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closet capital

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'Grey's Anatomy' ... and Closet -- New York Times

an interesting, if largely predictable article in the Times explores the growing consumer trend of buying brands and labels observed on television, especially fashion items such as shoes, clothing, and jewelry. the article tracks the increasing number of websites dedicated to connecting consumers to the brands sported by their favorite characters on shows like Veronica Mars, Grey's Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives. of course, popular media have long acted as vehicles that define current styles in fashion and drive accelerated consumption. while it's interesting to look at how these nascent websites are capitalizing on consumer interest in celebrity fashion, the article predictably parrots the superficial assertion that consumers are simply celebrity-obsessed, and have no independent taste or style of their own. according to this line of thinking, consumers (predominantly female) slavishly attempt to replicate the look of their favorite celebrities, in a debasing act of simian mimesis. as usual, this kind of account obscures the underlying economic strategies that drive taste and consumption in our culture.

fashion and style, in fact, often act as signifiers of status and position, in which the more elite and inaccessible products confer the greatest status (or cultural capital, as sociologist Bourdieu would have put it). celebrities, as members of the elite class, must continually seek out cultural goods and styles that are limited in availability, and which require insider knowledge to identify and acquire (the latest labels in "premium denim," cutting-edge couturiers, outrageously expensive designer shoes and bags, etc). once these products (or looks) become more widely known and available, their signifying power becomes attenuated, and those in elite circles must find other fashions to continue asserting their status. for middle-class consumers, these products are appealing not because so many women want to ape characters on TV, but because they promise to confer a certain kind of cultural credibility, indicating that the wearer is "in the know."

by suggesting that consumers are simply "celebrity-obsessed," the media continues to overlook a hierarchical status structure that continually reinforces the symbolic and economic power of certain groups over others. consumers are held solely responsble for elective fashion decisions, and the broader cultural and social context fades into the background, allowing readers to shake their heads in contempt for women who seem so beholden to popular images that they can't exercise any kind of sartorial independence. nowhere does the article investigate why certain programs inspire this kind of duplication more than others, nor does it explore the very gendered nature of this consumption. unsurprisingly, the Times simply perpetuates the very consumerism it purports to deride, by participating in the mystification of underlying economic structures.

leering after girlhood

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Goodbye to Girlhood - As Pop Culture Targets Ever Younger Girls, Psychologists Worry About a Premature Focus on Sex and Appearance
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vinyl and fishnet may be acceptable for the spooky set, but the Post reported this week that, according to researchers from the American Psychological Association, increasing sexualization of young girls contributes to harmful outcomes such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. this kind of alarmist article inevitably incites pricks of trepidation as i read through it. i share the researchers' concern for the impact of marketing and consumerism on young people (both male and female, of a range of ages) -- at best, marketing exploits insecurities about body image, attractiveness, and social self-worth to motivate consumption of products that purport to ameliorate our perceived flaws. consumption practices, moreover, tie into broader schemas of social status, in which accelerated consumption promises to keep us ahead of the latest trend curves to maintain our social position, when fundamentally, the economic system benefits the small minority who hold power in our society.

yet despite my deep reservations about this cycle of marketing and consumption, i remain equally concerned about the kind of moral hyperventilating over girls emulating adult sexuality. the APA researchers appear to be dovetailing Ariel Levy's superficial line of reasoning around "raunch feminism," the notion that pop culture has co-opted feminist values of sex-positivism and female empowerment, regurgitating them into a raunchy obsession with stripper fashion and porn imagery -- pole-dancing classes and waxed nethers, chintzy thongs and salacious baby tees. ever since bobby socks came into fashion, if not earlier, adolescent girls have been clashing with their elders over the sexual propriety of their sartorial choices -- often in collusion with marketers who benefit from selling the image of maturity to young people.

but in examining this issue of girls and "sexualization," we need to look more closely at the ways in which our society tends to project fears about social and sexual reproduction onto young people -- especially young women. while the researchers acknowledged that boys can be targeted as well, social fears about sexual precocity inevitably revolve around girls, whose bodies are far more likely to become objects for control and obsession. in a culture that continually defines women's worth in terms of their appearance and attractiveness, why are we surprised when younger and younger girls are targeted and affected by these messages? and how ironic is it that we sexualize young girls as part of marketing schemes, and at the same time, attempt to punish and control sex offenders more and more harshly. are we really so repulsed by the sexualization of children, or are we continually lured by it?

of course, the liberal media and blogosphere (like Salon's otherwise excellent Broadsheet) just lap up this kind of study with little thought or criticism for the underlying assumptions or methodology.

APA report:

boycottaz with attitude

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bitch, slut, freak, fag. my friends in SF laughingly address each other in all manner of slurs once meant to degrade queers, loose women, outcasts, and misfits. we rarely if ever use these words as they were intended -- without irony, to demean and lambaste someone we disapprove of, or hold power over.

still, queers calling each other faggots doesn't seem to elicit the same amount of nervous commentary as rappers and comedians calling eachother "niggaz." leaders in the black community this week announced a voluntary ban or boycott on the use of the word "nigger" and its colloquial stepchild, nigga. even the white commentator on NPR yesterday couldn't bring himself to say the word, which still carries the legacy of its malevolent origins. i don't want to wade into the central debate over whether or not young black men can re-appropriate the word to promote solidarity, as a form of ironic commentary on their social position, or if its use can only serve to express internalized racial hatred.

but i do wonder about the attempt to curb popular culture through a voluntary ban like this. my general approach to speech i dislike is to offer more speech in critique, rather than promoting bans or censorship. still, i can't argue with comedians and artists voluntarily agreeing to avoid a word they find problematic -- or worse, subject to misuse by whites and other non-black fans. i might prefer to see an ongoing dialogue rather than an outright ban, but then again, perhaps the publicity over this issue will accomplish just that.

from the perspective of youth and popular culture, however, i'm wary of simply boycotting a word that's so deeply entrenched in hip hop and youth culture. disposing of its use won't erase the racial tensions that underlie it, and in fact, this kind of approach fails to engage the reasons why young black men might call eachother "nigga" in the first place (as a side note, most of the commentary seemed to gloss over the fact that young black women are rarely called "niggaz"). i suspect there's more going on here than either self-hate or solidarity-building, but i'm not quite sure what it is. there's a particular register that has currency in the hip-hop community, and "nigga," for good or for ill, has a key place in that lexicon. instead of banning or defending the word, how about investigating its use more closely, to better understand why and how young people use it? i'd rather see engaged debate and education over the issue, so members of the black community, and producers of hip hop, can come to their own analysis on the use (and abuse) of the word.

emo is the new goth?

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according to Bones, Fox's latest forensic drama and David Boreanaz vehicle, smug, angsty teens dressed in black and sporting lip-piercings are... emo? i suppose this is what i get for tuning in to mediocre primetime television (sadly, i have class when Veronica Mars airs on Tuesdays). last night's episode turned on the classic plot twist where the most likely suspect, in this case, the spooky teen, is absolved of the crime in favor of the less obvious "normal" character, his pageant-contestant younger sister (the emo teen, on the plus side, was played by cutie Kyle Gallner, whose quirky character on Veronica Mars was not similarly redeemed).

it's the character's mother, however, that outs him to the audience as "emo," and expresses her revulsion and despair at his sartorial choices. on the one hand, the show seems to be trying to keep up with the times and with current trends in youth culture. but on the other, the imagery of the angsty teen in black mostly serves to reproduce adult fears about youth as rebellious and violent, and doesn't seem particularly grounded in "emo" style or affect at all.

Authentic Youth: Cultural Capital and Credibility in Digital Youth Culture

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(from a proposed paper on the role of digital media in the lives of young people)

For young people, commodity culture offers an important site for the production of individual and collective meanings. Digital spaces such as the internet provide an excellent arena for do-it-yourself culture and creative consumption, but are ultimately structured by the same logics that determine how popular culture operates more generally. Discourses of credibility and authenticity afford us a glimpse into how young people navigate the complex interplay of social networks, cultural commodities, and subcultures in a mobile, mediated society. Given the role of cultural engagement in developing social capital, digital media offer a means for young people to become more invested in their social and cultural worlds.

grups -- pop culture is youth culture

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i finally took a look at Adam Sternbergh's article on "grups" in the New York Metro (Up with Grups), who theorizes that the latest generation of adults (read: mostly white, college-eduated, in professional careers) doesn't want to grow up. instead, they insist on wearing distressed designer jeans and the converse they wore in high school, while listening to the latest indie hits on their iPods. Sternbergh contends that "grups" (from a star trek episode about a planet run by children who never grow up) are eliding the "generation gap," hanging on to youthfulness, listening to the same music and wearing the same styles as the younger generation -- including their own children.

but Sternbergh seems to be raising alarm without considering the broader cultural context of youth and consumerism. pop culture overall has become increasingly difficult to distinguish from youth culture -- most popular music, movies, and websites are all the domain of the under 30. images of youthfulness drive advertising, and business itself was revolutionized in the sixties by the youth counterculture, which emphasized individuality, originality, novelty and creativity (according to Thomas Frank). i've often wondered if the esteem placed on being young would ultimately rob many of us from enjoying our adulthood -- but perhaps, as Sternbergh ultimately concludes, adulthood itself will take on new meanings and possibilities.

underlying Sternbergh's concerns about grups, however, lurk insidious cultural ideas about the value and meaning of maturity. he doesn't come out and say it, but really the article is questioning whether nor not GenXers are turning into immature adults who groom their kids to listen to whatever's hip this week, and who won't settle down and accept adult responsibilities. they don't want to become middle managers, accept 9-5 hours, or wear suits like their own parents did. some of these notions regarding maturity, however, reflect a strange adherence to certain cultural relativisms. i understand that suits signify a particular competence and masculine maturity -- but even the modern suit is more streamlined than its Victorian (and earlier) predecessors. norms do change, especially given both the accelerated rate of consumption in our society, and an economy that depends on new trends and fashions to spur ongoing acquisition.

if anything, Sternbergh's "grups" embody the height of late modern consumerism, and the shift from meaningful work to meaningful leisure. grups find meaning through leisure activities -- their passion for music, fashion, even surfing. it's leisure that drives consumption -- new cds, new tech gadgets and appliances, new clothes. so i don't find it surprising that grups, like many people, want to have kids, nor that they're raising their kids according to their values, which emphasize leisure and consumption. these trends Sternbergh identifies may indicate broader social changes regarding the value of work, leisure, consumerism and youthfulness, but if so, they reflect the ongoing development of late capitalism, as transformed by the cultural movements of the last century.

V for revolution?

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I went to see V for Vendetta last weekend, which made for a fun outing, but something bothered me about its feel-good revolution-through-truth message. The movie certainly succeeded in bringing some of the essence of graphic novel to the screen, while rendering the original message more provocative and relevant to the current political climate. As a fan of the original -- a pivotal work that elevated comics to a more respected medium -- I loved Hugo Weaving's mysterious, literate, and somewhat twisted vigilante hero.

But the movie version is premised somewhat precariously on the notion that ideas alone can have enough force to change the world, as long as someone takes initiatve to broadcast the message. This strikes me as a convenient theme for mass-produced media, and it's not exactly a new one. In the Wachowski brothers' first hit, The Matrix, the movie ends with Neo promising to free the denizens of the computer-generated Matrix with a wakeup call to their communal predicament (unfortunately, the following films in the trilogy failed to make good on this storyline). Another more recent favorite comic of mine, Channel Zero, features a renegade filmmaker who fights theocratic fascism by hijacking public media.

While I can concur that ideas are powerful and can bring about real political and social change, I find something a little suspect in a mass-produced film patting itself on the back for spreading a grandiose message of action and revolution. Fight censorship, watch this movie! Beware governments that use fear of terrorism to clamp down on civil liberties -- find out the truth by watching this movie! Subvert the dominant paradigm -- watch this movie! Of course, presumably you're not taking much action of any kind while you're sitting in comfy stadium seating sipping soda and enjoying the surround sound.

I mean, I'm as nervous as the next liberal about the war on terror, illegal wiretapping, the Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness -- but sometimes I think that the current administration doesn't need to go as far as the fascist governments in 1984 or V to stay in power, or to pursue their pro-business agenda of protecting their wealth and privilege. They have Hollywood and the mass culture industry to ensure that people limit their rebellion to consuming edgy movies and music, showing up for their sober day jobs to support their weekend habits.

I don't mean to regurgitate the thesis of Theodore Adorno, that mass media produces an uncritical mass audience susceptable to the control of fascist governments. I think, as Paul Willis has argued, that media and pop culture can provide the raw material for meaning-making, the "symbolic work" of communicating through a shared set of images and ideas. We live in a communal web of significance which we call "culture," a structure that shapes how we interact and how we communicate. So I can't argue with the movie's premise that ideas can have potency. But ideas require people to organize around them and implement them, rather than just consuming another work of pop culture warning us about the evils of censorship, surveillance and totalitarianism.

"raunch feminism" and popular culture: uncritical feminists gone wild!

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A new book seems to be garnering some attention in the liberal echo chamber lately, a journalistic account by Ariel Levy of New York magazine of the rising prevalence of porn imagery as female empowerment in pop culture.'s Christine Smallwood reviewed Levy's book, and her concept of "raunch feminism," suggesting that feminism has been co-opted for profit (supposedly because feminism has become too all-inclusive and therefore difficult to define). Smallwood, of course, is mainly recapping the gist of the book, and does offer a brief critique, but both she and Levy largely overlook the shifting role of leisure and consumption in contemporary late-capitalist society, which are integral to any interpretation of style or media content.

According to Levy, stripping is now on par with overt political activism. While Levy is right to identify the problematic ways in which sex-positivism has been embraced -- often reproducing existing gender norms rather than challenging them -- she misses how leisure activities and consumption have become the primary means through which people now express (and experience) identity. Is the problem strip parties instead of fighting for reproductive rights, or is it the focus on parties instead of activism?

Take, for instance, adolescent girls and fashion. Smallwood describes the prevalence of teen girls whose thongs peek out over their super-lowrise jeans, wearing baby tees with various cheeky, sexually suggestive messages. Is this proof that teenaged girls have embraced "raunch culture" and are attempting to assert their female empowerment by flaunting sexist imagery? Or are these girls engaged, instead, in a struggle between articulating their own budding identities (and sexuality), the expectations of their parents and the eager attention of marketers? A look at girls and consumerism in American history, for example, reveals how fashion has long been a site where girls attempt to establish their own independence, while their elders fret over the propriety of their consumer choices. Many in our society still feel strongly about what's "age appropriate" for teen girls, invariably invoking criticism and even moral panic when young women seem to exude excessive sexuality or maturity – whether it's makeup and high heels or visible thongs and Playboy logos.

More than a whiff of moral panic envelopes this whole line of thinking, that girls and young women are becoming too trashy, too sexually explicit, too fond of porn, and are therefore dismissing the hard-won gains of political feminism. "A quick glance at the T-shirts" writes Smallwood, "ought to be enough of a clue that all is not well in American mass culture." Of course, it's not that I disagree that sexism is alive and well, and deeply rooted in our culture. It does little to alter the underlying gender dynamics when women assume masculine roles of gazing and consuming images of other women, viewing them as objects rather than subjects with their own agency. Embracing a typically masculine approach to sex and sexuality certainly does not constitute equality, and feminism is not simply about having "choices." But I can't help but suspect that a simplistic, journalistic account of the prevalence of porn in pop culture is going to fail to grasp the broader context.

Unfortunately, Smallwood's review fails to take any of this into account. She critiques Levy for her blindly inclusive understanding of popular culture, focusing primarily on white, middle class women. Smallwood concludes that Levy offers little in the way of providing a solution to the damage supposedly inflicted by the popularity of porn imagery, but concedes that "Levy has done the good work of documenting raunch culture." I haven't read the book itself yet, so I suppose I should refrain from suggesting that Levy has offered a superficial account that is itself a product of pop culture (with a healthy dose of moral worrying). Instead, I should bite the bullet and read the book, so I can offer my own critique. But when the liberal media takes up and touts these easy-to-digest accounts of the decline of feminism and the dangers of teen culture, it only perpetuates an uncritical approach to the role of popular culture in society.

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