Last fall, I saw my former thesis adviser, Mary Kearney, give an excellent presentation on sparkle, girlhood, and post-feminist luminosities. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, Angela McRobbie identifies luminosities as spotlight effects of power that bring young women forward as individualized subjects. While luminosity promises to make young women legible cultural subjects, this visibility often becomes a form of surveillance. Kearney takes up sparkle as a form of luminosity that is simultaneously glamorous and vexingly ephemeral for girls and young women. Toward the end of her talk, she argued that scholars should consider what queer theory—and queer political actors like drag queens and glitter bombers—can teach us about sparkle. At the bar afterwards, I asked her what glitter can teach us about throwing shade.
As a Drag Race fan, I’m familiar with throwing shade as a vital historical practice within drag culture. To throw shade is to insult someone. For especially quick, observant queens, it’s an art form. There’s an intellectual component to throwing shade, as indicated by associative terms like “reading.” It is effectively summarized in a segment of Jennie Livingston’s essential 1989 documentary Paris Is Burning, which investigates the New York drag ball scene.
Dorian Corey’s comment at the end of this scene suggests that reading is more overtly performative and communal, whereas shade is a subtle, more ephemeral form of subterfuge. Shade complements luminosity. For female celebrities, luminosity is a double-edged sword. What’s the difference between a red carpet appearance and a mug shot? But drag queens frequently harness the light sources found in cosmetics, sequins, and rhinestones to honor feminine strength and often to challenge conventional femininity. They help cast sparkle in a different light. They sparkle to deflect shade. But when a queen shines, she may also become vulnerable to another queen’s shadow, particularly if her light source is basic or counterfeit. Glitter reflects light and the dirt underneath it.
This is where reading comes in as a “fundamental” practice in drag culture. To be insulted is to be recognized. As a perennial mini-challenge on Drag Race, “the library” is a space that honors queens’ ability to be critical of her sisters in a quick, perceptively humorous fashion. Particularly effective queens, like season two contestant Jujubee, can “read for filth” by isolating a queen’s flaws or weaknesses and critiquing them in devastating fashion.
The current cast of Drag Race includes frontrunner Bianca Del Rio, an insult comic with a classic Hollywood aesthetic. In an early workroom appearance, she refers to her punchlines and put-downs as her “Rolodex of hate.” What I especially like about this phrase is how it turns anger into an index. This phrase suggests that emotions have histories with their own root causes and stories. It also turns this particular negative emotion into a technology, a tool that can be used to navigate a variety of social interactions.
A “Rolodex of hate” sounds like a “structure of feeling,” a concept popularized by cultural theorist Raymond Williams to express how certain cultural experiences are understood through representation and felt in everyday life. But a Rolodex is a reference system that allows its user to refer back to pre-existing connections and associations. In this context, “Rolodex of hate” reminds me of what Heather Love refers to as “feeling backward,” or a distinctly queer experience or representation that speaks to subjects’ negotiations of negative or ambivalent feelings like nostalgia, resentment, self-loathing, shame, and despair. It also raises a question: what is knowledge’s relationship to anger?
This is the question that I have for the video to Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.” I work for a university, so I was immediately struck by the clip’s location. First off, an empty school will always look like the setting to a horror movie. This is why you will never find me at a library after 7 p.m. But schools are already scary because they’re sites of learning. As a result, they enforce ideologies of knowledge. School is a source of power. That’s where I learned how to diagram sentences and solve equations. It’s also where I learned dominant historical narratives, literary canons, bad words, and political values that I would later challenge and undo … by staying in school. At school, teachers and students also learn how to communicate and socialize with their peers and each other. Such congregation can be difficult for subjects who are persecuted and endangered because of their differences and their inability (or unwillingness) to adhere to norms that are toxic in their restrictiveness. It can also be disorienting, particularly since students and teachers’ actions are subject to scrutiny but its source or intent is not always clear.
Apart from the video’s setting, I’m struck by Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxxx’s lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere about the politics of negative reinforcement, using Azealia Banks’ “212” as an example. The rappers’ extensive use of the word “bitch” cannot be ignored, though we should recognize that the word has different meanings when it is activated by a woman or a queer man. But I’m also interested in its interplay with “college,” “knowledge,” “dissertation,” “classroom,” “outline,” “cohesive,” “lunchtime,” “first period,” and “thesis.” Schools circulate ideologies through discipline. We tend to associate “discipline” with official codes of conduct that sanction certain behavior and academic practices. Discipline also circulates through less formal means. Subjects are also disciplined by schoolyard fights, incriminating gossip, and withering glances. But sometimes, anger is coded through refinement. In a graduate seminar, you might say “I find the author’s argument problematic” or “I hear what you’re saying, but I quibble with you about …” Such niceties allow you to make your point, even if you’d rather yell and throw things instead. That tension is what I find most compelling about “Ima Read”; Katz and Foxxx appropriate scholarly decorum to use it as a weapon instead of as a euphemism.
I try to lead a simple, fulfilling life; anger is a part of that. Yoko Ono begins “Revelations” with the line “Bless you for your anger, it’s a sign of rising energy.” As a feminist, I am often furious about actions and events—however subtle, however seismic—where people and various -isms ingratiate themselves into cultural representations and everyday life in order to oppress and maintain the dominant order. Sometimes I just cry. This is why I’ve never understood how weeping is denigrated as feminine. I reject such binaries and how they devalue women and femininity by denying their connections to “masculine” emotions like anger. And crying is never a dainty, submissive act for me; it destroys my face. But depending on the circumstances, I also respond with confrontation, with inquiry, with silence. As Ono’s lyrics suggest, such energy has multiple potential outcomes. Anger is productive. It transforms. But what can we do with these energies? How can we use it to teach and what can anger teach us?
I don’t know if any of you have read Christian John Wikane’s PopMatters piece on Tina Turner and the 25th anniversary of Private Dancer, but it’s great. Upon reflection of this artist and album, I naturally thought of the music video for “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” To borrow from Lisa A. Lewis, it’s a definitive female address clip, particularly for Turner’s interaction with the street, a space which Lewis uses Angela McRobbie to define as an access sign for women and girls. It also reminds people of how kick-ass Ms. Turner was and continues to be.
Given that many of us have been attending holiday parties recently, I thought I’d offer up another traditionally male-gendered cultural space: the bar. What happens when female artists encounter it?
“Got Til It’s Gone”
The Velvet Rope
Directed by Mark Romanek
Standing in the Way of Control
Directed by Whitey McConnaughy
“Lived In Bars”
Directed by Robert Gordon
So, this blog has covered Lisa A. Lewis’s use of access signs and discovery signs in music videos, particularly those focused on female address. For discovery signs, we’ve looked at bedrooms. For access signs, we’ve looked at streets, a space argued by folks like Angela McRobbie as traditionally being considered off limits to women and girls, bending Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere to note the omission of any considerable, influential female presence.
But what about access signs that are open spaces, like fields? What do we do with them? What do we do in them, especially if we’re female and supposedly in danger if we don’t stay indoors darning our socks? If the music videos in today’s post are any indication, we might have the power to freeze time, suspending the actions of nuclear families and/or rescue squads in the process (though we might also feel weird about our music being used in the New Moon soundtrack, but such is the shaky economic state of the music industry and, perhaps as a result, the wonky nature of “indie”).
Directed by Terri Timely
We might also lay waste to one another, pumping each other full of lead behind a suburban neighborhood. In my version of this music video, though, the camera fixes on Alison Mosshart as she walks off into the sunset.
The Dead Weather
“Treat Me Like Your Mother”
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Last week, I was bestowed with a treasure. My friend Curran made me a two-volume mix CD, one of my favorite things to give and receive. I especially love Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic,” Yoko Ono and Cat Power’s “Revelations,” and Takaka Minekawa’s “Fantastic Cat,” which he selected specifically for my cat, Kozy. And he also reminded me that I should have been listening to Crass this whole time.
His mix came with a 20-page set of liner notes with lyrics, observations, and personal meanings for each song. Curran is a very thorough, thoughtful person who values homemade things and resistive, non-normative modes of expression. I had a dream that he wrote a 30-page essay on Shonen Knife for this blog’s “Records That Made Me a Feminist” section and have no doubt that he might. You should read it.
The week before that, I was bestowed with another treasure. My neighbor-friend Rosa-María left a clipping from Entertainment Weekly in my door, with the blurb for Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls circled. So I picked up a copy (actually, Kristen got me a copy from the UT Library, as I hadn’t replaced my UT student ID yet). I had never heard of the author before and know very little about who she is as an author or what she means to her native England (I guess she’s a writer and teaches writing classes at the university level; thanks, Wikipedia). I wasn’t even sure what era this book was going to cover (luckily for me, she comes of age during the 1970s, a very interesting time for England and to me). Just as you do with a mix CD, you take your friend’s recommendations on faith and dive in.
Let me share with you now one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the power of making mixes for people. Greenlaw’s words:
The greatest act of love was to make a tape for someone. It was the only way we could share music and it was also a way of advertising yourself. Selection, order, the lettering you used for the track list, how much technical detail you went into, whether or not you added artwork and no tracklist at all, these choices were as codified as a Victorian bouquet.
Yes, exactly. This quote has new resonance for me after making mix CDs for 50 GRCA campers. I hope they take the blank, one-color paper sleeves and make something completely their own out of them.
Now, the task of writing a review for the book poses a challenge. Its use-value is a little hard to determine. It’s a memoir. So, if you know about Greenlaw and care about her artfully written recollections of coming of age, then this is a good book. But if you don’t know Greenlaw, or have much invested in the place and time in which she comes of age, you might feel like you’re grasping for straws.
But I appreciated Greenlaw’s willingness to recollect events, political movements, personal activities, rituals, and practices as means of identification. She erects collages clipped and ripped and taped and pasted from magazines that constantly shift and mutate her bedroom’s landscape. She laquers her flipped hair and eyelids and straps on platform shoes to go to discos with girlfriends. She recounts the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols antics from the safe distance of her neighborhood and television. She starts listening to “hippie” records (ex: Santana, Genesis) because of a boy, who later accidentally leaves a crate of records for her on the tube when they meet up again as adults (with her partner and child in tow). She goes to concerts with friends. She visits a friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt. She makes and unmakes girl friendships. She renounces punk for new wave because she thinks the subgenre mirrors her affinity for Russian literature and Gauloises. She loves reading and writing, but hates school. She roadtrips to Ohio because she loves Devo. She thinks about Thatcherism and the National Front alongside the Pop Group’s second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, though didn’t put them together at the time (which, seriously, a book that reminds me to throw that record on is a good book by my definition). She cuts her girlfriend’s hair at a party. She constantly dyes and cuts and grows out and re-dyes her own hair.
In short, she constantly changes and renegotiates who she is, configuring herself always in a state of becoming, even after she’s transitioned out of her teenage years.
Putting all of this into a broader context, she’s very easily the type of girl British cultural theorists like Angela McRobbie were later devoting books and articles to, helping to build girls studies programs in the process. McRobbie’s girls tended to be bookish, middle-class in an increasingly impoverished country, rebellious but well-behaved, mercurial and fidgety and looking for their place in music culture and their piece of the street. But this girl, Lavinia, wasn’t theoretical. She was real, and, as an adult, created a document as filled with history and reference and memory and meaning as any good homemade mix. Her book is worth a look and a listen.
In her rad book Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference Lisa A. Lewis (drawing from Angela McRobbie’s seminal essay “Settling Accounts With Subcultures: A Feminist Critique”) recognizes that the street as a cultural space traditionally off limits for women and girls, both in subcultural practices and music video representations, as rape, harassment, and objectification could befall them. McRobbie argues that these gendered standards of space are formed out of a broader system of social inequality, which Lewis believes is resisted through “female-address” music videos, or music videos that feature female artists in a subject position, which can reconfigure the normativity of male privilege through appropriation of the street with female subjects interacting with it.
So, tonight I’m going to post two new(ish) music videos that show ladies and girls engaging with the street. Enjoy!
“Don’t Let Go”
Futuristically Speaking . . . Never Be Afraid
Note: NSFW, but worth watching at your desk if you’re chained to a cubicle.
Directed by Caleb Stine and Eric Diga