Category Archives: Text studies

The Only Way is Essex meets bell hooks. Yes, really. #TOWIE

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The Essex girl and her commercial manifestation in the ‘structured reality’ show The Only Way is Essex, subverts notions of subcultures as ‘cool’. Rather, her middle class comfort and extravagantly ‘bad’ taste, represents a new kind of “semantic disorder” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Boundaries of money, class and taste are transgressed by the Essex girl; The Only Way is Essex serves to redraw these old distinctions. This essay establishes the Essex girl as a subcultural category, evidencing the markers of subcultural status: bricolage, identification, and perceived deviance. The Essex girl will be shown to have been incorporated by the dominant culture in two ways: the commodity form (The Only Way is Essex as a cultural product), and the ideological form (the situation of the show’s ‘characters’ within traditional family structures, and the sexual naturalization). Parallels will be drawn between bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” (1992), and the gender and class issues raised by the cultural incorporation of the Essex girl.

Germaine Greer offers a floral analogy for the outward appearance of the Essex girl, saying “the poppy is a real Essex girl of a flower, too loud, too bright, with too much eye-make-up “ (Greer 2006). But Chris Irvine of The Telegraph describes ‘Essex girl’ as a pejorative term, saying that the group can be identified by “significant amounts of fake tan”, giving them an orange appearance (2010). De Certeau may have attributed off-label use of a cultural product to the process of bricolage, a form of cultural subversion. He states that “users make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (De Certeau 1998, xiv). The Essex girl’s bodily manipulation (Botox, implants), and the Bindi-like phenomenon of ‘Vajazzling’, could be considered forms of “sociocultural production” (De Certeau 1998, xiv) and as such, empowering acts of resistance (Hall 1981, 228-9).

Dick Hebdige describes subculture “not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Irvine’s article “What is an Essex girl?” summarises the many derisive conceptions of the Essex girl as a threat to good taste. He describes her as wearing “low-cut tops and a short skirt, complemented with white stilettos, and can often be seeing (sic) dancing round a handbag at a club with their friends, usually enjoying alcohol”, as though their transgression of sartorial codes” and deviant behaviours are semantically linked (Hebdige 1979, 93). While bell hooks’ essay is concerned mainly with the concerns of Black America, her arguments can be applied to the incorporation of the Essex-girl-as-‘Other’.

Hebdige describes two strategies for dealing with the ideological “threat” of the subculture. He says

First, the Other can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. Here, the difference is simply denied (‘Other- ness is reduced to sameness’). Alternatively, the Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, a ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ (Barthes, 1972) (Hebdige 1979, 97).

The Only Way is Essex provides much evidence of normalization by way of situating the Essex girl in the family; The show features numerous appearances of an accepting and approving ‘Nanny Pat’, recurring inclusions of mothers in protective roles as various dramas unfold, and cousin ‘Chloe’ in an educational and protective role in relation to young and naive ‘Joey’). This normalization removes the group’s subversive power, presenting the girls as ‘one of us’. However, hooks’ essay provides a structure for addressing the trivialization of the Essex girl. Their TV representation, with its focus on cosmetic procedures and beauty, reduces Essex girls to sexual objects. The ostensible intimacy of the ‘reality’ TV format, the in-home access to intimate conversations enables a kind of vicarious sexual relationship, such as that described by hooks. She says

the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, (and here I would include ‘classes’) sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other (hooks 1992, 25).

hooks’s views on sexual and symbolic incorporation cross in an interesting way with the consumption of the Essex girl as a mediated product. hooks describes sexual naturalization and incorporation as placing an “emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (1992, 25). While hooks is speaking about race tourism, the proximity of the Essex girl in the viewer’s living space allows the consumer to temporarily transgress both geography and class, stripping the Essex girl of that which gives her subcultural uniqueness.

At first the show seems to be a fairy tale come true for the Essex girl. Appearing to go from insignificance to fame and fortune, she provides ideological support for the capitalist dream (hooks 1992, 26).  However, the cast have voiced similar annoyances regarding exploitation, to those voiced by Greg Tate in his denunciation of the appropriation of Black culture, ‘Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects’ (2003). The ‘TOWIE’ cast received no payment for the first series, and were hit with a ‘tax’ payable to the show’s producers, for subsequent endorsement deals (Gould 2012). Again, hooks points out the ideological ‘cost’ of this kind of commercial recognition:

whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization (hooks 1992, 31).

Germaine Greer published a celebration of the Essex girl in The Observer, denouncing essentialism and acknowledging the socio-cultural geography which unites the group. She states

Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities. No matter how much cash might be sloshing through her household, she is working-class and means to stay that way. She is not only not interested in social climbing, she doesn’t know there’s anywhere to climb to. Essex isn’t full of country clubs that she can’t join (Greer 2006).

The Only Way is Essex gives consumers a product edited to reflect their ideologies, and serves as a barrier, erected to protect the ‘hip’ from the new middle class. hooks says that “by eating the Other . . . one asserts power and privilege” (hooks 1992, 36) and this product certainly aims to demonstrate that ‘taste’ is not one of the guarantees of capitalism. Vicarious sexual consumption, and the incorporation of an ‘essential’ Essex girl into mainstream culture is an attempt to disable her transgressive power and independence. However, the fighting words of Essex girl Greer indicate that the place and its subculture will remain, for now, a site of struggle, resistance and transformation (Hall 1981, 228).

References

De Certeau, Michel. 1988. “General introduction” in Practice of Everyday Life translated by Steven Rendall. xi-xxiv. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gould, Lara. 2012. “TOWIE stars in tax revolt: TV bosses tell stars to hand over 15 per cent of earnings … and Shuttup!”. Daily Mail Online. Accessed March 17.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2096644/TOWIE-stars-revolt-fame-tax-TV-boss-tell-stars-hand-15-earnings—Shuttup.html

Greer, Germaine. 2006. “Essex girls” We’re the best”. The Observer. Accessed March 17. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/feb/05/britishidentity.gender

Hall, Stuart. 1981. “Notes on deconstructing the popular” in People’s History and Socialist Theory edited by Raphael Samuel. 227-240. Boston: Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. “Subculture: The unnatural break” in Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 90-99. New York: Methuen.

hooks, bell. 1992. “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. 21-39. Boston: South End Press.

Irvine, Chris. 2010. “What is an Essex Girl?” The Telegraph. Accessed March 17. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7368909/What-is-an-Essex-Girl.html

Lime Pictures. 2010. The Only Way is Essex. Accessed March 17. http://www.youtube.com/user/TOWIEtv

Tate, Greg. 2003. “Nigs r us, or how blackfolk become fetish objects” in Everything But The Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture. 1-14. New York: Broadway Books.

Tagged

It’s time to notice the Elephant. Again.

elephant-2003-01-gonline
Gus Van Sant, in his film Elephant, combines steadicam tracking shots with long takes to create ethically sympathetic characters. The technique also allows him to use multiple framing devices and points of view in the one shot. The following analysis focuses on the shot of the character Nathan, from 10”45’ to 13”32’, which can be viewed by clicking this link (Van Sant 2003). The film is a fictional recreation of the Columbine Massacre of 1999. David Edelstein of Slate Magazine argues that Van Sant employs formalist, minimalist technique to engender detachment (Edelstein 2003). I question whether Edelstein is confusing authorial morality with filmmaking ethics, an expectation that Van Sant’s personal moral standing on such events should be evident (Anderson 2012, 2). I will argue that Van Sant’s formal choices create a definite air of foreboding, senselessness and loss.

The tracking of the character, Nathan, frames his journey through the school in mostly medium close up, from behind; the viewer sees what Nathan sees, and sees Nathan himself. The mundanity of the surroundings, conversations and people included in the frame give him an ‘every-teen’ quality, while the proximity of the viewer to the subject gives Nathan a distinct identity. The effect is that the impending loss of life is both societal (a loss of innocence) and specific (the loss of the loved individual). The tracking is slow and smooth, mirroring the lazy meandering of a carefree, teen life, and “forc(ing) the viewer to dwell” on its impending loss (Bordwell and Thompson 2008, 203).

The long take (almost two minutes) has the effect of pronouncing variations to framing. Viewers witness contrasting scopophilia (Nicholls 2000, 35), achieved by transition to a medium shot of a group of girls from Nathan’s point of view; through the frame of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, we may read this choice as signifying reproductive loss (Nicholls 2000, 36). Bordwell and Thompson note the contrast between the use of long takes and the “disorienting” elliptical cuts in the film, where Van Sant presents the killers’ home lives (Bordwell and Thompson, 2008, 203). Edelstein expressed frustration that the characters were crafted to be “totally unmemorable”, however my experience of Van Sant’s formal choices made apparent the universal qualities of teenaged experience, and made the killer’s contrasting abandonment and extinguishment of this life appear all the more senseless.

References

Anderson, Nicole. 2012. ‘Week 8: Film and Ethics’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed January 13. http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654234/mod_resource/content/1/Week%208%20Film%20and%20Ethics%20PDF.pdf

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. 2008. Film Art. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Edelstein, David. 2003. ‘The Kids in the Hall’. Slate. Accessed January 13.  http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2003/10/the_kids_in_the_hall.html

Nichols, Bill. 2000. ‘Film theory and the revolt against master narratives’ in Reinventing Film Studies, edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, 35-52. London: Arnold.

Van Sant, Gus. 2003. Elephant. Accessed January 13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr0mcWY0YBU

No Sex Please, We’re British

The ‘quest’ isn’t a generic feature which grabs me much when it comes to Middle English literature. But I do love a little coquetry. It leaves so much to the imagination. Fantasy unfulfilled is so very powerful. Take Sir Gawain and the ‘lady’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The ‘lady’ describes testosterone-promoting knightly travails and wonders aloud whether they will translate to “great joy (in) a lady’s bedroom” (55), so very obviously her own. She goes on to wonder if Sir Gawain will “be yearning to show a young woman / At least a tiny token of the crafts of love” (55). The Pearl Poet continues:

The lady lured him on, enticing him to sin.
But he held himself back so well no blemish appeared (56).

Since we’re long on euphemisms and short on booty, would anyone care to offer an explanation on what holding back a “blemish” might be alluding to?

Me neither. That would be most un-courtly of me.

The Pearl Poet. 2008. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Oxford World Classics.

Image: Guinevere van Seenus by Paolo Roversi for Another magazine. Can’t help thinking of Guinevere whenever I hear ‘King Arthur’.

Bros before hos

I think categorising Antony and Cleopatra as a love story is just plain wrong. I think it’s the story of the first recorded pussy-whipping. Else why would Shakespeare have introduced the character like this?

“His captains’ heart
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckes on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy’s lust..
you shall see him transformed
Into a strumpet’s fool” (91).

We really get the measure of what kind of soldier Antony was, before Cleopatra entranced him, with the passage by Caesar describing Antony eating “strange flesh / Which some did die to look upon” (118) and drinking horse piss, the trials of war “borne like a soldier” (118).

With classic texts, it’s easy to think of contemporary examples. Their longevity can be ascribed to their continuing relevance. Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni anyone? One can easily imagine Cesarean speeches in the Parlement français about the French leader and the ageing fashion queen. Other parallels can be drawn between ex-cougar Demi Moore and Ashton ‘straight-to-DVD’ Kutcher. Their tale has had its own tragic ending. Iterations with variations shall appear whilst-ever we have tabloids, but until asp-nipping and sword-flopping become fashionable retro suicide methods, there will only be one Antony and Cleopatra.

Shakespeare, William. 1995. Antony and Cleopatra. London: Methuen.

Image uploaded by Pinterest user Roberta.

Text as object

I am revisiting Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare is an author I know I should like (or at least pretend to), but I find studying the text a little like listening to Kanye’s Otis without the Otis. I read it in 1991 for school and saw a great production by STC with Marcus Graham and Sandy Gore. I downloaded the BBC Audio book this time around and the production values were amazing. If you ever want to know what the pinnacle of audio book production can and should be, download this version.

Now, here’s the bit where I say something controversial. I don’t think the text should be the primary source for study of plays. It was never the author’s intention for audiences to pore over a page. I have been listening to the audio book on my walk to work each day and have been on the verge of tears on arrival. It is so powerful, and let me tell you, it’s hard to write a pregnant pause or an ironic inflection into written text.

It’s worth making the distinction about what text is. I am starting to feel that text is an object, as much as canvas and paint are objects, or a baritone saxophone and manuscripts are objects. Do we need a better definition? Should we define text studies as utilitarian message-making with words, symbols and language? Unlike with the visual arts or music, there doesn’t seem to have been an avant-garde movement in text. Are we fetishising the book in the digital age? And then are we fetishizing text itself? I want to know what you think.

Image from here.

Levin and the Zen Downgrade

Some recent Twitter chat has me reflecting on Levin in Anna Karenina and his politics. First let me start by saying that I am trying to draw from the text only, and not from external sources. I want my responses to be from the pages, not from some kind of Barthesian ‘death of the author, birth of crud-on-the-interweb’ transaction.

Tolstoy, in all likelihood modelling Levin on himself, devotes pages and consecutive pages to agrarian political and philosophical rumination. And you know what? It never gets old.

Levin/Tolstoy craves the ascetic life, but has no disillusions about the economic systems needed to support his choice. He has highly contemporary views about class that make academics today seem insensitive. I have labelled Levin as a kind of libertarian anarchist, refusing to take part in any politics outside the scope of what will affect him. Not to label him as uncaring, he describes his views on class in this wonderful way:

“To say that he knew the peasants was tantamount to saying that he knew human beings. He continually observed and learnt to know all sorts of human beings, among them human beings of the peasant class, whom he considered interesting, constantly discovering in them new traits and altering his opinions accordingly (238)”.

There’s something a bit Zen about that passage, don’t you think? He considers people as they present themselves. I think libertarian anarchism gets a bad rap, but Levin really shows that if you’re rich and loving and live in the Russian countryside…ok well my politics are a work in progress.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Image: English Russia.

Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman Scorn’d

I’ve known this phrase for so long and had never really thought about what it meant. I didn’t realise that the theme of the sexually slighted woman was so ancient. Medea’s speech predates the famous words of Congreve, saying “wronged in her marriage bed, no creature has a mind more murderous (265-266).” The speech in its entirety seems a remarkably feminist, contemporary voice.

“since we have learnt nothing of such matters at home, we need prophetic powers to tell us specifically what sort of husband we have to deal with. And if we manage this well and our husband lives with us and we bear the yoke of marriage lightly, then life is enviable. But if not, death would be welcome (239-244.)”

Poor Dolly in Tolstoy’s (much, much later) Anna Karenina echoes this speech when she says to Anna “With the education Mama gave me, I was not merely naïve , but silly! I knew nothing..You will hardly believe it, but up to now I thought I was the only woman he had ever known” (67).

Dolly’s pain is so real and almost palpable. Describing how she sacrificed her looks, life and youth for Stiva, she adds “They (Stiva and his lover, the children’s governess) probably talked about me, or worse still, avoided the subject” (69). Tolstoy seems to know so well that sickmaking feeling. I felt truly humiliated for Dolly when I read that sentence.

Which brings me to my rumination. How did Euripides and Tolstoy both know this feeling so well? It appears as a gendered theme in both texts. Again, is it a biological fact? Men exercise breeding vitality right into old age. And I know this is going to an an oh-so-obvious lowbrow observation, but I can’t help feeling sad for Demi, our favourite nouveau-Cleopatra. Her suffering is sure to be reduced to a ‘fallen cougar’ story. Even though written by men, I am glad for the sensitivity that Tolstoy and Euripides exhibit in the describing of gendered pain.

Euripides. 2008. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Levin and Oblonsky – Facebook friends

If Levin and Oblonsky in Anna Karenina were friends today, they probably wouldn’t bother hooking up. Facebook would provide all the contact they needed to maintain the friendship. Tolstoy describes the friendship in a contemporary way, that I am sure most readers would recognise: “they were fond of one another as friends who have come together in early youth often are, in spite of the difference in their characters and taste.” He continues saying that “Each thought that his own way of living was real life, and that the life of his friend was – illusion” and that Oblonsky knew that Levin “did something, though what it was Oblonsky could never quite understand or feel any interest in (17).”

Of course we all have lots of these friends, and Facebook has allowed us to stay in touch without the irrepressible “sarcastic smile (17)” that Oblonsky gives Levin on seeing him in person. It allows us to keep a much more superficial contact, with those we are fond of because of a shared history alone. It will be interesting to see how novelists of the future deal with technology, given that a lot of our interactions now do occur online, and our interpersonal contact is becoming so shaped by new media.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Image by Tereza Zelenkova. It’s how I imagine Levin’s country to look. Lonely.

Social and cultural capital in Wuthering Heights

It didn’t escape my notice that Emily Bronte saw the value in social and cultural capital. And here is a spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know what happens to Hareton and little Cathy, don’t read any further.

“His honest, warm and intelligent nature shook off rapidly the clouds of ignorance and degradation in which it had been bred..His brightening mind brightened his features, and added spirit and nobility to their aspect (286).”

Heathcliff was well aware that economic poverty was not enough to hobble poor Hareton. It seems that in the last fifty years or so free-market economics has allowed many members of our society to become similarly hobbled, as success and liberty are measured in dollars alone. It’s an area of educational neglect. It’s interesting that Cathy, a woman, was Hareton’s ‘knight in shining armour’, liberating him from ignorance and social isolation. And several times in the novel, books and the escapism literacy can provide, were given powerful significance, with the to-and-fro of volumes smuggled to Linton, stolen by Hareton, and confiscated from Cathy. In the end, Hareton’s happiness and confidence came not from the re-acquisition of property, but from education. Perhaps it took a female writer to acknowledge the power of what men may have taken for granted? Here’s hoping that social and cultural entrepreneurship come back into vogue.

Image: Unhappy (Bordieuan) Hipsters. I think of this image as a modern-day Cathy teaching Hareton. The book of the blog can be purchased here. Buy it for an ironic – mais oui – take on cultural capital and where it has led us in an imperfect world!

Bronte, Emily. 2009. Wuthering Heights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heathcliff as ‘other’

I didn’t want to have to go all Lacanian on your asses, but it recently occurred to me that the attraction to the ‘other’ might be a biological necessity. Has anyone else noticed that the working class seem to be the voices of reason in Wuthering Heights, and that the well-bred, as it were, seem to be pictures of irrationality, pallidity and illness, both physical and mental?

Ellen Dean tells that her mother lived well into her eighties, which in modern-person years is around 150 years old! And at 45, Ellen is in rude health, indulging little Cathy in running races. She claims to have been sick for three weeks in her life. Linton cuts a pathetic, insipid figure. Cathy senior is plagued by what we now might diagnose as encephalitis, with its pursuant brain damage. One has to wonder whether a bit of fresh genetic material introduced into the bloodline (from a gypsy orphan from Liverpool perhaps?) might improve the Linton/Earnshaw lot.

All this rumination, and in consideration of Cathy and Isabella’s intense attraction to Heathcliff, an obvious ‘other’, got me thinking that maybe ‘other’ness serves a kind of Darwinian purpose. I am going to investigate. Here is my first ever-so-slightly facetious lead.

Bronte, Emily. 2009. Wuthering Heights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.