dismantle stereotypes without a crossbow or combat boot in sight. But then I was watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, my favorite background show for busy work or mentally unplugging when I’ve become totally brain-dead. I’m a sucker for a good crime procedural. While I know the formula and can usually predict the outcome, I find something soothing in the repetition. But SVU remains my favorite of all the crime procedurals, and I know it’s because of the characters. There is a high energy connection between the chief, Captain Cragen (Dann Florek), his two primary detectives, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), and the rest of the crew – including my favorites, the psychiatrist Dr. Huang (B.D. Wong) and the medical examiner Dr. Warner (Tamara Tunie). The show may be often unrealistic (if anywhere NEAR that many attacks occurred in holding cells and precinct offices, the police would stop being a viable association), but the relationships between the characters are incredibly realistic.  And Olivia Benson is a wonderful, complex, grown-up, messed-up, and admirable character that I love as I love few other primetime TV characters.

Beautiful eyes, but a gaze of steel.

So what is it that separates Olivia Benson from all the other sexy female cops out there?  I’ll tell you by suggesting how you can be as awesome as she is.

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I’m Going to See Breaking Dawn OR How A Smart, Independent, Educated Woman Learned to Love Twilight

In gender, girl culture on November 23, 2011 at 12:48 am

Melissa Sexton

The first time I went to visit my sister in her new home in Seattle, I needed something to occupy my time during the long days she spent working. I was a 2nd year PhD student in a literature department, so the last thing I wanted to do on my downtime days was read anything serious. Still, my sister made a full disclaimer when she handed me her roommate’s copy of Twilight. “It’s not great literature,” she said with a shrug. “But I bet you’ll be entertained.”

Such a disclaimer was more than warranted given my lit snob past. I had spent my teenage years aspiring to an elite aestheticism, sneering at my younger sisters for their fantasy novels and their mainstream movies. Like many a wanna-be intellectual before me, I wanted to like the right things. I wanted to read philosophy and great literature; I watched old movies, not blockbusters, with my boyfriend. I didn’t watch TV; I backpacked, hello. Before I ever even thought about drinking, I started going to “shows.”  I was relentlessly and, to be honest, baselessly opposed to anything that could be construed as popular. Luckily for me, I was already outgrowing what I still think should never be more than an an adolescent phase: the conviction that, just because we don’t like something, this makes the object of our disdain inherently and objectively bad; that there are good and bad things to like, and your aesthetic preferences say something meaningful about your character; that there were things not just that I hadn’t read but that I wouldn’t read, that I shouldn’t watch. Read the rest of this entry »

Hopelessly Real: Anticipating Katniss’s Transition to the Big Screen

In gender, girl culture, race on November 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Melissa Sexton

A couple of weeks ago, following my Halloween debut as Katniss Everdeen, I posted about the awesomeness of The Hunger Games‘s main heroine.  Today, the Hunger Games hype has kicked up again as Lionsgate released the official full-length trailer for the March 2012 film. From the chatter I’ve seen on the Internet and heard amongst friends, a lot of speculation has centered on exactly how the film will depict Katniss – a matter that has been of particular concern given the novels’ self-conscious reflection on the repeated manipulation of beauty and sex appeal as part of the televised spectacle of the Games. Concern has also been high because Katniss is an unusual heroine, self-consciously rejecting beauty and romance, constantly conscious of her class situation, admired for what she does rather than how she looks. I think many girls, like me, are rooting for a female heroine that isn’t supposed to be ugly but also isn’t way prettier than her role necessitates (there’s been quite a range of these, from Zooey Deschanel in New Girl to Hermione Granger in The Past 4 Harry Potter Movies). While I might have indulged in some extra eyeliner for my Halloween costume, I like many others fear a sexed-up Katniss – an ass-kicking heroine in the Tomb Raider tradition. All I really want is a girl whose toughness, independence, and anger isn’t made more palatable for polite (male) consumption by disguising it with pursed lips and big boobs: Don’t be afraid of Katniss! She might brutally slay you, but she looks so good doing it; she might look angry, but that’s just disguised passionate lust. Can’t a girl be fearsome and not a sex machine? There was also plentiful reaction to the Katniss casting  calls for a Caucasian actress (a narrow set of parameters given Katniss’s ambiguous racial identification, marked by dark hair and olive-toned skin). Read the rest of this entry »

How to be awesome like Katniss Everdeen

In gender, girl culture on October 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Melissa Sexton

For Halloween this year, two of the GLG writing crew dressed up as Katniss Everdeen.  As my friend Brian said at the party, after he recognized my mockingjay pin with delight, “I’m surprised there aren’t more Katnisses.  I mean, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it’s the obvious thing to be!”

Perhaps you are not as familiar with Katniss as we think you should be, and perhaps you don’t know why she is the obvious character every girl wants to be when putting on a costume. One of the reasons I ended up loving my costume, despite its limited recognition value, was because it allowed me to proselytize for The Hunger Games hard core and explain to strangers and old friends that Katniss is the most kick-ass heroine who survives a post-apocalyptic dystopian society by drawing on her own inner strength as well as the hunting skills that previously enabled her to provide for her family.  The movies are starting to come out next year, and trust me – once the films hit the public eye (and if the films manage to keep so many of the things I and many people I know love about Katniss) everyone will be wishing they could be Katniss.

So why do we love Katniss with such universal passion? [Behind the cut, I’ve separated my lists into spoiler-free and spoiler-filled categories so those hoping to read The Hunger Games trilogy needn’t worry about finding out too much!]

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Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?

In gender, race on October 14, 2011 at 12:31 am

Melissa Sexton

If you had asked me what film would have been most likely to get my mind seriously cranking on issues of race, class, and gender, I would not have thought it was going to be the 2011 Reel Rock Film Tour.  A yearly redux of climbing films, heavily sponsored by gear vendors and climbing organizations, the Reel Rock Tour has a kind of anti-establishment, counter-cultural appeal, but not necessarily the kind to bend gender expectations or advocate for class consciousness.  I’ve only dipped my toes into the pool of climbing culture, so I can hardly speak with great knowledge; but climbing seems like a no-nonsense, do-or-die realm that would like to pretend it doesn’t care about race, class, or gender. Those who know me are not surprised to see that I’ve toyed with climbing – it appeals to all my gender insecurities and issues with toughness.  Climbing rewards strength, endurance, and the ability to fight through pain. Climbing is one of those weird, ambiguously gendered spaces…because, to a certain extent, there is no gender in climbing. If you can send a climb, you’re awesome, and your gender doesn’t matter. Elite women climbers exist and can outclimb many a man.  But…if you hang out near the bouldering wall in your local rock gym, you’ll probably see what a boys’ club the climbing world can still be.  And often it’s a white boys’ club. To pretend that there is no race or gender in climbing is naive. And indeed, while I really enjoyed a lot of the films in the 2011 Tour, most of them would reinforce gender stereotypes about the climbing world: nary a woman to be seen, except a few that hang around the camps of the kooky guys – guys that oscillate between, on the one hand, sentimental visions of home while they’re on death’s doorstep atop some mountain in Pakistan – and, on the other hand, a perpetual adolescent desire to defy death through flat-out stupidly risky behavior. There are uber-competitive guys racing for climbing speed records, ripping their skin to shreds and throwing safety out the window, posing for bare-chested photos before El Capitan and veiling their competitiveness between platitudes about peace and wilderness escape. Like I said – I loved and enjoyed these films, the way I love and enjoy Moby-Dick and Walden and William Faulkner. Because the wilderness enthusiast and wanna-be climber in me can outweigh the gender critic, and I can revel in physical performance, wild landscape, intellectual quandaries…I love these places because I can embrace the fantasy they provide, a realm where you’re judged solely based on your mettle.  Yet I can also see the holes in these visions, the way even the “pure” realm of the rock is a constructed space that favors certain people, relies on certain resources for access, rewards certain kinds of attitudes about ability and embodiment.

But then, halfway through the line-up, there was the film “Origins: Obe and Ashima,” which might be one of the most interesting commentaries I”ve seen on athleticism, race, and gender ever…because it hardly makes these things an issue, while featuring them front and center. It tells the intertwined story of two elite climbers – Ashima Shiraishi, a 10-year old Japanese climber from New York who can finesse her way up bouldering problems that would make the bare-chested boy-climbers at the bouldering wall blanche…and her coach Obe Carrion,  once a teenage kid from the bad part of Allentown, PA who got out and made a name for himself through climbing. I can’t figure out exactly what his ethnic background is, but in an interview with he identifies as a minority, though only to mention that it’s “cool” with him to be a minority in the climbing world. I point out this race issue to highlight just how much the climbing world downplays issues of race and gender. What is remarkable for both of these climbers is not their race – in what I assume (correct me if I’m wrong – my evidence is entirely anecdotal) is a predominantly white sport in the United States. Instead, Obe is revered for helping to make bouldering a legitimate sport, and this short film further applauds him (and rightly so) for taking all his competitive spirit and climbing passion and using it to help kids learn to climb at an elite level. What is remarkable in Ashima’s case is not solely gender, nor race – it is, instead, that she is (at the time of the filming) a nine-year old girl. Her youth is her most remarkable attribute.

Ashima and her coach Obe at Hueco Tanks, a bouldering proving ground in Texas

Problem solving. Ashima took a V12 that trip. I can do V1's on a good day.

(Both photos thanks to Climbing magazine).

Both Obe and Ashima are incredible athletes – and even if you don’t climb, you can’t help but be blown away by the amazing things they can do with their bodies.  And as a culture critic, I can’t help but be blown away by their sudden appearance, sandwiched in between testosterone fueled speed races up the Nose of El Capitan, brutal winter brushes with avalanches up Gasherbrum II, and crazy stunt slacklining, basejumping, and high-lining that pushes safety to the side and “the rush” to the forefront:

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the world of Ashimi and Obe escapes the competitiveness or odd relationships between one’s self and one’s body that appear in the rest of the climbing films.  It’s still a tangled ideological web, as it always is. But I’m just saying it’s startling to see a break in the constant stream of young, toned, white male bodies.

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Oh, for a Better Quirky Girl – on “New Girl” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Territory”

In gender on September 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Melissa Sexton

The commercials have been beckoning to me for weeks, promising that I’m their target audience.  What’s not to love about a sit-com caper that features Zooey Deschanel, the dreamy cop Leo from Veronica Mars (turns out his name is Max Greenfield), and twenty-something screw-ups thrown together by fate in a far-too-spacious-to-be-true city apartment? As if cop-Leo and well-lit apartments weren’t enough appeal, Frontier Airlines’s TV preview on my Denver-to-Grand Rapids leg was the full pilot episode of New Girl. I watched it without sound, as I was too travel-befuddled to dig out my headphones and as I think “guess-the-plotline” is a really fun game.  Once I was home, I eagerly checked out the on-demand preview (with sound this time) (the series airs for real September 20th, I believe).

Unsurprisingly, I’d gotten the entire plot right.

See, here’s the problem I so often have with comedies.  They seem to be driven by stereotypes.  And at some level, I guess, I get why that works.  We laugh because of what’s expected, or something, and they’re categories that we recognize.  Okay, maybe I don’t really get how it works.  I just get so frustrated because I don’t think seeing the recycling of the same old conventional categories is all that funny.  It’s only funny when the caricatures are so poorly done that they miss the mark – hence, the reason I find terrible action movies funny.  But when I’m watching gender/race/class/sexuality caricatures, I get an uncomfortable feeling inside that has very little to do with laughing.  And New Girl thus far relies heavily on caricatures of this type.

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Under Any Sun at All: On Fancies of Finding Yourself

In gender, Uncategorized on August 24, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Last night, I popped in Under the Tuscan Sun, because I wanted a dose of sunflowers and yellow colors and Italian charm.  Also, while I may only be in my late-twenties and have never been divorced, I have lately found the idea of films about older women rediscovering their autonomous lives compelling.  I say the idea of such films because…well, frankly, I often feel more inspired by watching the trailer than I do the entire film; what we’re promised is self-discovery, but what we often get are recycled cliches mixed into travelogues.  Take the recent Eat, Pray, Love.  Remember the awesome trailers with Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days of Summer” and pictures of a somewhat wan Julia Roberts fighting to find herself, not just a reflection of herself in a relationship?

There are a lot of really great lines in that trailer, but they’re pretty much the greatest lines of the film – the insistence on needing to find a self outside of a series of relationships; the encouragement to open the mind and become more receptive to the world.  A similar formula clearly guides Under the Tuscan Sun.   Recently ended relationship + middle life –> exotic adventure –> DISCOVERY OF TRUER SELF FULL OF HAPPINESS!

I really love this movie, for a number of random reasons – the wry humor that disarms potentially cheesy moments; Sandra Oh; did I mention yellow colors?  But watching the film last night, I was also troubled.  One thing I could definitely talk about (but that I’m sure has been dissected to death) is that the women can’t help falling in love – they go out to “find themselves” – Julia Roberts’s character Liz even explicitly explains that she needs to escape the string of relationships she’s been in since 15 – but for women, “finding yourself” inevitably means getting rid of whatever blocked you from being in a happy relationship before and then falling in love.  Don’t get me wrong – I like love – I like like love, you know?  But I also think it’s troubling that the only way we can imagine women being happy – in Tuscany!  Or Bali!  Or all these amazing places! – is if they just modify the old pattern.  Keep having lovers, just take better lovers and in better places.  What I really want to talk about today is that second bit – place, or, more specifically, the relationship between women’s selves and place as figured in these middle-aged-self-quest stories.

So, big reveal, I am not primarily a scholar of gender or race, nor am I a scholar of film, new media, television, or pop culture.  I am actually a 19th century Americanist with a focus on environmental literature, and today I’m hoping to bring my ecocritical training to the table to talk about place and identity.  Because (here’s the not-so-hidden-thesis) I don’t buy the way that these films ultimately suggest that finding yourself requires you to go on a very specific kind of international adventure – to “romantic” Tuscany, to places where “you can marvel at something” – in order to escape the confines of your past self.  Under the Tuscan Sun thinks about relationships and gender in occasionally provocative ways, but it never questions the central notion that finding yourself means running in the form of sight-seeing.

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Google Gaga for Glory

In Uncategorized on August 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Two years ago, I became madly obsessed with Gaga’s “Telephone” video, as everyone should be.  While many of my friends said that what they really wished for was a video of her and Beyonce getting down like crazy in a club, I was thoroughly won over by the strange mash-up of pop culture references, strange prison-break narrative, poison recipes, and Wonder Woman inspired costumes.  I couldn’t stop watching it.  And I decided that Lady Gaga was making some of the most interesting music videos around right now.  They told stories, but semi-incomprehensible ones that had you scrambling for meaning like a T.S. Eliot poem.  What did they mean?  They seemed to say something about bodies and ability and gender and dancing and fun and art and costumes and…what?  Let’s watch it again!  I started to live in a universe of Lady Gaga videos:  “Paparazzi”, “Bad Romance”, “Alejandro”, “Video Phone” (with Beyonce) – whether I loved or hated her videos, they were never, ever dull.  And if you had asked me if I expected to be bored by a Gaga video, I would have laughed incredulously.

I mean, just look at all these wacky looks – from two videos!

Sexy space halo sunglasses blesses you!

Fruit baskets never looked so sexy on mail order brides with crazy claw dance!

Chicago meets Harley-Davidson for awesome studded bras and prison bar dances!

Angry wonder women will kill you to get better boyfriends!

The sheer lack of dullness is why I am entranced by Lady Gaga.  I think her self-reflective, over-the-top, am-I-serious-or-not antics are amazing and hilarious.  I find every interview with her more fascinating than the last – even when she’s comes across as pretentious, or sanctimonious, or weirdly proselytizing.  Plenty has been written on her taking pop culture’s star obsession to the max, deconstructing art, all that – so I don’t know that I have anything new to say besides “Yes.”  Pop culture is about flash and bling and entertainment, and Lady Gaga gave us that in one big package of weird.  And we love her for it.  I love her for it.

But her videos seemed to get less and less exciting to me during the past year.  And now…I think that the video for “Edge of Glory” is…dull.  It’s pretty much 5 minutes of Lady Gaga in a semi-weird costume lounging about an urban setting full of mist with occasional appearance of the SaxMan (yes, Clarence Clemons, you are cool, but not that visually exciting).

I mean, where is the semi-Biblical biker gang?  Where is the Nazi S&M fest?  Where are the dead women hanging from the ceiling while you dance in a blinged-out wheelchair?  Where are the men with blue eyeshadow doing poison flourishes in the background?  Okay, the Egyptian makeup and leather outfit is a little weird, but it is not as weird as you are, Gaga.  You’ve set yourself up, with fruit baskets and Kermits and lobster hats and big odd googly eyes.  You have to do something weirder to keep my attention.

Fascinatingly, what’s not boring is the recent Google chrome commercial featuring “Edge of Glory.”  I first heard the song on that commercial, and found myself strangely moved.  I normally hate things that deliberately pull on my heartstrings, but the Google Chrome commercials are just killing me.  They’re so moving!  Why?  There’s some way they fulfill our fantasy desires for what art and technology could give us: community; self-empowerment; a moment of feeling really on the edge of glory:

It seems to me that what this video incorporates, and what so many of Gaga’s videos do incorporate, is the sense of the artist being part of a larger community.  Here, it’s literal.  The commercial very movingly depicts the way Gaga has interacted with her fans, inspiring them to be creative in their own ways.  The vision of her running across the bridge has a scrappy, epic feel to it (which I especially like given her recent interview in Rolling Stone, where she talks about her love of Rocky).  We get the sense of an underdog fighting the odds, whose weirdness inspires the weirdness of the world around her and creates this new, weird, wonderful community.  All her videos have been about a weird, weird person dancing in a weird world with other weird people – and this commercial takes all that weird appeal and literalizes it.  Gaga is dancing her weird dance in the world, and others are drawn in through the process.  That possible moment – that moment of feeling  as though one is participating in something large and grand and awesome –  is the real epic appeal behind songs like “Edge of Glory.”  In her recent post on Nicki Minaj, Sarah quoted Sunny Biswas, who claimed, “making people feel like superheroes for three to five minutes at a time is one of the greatest things that pop music does.”   This song definitely does this – and what the Google commercial oddly captures (and the music video doesn’t) is that expansive, elated feeling – the superhero moment of connection and possibility and exciting, exciting strangeness.

Benevolent but Fierce: The Glamorous Ethics of Top Model

In gender, girl culture, race on July 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Melissa Sexton

I’m currently teaching a summer section of Writing 122, the second of two freshman composition classes required at my university.  Our discussion today centered around a great article by Steven Johnson called “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” which argues that recent years have seen growing narrative complexity in fictional television shows.  Similarly, Johnson argues that even “bad TV” (think: reality shows) have gotten smarter, since reality shows are often more sophisticated and morally complex versions of game shows.  I expected this article to elicit tons of discussion from my students, but what I discovered was a surprising program snobbery.  My students were already doing what Johnson suggests: they were foregoing simpler reality television fare in favor of “multi-threaded drama” that features moral ambiguity, season-spanning plotlines, and complex structures: think Lost, The Wire, 24, The Sopranos.  When it came time to talk about reality TV, I was the only one that was willing to admit outright love.  For the good of the class, I exposed myself as a long-time ANTM fan.

My outing led to a number of interesting questions about narrative complexity and television morality.  If, as Johnson argues, our dramas are moving away from morally motivated yet formulaic sitcoms in favor of multithread, morally ambiguous, “realist” dramas, is reality television the last bastion of overt TV sermonizing?  If so, what is it that I, a fairly intelligent person despite my students’ censure, love so deeply about reality television?  And is it a redeemable love, I ask myself, taking ANTM as a case study.

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Good Girls Gone Mad: Music Videos and the “Problem” of Female Rage – Part 1

In gender on July 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Melissa Sexton

[Previously posted on my personal blog]

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my old Livejournal account about women and anger.  Specifically, I was responding to a fascinating article in the New York Times about film depictions of angry women.  In this article, brilliant critic Manohla Dargis argues that, It’s tricky whenever a woman holds a gun on screen, even if the movie is independently produced and the director is female.”  She continues, “I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no real representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay. The gun-toting women and girls in this new rash of movies may be performing much the same function for the presumptive male audience: It’s totally “gay” for a guy to watch a chick flick, but if a babe is packing heat — no worries, man!”

Whatever we think of women packing heat, I think it’s safe to say that American media is still really uncomfortable with depictions of genuine female anger.  Giving girls guns may be fine, but don’t let the girls fight male sexual domination; that’s just uncomfortable.  (See this other great NYT article on how Pretty Woman ultimately defeated Thelma and Louise in our cultural history).  Just look at the controversy surrounding Rihanna’s recent “Man Down” video.  After reading all the angry arguments against this video, I was expecting blood, gore, naked bodies, terrifying yet glamorous violence (like Kanye’s recent “Monster” video.  Or Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi”).  But no.  “Man Down” is a fairly tame if emotionally devastating video about a sexual assault and a woman’s revenge.  What, I had to ask myself, made the “Man Down” video so wildly controversial?  I mean, it was in rotation on BET, not PBS; was it really any more violent than the usual rap video fare?  As one smart Twitter comment (quoted in the MTV article linked above) stated, “it’s really ironic how women r always exploited n videos … we watch women be raped & murdered. Now a woman flips the coin & look!”  The only thing, I concluded, that made this video uncomfortable was that it dealt with real female anger and the violence that can result from it.  And it didn’t glamorize sexual violence in any way.  Is violence okay as long as it’s between men?  Is sexual exploitation of women okay as long as it is covered up (barely) with rhinestones or push-up bras?  Unlike many music videos, “Man Down” showed not bravado but instead naked emotional vulnerability – a mix of vengeful anger and frightened regret –

paired with a gritty, unglamorous aesthetic.  Female anger?  Female violence?  That’s scary.  To make it this real, in the words of the Parents’ Television Council, “gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.”

But while we fear such realistic representations of well-founded female anger, anger is such an important source of cultural bonding for women.  Why is it, I asked, that we swim in a musical sea of songs about broken relationships, betrayal, and unfairness, as well as female retaliation and sexual competitiveness, but few of these songs or their accompanying videos has the power to generate controversy akin to “Man Down”?  Musically speaking, this mix of feelings has become a classic in the form of what I’d like to call the “Angry Woman Anthem.”   By looking at a couple of ‘Angry Woman Anthems,” I think we can see that many pop cultural representations of female anger negotiate female anger in ways both pathologically consistent with heteronormative dismissals or co-optations of feminine rage AND really subversive in their depiction of about anger and revenge.

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