Talk Fetish to Me.

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I think it is fair to say that hip hop has been a powerful space of resistance. It often allows artists to exercise their agency by creating discourse around issues of race and class difference. From the pioneers like Tupac to more modern artists like Lupe Fiasco, storytelling through rap exposes stories that may be relatable and comforting to those in similar situations while drawing attention and informing others who are not. Either way, the critiquing of larger social constructs and their lasting effects through this art is a gateway to discussion that reaches a wide range of people.

That being said, it is no secret that this genre also has a pretty bad track record for reinforcing violent, misogynistic, homophobic and capitalistic values. On a whole, it seems that we as a society have gotten better at recognizing problematic lyrics and calling them out publicly. May I present exhibit A. But let’s not congratulate ourselves just yet. I’ve noticed a common theme in rap that tends to be silently accepted and it is time for that to stop. I first heard it from Craig David in the lyric “what’s your flava?” Drake played off the same metaphor with the line “I get girls all different flavours”. The self-proclaimed “Mr. World-Wide” Pit Bull makes light of some controversial cultural stereotypes in the song International Love. Example: In Lebanon, yeah the women are bomb. Down in D.R. they’re looking for visas, I ain’t talking credit cards if you know what I mean. And most recently and certainly most explicitly, Jason Derulo’s extremely popular “club anthem” Talk Dirty to Me is really more like the anthem of sex tourism.

So why doesn’t the fetishization of racialized bodies cause a stir?

It’s the values instilled in our culture. We automatically assume “Isn’t being the object of desire a good thing? You are novel. You are different. You are exotic.” It’s hard to hear that word and not get the mental image of dancing around on a tropical beach like Prianka Chopra. Thus, coloured women in media are inclined to use their sexualization to their advantage – as Prianka Chopra did in her ironically titled single, Exotic.

Awh yeah that’s me – exotic. I was practically raised under a palm tree.

By failing to address the issue and simply taking it as a “compliment”, we aren’t challenging what is wrong with the system – we are reinforcing it. White colonial patriarchy was based on the notion that female coloured bodies are wild, animalistic, sex objects to be tamed. Nothing is said of talent or ability or intelligence in fetishization but if we look to Orientalism and how the two concepts intersect we see that the attention won by skin colour comes at the price of being categorized with the assumption that each group of coloured people “belong” to some less civilized, far-off land. Each coloured body remains bound to numerous false beliefs about a homogenized culture, language, religion and appearance. All this is deduced unconsciously and without consideration of birth place, nationality and personal identification preferences; elements that make identity more complex since the rise in globalization and migration. Contrastingly, white bodies have the privilege of defining their own identity without others questioning or coercing them into categories. See what I mean? This insistence to define coloured people as the “other” creates an unnecessary divide and encourages racial prejudices and discrimination to persist.

Jason Derulo’s song is just one example in an ongoing pattern in the way foreign-looking bodies are portrayed. As a black man himself, one might think this artist would be more conscious or sensitive to isolating race as a defining feature but it seems that the sexual appeal society has “awarded” race makes it seem okay. In saying that “Your booty don’t need explaining, all I really need to understand is when you talk dirty to me” there is an undeniable lack of respect for (and possible lack of verbal consent from) the voice of the women he is singing about. It is dehumanizing in the fullest because what makes us human is our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings. Disregard for a person’s humanity in extreme cases may cause inhumane treatment to seem tolerable. Sex tourism as I mentioned earlier is the practice of travelling with the purpose of having sex with local prostitutes where legal restriction is not as heavy. Sex tourists may not be well informed when engaging in these practices so they could be putting themselves and sex workers in danger of financing human trafficking. I’m sure this is not what Jason Derulo was thinking when he recorded this song but it’s important to challenge the artists of popular culture to recognize the implications of what they produce.

Currently, products exploiting Orientalism and racial stereotypes can be found in popular culture everywhere. (Allow me to point your attention here.) A heightened consciousness and deconstruction of Orientalism could free us of harmful and unattainable expectations. It would mean to have greater control over the way we present ourself to others. It would mean being allowed and expected to look, think and act differently from what society assumes of our ancestors.

Now I ask that we bear this in mind; it’s not feminism until you’re fighting for the equal treatment of everyone. In this case, that means acknowledging the intersections of gender and race. If we can listen to controversial songs (like Blurred Lines) and argue that girls aren’t just objects to be claimed, shouldn’t we be able to recognize that coloured girls aren’t just stamps to be collected?

azn

“TTFN Ta Ta For Now!”

― A.A. Milne

Kristafurrobin

Beauty For All? Not Buying It.

The beauty industry has been selling the notions of desirability, youthfulness and “perfection” for as long as it has been around. But now get excited because L’Oreal has decided that the hegemonic reign of young, white beauty is no more. That’s right. Now, thanks to the #BeautyForAll campaign, slim, able-bodied, cis-gendered people of all ages and complexions can be considered beautiful…as long as they still adhere to traditional quips like clear skin and symmetrical features that we already categorize as beautiful.

This ad claims that at L’Oreal, they believe in the power of beauty. I definitely see truth to this statement but I challenge who holds the power. Who holds the power to determine what is beautiful? Who holds the power to control whether they are seen as beautiful? While there is an illusion that consumers can choose to buy products and manipulate their appearance, it is ultimately the cosmetic companies who tell consumers what they want to buy. Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4 summarizes this idea nicely in the quote “ads sell more than products. They sell values. They sell images. They sell concepts of love, of sexuality, of success. And perhaps most important, of normalcy.”

The 2 minute clip specifically makes an effort to include stories of characters’ lifestyles and relate them back to the so called power-of-beauty. But I think the term beauty is being misused here. It’s problematic to accredit beauty as the sole source of success for each character. If feeling beautiful is synonymous to a content, confident perception of yourself – I am all for that. However the current monopoly over beauty is not conducive to building an internal feeling of beauty. Instead, it is made to work from the outside in. Change your appearance externally and you will feel better internally. But what happens when people realize that makeup cannot change you? The way beauty effects each character in this ad also shows some interesting trends to note. Beauty for women relates to romance (presumably with a man), weddings and motherhood. Contrastingly, for the two male characters, beauty is about moving up in power or seeing a woman as a literal object of desire. These mini narratives on each character are meant to strike our emotions as viewers but I can’t get over why the person beauty can help be the “chosen one” had to be Pierre, the one white male in the over-exhausted powerful businessman image. I’m confused as to why little Carolina is taught so young that for her to have a good first impression at school she must conform to be beautiful, a struggle that girls continue to face all their lives, especially as youth slips away. Then Paolo and Louise remind us that old age need not be celebrated in its own right for enduring and growing wiser but rather the most important goal is really “to feel twenty again.”

To speak on the inclusion of cross-cultural actors, I say thank you L’Oreal for trying to be diverse. It’s nice of you to decide to share beauty with the less fortunate Eastern World. Unfortunately I fear your depictions are unrealistic as the Asian, African, South American and South Asian people you are supposedly targeting in your commercial likely live in cities that look more similar to the urban backdrop than the exotic landscapes that were chosen for filming. Sorry to disappoint. It is a common misconception that people of colour each have a distinct homogenous culture to which they belong. Through all the reinforcements of this belief, it has become hard for the public to separate individuals from the background we are stereotypically inclined to imagine them in. For example, the Asian woman in the serene forest or the Indian people surrounded by golden temples dressed in bright fabrics. What can we notice about the white characters? There was no distinctive background they had to match. Each white character seemed to have their own distinct identity, undefined by their skin – a freedom not enjoyed so readily by people of colour. There were also no repeats. By this I mean in the one advertisement, there we several distinct “normal” white characters but no repeats of any “other” race. The idea of East vs. West is simply put from the very start. “Where ever you are from; here or there.” This statement while meant to unify two groups only reinforces the imagined belief that there are two separate groups.

I believe in beauty for all.
But unlike L’Oreal, I don’t believe it needs to be offered in a package.
I believe in reminding all people of the natural beauty they already possess.
That is where the real power of beauty lies.

 

“A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.”

― A.A. Milne

 

Kristafurrobin

A Divine Affair

The Screening Room, hidden along Princess Street of downtown Kingston, opened its doors on February 6th to celebrate one of the LGBTQ/alternative/drag communities’ most beloved and controversial icons in a documentary titled I Am Divine. I did not know what to expect of The Reelout Queer Film Festival as it was the first I had heard of Divine, let alone any drag performer but I was intrigued to understand what drag was about, why people did it and why so many loved it. When I entered the theatre I was surprised to find a full house of almost ninety moviegoers. When I left the theatre, I could see why even after death, Divine’s fans worked to his keep spirit alive. Dedication proved to be a reoccurring theme; Divine’s dedication to succeeding in his craft at any cost and the dedication reciprocated to him by his fans.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz fashioned this biographical story in chronological order through personal anecdotes recounted by friends, family and colleagues of the star. We watch him grow from a feminine young Harris Glenn Milstead playing dress-up to the fat, bullied high school boy still struggling to fit in. We see his career take off through sleazy parodies under the direction of his life-long friend, John Waters and his evolution into the larger-than-life persona, Divine – the self-proclaimed “filthiest human alive.” Each interview clip emanates a relaxed, comfortable tone, as the speakers openly share secrets to make the audience laugh out loud, cringe or both. The setting and background elements of cinematography play a secondary role to the images painted through storytelling. Anytime camera effects are added, they are made to match the grainy 80’s feel of the footage from Divine’s first films like Mundo Trasho and Pink Flamingos. It is clear the film was made as an intimate tribute to reflect how Divine would have wanted his life story to appear; professional, entertaining, shocking, and triumphant. His life, from the fallout with his family to their heartwarming reunion, embodies the ultimate queer performer’s version of an “It Gets Better” story.

Being an audience member felt as though I was amongst Divine’s close friends as they all laughed in unison at inside jokes while I had missed the punch line. It was then that I realized the intense sense of community his fandom had created. What’s more impressive is the reach of this fandom; his performing career which extended to audiences in across America and Europe literally served as a worldwide beacon of possibility to misfits everywhere. People were captivated by Divine even if they hated him because was he was absolutely engrossed in all he did. When he said he was the most beautiful woman alive, he believed it and whether you believed it or not, he did his job by getting a reaction out of you.

The tactics that led Divine to fame such as the infamous “eating dog feces stunt” in Pink Flamingos were so unconventional it is not surprising that many were critical of him. He challenged standards of beauty at the time and took “the age of excess” as it was known to new extremes, reclaiming the word beautiful to fit himself. He defied odds by proving a fat, gay [white] man could be a successful leading lady.

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Ruminate on that. It’s hard not to see these two pictures and be left in awe. Divine’s ability to defy limitations inspired hope that really anything is possible. It is often forgotten that drag roles, similar to characters in movies are works of fiction and do not reflect the actor when the camera is not rolling. Many interviewed clips are included addressing the reoccurring question of whether Divine’s character on screen matched his personality off screen. One of the key points I learned about drag from this documentary is that one’s drag persona can and often will assume a name, gender, sexuality, voice and personality as a whole completely distinct from their day-to-day self. It was emphasized in the film while Divine was womanly, Glenn himself had never identified as one. I noticed the complications of gender categorizing throughout the film as some would refer to Divine as “him” and others as “her.” The blurred lines between transgender people, transvestites, cross-dressers and drag performers are a source for countless false assumptions about gender identity, sexuality and behaviour that each distinct communities must deal with. In a world of strictly enforced gender binaries, members of these communities can find themselves under extra pressure to defend and define their personal identity or else continue to be misrepresented.

As inspiring as his story was, the devil’s advocate in me must ask was Divine really the serious actor he claimed to be or were his movies only good for their outrageous publicity stunts? The film works to show how Divine grew over the years and how what he wanted for his career changed over time. By his peak, he did have the maturity to put down the glittered makeup and take on more mainstream roles such as that in the original 1988 Hairspray. Yes, I too was amazed to learn that John Travolta’s role in the 2007 Hairspray remake was inspired by Divine himself.

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John Travolta as Edna Turnblad.

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Divine as Edna Turnblad.

But is that just heteronormative me being uncomfortable with his extremely vulgar, out-there ways and labelling it immaturity? Am I wrong for congratulating him on eventually landing ”normal” male and female lead roles? It’s hard to say. In one way, it is not wrong because that was in fact Divine’s dream all along; to be taken seriously and show his versatility as an actor. Divine convinced people to overlook his gender and was privileged by his white skin to be able to fit the mainstream niche. Had he been of colour during that time period, his independent films may have received attention but opportunities in the mainstream movie world would have been extremely limited, even for cis-gendered people of colour. In another light however, Divine was a role model to many and his progression away from underground culture could be interpreted as encouraging to his followers that only mainstream success is real success. The bittersweet end is that no one will know where Divine’s life and career would have gone but he is now and forever remembered as a symbol for anyone who has felt like an outsider.

For Harris Glenn Milstead, being Divine was his creative outlet, trademark and his vessel to follow his dreams. For his fans, Divine was a wonder to watch, a raw interactive entertainer and a reminder that they could be whoever they wanted to be and they would not be alone. And for anyone who loves a story about an underdog, this is one that must be congratulated.

“The things that make me different are the things that make me.”
― A.A. Milne

Kristafurrobin

I Am Divine. Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz. Perf. Harris Glenn Milstead, John Waters, Mink Stole. Automat Pictures, 2013. Film.

Be who you are, but not that way.

It is always important to ask yourself who the stories you hear are coming from and why. Is their information supported by what you already know? Have you heard the other sides? My attention was recently brought to a little rumour about the men of America. Apparently they are in grave danger and who could the culprits be? Those darn feminists again.

Nick Adams, America’s number one fan from down under, motivational speaker and author of the 2013 book The American Boomerang warned the nation of a so-called “dangerous phenomenon” in a guest appearance on Fox news. Let us first get a fair understanding of Mr. Adams’ viewpoint by looking into his positionality.

  • White
  • Cis-gendered
  • Man
  • Heterosexual
  • Christian
  • Conservative

This quote, directly taken from the Politics page on his website, spoke volumes to me about his line of thinking:

“He considers all people to be equal but not all cultures to be equal, and that the English-speaking world is the greatest hope for mankind.”

Right.

To be honest, I read Nick Adam’s website and saw a man clearly cashing in on a few general realizations: America loves itself, America feels threatened, and America has money. But for the purpose of debate, we can assume that he genuinely believes a decline in strict enforcement of traditionally masculine behaviour is affecting the USA’s national security. Is masculinity in danger? If we are referring to some rigid definition and the stereotypical expectations associated with masculinity then yes, in fact it has never been safe. This term is and always has been continuously critiqued and remolded by society.

The issues I have with the words masculine and feminine are that they take the place of other adjectives that would better describe people more specifically, accurately, and would be inclusive and accessible to all. When we allow the word masculine to take the place of words like smart, independent, outspoken and driven or let feminine replace gentle, caring, respectful and accepting, we create a roadblock preventing half the population (and all who identify as androgynous or middle sex) from feeling comfortable to identify with and exhibit behaviours they have been taught to avoid. Further, when one’s gender performance does not align with mainstream ideals, their gender identity and often sexuality are called into question and scrutinized. The association of distinct traits to gender categories is a smokescreen that blocks people from recognizing that everyone (even the crocodile hunter) is capable and more importantly, required to express traits from both arbitrary categories in various situations.

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Amy Cuddy’s TedTalk on how body language can impact confidence, public speaking and ultimately success is a remarkable example of the lasting impact gendering children has on reaching their full potential. So it is not as Adams’ puts it that men are preventing women from achieving their goals but rather the the ways society views and values men and women. He may be right about the importance of teaching young boys to be leaders but is it not important and fair to teach girls to stand up for themselves and be confident as well? In his critique of the effects of feminism, Adams’ fails to acknowledge any significance that gender roles forced onto young girls may have on the well-being of the country yet the last time I checked, women had an active place in the American affairs he claims are at stake including politics and military.

The consequences of promoting certain skills to only one gender can negatively impact boys just as much as girls. While girls are encouraged to behave passively and cater to men domestically and sexually, young boys are taught to be aggressive and possessive. The obsessive degree to which strength has been equated to a lack of emotion can be summed up in the phrase “Be A Man.” The same claim Nick Adams’ says will save America is in reality leaving boys more prone than ever to depression, suicidal thoughts and violence. The documentary entitled The Mask You Live In gives an informed polar-opposite perspective supported by expert opinions and statistics (which Adams’ story seems to lack.)

It is important to note whose definition of masculinity Adams’ is fighting to defend. The image he paints of men being men by watching football, going to the shooting range or having a beer is a stereotypical All-American cultural artefact that does not honestly represent the cultural diversity of the country. He says men are not allowed to participate in these activities and are demonized for doing so where I believe men are pressured to participate in these activities whether they are interested in doing so or not and are ridiculed and called “weeps and wussies” if they don’t. To say men win and wimps lose is not only offensive to men who don’t feel inclined to demonstrate normative masculinity but also implies that “wimps” have feminine qualities therefore women are innately losers too. If we want to analyze his theory from yet another lens, we can also note that his use of the term “male” in congruence with man in the quote “just being male has now been made really suspect” marginalizes men who may self-identify as such but biologically have female physical sex traits.

Gender intersects with race in the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that pop culture feeds us. Does Nick Adams have an opinion in comparing the “proper” way to be a man or woman between white and black people? It seems that this type of gender policing triggers racial gender slurs like “angry black woman” and “strong independent black woman” to be so frequently mocked.

land of free

On a final note, I draw attention to Clayton’s question, “how do we teach our children to be who they are?” While he continues to clarify that he means “boys to be boys and girls to be girls” I’d like to rebut that being who you are is not something that can be taught. In the self-proclaimed Land of the Free and around the world, all should be free to be who they are.

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  (A.A. Milne)

Kristafurrobin