Saturday, October 24, 2009

No Longer A Man's World? Part 2: Marge Simpson and Speculations about the 'New' Sexual Object as Sacrifical Victim

Note: Sorry for the House of Leaves effect, but out of respect for commentators, additions and significant edits after the fact are in red so that their arguments cannot be swept under the rug as I refine this when shown the need to. Thanks!

Previously on Under The Brown Hat (yeah, I've always wanted to do that), I purposed the question, if the economic dimension of Feminism, the primary goals of the First-Wave, are coming to an end as TIME Magazine suggests, can we say the same awaits on the near horizon
for problems such as the sexual objectification of women?

One somewhat backwards solution to the age old problem has become fairly established already and is partially to be blamed for why we are able to so easily overlook the problem now. Returning to this idea of "true equality" Stengel purposes, we can see one method for dissolving women's objectification has been through a 'thigh for a thigh, boob for a man-boob' reciprocated sexual objectification of the male body. From the stripped to his waist, bloodied and provocatively Christlike first cinematic male-sex symbol, Rudolf Valentino, to the "neurotic erotica" of Gillette's body shaving campaign for men which encourages pubic shaving, men have been and are ever increasingly objectified (Twilight anyone?). There are at least three problems that need to be addressed about this approach:

First, the most frivolous, is that though women have, can, and do objectify men, it can hardly be said that the degree of sexual objectification is equal. On the most basic level this can be shown to be evident by taking the safe mode off Google Images (I should not have to point out that this will result in NSFW material) and comparing the results for typing in "Man" and "Woman."

I did this a second ago and found for men a magazine cover with Robert Downy Jr. in a suit declared "sexiest man alive," some images of mutilated soldiers, some female nude photos taken by Man Ray ironically, and... well... some ordinary photographs of men. Mostly working class people, but little more than that for six pages of searching.

"Woman" bombarded me with at least half a screen full of hardcore pornography. Women on women, women being gang banged... nasty stuff. There was also a picture of a Muslim Woman and at least one picture of Wonder Woman that wasn't excessively erotic. I only made it two screen searches before I got sick of the obvious pattern. "Woman" produces predominantly exploitative images of graphic pornographic scenes that have apparently no artistic erotic dimension beyond being masturbatory fodder. I rest my case.

The second problem is even though there is some male sexual objectification isn't the majority of it skewed in some way to reiterate the original patriarchal gender dynamics? From Valentino to Robert Pattinson, is there not in many of these sex-icons an effeminate dimension to their appeal? In truth, it is only one vein among many different demeanors and body types of objectified male icons, but if we fallow sexual objectification to physical victimization do we not see the subjects emerge in a feminine role? When the bare fact is pointed out that men are also rape victims, is not the overlooked detail that men are usually raped by other men? Though cases of women raping men are recorded, they are seen as freakish and abnormal and are certainly rarer than men raping men. In the ultimate act of male sexual objectification, the victim's fate is to in being raped be made his assailant's 'bitch', thus reaffirming the gendered chauvinistic dynamic of feminine as subordinate even when the victim is male.

Beyond this subversion that leads sexual objectification to be an inherently feminine role regardless of the subject's sex, there is a more obvious reason why sexually objectifying human beings is not resolved by making men equally objectified. The third problem is the ultimate reality that sexually objectifying men on any level just means more people are being sexually objectified. What is ultimately wrong with objectification is the inherent disregard for the individuality of those who are objectified.

From these three problems we can see that sexual objectification is not a feminist issue--in that limited sense of feminism being the realm of 'women's interests'--because more women get sexually objectified than men and the playing field must be quantitatively evened-out, the way that according to TIME Magazine the workforce is becoming, but rather because this fundamental wrong, this cold, violent even, form of solipsism, is gendered at its core. It is this gendering that, as an offshoot, results in the imbalance of female to male sexual objectification, but it must be understood as an offshoot first and foremost, for the major problem is the solipsist disconnect of individuals from other individuals.

With this understanding of how sexual objectification functions and has thus far been erroneously dealt with through generalized sexual objectification, we can re-investigate the Oct. 26th issue of TIME to see if in its predominate optimism there is in fact any clue for how to deal with this unmentionable problem of how society addresses women as sexual objects. And lo and behold, a rather comical solution does in fact appear in one of the most counter-intuitive of places.

On page 17, at the bottom of the list of Verbatim quotes, there can be found one from James Jellinek, the editorial director of Playboy Magazine. The quote pertains to "his decision to feature Marge Simpson on the magazine's November cover" saying that, "She is a stunning example of the cartoon form." The solution here is admittedly perverse, but it is also misleading. For though it might not seem such a radically new concept--even for Playboy (which has featured virtual videogame women before (NSFW)), let alone that animated pornography and pornographic images both have considerably long histories of existence--it is not so much the content as Jellinek's approach to the content that flirts with something radical. To understand this, lets consider a similar contemporary analysis of sexism's sibling of sorts, racism.

In Slavoj Zizek's The Fragile Absolute, he analysis the criticisms of the first of the Star Wars Prequel as an example of a third kind of racism, neither direct or reverse, but reflective.
The usual leftist critical point that the multitude of exotic alien (extra-human) species in Star Wars represent, in code, inter-human ethnic differences, reducing them to the level of common racist stereotypes (the evil merchants of the greedy Trade Federation are a clear caricature of the ant-like Chinese merchants), somehow misses the point: these references to ethnic clichés are not a cipher to be penetrated through an arduous theoretical analysis; they are directly alluded to, their identification is, as it were, part of the game. […] What is crucial here is that [the aliens] are not played by real actors, but are pure digital creations – as such, they do not merely refer to the clichés; rather, they are directly presented, staged as nothing but animated clichés. For that reason they are, in some way, ‘flat’, lacking the ‘depth’ of a true personality: the grimaces of their almost infinitely plastic faces give immediate and direct expression to their innermost attitudes and feelings (anger, fear, lust, pride), making them totally transparent (Zizek, pages 4-5 in my copy, page 7 in the linked version).
Humoring the idea that all stereotypes emerge from a kernel of truth, that the actions or characteristics of one or a group of people are then attributed to the whole of their race, the mistake such critics make of Star Wars is in thinking that it is like the minstrel show, where black performers or white performs in blackface act out racist archetypes of black people, directly attributing stereotype to race. Star Wars is not such a minstrel. The staggering irony here is that in these embodiments of racist stereotypes, these pure living manifestations of stereotypes disconnected from human beings, "staged as nothing but animated clichés" become racist only through their re-attribution with human races. Like the famous lewd joke Jack Nicholson tells in Chinatown, it is the politically correct critic of the Star Wars aliens who, like the presumably innocent (of infidelity but also racism) wife of the racist man, ends up shouting, "You're skrewin' just like a Chinaman!" (emphasis mine).

In saying that, "She is a stunning example of the cartoon form," Jellinek escapes this error. Unlike, say, Barbie, which Mattel is often accused by feminist of prescribing as a representation of the female form, despite the grotesque anatomical impossibilities of the doll's proportions, Jellinek largely does not identify Marge, beyond the gendering "She" as a representation of female form. He acknowledges that by putting her on the cover of Playboy, as the placeholder of sexual objectification, "she" is "staged as nothing but animated clichés." He has in fact, for one issue, if only on the cover and perhaps a few pages within the magazine, and only in the proposal of this obscurely quoted sentence, offered an extraction of the feminine blackface from the minstrel show of female sexual objectification, severing the link between woman and object, by replacing woman-as-object with an object-as-object.

Is not in some respects the potential of this replacement the same as the sacrificial object which Rene Girard explores in Violence and the Sacred and subsequent works?
The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric. Everything else derives from that. If once we take this fundamental approach to sacrifice, choosing the road that violence opens before us, we can see that there is no aspect of human existence foreign to the subject, not even material prosperity. (Violence and the Sacred, page 8).
Girard makes a point in these introductory pages of explaining why ritual sacrifice is such a difficult concept for us to comprehend, as it is utterly absent from contemporary society, explaining that it is fundamentally an aspect of pre-judicial society. It stopped the endless flow of cyclical violence caused by blood feuds where every revenge would beget another until the violence became a thing separate from the initial wronging. However, considering this phenomenon of objects-as-objects, as placeholders for objectification, can we not see sacrifice not still alive, reemerging, the behavior mediated to a new space that is conceptual now not only in the representative function of the victim, but also in the act as a no longer physical event? Is this sexual objectification that severs individuality from representation and physical form, this 'thigh for a thigh, boob for a boob' mentality of sexual objectification not all fundamentally violent, conceptually and ultimately through its most extreme form (rape) literally? If so, the formula for treatment seems identical, as the victims of objectification (women and men in the made-effeminate position of women) are replaced by a sacrificial victim that bares a "physical resemblance" to the real victim.
In a general study of sacrifice there is little reason to differentiate between human and animal victims. When the principal of the substitution is physical resemblance between the vicarious victim and its prototypes, the mere fact that both victims are human beings seems to suffice. Thus it is hardly surprising that in some societies whole categories of human beings are systematically reserved for sacrificial purposes in order to protect other categories (page 10).
From this point of view, we can see the description of the sacrificial victim Girard offers in the first chapter of Violence and the Sacred is not only a dead-ringer for these racially and sexually archetypal objectified cartoons "staged as nothing but animated clichés," they are potentially improvements upon the conventional sacrificial victims because of their intangibility.

If we analyze Jellinek's statement throughly enough, we sooner or later must ponder the question, 'why Marge?' Why is she "a stunning example" compared to others? For one, she is not the most exaggeratively endowed cartoon character; she is not, say, a Barbie or like many of the common conventions of Anime, nor is she the most realistic. She is plainly drawn without texture or depth, yet she is a stunning example for this very reason. She is, like her Star Wars compatriots, "flat," which is important as, unlike them, she does represent a human. Essentially, they are like the early sacrifices, animals, where she is a kind of human sacrifice, but she is not too human. Which is important as Girard points out.
We have remarked that all victims, even animal ones, bear a certain resemblance to the object they replace; otherwise the violent impulse would remain unsatisfied. But this resemblance must not be carried to the extreme of complete assimilation, or it would lead to disastrous confusion. In the case of animal victims the difference is always clear, and no such confusion is possible. Although they do their best to empathize with their cattle, the Nuers never quite manage to mistake a man for a cow--the proof being that they always sacrifice the latter and never the former (page 11).
Marge walks this precarious line, standing as it were safely before the edge of the uncanny valley. She is not too close as to cause "disastrous confusion" and yet she is not too inhuman as to not bear resemblance and cause disconnect.

However, there is another way to interpret this humanoid-as-human versus animal-as-human aspect. Besides the dimension of furries within animation (which has obviously been tip-toed around up to this point), how else can we interpret the relationship between animation and these animal/human roots of sacrifice? When Girard points out that "Although they do their best to empathize with their cattle, the Nuers never quite manage to mistake a man for a cow--the proof being that they always sacrifice the latter and never the former" what contemporary phenominon can we compare this behavior too? One unsettling possibility returns us to the previous question of why Marge, a character that, why sexually active (with her husband) within the TV show, is not the most intuitive choice for a Playboy cover, like, say, an anime character.

Perhaps the real reason why Marge was chosen is modesty. Let us not forget that for all that Playboy is, it isn't Hustler or even harder pornographic fare. In The Huffington Post article linked to above, they note that, "Marge isn't going to bare all [...] as the magazine says there will only be "implied nudity" in the 3-page pictorial."

That they would lean more towards burlesque might seem obvious on one hand; she is as the article puts it "the matriarch of Springfield's first family," but by the same token isn't that also what makes putting her in this sacrificial position of sexual object so desirous? Isn't that the catharsis for the economically and educationally emasculated American male, that according to TIME has statistically lost his world, to indulge in? Acknowledging the practical reality that her creators would probably not allow Marge to "bare all" (although to some existent, I do wonder), perhaps a better understanding of Playboy's modesty is to proximate her character as the 'human', and an alternative like the various popular anime girls as the 'animal'. That is to say, 'although male emasculate voyeurs do their best to empathize with anime girls, they never quite manage to mistake Marge Simpson for an anime girl--the proof being that voyeurs always rape the latter and never the former.' My point here is not really a literal one, in the sense that, yes, I'm sure there is hardcore Simpsons porn in existence (there's always someone into something twisted), but it is almost certainly all fan-made, where violent sex-games like Rapelay, along with apparently a great deal of rape oriented Hentai, are official products. However, the significance between formal products and informal, unauthorized constructs does bare weight for Girard. As he points out,
In attempting to formulate the fundamental principals of sacrifice without a reference to the ritualistic framework in which the sacrifice takes place, we run the risk of appearing simplistic. Such an effort smacks strongly of "psychologizing." Clearly, it would be inexact to compare the sacrificial act to the spontaneous gesture of the man who kicks his dog because he dares not kick his wife or boss (pages 8-9).
If capitalism can be seen as 'the new' religion, then commercial forums such a Playboy and other publisher/producers (from television, to film, to games) to varying degrees are the subsequent spaces of ritual for sexual objectification. They are the authoritative references with their respective sects, Jellinek being a kind of sexual priest anointing Marge "a stunning example" as her head becomes framed in the figurative guillotine of sacrificial sexual objectification (yeah... I'm having fun writing this). But when figurative guillotine becomes literal one, there is simply a higher level of acceptance for seeing these exaggerated, big eyed, anime girls torn to pieces than if the same were done to a more 'human' character like Marge.

Again, am I underestimating the degree to which Marge is a familiar and beloved character, and, am I overlooking the potential for cultural contexts and differences (Rapelay, like most Hentai, being Japanese)? Of course! And to an extent, no. Her familiarity is a part of her human-ness--but either way, that is a diversion from the primary issue at hand, which is the cartoon form. As for cultural differences, consider the largely feminist anime, Perfect Blue, about a young pop singer who turns actress only to be further objectified by the film industry than the music industry (there's a murder mystery bit as well, but it's almost there just to give the film momentum). Satoshi Kon essentially bites the hand that feeds most anime directors by discussing fandom and objectification negatively, but as such, it is through his artistic style that he bares those teeth and definitively rejects hentai by making his protagonist proportionally realistic and her rapist freakishly distorted. As a result what is usually a fetishistic spectacle of glorified misogyny in hentai films becomes here a tragically visceral scene intended to make its audience feel like shit for ever thinking of drooling over a picture of Sailor Moon. Even within the confines of anime we can see this phenomenon of closeness is not as simple as the character's proximity to the uncanny valley.

Like an onion, it seems there are further depths to be peeled and worthwhile to do so. A reasonable argument to emerge in addition to those already brought up against comparing Marge to conventional anime characters is the fact that Marge is not exactly the most human of characters herself in many respects. She may not have unnaturally formed breasts, but her skin is stark yellow, her hair is gravity defying blue (also apparently natural) that puts even the most eccentric 80s pop artists to shame, and she has bug eyes of her own, eyes that protrude more than halfway out of her head! Indeed, Girard makes note that analysts should not allow themselves to be distracted by the differences between animal and human sacrifice, and though this analysis challenges his claim that sacrifice is not a contemporary phenomenon, perhaps disagreements should end there. But what then is the cost?

If we cannot differentiate the types of sacrificial victims, then we must face a new ethical dilemma. Where the major fundamental problem with the 'thigh for a thigh, boob for a boob' approach was that it overlooked the significant wrong of sexually objectifying any human as opposed to just women, we now must ask ourselves if the true 'wrong' is not the pure act of sexual objectification. In this light, Playboy's treatment of Marge is revealed not to be modesty so much as a hesitance, resistance even, to truly crossing that line between the tangible and intangible, between the flesh and blood sacrifice of the celebrity (or celebrity-made) human model and the immaterial one, for beyond even the kind of disregard that the Nuer are described by Girard as having for animals, the cartoon victims "staged as nothing but animated clichés" are utterly inconsequential. If the horror of something like the game Rapelay is that it is a kind of extreme misogynistic minstrel, the relief and consultation is that, "as nothing but animated clichés," to weep for its victims with their cartoonishly huge breasts and high-pitched cutesy voices is not unlike weeping for the masturbatory Kleenex. In this, the utter horror of the sacrifice is understood. There is a reason Girard's sacrifices are blood sacrifices, and not, say, pinata sacrifices. Without that collision of objectification with the human, humanity is not guaranteed to intersect.

From this point I can truly only speculate as to whether the violent extremity of things like Rapelay is a result of too little "physical resemblance," where as Girard explains, "the violent impulse would remain unsatisfied," or rather from the absence of physicality, causing an insatiability, not entirely unlike another Zizekian concept from The Fragile Absolute: "Coke as objet petit a." Focusing primarily on the Jacques-Alain Miller observation that Zizek sites, that, "Coke has the paradoxical property that the more you drink, the thirstier you get, the greater you need to drink more" (page 19 in my copy, 22 in the linked version), we can see how the escalation of animated pornographic violence might be explained, in a sense, by the lack of physical blood in the ever pallet stimulating animated gallons split, poured, or even sprayed in frenzy. Where the prior cause always threatens such an escalation, the latter almost guarantees it without uncertainty. From neither can we confirm an inevitable shift from such extremes being carried out on object-as-object victims to human-as-object victims--to living human beings, but even if the cartoon victims "as nothing but animated clichés" are utterly purged of their minstrel dimension, cut clean like the aliens of Star Wars to the point that even the remnants of gender like "she" and "her" are erased, is this something we can be comfortable with? Is this not, in a sense, the ultimate ethical challenge - not to commit the truly victimless crime on the basis that it is a crime not because of its victim? Are all these negotiations of sexual objectification avoidances of the seemingly too simple solution of not objectifying, or are they because sexual objectification is an inescapable part of who we are which we must simply find a way of not letting get out of hand?

If TIME Magazine is right about one thing, it is that the 'world' of the sexes has changed
drastically in America, in the statistical arena that it reports upon, and also in the unspoken arena I've discussed. I would like to say my speculation of this one quote from Jellinek was really just wild speculation, but as I look at the cultural phenomenons of my generation, I wonder if it really is out of touch with the 'reality' of today. Like many, I am eagerly bouncing in my seat at the mere thought of each little shred of information that comes out about James Cameron's new film Avatar and twice as gleeful upon receiving them, but when I hear talk about Cameron wanting the alien Na'vi to be sexy, I wonder, as a feminist, both within the simple dimension of victims "as nothing but animated clichés" and the expanded context of the film's avatars, that the human characters use to infiltrate the alien species, just what really is the future of sexual objectification?

No Longer A Man's World? Part 1: Thoughts as a Feminist on the Oct. 26th Issue of TIME Magazine

I was looking at the cover of this last Oct. 26th issue of Time Magazine sitting on the coffee table and couldn’t help but be struck by the title of the cover story: “Special Report: The State of the American Woman” or more particularly it’s description, “A new poll shows why they are more powerful—but less happy.” Looking at the black and white cover image, the woman's eye looking off into a starkly contrasting dark abyss, those words evoke anti-suffrage arguments from the likes of Helen Kendrick Johnson and Lyman Abbot among others who valued the privilege of staying at home and being supported by their husbands, free from "the double curse or work and pain" that their "frailer organization" would halve to bear, and able to still affect social and even governmental change through, as Abbot puts it "womanly influence" over her husband, for, “She is glad to counsel; she is loath to command." It can't possibly be the argument that the magazine is aiming to make: that woman are miserable because they finally got what they wanted and found out that they were better off being taken care of. Nonetheless, it's an effective attention grabber, and even if it does not aim to revitalize a truly anachronistic argument of the woman's place, the issue does pose some curiosities.

Richard Stengel in his To Our Readers section (page 6) is smart to emphasize from the get go that while the issue focuses on how women are “poised to dominate the workforce” the special report “examines their status—and what they still need.” However, what follows in the body of his introduction to the issue is a cautious but nonetheless evident pondering of the possible end of feminism.
In one very real sense, our TIME/Rockefeller Foundation poll shows that women have become dominant in our society. Women will soon constitute a majority of the workforce; they earn 57% of college degrees; they make 75% of buying decisions in the home. At the same time, the poll found that women are not terribly concerned with equality issues, nor are they patting themselves on the back for their pre-eminence—they are simply dealing with the often bewildering changes and uncertainty in our economy as breadwinners, spouses, mothers, and daughters. It’s not the anachronistic battle of the sexes anymore but how we all—women and men—grapple with a new economy and new era. I suppose you could say that’s true equality.
Even as a male feminist myself, I find something inescapably suspicious in a man saying that woman have found "true equality." Furthermore, the message is illustrated with photographs by a male artist, Ralph Gibson (though I concede to the fact that the cover was commissioned by the magazine's female director of photography, Kira Pollack and selected his other photos used throughout the magazine). The image used as the centerpiece to Stengel's introduction is credited as "A portrait titled Francesca, 1972" but has a slightly different name on Gibson's website. When it is called "Woman and Rolls Royce," the subversive pairing of woman and automobile as objects of male desire truly shine through, making Stengel's statement all the more unsettling.

The actual title of the cover article, "What Women Want Now", is also rather loaded with male oriented gender strife. While online, the article features a color photo of a woman, which beyond the plasticity caused by the lighting and her makeup seems relatively symbolically benign, the printed version (page 24) has a full-page filled with Gibson's "MJ in Little Mirror" which shows a woman's hand holding a mirror with the beach and ocean out of focus in the background. Not a terribly inappropriate image, the land and sea have both the potential significance of representing new frontiers and the blurring of gender boundaries while the mirror in relation to them shows the existential quandary both of woman within this distortion of dualities and individual beyond this distortion, the potential of the image's existential weight is diffused in two ways. First, by a closer inspection of the content of the image itself, and secondly how that content collides with the article's title. The mirror does not reflect the woman's eyes, but her nose and mouth, indicating that she is looking more at her superficial appearance then into the depths of her soul, asking herself not who she is, but how does she look. The mirror is small and round, and while not necessarily an actual make-up mirror, is inescapably evocative of such a mirror through its shape. Positioning such an image beside the title "What Women Want Now" drives the interpretation home, securing the 'material girl' evocation with all the self-parody of a trashy supermarket 'women's magazine'.

The actual article by Nancy Gibbs reiterates much of Stengel's points, naturally in further depth. Both confirm that the nightmare ideology of the anti-suffragist suggested by the cover is far from their point. The economic reality is that women make up more of the breadwinners in this country and as a result, more are dealing with the same kinds of burdens men have had to and are being affected directly by the recession in the sense that it is their job which the household depends upon. Also like Stengel, however, there is that sense that this inescapably radical shift in gender dynamics, means equality is something perhaps more fulfilled then it is. Great, more women are working than men, more women are supporting their families, as the primary supporters even, but isn't something missing? Little to nothing has been mentioned thus far about feminism, but if this really is no longer "a man's world" and we are seeing "true equality" then feminism isn't needed anymore, right?

At last there is Maria Shriver's piece, which has no inappropriate images from Gibson, but instead an image of Eunice Kennedy with her brother Jack. The focus on Eunice is strong in the image; she is not over shadowed by her iconic brother, but framed in the center while his face is partially cut off, as if he were an unimportant side furnishing before the true subject of the shot. Complimenting the image is the title "The Unfinished Revolution" and in the body of the page Shriver offers a viewpoint on the special report that dosen't overlook the reality of women today in their "true equality."
While there's much to cheer about these days on the equality front, we still have a long way to go. Women still don't make as much as men do for the same jobs. The U.S. still is the only industrialized nation without a child-care policy. Women are still being punished by a tax code designed when men were the sole breadwinners and women the sole caregivers. Sexual violence against women still is a huge issue. Women still are disproportionately affected by a lack of health-care services. And lesbian couples and older women are among the poorest segments of our society.
What is in essence missing from Stengel and Gibbs' Virginia Slim praise was the second and third waves of feminism. Woman are working! Hurray! But as truly remarkable as the changes that have occurred have been, there is indeed much more to be said and done. Indeed, Shriver dosen't get off the hook all that easily either. The quoted paragraph is her seventh, almost a side acknowledgment on her way to her conclusion, and while it is admirable that she acknowledged the plight of lesbians, feminism has much more on its mind that she covers.

If my analysis has seemed harsh and excessively extensive, it is only that I am interested in through it pointing out the most evident absence to me in these three articles. Take a look at the preoccupations of feminist blogs like our local FIFE (Feminism Is For Everyone), and some of those it links to. What you find are existential/linguistic concerns, sociological concerns, cultural commentary and media analysis. When you look around at how things are commercialized, on how men and women are depicted, is it really equal? How have we dealt with the idea of sexual objectification? As a feminist, I look at this shift in financial power and female elevation and ponder what the male cultural backlash might be, what things will go unsaid and or conveyed subversively. I wonder what things we will say are ok now, because we are truly equal.

Does the issue of Time magazine have any answers to these kinds of questions? Can we foresee in it any future solution to the problems of, to address simply one of the unmentionables, sexual objectification of women?


(Sorry, I'm tired.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thoughts on Female Halloween Costumes

If my last piece on Halloween costumes could be seen as male centric (particularly the last line, which was admittedly not the most feminist thing I've ever written), I thought this might be an interesting counterpoint to the issue of gore costumes... whore costumes!

I can't help but draw attention to the irony (hypocrisy even) of me opposing 'sexy' costumes. For years I've said that when it comes to censorship, what disturbs me more than any particular restriction is the dynamic between sex and violence, the utter backwardness of western priorities when it comes allowing gore galore to make it into R and even PG-13 movies while the MPAA threatens films like The Cooler and Boys Don't Cry respectively for showing too much pubic hair and a close up of a woman's face while enjoying an orgasm (see the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated for details). In general, I still think that if something needs to be cautioned or censored, violence is something parents should be more concerned about than sex. The nature of sexual content however does make that claim complicated. How is sex depicted in a given film, and what messages does it give? Is a film's depiction of sex, sexist, glorifying negative gender dynamics? Does it simply provide false or misleading information about sex? In these regards, sexual content dosen't necessarily get a free pass over violence, and for now I'm not even touching where the two blur together. However, even with this acknowledgment I must question if the concerns of sexual content fall truly explicitness or more precisely upon the context and specific substance--the happening--of the content. For example, a film showing explicit sex may allow sex to be depicted more realistically as opposed to unrealistically. Though it may be highly counter intuitive, is there not to some degree a higher level of responsibility in the graphic sex scenes of The Dreamers than the modestly show and romantically lit sex scene in The Terminator? The Dreamers has youths having sex with all the explicit biological complexities of virginity (the breaking of the hymen), but it also has skillful acting that conveys the psychological recklessness of the characters who ultimately through the film's climax are revealed to be utterly self-destructive in their decadence. In The Terminator, we may have adults having sex (excusing for the moment that they are still out of wedlock) but with them there are no complexities, nothing visceral and intimate and complex at all. It is simply this magical, idealized, wonderful thing, that looks utterly beautiful, sterile , and fun to do. Even the fact that she becomes a single mother is left as an overwhelmingly ok thing. It is attractive sex with no consequences, and when you think about it, PG-13 films are even worse about this kind of thing.

Returning to the costumes, I like Lindsey am not really opposed in the sense of wanting to deprive anyone of the right to dress like a scantily clad soft-porn star if they choose to, but the issue is rather one of availability. These are the images that costume stores and companies crank out as the female costume option. Your options every year are, cat skank, fairy princess skank, pirate skank (as opposed to say, Anne Bonny) and so on and so skankily forth (via FIFE comments section which I highly recommend!). Now, my reasons for generally defending gore costumes were pretty well explained previously, but taking the predominantly gender divided options into consideration, isn't this a pretty disturbing dynamic? Is this not the worst connotation of my closing line about "the sight of a kid wearing a Freddy glove, with a bucket of candy, saying, 'One, two, Freddy's coming for you...' to the annoyance of his sister" brought to the forefront? Costume companies encourage boys to dress up like phallic weapon wielding slasher characters while girls are to dress up like sexual objects. I.e., boys kill skanky girls is the visual narrative at play. But don't women and girls have gore costumes too? Well, yes, but there aren't many stores selling female killers as much as fetish witch costumes and the like. If anything, girls get to be victims any way you cut it (pardon the pun). At best, they get empowerment framed within male fantasy.

Back in 2002 a horror movie came out called May which I thought had a wonderfully iconic killer in it. A woman who wants to be loved but isn't, so she kills people to make a man who will love her out of their body parts. In appearance, she's like a not dead Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas, only rather evil with a pair of scissors. Not exactly the most feminist contribution to horror, she was nonetheless effective as a moder Carrie in her own weird way, ad I fully expected to see tones of girls running around in May (the character's name) costumes the fallowing Halloween. Nada. Not a single one did I see. A google image search has thus far found me not only no stores selling May costumes, but not even any homemade May costumes, which is surprising since as a seamstress herself, she should have been a big hit with the Gothy DIY crowd. Most of the other female killers of horror like Jason's Mother tend to be absent from costume companies as well. This isn't entirely surprising considering that there was little iconic about many of them in appearance, having no masks or special weapons that made them stand out, and my previous point being that it is the iconic image and look of Jason, Michael and Freddy that have given them lasting power, but May, like Carrie, had that striking look. Only Sally seems available, and for all her lovableness, she's really not a monster so much as an awkward girl that wants to get away from her parents and live with an angst-ridden guy who ignores her (sorry Lindsey). Sally is not exactly one to make bumps in the night.

Ultimately all I can really say about the issue is MAKE YOUR OWN COSTUMES! That and perhaps flood the internet with images of the ones you make. That way the costume companies that make this crap might catch on to what people really want and make a wider range of options. There really is something creepy about the gender divide in costume types; I say we close it, fill it, blur it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thoughts on Halloween Costumes of Horror Icons for Kids

There is an associate press piece in todays Daily Progress about Halloween costumes being too gory. It's not on their website as far as I can tell, but like most associated press pieces, it can be found elsewhere.

I can't help but feel on some level this is one of those stories that exists because it's almost Halloween and papers have to write something about Halloween. For one, the article feels like it was written 20 years ago. Its outrage that they're are Jason, Freddy, Michael and Leatherface costumes made me laugh a little as I couldn't help but want to add dates to each film it notes the killers are from.

Freddy - A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Jason - Friday the 13th (1980)

Michael - Halloween (1978)

Leatherface - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Monsters from 25 to 35 years ago are causing issues now? Admittedly all of these characters have or are in the process of being remade for this decade with more gore and less intelligence, but if you look at the Daily Progress version of the article, it comes with an example of an accursed Michael costume. Clean white mask... yep, that's not Rob Zombie's redneck Michael from the remake. These kinds of costumes have been around for decades. I went as Jason and Freddy several times as a kid, once even saving up to buy a prosthetic mask for Freddy's face which I had hand painted all the burns onto, making sure to get the right balance of yellow to show how the wounds were puss'ing with infection (yum!). So, if they want to talk about this like it was a new problem (if it's even a problem at all) they should probably talk about contemporary horror costumes. Have a parent upset about a Jigsaw doll costume, or a Hostel gimp Mask for kids. I couldn't even find a Ghostface costume from the Scream trilogy (which, yes, I went as, but I was probably about 15 or 16 by then). The fact that I couldn't find a kids Repo-man or Jigsaw doll costume negates the fact that horror movies have become much more realistically gory and arguably more sadistic (torture porn isn't as new as some would think, but the slasher icons of the 70s and 80s were never as messed up as the things recent killers have been up to). It's not like they can say the stakes have been drastically raised by having new even more perverse killers become childhood heroes. So again, nothing new under the sun.

Still, lets examine the "gore." If you zoom in on the above picture of Micheal Myers from the Zooster site, you will notice that at least there is a bit of gore on the fake knife. The linked version of the article above also has a picture of an Axe murder that has no gore whatsoever, making the article extra silly. Perhaps the most challenging of these is Leatherface, who, like Norman Bates of Psycho and Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs, was inspired by Ed Gein. As such the leather of his mask and apron is human skin. Zooster is pretty conservative in their handling of this fairly extreme horror icon, compared to Costume World which even I find a tad tasteless with its extra face and fingers on the apron and the bit in the description saying to "stalk your victims."

Admittedly, none of these characters are exactly role-models for kids. Freddy's back-story is that he was a child murder (and to varying degrees it has been implied and in some sequels expressed that he was pedophile) that was burned alive by vengeful parents, who now haunts their children's dreams, killing them in his sleep. Leatherface, as mentioned before liked to wear people, and is the mentally challenged youngest member of a family of backwoods cannibals. Jason has always been a bit more sympathetic as the deformed child left to drown by careless camp consolers who would rather have sex than carry out their responsibilities. It's hard not to feel for the guy when he sees his mother (who went on a killing spree, thinking he was dead) get decapitated. Then there is Michael, who kills his sister for no clear reason when he was a child, only to grow up into a a force of "pure evil." These characters are vicious perverse killers, and in that respect the degree of gore present with their costumes is almost irrelevant compared to the implied gore of simply who they are. If you dress up as Hitler, you don't need to walk around with a handful of gold teeth for people to get the idea.

However, implied gore does require you get the implication. This is the ultimate irony to be found in the article pointing out that "Costume sizes can run so small that many wearers might be too young to have seen the slasher movies under film industry guidelines." I'm pretty sure I'd never seen Dracula (any version) the first time I went as the Count. I honestly can't recall If I had seen Friday the 13th before the first time I donned a hockey mask. By the early 90s, these characters were so ingrained in pop culture, it didn't matter. They were on The Simpsons, they were told about by friends at campfires. Jason and Freddy had replaced 'The Hook Man' and 'The Boogey Man.' Heck, Michael Myers is The Boogey Man! The reason Freddy is such an immortal character has virtually nothing to do with the movies. People reading this probably have grandparents that know who Freddy and Jason are, and not the kind of cool kind of grandparents that know own box sets of both franchises. The Freddy movies are silly, but it is the idea of Freddy that sticks. He goes after kids in their nightmares, making them real. What can be more scary for a little kid than that? Nightmares are where all the monsters we fear reside, and our only comfort is that we know they aren't real, but then comes Freddy saying, 'Oh yes they are!'

That was the beauty of Halloween for me as a kid really. You got to dress up as boogey men. You got to make them silly and have fun with it. Like WWF Wrestling, we all knew it was fake. We would make our costumes together, save up or beg our parents to get stuff like fake blood and plastic knives, and then we would see each others costumes and marvel at the person who figured out that Elmer's glue makes great fake skin to peel off your arm. It was fun to get grossed out and then see how people pulled off the illusion. That really what it's all about, the old sawing the girl in half trick.

Still, times have changed. I grew up with shows like Movie Magic, with Stan Winston, Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero as heroes, and I wasn't even a subscriber to Fangoria! Perhaps now kids aren't as aware of effects as I was.

It's not so much that I disagree that some of this stuff is a little out of hand as I'm troubled by the kind of argument people like Joel Schwartzberg shape in going after companies like Zooster and Costume World: the simple trend of gory costumes becomes the problem. I agree that targeting kids below the age of 6 is pretty crazy for some of this stuff, but when in his piece for the Huffinington Post he exclaims "Whatever happened to pirates and hobos?" I have to raise an eyebrow.

If there is any real fear that these characters influence kids, that costumes are influential, then are pirates - people who murder, rape, drink a lot, disregard authority and happen to still exist - really be that much better? Should we encourage kids to be bums? A lot of the classic horror icons aren't that much better really, but figures like Dracula have been so ingrained into the iconography of Halloween that we forget that the original Count offers his three wives an infant to tear limb from limb (and they do!) in the novel. Bela Lugosi and Karloff may be the faces we remember, but lets not forget Lugosi was drug addict, and when the kids excitedly run to IMDB and Netflix in hopes of finding afilm with the two titans working together, the first two collaborations of Karloff and Lugosi were The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935), the two films that established the torture horror film genre in America. You know... for kids!

There are plenty of costumes we take for granted, are Micheal and Freddy and Jason, really that dangerous? At this point aren't they really just skeletons, ghosts and vampires. Don't many kids just want to be Freddy because the costume looks cool, and have a little bit of that appeal as something more grown up?

Perhaps I have been unfair to Schwartzberg's argument. Isn't his real concern that kids are getting desensitized to "brutal violence?" In response to that I can say from personal experience that little of that was evident from my growing up. As many horror films as I saw, the sight of real blood never ceased to affect me. When someone was injured and bleeding it was always very upsetting to me because it was real and I understood that. Once when I was eight or so, I visited my grandmother in the hospital and her roommate had lost his legs. It was probably the first time I'd seen a real amputee and it was almost traumatic. The idea that that man would never walk again with his legs, never wiggle his toes or do all the things I take for granted was completely processed and when we were back in the car I cried. Blood and corn syrup are not the same thing. Kids get that.

Ultimately I think it's up to parents to decide what is best for their kids and I'm tempted to take something of a George Carlin mentality here. If your kid is stupid and really can't make those connections between reality and fantasy, don't let them watch horror movies or run around with fake knives or pirate swords... don't let them dress up like ninja assassins or bandits or in vigilante superhero costumes or anything else that you wouldn't want them to want to do for real or grow up to be just like. If Halloween is not your thing for religious reasons, or ethical ones, fine. In all seriousness, I have nothing against parents choosing not to expose their kids to horror. I actually have found myself on several occasions lately being utterly outraged at the theater to find other people in the audience have brought their kids to horror movies like Hostel II and stuff. I do have limits, and taking a five year old to see torture horror is sick and repulsive to me. Even the last Rambo was a bit much in my opinion for really young minors to see. If you can't articulate complex sentences you probably shouldn't be watching something so hard that it makes me wish the R rating was cut in half and made into two ratings (since no-one will just call some things NC-17 no matter how much they clearly are).

Honestly, my fiancee works in a children theater that is going to have a show on Halloween night, and if I go in costume it won't be anything really scary if even ghoulish at all. I'm not inconsiderate. Then again, I'm also a broad shouldered 24-year-old that stands over 6-feet-tall and knows how to do gore; I'm not a six year old going 'boo' in a hockey mask with some red paint on the end of a plastic knife. Let little kids have fun, especially if they have a chance to tricker treat outside. It's fun scaring one another. Kids scream, and then they laugh. I do understand about some of this super young targeting being outlandish. I'm not fond of exploiting kids, and as I've repeatedly noted, I think with the occasional store bought aid, costumes should generally be made not bought pre-assembled. I'm a big fan of making your own costumes, especially when gore is involved as it allows you to connect with that sawing in half aspect, that magician making something not real look real bit. Overall, lets not forget what Halloween is when we complain that it's getting a little macabre. It's a celebration of life through celebrating death. It's about that transitory stage where we learn to joyously put away are boogey men. Life can be brutal and vicious. Kids are growing up in a world where people around them are maimed and mutilated in wars. The very paper I first read this article in had for cover stories a missing student case and a woman confessing to killing and throwing her boyfriend's body down a well. The world is pretty scary, and there are many parental philosophies for how to help kids deal with the real and imaginary things that if we think about too much can leave us overwhelmed with dread. One philosophy we can see in variation from Halloween's roots to The Day of the Dead and elsewhere in the world is to celebrate death. On Halloween we can dress up like the things we fear and decide that we are going to still respect them, but stop dreading them. It's not for everyone, and it's not what motivates everyone that gores up (some just like getting sticky), but it's the reason I smile more often than feel outrage at the sight of a kid wearing a Freddy glove, with a bucket of candy, saying, "One, two, Freddy's coming for you..." to the annoyance of his sister.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Horror Movies That Don't Suck: The Fly (1958)

Like most people of the last generation or two, when I think of The Fly, I think of the remake directed by David Cronenberg. The melodramatic acting style of the film hasn't aged well, and the fact that Cronenberg was working from someone else's script as opposed to his own is unfortunately evident, but the special effects are amazing and the film stands as one of the few remakes thought to be better than the original. Due to this assumption and having the original summarized for me on several occasions, I've only recently gotten around to seeing the Vincent Price classic. Then this morning I noticed that James over at Cinemassacre decided to take a look at the film, and for the most part agree with his review. The original Fly is a much, much underrated film that is nothing like its black and white sequel (the first one is in color) with its iconic giant fake bug head monster. Instead, it has much more of the romantic tragedy that the Cronenberg sequel is known for (which was one of the major contributions Cronenberg made to Charles Edward Pogue's script). The tired motif of 50s sci-fi, 'beware the dangers of science' is prevalent throughout and one of the major drags of the film, but the chemistry of the characters is wonderful. It's a pretty sincere melodrama, and the wonder of it is in how great a horror movie it is without a tacked on body count. Like the remake, the horror of the film is what someone working alone does to their body. In place of his teleportation machine, one could easily imagine experiments with radioactive material going wrong, slowly deteriorating away. In this case, slowly losing grasp of one's humanity. It's a surprisingly tragic film, with minimal interest in trying to scare and much more of a focus upon having a loved one slowly die a horrible death.

I can't say really if the classic or original is superior, but in many ways that's why a recommend fellow fans of the remake check it out. Again, I suspect many have confused the terrible sequel, which is shot in black and white and also features Vincent Price, for the original which was shot in color. The difference in monster design is rather significant, original isn't anywhere near as absurd and for the time was a pretty decent low budget monster. More importantly, since the monster is tragic as oppose to a dangerous beast, the film dosen't rely so heavily on it being scary, the limited number of sets give the film a nice theatric feel to them further making the effects forgivable. It's always a shame with films like this how difficult it is to go into them fresh, for the idea of experiencing this with out the knowledge that it is about a fly-man is quite fun. The film's a slow burn investigation that shifts into a confession for why the doctor's wife apparently murdered him. I really like the narrative pacing of this one much more than the original which always felt clunky when it came to editing.

If you like classic horror movies like The Wolfman, I highly recommend giving this an open minded shot. It has really been overshadowed for far too long by its fantastic remake.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

October 2009 Horror Movie Reccomendations (Ask Away!)

It's that time of year again. That time when very large smiles grow on the faces of horror movie geeks like myself. It's the month of Halloween and the #1 time of the year to throw a horror movie marathon.

For several years now I've been meaning to put together a massive guide to throwing a horror movie marathon, including foods to eat, fluids to drink and most importantly of all, movies to watch. Back in the early days of Ain't It Cool News I posted one such guide in the talkbacks, but these days sifting through their archives is a nightmare and I have no idea where I saved the document (probably an old computer long since scrapped). Writing a new one from scratch this year is particularly problematic as I've already been in the process of composing a top ten (or twenty... still deciding) horror movies of the decade list. Not wanting to repeat myself, as I've already written several pages of criticism for that, I've come up with another solution.

Just ask.

While I might write a few lengthy posts on selections for this year's Virginia Film Festival, I expect that like the prior month I'm not going to post much. So this page will not likely get buried. So, I'm going to use this post's comments section to converse throughout the month.

Here's how it will work.

Give as much information that might help me suggest a horror movie for you and I'll try to. For example, list three horror movies you LIKE. Or if you are pretty new to horror, list other films you like a lot. Try to keep the info movie centric so I'll be most likely to make connections. Be sure to point out any issues with content such as no sex or nudity, or only films that are PG-13. I'm just as interested in trying to find enjoyable movies for casual viewers as I am for Saw-heads who want to know what Herschell Gordon Lewis film to see first. I haven't seen everything, and there are plenty of gaps (good mummy movies besides the Karloff classic, for example, I'd be useless at trying to help you find) but overall I have a pretty extensive and somewhat academic background reaching back to the 1910s. If you're a big horror geek already I can't promise I won't recommend things you've already seen, but I'll do my best.

All I ask is that snobbery be left off the board. If someone likes Scream 2 and wants to know what else is out there like it, please, no heckling. Fellow geeks, feel free to chime in with recommendations as well, but just remember, this isn't an Ain't it Cool News forum. So be nice guys.

I don't think my blog gets a lot of traffic these days, so I'm not expecting this to be too difficult to manage. If I'm wrong, then... well... I'll figure something out then. But in the mean time I look forward hearing from anyone who needs help trying to find a good horror movie for Halloween.