Thursday, 15 January 2009

Deconstructing the female duality and other pretentious stuff

It's one a.m. at the time of writing and I am officially a masochistic idiot. Why am I a masochistic idiot? Firstly, because I've decided I'm going to write this blog-post now, which means I'm not going to sleep tonight.

The second reason why I'm a masochistic idiot is that I decided to write cultural criticism about women (or, more pidoquiously, about gender studies). This may not sound any matter of masochism to you guys, but there is no better way of irritating a female academic than making general claims to what women are like if you're a man, and since more than half of my female friends (the only ones I try not to hit on - sometimes) are female academics, I'm about to compromise all of my social life with girls from here on out. (In fact, I've probably fucked it up already by means of this paragraph - the idea of the 'vindictive' or 'irascible' woman is itself a male stereotype going as far back as the Furies, so I'm already framing myself not only as ignorant academically but as one who fears women. The first bit doesn't bother me because admittedly I have as much knowledge of women's studies as I do of Mayan architecture, but the second one does pique me considerably. I don't know if it's true that I fear women, I sure as hell don't want that to be my reputation though).

That bit aside, let's cut into our subject-matter quickly. This Christmas my adolescent girl cousins check-mated me into playing a karaoke game on the Wii of High School Musical 1 through 3, and the first song I was asked to submit myself to was this:

Click here for something FABULOUS

Now, karaoke is akin to the bombardments of Leningrad when I'm doing it in the best of cases, but with this specific song it must have been one of the greatest disasters since the Vajont dam broke to pieces (seriously, how the hell are you supposed to hit that high note at 2:40 without sounding like the hound of the Baskervilles?). Because it was a videogame they also had to give you a score system and grade you, normally very poorly - as in, it's not enough that I'm playing this fucking thing, the game also has to insult me for it towards the end. But I digress.

What really struck me about that video, I should say, is just how friggin' identical it is to THIS. From the foregrounding of the femininity via a pink so blinding you could sunbathe in it plus feminine tropes (shopping on one side, menstruation on the other) all the way to the declared and unabashed sensation of being exceptional, the two songs trace each other almost verbatim.

So what's the catch? Well, the fact that in High School Musical that song is meant to CONDEMN the character. She is a negative model. Avril Lavigne's song, by contrast, is an ideal. It says "I want to be this" (more so even than "I am this" - now there's an Apollonian trope if I ever saw one).

What is basically the same text has two meanings. Why?

On one level, and just to put one's hands up to generalisation, you could attribute it to different taste, inasmuch as some girls like the Belle-Blonde and others don't (though personally I think that's as plausible as Noah's Ark - I may be completely wrong, but I suspect that the audiences for HSM and Avril Lavigne are very similar). However, on a further level, I think we may trace this to a general duality that exists within representations of the femenine.

First and most basic difference between the two songs: the medium. One is part of a film, the other is just a song. Hegel, who was a brilliant academic (but still an asshole), differentiated between literary genres by means of temporal cogency: the lyric has only ONE temporal plane, because you read a poem and your 'self' subsists within the same time as the speaker. The lyric is a representation of the present: you read stuff as it happens, and you are tete-a-tete with the poet/speaker's own intimacy. The epic, by contrast, establishes a distance between the Homeric narrator and the Golden Age of heroes it is talking about, and we remain at the same temporal distance from those events as the narrator. The epic is a representation of the past: you read stuff belonging to an age that is dead forever, and inaccessible.

(I realise it seems like I've gone fourteen miles on a limb here but bear with me, I promise this stuff is all relevant. Well, maybe not the bit about Hegel being an asshole, but I couldn't resist that).

Hhhhmmmmkay, so where Hegel's work was really influential was in his study of drama. What the old sock claimed was that tragedy and comedy were different from poetry inasmuch as they produced a double temporal plane which brought together the lyric and the epic: the old plays about the gods and the heroes were representing stuff that had happened in a mythical past, but they were unfolding in front of the spectator's eyes in their own little suspended present. This is the concept of the STAGE as a neutral plane with its own suspended time continuum, separate from real time. In other words, the stage is neither the past nor the present, but a staging of the present in the past. Hence the epic and lyric genres are brought together. The tragic heroes enunciate lyric speeches, but they find themselves involved in the ineluctable mechanisms of the epic past.

This in turn produces an important division - that of public and private, which are represented respectively by the chorus (the epic tradition) and the hero (the lyric self).

Now - how the fuck does this relate to Avril Lavigne and High School Musical??

Quite simply really, because unless you make it a habit of hitting your head with bricks you'll have seen that the HSM song belongs to the medium of drama (a staging of the present in the past) while the Avril Lavigne song is pure lyric (it's just the present - it's not encrusted in some specific line of time with events standing in (causal) relation to others).

To be fair, the whole of the Best Damn Thing album seems made up of self-celebrating songs like that. The reason I really like that album is that it's so spontaneous - if you take away the bullshit songs like "When You're Gone," you're left with some fabulously energetic pop rock and an attitude which drops the 'punk' (or what have you) pretentions and just shouts to the world I'M A STAR I'M A STAR I'M A BIG BRIGHT SHINING STAR (it's even better expressed in this song which doesn't have a video, and this one reiterates the point if necessary), which of course really appeals to me given my irrepressible narcissism. As Lavigne herself said in a Blender interview, quoted from this review, "my favorite songs to play live are all the fast ones like ‘Sk8er Boi’. It took a couple records for me to realize what exactly I want to do. This is exactly what I want to do.”

So if this stuff has any appeal at all (and it sure as hell does to me), I'm tempted to say it's not because it's complex but because it's simple. It's a really simple sentiment.

So why does HSM condemn it?

I was wondering about that so I went out and rented the movie and, well, aside from the fact that I was impressed by the dramatic cogency of it all (it really is an exceptionally well-executed story, especially for a TV movie - this film seriously deserves all of its success) what I found was that the film returns, predictably, to the Hegelian duality of public vs private, and that the Trial of the Blonde is simply A Part of That Whole.

Let's take it in stages (among other things because my head is beginning to ache). HSM establishes two figures of women. One is this:

The other is this:

Not that hard, yeah? A flashy, ostentatious drama queen who expects to be 'served,' and a modest-looking brunette whose very body posture suggests withdrawal. Gabriella, the brunette, the private character par excellence; as she asks her friend Taylor (the ever-so-politically-correct and ever-so-fucking-irritating black girl), "Ever felt like there was another person inside you trying to emerge?" Sharpay, the blonde, is the public character, whose identity is constructed in terms of social supremacy. While Gabriella chuckles with Taylor at the group of cheerleaders (themselves a public icon of 'girlie'), Sharpay wants to be king of the show in the musical.

So everything fits - Sharpay is condemned because her elitist behaviour ('I need, I need') is anti-social, and this is what the drama, being a communal activity, rejects. All clear.

...WAIT!!!!!! The thing that I find really fascinating is juxtaposing the Avril Lavigne videos to the HSM ones. For, if Avril's videos represent a case of feminine lyric, that is to say, the private side of feminine expression, then there's a gigantic irregularity here. Because the ostentation and love of the self that are supposed to characterise (and condemn) Sharpay as a public figure, actually make her correspond with a lyric and therefore private figure. By contrast Gabriella, who is supposed to be a private figure, is in reality a public figure - being non-ostentatious and non-imposing is how girls actually want to be perceived (to avoid the condemnation by society), aka Gabriella is a public ideal!

Sharpay is a private figure disguised as a public one, and Gabriella is a public figure disguised as a private one. Girls want to appear like Gabriella in society, but they feel like Sharpay (or Avril) in the private sphere. Of course, though, the character of Gabriella is not interested in 'appearing' and Sharpay is defined only by her public identity. (The claims in this paragraph are a generalisation, I know, but I'm just reasoning by the narrative function of these tropes).

Hence the nature of the feminine is inherently dual because the community (the stage) condemns the private desire for affirmation in the public when it is experienced by women, and paints their public ideal as dis-affirmation into the private. Women are divorced (in their desires) from society, which condemns them, and thus exist in a dual condition - men, by contrast, experience no such separation of the self from society and therefore do not have the same ambivalent nature. The public and the private self correspond, in men, as this song appears to suggest - the guys talk about being 'superheroes,' 'waking up the neighbourhood' and other publically ostentatious and self-exceptional stuff, yet the video does not condemn them. On the contrary, it makes them appear cool.

The tradition for this duality goes as far back as Greek tragedy - a friend of mine once wrote a wonderful essay on the dual nature of the feminine in revenge tragedy. She used as one of her examples the Orestea, where Athena (who 'favours the man in every thing', Eumenides 734) represents the law of the public, whereas the feminine Furies appeal to a more primordial, private self. Similarly in Kill Bill, the Bride rejects the code of the assassins, with their swords of Hattori Hanzo and stuff, in favour of the private bond of motherhood which instigates her revenge.

There's something more to be said regarding the relation between m/f and public/private (if Apollo and Dionysus and their associations with man and woman respectively are anything to go by, the male IS the public sphere and the female IS the private sphere, and what we've just studied is just one of the ways in which they intersect), but frankly my skull is a bowl full of damp autumn leaves by now, so it's time to leave the keyboard, go to sleep, and quote Gabriella's words to her prince charming as a best way of closure:

"When I sang with you I felt like... a girl."

(And I feel dead. Nighty-night).


Mory said...

"men, by contrast, experience no such separation of the self from society and therefore do not have the same ambivalent nature"

See, I don't buy this. For that matter, I don't buy generalizations about genders in general. There is nothing that is only masculine or feminine- all studies of one or the other are just studies of humanity in general, and what you find in one you'll find in the other. The only difference is how often you'll find it.

You talk about having a private self and a public self, being inwardly egotistical and outwardly withdrawn. I'm a guy, and I'm like that. When I was younger I was certain I was the most important person in the world, I absolutely was rejected by society for it, and I learned to put up a mask of "I'm not important, stop looking at me.". This is a human thing, not a feminine thing. Now, in my case it's particularly pronounced because I've got an atypical brain, but I see the same thing in smaller doses with other people.

John Silver said...

'The only difference is in how often you find it.'

I think that's a pretty significant and revealing difference. I dressed up once in stockings and lipstick but that doesn't mean it's masculine fashion as much as it is feminine (well okay in my case I was doing it for a cross-dressing and it didn't even matter because I pulled, but you see my point).

You may be right that the songs I've been looking at may have equal appeal to both genders rather than speaking to a specific one. I certainly feel the appeal of Avril Lavigne's self-celebration (unlike you, I never grew out of my certainty that I am the most important person in the world). :D

Nonetheless, I'd like to specify that while the duality I'm talking about may be equally *experienced* by both genders, I would argue that *this duality recurs more often in representations of the feminine than the masculine.* As I said, the Zac Efrons of our movies are not split - their private selves correspond to their public self. (Or is that the case in HSM? I've got to check that again...).

About the claim that 'nothing is only masculine or feminine' - what of our respective experiences of sexuality? What of motherhood and menstruation? I'd argue these are exclusive to one sex. Things like pornography are less self-explanatory, but they have an almost exclusively masculine appeal. The gender differences in the social (masculine rites of passage, female bonding and tribalism) are much more blurry of course, but I would argue they are equally real.

Thanks for the comments - interesting discussion!