The aesthetic category of the last five minutes* is “cursed,” as in the “Cursed TikToks” Twitter account. The original cursed TikTok that I saw floating around was a looping video of a young woman crying abjectly while dancing to a song I didn’t recognize. You have to understand that I’m too elderly to actually understand what TikTok is, but basically it involves these short looping videos, which I think may be key to the “cursed” concept. However, “cursed” has traveled as an aesthetic category to apply to other things that can circulate, especially images (for example, @CursedArchitecture).
As far as I can tell, there are a few things that “cursed” involves:
the cursed object is aesthetically bad or upsetting—often uncanny or involving a jarring clash of sensibilities (genre flail?) rather than straightforwardly ugly or violent; it may be funny, but if so, then uncomfortably so
although the cursed object is upsetting, it seems more victim than perpetrator; it is the thing being portrayed that is “cursed,” although, by looking at it, we might ourselves become “cursed”
its stasis (still image), looping (TikTok/gif), or other intimations of perpetuity are somehow foregrounded (not everything that is static or looping is cursed, but everything that is cursed is static or looping)
the cursed object usually wears a mask or is on the cusp of animacy (a doll, taxidermy, an animated figure) or inhabits a stereotyped role in a masklike way; in this way, the cursed object’s trappedness is foregrounded; suffering is possible (animate) but escape is not (inanimate)
Some report that “cursed” is pronounced “cursèd,” introducing intentional anachronism (I haven’t seen this but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true)
It seems clear that “cursed” is the necessary inverse of “blessed” (or “#blessed”), the generic explanation for anything good turned on its head. It is thus appropriate for circulation on “this hell website” in particular (Twitter). Cursed is an anachronistically supernatural explanation for a badness—or ubiquitously visible suffering, violence, and death—that we feel powerless to change. Look at those poor rubber chickens up there, cursed to scream out little streams of water in perpetuity (and there’s nothing we can do to stop their suffering). Cursed images and cursed TikToks are manageably upsetting, the little fort-da game covering over the too many videos of tear gas and police shootings and images of dead migrant children that we see interspersed with dog pictures on the internet.
The rise of the cursed is, perhaps, parallel to astrology’s resurging popularity, a kind of paralyzed aesthetic mindfulness with which we can mark suffering without trying to change it, nor explain it except generically. Mercury’s in retrograde and those chickens are cursed. It is a self-deprecating admission of analytical defeat, occasioned by the cursed object’s overwhelming self-dissonance (the absurdity, for example, of sympathizing with a rubber chicken), and, perhaps, too, an acknowledgment that we cannot analyze our way out of some kinds of terror.
Evoking the supernatural to explain the present in all its modernity is nothing new (Apple’s whole brand is built on it). The cursed as an aesthetic category acknowledges the roughness of late capitalism’s magic.
* According to internet people (see below) it’s actually been a thing for several years and started on Tumblr. Insert how do you do fellow kids gif here.
Update: Here are some earlier write-ups of the “cursed.” Thanks to Jesse Raber for these references: Gizmodo | Intelligencer (a debunking)
It’s a definitely real mystery tv show set in UK academia…not among dreaming spires of legend but in the contemporary corporatized uni. Two anti-cop academics just get want to get on with their teaching and research, but end up having to use their academic research to solve loads of mysteries because their line manager insists they need the REF impact. They do not get a course release for this.
Featuring downs, Stanmer Pippins, the mycological turn, and both restorative justice and seagull justice.
[An incredibly long, rambling, and probably flat-out boring meditation on the Broadway show An American in Paris.]Some movie adaptation context: On the Town (1949), a ridiculous and frothy Gene Kelly musical based on a 1944 Broadway show, was revived at the Lyric Theatre in 2014, and Gigi (1958), directed by … Continue reading
“Well see, the thing is, I thought your son was a lady,” says Sir Launcelot. “I can understand that,” replies the king.
Of course there’s gender confusion, we’re expected to see: after all, Prince Herbert’s dream is to sing.
Recently, with some trusty and incredibly patient companions, I went to see the Broadway production of An American in Paris, having recently taught the 1951 film. The musical is billed as “inspired by” the film, and that’s about right. Like the film, the stage musical takes a premise (the Gershwin tone poem An American in Paris and its title) and a cluster of Gershwin tunes (all established hits, strung together well after Gershwin’s death in 1937) and hangs them on a fairly flimsy plot whose only real requirement is that, in the end, the American GI, Jerry Mulligan, gets the French girl. (Why else would you go to Paris? “Art,” Jerry’s initial motivation in the film, is fully substitutable by romantic love, or at least so we are told.)
How to establish that Lise (Bouvier in the film, Dassin in the musical), the aforementioned girl, does not belong with her dorky French fiancé is a question that each production must address. Like the film, the stage musical resists making any of the decoy lovers (whether Henri Baurel, Lise’s fiancé, or Milo Davenport, Jerry’s rich American sponsor) into enemies; the musical goes further still in attempting to complicate the film’s economy of value (American/French, modern/old-fashioned, “jazz”/waltz, matches of convenience/matches for love). I found this one of the most interesting and complicated, as well as troubling, aspects of the stage play. It definitely complicated the bright American modernity represented by Gene Kelly’s tap dancing, but in doing so, the musical also added an incoherent layer of masculinity panic, one that was particularly flatfooted in the context of Broadway.
The film (1951)
In the 1951 film, Lise (Leslie Caron, in her film début) is engaged to Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), out of an affection based in obligation: Henri hid her in his home during the war, which emphasizes their age difference (Lise is only nineteen), although we are also reassured in dialogue that they did not “fall in love” until after. Henri, here, is a mature, successful, attractive, and confident adult, a music hall singer and basically pretty good guy. He’s much more successful than Jerry (Gene Kelly), who paints kitschy cityscapes and sells them on the street in Montmartre. Well, “sells” is putting it nicely—he never sells anything until a wealthy American heiress, Milo (Nina Foch) “discovers” him. (This is part of the reason we will so strongly suspect that Milo’s desire to support Jerry’s “talent” has an ulterior motive.) There’s no clearer indication of Henri’s superior position than the fact that basically the first thing he does upon meeting Jerry is lend Jerry 300 francs.
Film Henri: a bit square
There is one reason only that Henri is not perfect for Lise: he’s a bit square. Not even square—tricornered, as he announces in a song sequence with down-and-out Americans Jerry and Adam, the latter being a pianist and Henri’s on-and-off accompanist. “This isn’t music! It’s uncivilized!” Henri yells as Adam plays a lick of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” This names the danger that the film’s France faces: that in clinging to “civilization,” it will fail to meet modernity. Obviously, we’ll need a jazzy American to save the day.
Notably, neither song nor composer is named; instead it is categorized as (American) “jazz”:
JERRY: Evidently the man doesn’t like jazz.
ADAM: He’s against it.
JERRY: What else is there?
ADAM: I know what he likes; he’s strictly a three-quarter man.
Then, in a a trio with Jerry and Adam, Henri will go on to declare his allegiance to the Viennese waltz, in contrast with Jerry and Adam’s American love of (Gershwin’s) jazz. This is the Henri song: “jazz is too hot for me but I super duper love Strauss.”
Film Jerry: has rhythm
Jerry, an American ex-GI of no money and pretty meager talent, is, as marriage material goes, no Henri. But he has one thing going for him: his postwar American modernity, displayed in the exuberant set-piece “I Got Rhythm.” This is Jerry’s song. He’s got music (jazz, of course, and he doesn’t have to aspire: he’s got it), he’s got rhythm (tap dance, virtuosically displayed); it follows that he’s got the girl as well.
The scene begins with Jerry’s arrival in Milo’s car (French—a Delage—but a symbol of American luxury all the same).Kristin Ross has written famously, and brilliantly, about “la belle américaine” in French films of the same period. See Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of … Continue reading Remarkably clean children flock around Jerry, excited by the car and the potential for bubble gum. The encounter turns into pedagogy, as a child translates his promise of “demain le bubble gum pour tous!” into an English “tomorrow.” Jerry then initiates an English lesson by ostensive definition, pointing to and naming various objects, with the children imitating his words. This segues into “une chanson américaine,” with the children singing (or rather yelling) the repeated, charmingly dialectal “I got” of the song, and then “une danse américaine.” At each stage, a pedagogy of Americanness is explicitly marked. The music is jazz, the rhythm is tap, the girl will come later.
Joel Dinerstein has pointed out how tap, in its heyday, signified the modernity of what Kristin Ross has called “fast cars, clean bodies,” a technological modernity strongly associated with Americanness, especially in postwar France, where it was construed specifically as “Americanization”:
Just as the streamliner represented a light, fleet version of the nation’s foremost symbol of industrialization, the tap dancer was a vision of the industrial body retooled for a rootless, mobile future. Streamlined design appealed to the popular imagination by transforming heavy, clumsy, dirty, smoke-pouring industrial machinery into a vision of aerodynamic sleek lines emphasizing fast horizontal flow and metallic sheen. Similarly, the tap dancer took the speeded-up machine-driven tempo of life and the metallic crunch of cities and factories and spun it all into a dazzling pyrotechnical display of speed, precision, rhythmic noise, continuity, grace, and power.” […]
Tap was the dominant professional and commercial dance style of the 1920s and 1930s, and arguably the most popular (and most participatory) American Machine Age art form. Le Corbusier caught the repetition and rhythmic flow in tap: “silent Negroes, as mechanical as a sewing machine, inexhaustible, holding your interest by beating out a rhythmic poem…with the soles of their shoes.” Marshall Stearns made the techno-dialogic connection long ago: “To his own people, Bill Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps.” Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003): 221-23.
Though a few decades late, Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan confirms tap’s embodiment of modernization in the “I Got Rhythm” dance sequence, which replays symbols of American expansion in tap sequences variously called “cowboy,” “choo-choo train,” and “aeroplane,” not to mention the American film industry, as represented by Charlie Chaplin. When, at the end of the sequence, the children demand “more!” of an exhausted Jerry-turned-John-Henry, he keeps dancing even as he begs off and leaves the scene.
It’s worth pointing out that “jazz” in this film signifies Gershwin, while “rhythm” is virtuosically displayed in the tapping feet of a white dancer, Gene Kelly (dressed in white, no less). American modernity, in this film, is ideally executed through African American art forms as reinterpreted by white artists; indeed, the postwar Paris of the film is counterfactually whitewashed, featuring neither American nor French people of color. At one point a band at a Montmartre boîte, occasionally appearing in the corner of the frame, contains African American musicians—they play Gershwin songbook standards from the 20s. Contrast … Continue reading
Although Caron is unmistakably a ballet dancer, first featured in a series of dance vignettes set to variations on Gershwin’s “Embrace Me,” and although the film famously features a seventeen-minute “ballet” fantasy sequence just before the conclusion, the film is Kelly’s film, and its primary dance idiom is tap, the dance of American modernity (with the undercurrents of immigrant and African-American appropriation that it entails).Of the ballet in the film, Albert Johnson writes: “It is, in many ways, not a ballet, but a sort of choreographic essay, undisciplined, and savagely insistent that the spectator should at some … Continue reading
The Broadway show (2015-present)
This is the biggest and most obvious change that the stage production, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, makes. The role of Jerry Mulligan, originated to Tony-nominated acclaim by Robert Fairchild (who has recently left the show) and now played by Garen Scribner, is no longer a tap role: mercifully, no one has to be Gene Kelly. Instead, the show’s primary language of movement is ballet, filled with a continuous smooth motion not only in the bodies of the soloists and company but also in the stage design: stage pieces sail in on smooth rollers, controlled by just-hidden people, often whirling as fast as the dancers, simulating cinematic pans and zooms, while the projected stage background is frequently thickly animated in constant, continuous motion.
In this sense, the stage production is faithful to the hypercinematic quality of the motion picture, which is enormously self-conscious about its camera angles and point of view, offering cinematic tableaux that (notionally) could never be staged. The stage production does not reproduce the tracking shots of the film’s opening, or the split-screen sequence in which we first meet Lise, but it does offer a number of split-screen moments in which actors are placed next to each other onstage and sing duets, yet clearly are unaware of one another; we are offered views of the café that Adam and Jerry live above from at least two different angles, and in the climactic ballet—preserved, reimagined as a diegetic performance rather than a fantasy sequence, and, in my view, the absolute high point of the stage production—we are at first, and at the end, offered a view from the back of the dancers’ stage. The stage show creates and points out its own camera angles. I found this cinematic quality one of the most impressive and interesting aspects of the show.
Impressive, too, was the dancing. The “American in Paris” ballet sequence, trimmed by about four minutes, is stripped of the wacky props that crowd the film version (a gigantic motionless fountain, several dramatic costume changes, a live-action Toulouse-Lautrec painting, a giraffe, etc.). The ballet, in the musical, is Lise’s début as a ballet star, following in the footsteps of her ballerina mother who has, it is strongly implied, been killed in a concentration camp during the war. Its sets and costumes are designed by Jerry (with no small amount of meaningful mentorship by a renovated Milo, who remolds his knockoff-Cézanne tendencies), and instead of the cityscapes that Jerry paints in the film (often suggested by the projected animations that continually outline the city), these designs are the recognizable modernist abstraction of line, shape, and saturated color. (Peter Bürger would have wept, but really, this was “modernist style” rendered as pure spectacular pleasure.) The ballet, beautifully choreographed, lit, and danced, is breathtaking. (An excerpt from the ballet, sadly sans original set, can be seen in Fairchild and Cope’s performance at the 2015 Tony Awards.)
Yet I cannot but concur with Brian Seibert’s point in a April 2015 review: in a ballet of continuous motion, the big “Broadway number” fails because its antiprogressive force cannot be accommodated.
Where Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography falls short is in the traditional function of the Broadway showstopper. The numbers that seem to be playing that role — “I Got Rhythm,” “Fidgety Feet” and especially “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” — only gesture toward real excitement. Part of the trouble is Mr. Wheeldon’s desire to maintain flow and finesse transitions: he doesn’t want the show to stop, even for ecstatic applause.
The only showstopper is the “American in Paris” ballet itself. And even the ballet—experienced in the film (with its disjunctive giraffes, dudes with canes, etc.) as a genuine interruption in plot, a seventeen-minute interlude between Jerry thinking he’s lost Lise and climactically reuniting with her—serves, in the Broadway show, to forward plot. In the film, while Jerry is fantasizing the ballet, Henri is working out that Lise really belongs with Jerry and, like the solid dude he is, takes her back to him.
In the Broadway show, in contrast, the realization is Lise’s, and the ballet is the engine of this realization, not something we watch while plot happens offscreen, as in the film. The real performance, Lise’s stage début, metamorphoses into a fantasy in which Lise realizes her greatness as a dancer by imagining herself dancing with Jerry, the only way she can draw out her passion as an artist. (The longest stretch featuring Jerry’s dancing, then, is one in which his dancing is fictional—imagined.) Dance and narrative progression thus work in concert in this show, rather than tangling in the opposition that Laura Mulvey so influentially noted.
Broadway: who’s got rhythm?
That’s probably why the Broadway rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” early in the show, is—how can I put this? Disappointing and bad? Or perhaps just incoherent. Adam, borschtbeltedly proclaiming that everything is terrible and art should reflect this, begins to plunk out a lugubrious minor version of “I Got Rhythm” in 3/4. It is a song that he is writing for Henri, who argues (and the hamfistedness of the “art should speak life’s difficulty”/ “art should recuperate life’s joy” debate in the show’s book is truly eyerollworthy—I think my trusty companions and I actually rolled) that the piece needs more snap, and leads Adam into a chipper 4/4 version of the tune we all know. (You can hear audio in the original cast recording.)
“I Got Rhythm” becomes Henri’s song, precisely through a repudiation of 3/4 time—the time of waltz. Jerry joins in (as does the entire company, eventually), but it is no longer Jerry’s song.)Nobody has much of a character in the film; in the musical, Jerry doesn’t even have a national ideology. (All he has is “Beginner’s Luck,” sung to whirling umbrellas that nod … Continue reading
Immediately, the film’s economy of modern (jazzy, tapping, aeroplane-embodying) American versus waltz-loving, backward-looking, stairway-climbing Frenchman is broken, even reversed. It is Henri who is now the voice of a futurity wholly tied not to modernity (of which we audience-goers are now suspicious) but to optimism, resilience, which by the way will also equal romantic love, which will turn out to be precisely the reason Henri must renounce any claim to Lise in the end. (He bounced back from that whole Nazi occupation thing; he’ll bounce back from this too.) Henri’s aesthetic optimism is explicitly marked as French: “I hate it when the French are right!” Adam grouses as he concedes Henri’s aesthetic vision near the end of the show.This quotation is probably inaccurate…it’s hard to take notes in the dark. But it’s something like that; the Frenchness of Henri’s optimism is explicitly marked. But Henri is not right enough to get the girl, not even with all that (ballet) music and (ballet) rhythm.
Broadway Henri: wants to sing
The Broadway musical wants to complicate the narrative of American modernity swooping in to bring lovely Paris into a future of fast cars and clean bodies, and perhaps, since it’s no longer 1951, it must. But what structuring logic will take its place and ensure Henri’s disqualification from the game of romantic love, now that being a bit of a square is no longer enough?
It’s all too clear: the musical puts Henri (Max von Essen)’s heteromasculinity in question. From the first we see that Henri is overly attached to his parents, especially his mother (excellent fellow Hampton Roads escapee Veanne Cox)—parents who do not exist in the film, and whose very presence makes Henri into a child (whereas in the film he is, relative to Lise, a quasi-parent). Worse, he cannot work up the courage to propose to Lise, as his mother repeatedly pressures him to do, and attempts at first to propose to her by writing her a letter. Is it a lack of courage or, indeed, a lack of desire? While the musical insists that Henri really does love Lise (albeit like a “puppy,” as Jerry puts it, infantilizing Henri once again), its winking and nudging around gayness is entirely unsubtle. In fact, his mother asks Henri flat out (albeit—naturally—euphemistically) if he’s gay; the expected denial, required by the show’s structure, is basically the definition of compulsory heterosexuality. One reviewer even reads the show as presenting Henri as unequivocally gay. It doesn’t do that, but on the other hand it does, kind of the way The Picture of Dorian Gray isn’t a gay novel but also completely and obviously is. (The undergraduate essays I’ve read about Dorian Gray‘s “strong homoerotic undertones”! Are they strong or are they undertones? Obviously they’re both: that’s how open secrets work—the more undertone, the stronger.)
Henri, you see, wants to sing. He dreams of being a cabaret performer in New York, a dream that he conceals from his overly respectable parents. Adam repeatedly makes cracks about Henri’s singing ability, casting further doubt on this unsuitable dream.
Of course, it cannot be. When he makes his début at a little Montmartre club, where a gigantic simulacrum of Marlene Dietrich’s face is plastered to the backdrop, he is frankly and rehearsedly terrible. I wish I had an image or clip with which to show you how sad and inept his performance is. You can tell Max von Essen is a good actor because his Henri is so convincingly a bad singer, until the performance metamorphoses into a fantasy in which he is successfully taking Radio City Music Hall. (Adam shows up to join him. “What are you doing in my song?” Henri asks. “I wrote it!”) In the Broadway musical, Henri has to be made a certain kind of pathetic, and the diegetic badness of his showstopper moment is the best, perhaps the only, way to do this.
In his brilliant long essay Place for Us, D. A. Miller outlines a subtle and probing theory of just what it is that makes the musical show tune “gay.”D. A. Miller, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998). Miller’s objects are the Broadway stage musical and, in the right circumstances, the … Continue reading In the economy of the classic postwar Broadway musical, in Miller’s analysis, the star performer is always female—a “diva” or (as he names her in a bravura reading of Gypsy) Star Mother, who is gifted with permission to give voice to (feminine; is it not by definition feminine?) need and be celebrated for it.
Cutting off at the pass the charge of emotional dishonesty that the show tune must always meet, Miller adds that
to charge this rhetoric with dishonesty is itself dishonest for refusing to recognize how little our social order likes to confront the suffering that is paying its installation costs. The rankness of bad faith supposes the availability of more direct, honest ways to express need, whereas everyone knows that the only socially credible subject is the stoic who, whatever his gender, obeys the gag rule incumbent on being a man.Miller, Place for Us, 13.
Lauren Berlant’s description of melodrama’s femininity, its ability to express unbearable need, however cheesily, in The Female Complaint echoes this scenario from another direction: “Everybody knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008): 1.
And like Berlant after him, Miller is not under any delusion that the woman’s place as Star and rightful vocalist of need is a position of power: “the utopia of female preeminence on the musical stage ends up bespeaking the reality of its opposite off that stage, in the musical theatre as well as nearly everywhere else….a woman had better imagine being the star of the show; she could hardly become one of its creators.”Miller, Place for Us, 89. Yet the abjection of femininity at least means escaping “the gag rule incumbent on being a man,” and that escape, into a male femininity, which is to say a male expressivity, is what, Miller argues, the Broadway musical offered gay men of a certain period. “[E]laborating, indulging, and closeting a homoerotically charged fantasy, wistful and aggressive by turns, of taking the Star Mother’s performing place,” the Broadway musical makes (or rather, made: it is the musical of a certain era) a “place for us” in plain sight. Miller, Place for Us, 134.
And yet, of course, this régime also means that while the Star Mother (Judy Garland, say, or Liza Minnelli) may be worshiped and periodically, at the piano bar or while listening to the original cast album, usurped, any diegetic attempt by a male performer to take up her spotlight must be punished. So it is, in An American in Paris. As Miller puts it,
A man who did take the place of a woman could hardly be more abhorrent here than one who appears lacking in sufficient assertiveness to take it from her. It follows that whenever such a regime detects a man—and in particular a young man or boy [as the stage version of An American in Paris makes Henri—NC]—in the ambition or even mere wish to perform on the musical stage, it will be as brutal as it is necessary to make a lesson of him: branding him with the repulsive character of Nerd, Sissy, or Snot, and maiming him so that he can hobble no further than the restricted mobility of these roles permits.Miller, Place for Us, 80. Speaking of hobbling, we’ll get to Adam in a minute.
Contrast this with the “Stairway to Paradise” sequence in the 1951 film. In it, Georges Guétary’s Henri is as assured and successful as can be, with lush if old-school filmic sets and chorines for miles, and a large and appreciative audience. Dorky? Old-fashioned? Sure.Obviously, the degree to which Henri’s performance should be read as “old-fashioned” in contrast with Gershwin tunes from the 20s and 30s is a matter of ideologies of style: after … Continue reading But not abject, not a gaping wound bleeding need. He’s a professional; a showman. In fact, the performance’s success secures Henri’s American tour.Maybe this is the place to point to the semi-documented belief that the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli—husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli—was bisexual, and … Continue reading
Let me add, too, that in the 1951 film, Henri’s “Stairway to Paradise” number in and of itself has no narrative function whatsoever. Sure; it lets us see (as if we didn’t know, ever since that Strauss confession) that he’s a bit square, and sure, the offer of an American tour speeds up the plot by moving up his proposed wedding with Lise. But the number itself is just that: a number.
In the 2015 musical, the number’s plot function is much stronger. Several reviews have complained that the songs in this show are shoehorned in and don’t make sense, and that’s probably true for several of them, especially “Fidgety Feet.” What this complaint misses is how much more the songs in this musical forward plot than do those in the film.
Like the ballet, which offers up Lise’s interiority (she achieves her professional success by wanting a man and thus accessing that most neoliberal of values, her “passion”),For real, don’t get me started…incidentally, it goes completely unremarked that Sad Cougar Milo doesn’t just get Jerry his job as ballet designer—she also secures Lise’s … Continue reading “Stairway to Paradise” offers up Henri’s interiority. Surprise; it doesn’t include Lise—he doesn’t want a woman; he wants to take the performing woman’s place, be the star.
The number is also the means of his uncloseting, as Milo inadvertently takes the Baurels (mère and père) to a club to “hear some jazz” (what?), only to find that the performer is Henri. Henri’s outing as a singer is met by shaky acceptance by his parents, who take his embrace of singing as an embrace of a postwar optimism, a future.The future—i.e., basically the opposite of those classical readings of queerness. In its place, there is openness, sunshine, supreme uncloseting. “No gay man could possibly regret the … Continue reading
It is obviously literally about singing. And yet, just as obviously, it’s also a teen selfie away from being a very special episode of Glee in which your parents might struggle to understand you but they always love you no matter what—no, in fact, they are learning from you, are inspired by you.
The film: between men
As usual, the problem with so hamfistedly thematizing homosexuality is the disappointingly unqueer ecology of meaning that results.It is of course worth asking, as Halperin does, whether an older generation of critics—Miller, but also Edelman and in his own way Halberstam—are perhaps invested in a rather … Continue reading The relentless outings of the post-Stonewall musical, as D. A. Miller puts it, dissipate the earlier (let’s say, closeted) Broadway musical’s “double operation: not only of ‘hiding’ homosexual desire, but also of manifesting, across all manner of landscapes, an extensive network of hiding places—call them latencies—apparently made for the purpose….to glimpse, even as it was being denied, the homosexual disposition of the world.“Miller, Place for Us, 132-33.
In its place is a “knowingness” about “an entity called ‘the gay man’…whose only aim is, by reducing him to a set of signs, to display, amulet-like, its own mastery in reading them.” Henri wants to sing; of course he’s (wink wink nudge nudge we’re all very sophisticated you see). In the same way that, as David Halperin points out, Lady Gaga’s ostensibly straight “Poker Face” was a much better gay anthem than her intentional gay anthem “Born this Way,” the 1951 film seems to make more room for queer possibility than does the 2015 Broadway show.David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 115-16.
Or, in other words, to make Henri the closet-coded holder of secrets is to refuse the possibility of other secrets, other latencies. For example, it refuses the classic “between men” scenario of the film, wherein Henri and Jerry, as rivals in love, bond over the love-object that they do not seem to realize they share.Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). Having ecstatically established that they are both in love, the rivals join in a swooning rendition of “S’Wonderful.”
The standard version of the song is addressed to a lover: “S’wonderful, s’marvelous that you should care for me.” Jerry and Henri substitute “she” for “you,” but as only Adam, in the film, at that point knows, it’s the same she, one that binds them together. As they sing, they are gazing into one another’s eyes and finishing one another’s sentences. Is this a “gay” song? Not really, but it’s just these kinds of latencies as latencies that the 2015 show refuses.See also Miller on A Chorus Line: “the unflinching disclosure that as many as three of the men auditioning for Zach are gay is hardly less fanciful than the naive idea, which it pretends to … Continue reading
An American in Paris: The gritty reboot as epistemology of the closet
“What do you think of when you think of Paris?” asks a solitary Adam, the stage musical’s Greek chorus, at the opening of the show. The stage is bare. He names some stereotypical things—the Champs Elysées, cheese. But Paris wasn’t always the lovely City of Light, he informs us. While occupied during World War II, he says, it went dark. (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea.) Very Serious War Things alert! Suzy Evans’s 2015 piece for the Hollywood Reporter describes the change from film to stage, and Wheeldon’s psychologized account of it:
The first thing they decided to do, along with director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas, was move the story up a few years right to the end of World War II. Although the film never explicitly states its exact timing, the story seems to take place a few years after the Nazi-occupation of Paris. Kelly’s character Jerry Mulligan opens the film with a gushing monologue about the City of Lights, whereas the musical starts with a dark opening ballet echoing the lingering effects of the war.
“They would have done that themselves had it not been five years after the war,” Wheeldon guesses about the film’s director Vincente Minnelli and writer Alan Jay Lerner. “It was still an extremely raw and difficult thing for people to face and talk about, certainly in Paris. They couldn’t have written a truthful musical about that in the early ’50s; there was no way. That’s one of the things that was exciting to us. Now we could do that and we could really honestly explain why Jerry Mulligan decided not to go home, and what was going on with Lise Dassin and why she was being protected by this bourgeois family.”
The change is framed as a turn to authenticity, somewhat patronizingly hypothesizing that Minnelli was too traumatized by war to be authentic (never mind that Minnelli has typically been characterized as an almost obsessive master of stylized mise-en-scène, or that the entire musical was made in Hollywood, not France).
In the Broadway musical, in the opening ballet that illustrates the immediate postwar moment, three Nazi flags fall, to be replaced by the French tricolor. Weirdly enough, the audience clapped when that happened, at the production I saw, as if to illustrate that there is nothing as roundly consensus-making and prone to letting Americans pat themselves on the back as the notion of defeating Nazis in general and of liberating Paris in particular. Like a kind of reverse Godwin’s Law, saving French people and especially Jewish French people from Nazis is flagged as the mark of virtue toward which American military power will always tend.Just to be clear: I am not at all saying that war and the Holocaust are not serious. I am saying that their use as a signifier of seriousness, and of American military virtue, can be questioned. (“I did things during the war,” the Broadway Jerry confesses to Lise at one point. Lise has traumatic memories too. The point is, their war trauma—one performing violence, the other its victim—like, she is literally the target of a genocide—is framed as reciprocal and equivalent. Mimi Thi Nguyen has written brilliantly about this move’s post-Vietnam vintage and the ideological work that it does. Is this more “truthful” than half-sweeping the war under the rug?)Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 114-16. On American GIs in France during World War II, see Mary Louise Roberts, What … Continue reading In the musical, Americans also defeat the Nazis in the arena of culture, as the wealthy Milo’s patronage of the ballet where Lise will make her début is explicitly said to replace Nazi funds.
In other words, despite its thematic and completely unsubtle endorsement of resilience and optimism, the Broadway musical is a gritty reboot, endorsing the contemporary ideology that Serious Themes make a serious show. In fact, this is what the resilience and optimism are really about. It can’t be an accident that in the musical’s official trailer, the opening title is “FROM THE ASHES OF WAR.”
You need the ashes of war in order to rise from them. Marilyn Stasio, in her review for Variety, is right to call this move “contemporary”:
What really makes the show feel fresh is the context in which [book writer Craig] Lucas has reconceived it, keeping in mind that reworking any beloved musical or movie can land you in a sandtrap. The writer (“The Light in the Piazza”) aged this show backwards, deepening and darkening the material so it now seems genuinely relevant for our own war-torn age. There’s still plenty of light and laughter in the story of a G.I. who helped liberate Paris and then fell in love with the city and its colorful artistic community. But this isn’t Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor vision, which was set in the postwar 1950s when Parisians weren’t quite so shell-shocked from the German Occupation.
In her characterization, 1951 was a carefree time, not like our “war-torn age,” which calls for something deeper and darker. This is basically the thinking behind all gritty reboots.
What this gritty reboot does, then, is bring into much stronger relief what was only barely hinted in the film, and in doing so, structures the narrative around closets and outings. The “seriousness” of the war context is exactly the same as the “seriousness” (and, as I’ll discuss, the plottedness) of the love story.
In the film, Henri is only helping out a friend, and it is not a secret, just a fact, narrated in run-of-the-mill exposition almost as soon as we meet Henri in between bouts of a comic bit in which Adam keeps ordering coffee and not getting it.
HENRI: Ah, poor Jacques; he was caught in the Resistance. I took care of Lise all through the occupation; she lived in my house.
ADAM: Your house? Shocking, but generous.
HENRI: Oh, she was a little girl then. We only became in love after she left.
There’s no hint of concentration camps here, no whiff even of trauma, despite the fact that “poor Jacques” (Lise’s father) was presumably jailed or executed. There’s no secret here; it’s just backstory, offered to show the origin of Lise’s relationship with Henri and the fact that Henri is pretty much a mensch, and in case we were concerned, also not a creep toward young women in his care. There’s essentially no psychology to it.
Contrast this with the dramatic reveals of the Broadway show, all relating to a war framed primarily in psychological rather than political terms. Lise is Jewish! Her parents were probably killed in a concentration camp! The Baurels worked for the Resistance! Each of these revelations is staged precisely as revelation, as (dramatic, and of course healthy) confession.
When Jerry and Adam show up at a party that the senior Baurels are throwing for the ballet theater, they cheerfully greet Henri, who is horrified that their acquaintance might alert his parents to his singing practice (Adam is his accompanist). “Don’t let them know my secret!” he begs Adam and Jerry. In unison, they reply, “which one?” It is a laugh line, and the audience laughs.
And in fact Henri does have two secrets, one that he is keeping from his parents (the singing) and one that he has been keeping from the rest of the world because, up until now, it has been politically dangerous: he and his parents were active in the French Resistance, and hid Lise because she was Jewish. But at this point in the play, Jerry and Adam don’t know the second secret, and assume that he is gay, or at least inadequate with respect to Lise—that’s the “which one?”
But of course, these are all the same secret in the end. The secret is the only secret, the closet. Consequently, Robert Hofler’s review for The Wrap, slapdash as it is, is not wrong to bundle the two secrets together:
Perhaps Lucas and director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon sensed they’d lost too much conflict, because they overload act two with exposition on Lise’s being Jewish, her family’s extermination in the holocaust, and the Baurel family’s involvement in the French resistance. (In the movie, Lise handles her own backstory in about two sentences.) Oh, and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) is now gay, and so in addition to his loving jazz and wanting to be a stage performer, which his parents (Veanne Cox and Scott Willis) don’t like but then they do, you have to worry if there’ll be a big gay-disclosure scene.
Ok, Hofler is wrong in that the show doesn’t really (technically) make Henri gay, but only because the revelation of Henri’s desire to sing is a proxy uncloseting that doesn’t so much raise the possibility of “a big gay-disclosure scene” as simply substitute for it.
By announcing, gritty-reboot-style, that this is a show with psychological depth, the show has to invest in depth as such, a depth of disclosures and unclosetings that always, in the end, mean the same thing.Yes, yes; I’m well known for my adherence to #teamdepth, but this is another matter. This is why, in the Broadway show, Henri’s uncloseting as a member of the Resistance does nothing to counter the real aim of Jerry’s masculinity-shaming. (Jerry accuses Henri of sitting the war out, essentially calling him a sissy.) Being uncloseted as really brave (really masculine) does not recuperate Henri’s right to pursue Lise; instead, it confirms the structural (that is, political) nature of her attachment to him and all the further disqualifies Henri from the scene of heterosexual romantic love. As Eve Sedgwick argues, the free-floating appropriability of the “closet” as a metaphor for secrecy in general does not leave the closet “evacuated of its historical gay specificity.” On the contrary, the epistemology of the closet has instead suffused a range of “epistemologically charged pairings,” including secrecy/disclosure and public/private, but also, as she puts it, “masculine/feminine, majority/minority, innocence/initiation, natural, artificial, new/old […],” with the valences of “homo/heterosexual crisis.”Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, 72-73.
The Showstopper: He’s going to tell (or, Appropriately enough, a digression)
The scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which an effeminate prince declares his love of singing does an oddly good job of illustrating Miller’s point about the Broadway showstopper.
The king has a plan, or, let’s say, plot—a patriarchal plot; the patriarchal plot: inheritance, heterosexual marriage, lineage, all hinging on the prince’s impending wedding to a wealthy landowner’s daughter. Prince Herbert’s desire to sing is both the occasion for his uninterest in this patriarchal plot (“But I don’t want any of that…I’d rather…I’d rather…just…sing!”) and the thing that literally puts a stop to it by constantly threatening to, so to speak, stop the show. At one point Prince Herbert’s threatened singing explicitly cites the generic conventions—and sentiments—of the (female) Broadway showstopper: “I know,” he replies to his father’s list of the bride’s purported charms, “But I want the girl that I marry to have…a certain…”—and the music swells. How often have we heardthatsong?
When the absurdly overmasculinized Sir Launcelot eventually comes swashbuckling through, killing wedding guests willy-nilly without so much as bothering to ascertain that his damsel in distress is technically a damsel, the king attempts to whack his son and commandeer Launcelot into the heterosexual marriage plot to which Prince Herbert is so patently inadequate. It’s not clear how the legalities of land acquisition would work, but for the king, it seems that the most important thing is that there be a wedding.
Even then, Herbert manages to survive a fall from the castle tower and close the sketch with a big company number (“He’s going to tell”). When the prince finally succeeds in getting his song, the show is well and truly stopped, and so is the wedding—not just his own wedding but any wedding.
The showstopper is thus a loophole, a way out of emplotment. And even if the postwar Broadway musical takes on what Miller calls the “protective coloration” of plot-related reasons for singing, in the end it retains
not the integration of drama and music found on the thematic surface, but a so much deeper formal discontinuity between the two….As often as it had numbers, every Broadway musical brought him [the boy who loves to sing] ecstatic release from all those well-made plots for whose well-made knots no one who hadn’t been a boy scout could possibly have a taste.Miller, Place for Us, 3.
Coherent narrative itself functions as propulsion toward an inevitable heterosexual conclusion that is relentlessly framed as logical. The Broadway show An American in Paris, in contrast with the 1951 film, breaks the (ideological, certainly) economy of American industrial modernity versus a sophisticated but backward-looking France, and it does so by itself moving forward as purposefully as Kelly’s tap-danced aeroplane, unable or unwilling to stop the show, or put a damper on a story about futurity that is all about opening up closets—a Dansavagesque “it gets better.”
Broadway Henri: Being Alive
Consequently, the Henri of the Broadway show, who’s in all the closets, also has in the end to be the the aesthetic and political optimist, the endorser of futurity. He might as well be singing “Being Alive” at the end of Company. The loser in love, he still has to endorse the couple form. It’s the way forward, and there’s nowhere else this show can go.
Broadway Adam: But Not For Him
There’s one loose end that I feel like I ought to tie up here, and that’s Adam. Because Adam, in the Broadway show, has ostensibly been elevated to a main character, and yet also profoundly is not one.
Essential to the “gritty reboot” logic of the stage version of An American in Paris is the amplification of the Nazi occupation of Paris and the dynamics of secrecy and revelation that this entailed. This plays a major role in the new drama between Lise and Henri, and constitutes one of Henri’s closets (his role in the Resistance). And Adam, it turns out, is a curious lynchpin in this structure.
In the film, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) is a sarcastic, comical narcissist, a winner of eight piano fellowships to study in Paris, to the point of feeling like “the world’s oldest child prodigy.”In a rather long scene, Adam fantasizes that he is giving a solo performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F…and in addition to being the piano soloist, he is also the conductor, the entire … Continue reading He once worked for Henri as an accompanist, but “had to give it up, because I was starting to like it and I didn’t want to become a slave to the habit.” Adam in the film is a mediator, the means of Jerry’s acquaintance with Henri. In fact, when Henri loans Jerry those 300 francs in that early scene, he really loans them to Adam, who then loans them to Jerry, after Jerry has protested to Henri that “I never touch a guy unless I’ve known him for at least fifteen minutes.” “I’ve known him fifteen years; lend me three hundred!” Adam says, and the loan is made.
In the film, Adam is the repository of his friends’ private business, which is private but not at all secret—hence the casual way in which Adam learns it. Adam knows who Lise is and that she is engaged to Henri long before Jerry even meets her. And Adam knows about Milo and her sponsorship of Jerry, too, long before Lise does. In the film, Lise and Jerry explicitly agree not to talk about their everyday lives, not because they are secrets but because they complicate the happiness that they find with each other.
That’s why, when Jerry comes to Adam with his dilemma about feeling caught between Milo and Lise and casually tells Adam Lise’s name, and then Henri drops by to announce his engagement (to Lise, obviously, but Jerry doesn’t know that as we and Adam do), Adam tries to stop the revelations precisely because they’re so very likely, because they’re not secrets. Adam ridiculously tries to change the subject by dropping the film’s only mention of actual Nazis: “Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?” It does not work. Yeah, Hitler, whatever: these bros want to talk about their feelings.
Poor Adam, who knows far too much about both of his friends, has to sit there nervously, pouring brandy and coffee down his throat and down his shirt front and smoking multiple cigarettes at once as Henri and Jerry bond over both being in love.
The Adam of the Broadway show could not be more different. He is funny, but he is no longer a comic figure. I can’t even quite say that he’s a tragic figure. He’s…negated. In the show, Adam (Brandon Uranowitz, in a Tony-nominated performance) is no longer Adam Cook but a self-consciously Jewish Adam Hochberg. In this way, the Broadway show thematizes what is, again, only hinted in the film (Oscar Levant, who plays Adam in the film, was, like his friend George Gershwin, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants). And while the Adam of the Broadway show is a pianist and composer, he is also (like Jerry) a former GI, left with a limp from a war injury and burdened by darkness.
He is also, in the Broadway show, another contender for Lise, turning the Henri-and-Jerry duets, including the once-intimate “S’Wonderful,” into trios.
Adam is the show’s narrator, announcing the show as gritty reboot at the beginning and offering its moral near the end—that “love is more important than art”—and at the end of the show, Lise tells him, “you’re my American in Paris.”
Well, swell, I guess. The thing about the newly disabled and Jewish Adam, though, is that he was never a contender for Lise. You don’t put a contender in that vest, and I’m being a little facetious, but not a lot. What is secret for other characters (Jewishness, like Lise; being haunted by war, like Henri) is worn absolutely on the surface for Adam, who self-identifies as Jewish and points out his own limp in the very scene in which he meets Jerry.
Adam’s only secret—which he tries and fails to out—is his attraction to Lise. When he interacts with Lise, he stumbles and Woody Allens his way through the awkwardness. Singing “But Not For Me” at the end of the show, he both affirms that “love is more important than art” and sublimates his desire for Lise by putting her “in my music, where she belongs—at least for me.” It seems incredibly overdetermined that this extra competitor (who was never a competitor) be shunted off in just this way, into (what else?) a newly redemptive art, his disability all too stereotypically a a warrant for “transcending” the body.
Alone he stands on that stage at the beginning of the show, and alone he stands at the end. It’s not so very different from the Adam of the film, except that this Adam too has been made to affirm the centrality of the couple. And if you can’t get that, you can at least recycle your thwartedness into your music, turning damage into profit, as Robin James argues in Resilience and Melancholy.Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015).
Broadway: back to the future
Adam, then, is the final confirmation of the show’s break with the film’s economy of value. American industrial modernity is no longer what’s celebrated; instead, it’s a transnational resilience (relying, of course, on the French Henri’s optimism and Lise’s ability to serve as…well, basically, a muse, even though she is an artist in her own right) that depends first of all on closets of all sorts out of which one can emerge triumphant.
It would be difficult to read either structure as other than politically retrograde, of course, but more importantly for me, what each production reveals is its own conception of futurity.
For one, futurity lies in the fantasy of an ideological escape from the rat race into Paris’s Bohemian paradise (as Jerry says in the opening voiceover, “if you can’t paint in Paris, well, brother, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter”) that everywhere bears the mark of its interdependency with post-Marshall Plan American technology and American money, from Milo’s art sponsorship to the unnamed rich American woman from Milwaukee who buys perfume from Lise’s counter.
For the other, the Broadway show, however, futurity lies in something much more like compulsory optimism. “It’s got to be a celebration!” Adam yells, in what is meant to be his artistic breakthrough. The vacuousness of the realization—basically, cheer up—is what this futurity is about: it’s not for him, but he must still be for it.
Some movie adaptation context: On the Town (1949), a ridiculous and frothy Gene Kelly musical based on a 1944 Broadway show, was revived at the Lyric Theatre in 2014, and Gigi (1958), directed by Vincente Minnelli and also starring Leslie Caron, was adapted for Broadway in the 1970s and briefly revived in 2015. Of the three, An American in Paris has met with the most success.
Kristin Ross has written famously, and brilliantly, about “la belle américaine” in French films of the same period. See Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995).
At one point a band at a Montmartre boîte, occasionally appearing in the corner of the frame, contains African American musicians—they play Gershwin songbook standards from the 20s. Contrast this with Miles Davis’s utterly contemporary score to Louis Malle’s 1958 Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, only seven years later.
Of the ballet in the film, Albert Johnson writes: “It is, in many ways, not a ballet, but a sort of choreographic essay, undisciplined, and savagely insistent that the spectator should at some point gasp in amazement at the technical achievements.” Albert Johnson, “The Films of Vincente Minnelli: Part I,” Film Quarterly 12.2 (Winter 1958): 33.
Nobody has much of a character in the film; in the musical, Jerry doesn’t even have a national ideology. (All he has is “Beginner’s Luck,” sung to whirling umbrellas that nod toward both Kelly’s performance in Singing’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—ok, clever; I chuckled, but maybe fix the bigger issues with the book before adding visual witticisms.
D. A. Miller, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998). Miller’s objects are the Broadway stage musical and, in the right circumstances, the original cast album (vinyl, of course) and the rendition at the piano bar. He has little to say about film musicals, and it is far from clear to me where a musical like An American in Paris, which originated as an insistently cinematic film musical, fits into his theory.
Obviously, the degree to which Henri’s performance should be read as “old-fashioned” in contrast with Gershwin tunes from the 20s and 30s is a matter of ideologies of style: after all, acts like Henri’s are perfectly contemporary in midcentury Hollywood film.
Maybe this is the place to point to the semi-documented belief that the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli—husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli—was bisexual, and possibly even had an affair with Gene Kelly. As Miller observes, “Just think: the golden-age musical that best persuaded the general public of the artistic ‘seriousness’ of the form—and did so, naturally enough, on the basis of a virility so sure of itself, or at any rate, so truculently put forward, that it could even get away with the jetés of classical ballet, without anybody daring to say, though anybody might have seen, from their first cigarette, that the Jets were leaping straight out of the pages of Genet—this was entirely the conception of four gay men who must have been, in a strict sense of the phrase, nothing if not brilliant.”
The future—i.e., basically the opposite of those classical readings of queerness. In its place, there is openness, sunshine, supreme uncloseting. “No gay man could possibly regret the trade, could do anything but be grateful for it,” Miller writes, “that is, if it actually were a trade, and his old embarassments…had not been retained.” Miller, Place for Us, 26.
It is of course worth asking, as Halperin does, whether an older generation of critics—Miller, but also Edelman and in his own way Halberstam—are perhaps invested in a rather generationally specific and closet-centric account of the right way to be queer. See Halperin, How to Be Gay, 116-118. See also Michael D. Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). As with femininity, so with youth: it can be difficult to theoretically tease neoliberalism away from the forms that it has so successfully made its vehicles. Is it that the young bypassed the closet the way they bypassed email and went straight for Snapchat? Or is their love of the closet: bad/out: good binary actually down to the fact that they just haven’t read Foucault? This is hard to say.
See also Miller on A Chorus Line: “the unflinching disclosure that as many as three of the men auditioning for Zach are gay is hardly less fanciful than the naive idea, which it pretends to counter, that none would be. What it really counters, of course, is the widely suspected fact that, where the chorus of a Broadway musical is concerned, gay men do not form a minority at all, and even the true minorities are likely also to be in this same majority. Three gypsies come out so that the chorus as a whole may remain in the closet.” Miller, Place for Us, 130.
Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 114-16. On American GIs in France during World War II, see Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
In a rather long scene, Adam fantasizes that he is giving a solo performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F…and in addition to being the piano soloist, he is also the conductor, the entire orchestra, and the audience.
James uses “resilience” to grapple with the ways that neoliberalism makes use of trauma, and assents to conditional female and multiracial power, but only as an alibi for capital. She’s thus able to confront an uncomfortable, because extraordinarily dangerous, aspect of neoliberalism: the ways in which wielding the language of race and gender critique can garner certain provisional varieties of authority and even celebrity. In the world of Kung Fu Spiritual Bollywood Satires Based on Children’s Books Set in Europe For Hopeless Romantics Directed By Alan J. Pakula, where it’s market niches all the way down, certain kinds of feminism (especially white)—and racial justice—sell. A lot. And this fact of the market then provides an alibi for patriarchy and white supremacy: aren’t we past all that?
That certain kind of feminism and racial justice, James argues, is the resilient kind, the kind that is set back but spectacularly overcomes. Yes, the deck is stacked against you, Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges, but she has a book about how to “lean in” because after all, she overcame. Her face smiles warmly at you from the cover. James further points out that this narrative of overcoming usually involves the scapegoating of already abjected groups for the obstacles that have been overcome, usually men of color, immigrants, and the working class. (Jamal in Empire, clad in white, spectacularly performs resilience by coming out as gay in a public performance, against his father’s protestations that “the black community” won’t accept a gay singer. “The black community” is clearly a proxy for Lucious’s own homophobia, but its repetition still works to scapegoat black people for anti-gay sentiment, even as the camera shows friend after friend nodding respect to Jamal and assuring viewers that he has in fact overcome.)
Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy (market niches all the way down!) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt [pilot], with Ellie Kemper in the title role, is literally and specifically about the spectacle of female resilience. Its theme song doubles as a viral video, a neighbor’s interview about the discovery of four women kept captive by a cult leader in an underground bunker, lovingly hand-autotuned by the Gregory Brothers, of Bed Intruder fame. The repeated refrains of the song are “unbreakable” and “females are strong as hell.”
The victims’ racial coding is also pointed up visually: the news report in the pilot announces “WHITE WOMEN FOUND,” with “Hispanic woman also found” in smaller letters below. It’s a joke about racist media, but it’s also a canny acknowledgment that the spectacle of overcoming is primarily the domain of white femininity.Donna Maria (Sol Miranda), the hispanic captive, isn’t outside resilience either, though; she starts promoting her own Mole Woman molé sauce (hilariously, a banner ad for it appears on the … Continue reading
In the last two episodes of the season, the viral star of the theme song video, Walter Bankston (Mike Britt) returns to warn Kimmy’s fame-hungry roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) about the price of viral fame, pointing to the show’s awareness of resilience’s spectacularity. In fact, throughout the season, Titus struggles to see Kimmy’s experience as anything but a media spectacle, explaining:
When it’s finally time for Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) to be tried for kidnapping and holding Kimmy and the other women, Titus seems physically unable to stop confessing his desire to watch the trial precisely as media spectacle; the show registers its appeal, while also insisting that to really be on Kimmy’s side is to resist the spectacle.
In S1E05, Kimmy’s co-captive and best friend Cyndee visits her in New York, and eventually reveals that she’s been using her minor celebrity as a victim and survivor to get the things she wants—free stuff, a job for which she isn’t qualified, and marriage to her gay middle-school crush, Brandon. Cyndee plays up the spectacle—even once resorting to “but I’m a mole woman!” with Kimmy (“I’m a mole-woman!” Kimmy retorts)—for material benefit, and in the end Kimmy is not able to fault her. None of it will give her back fifteen years of her life, after all.
But Kimmy won’t follow suit, either, refusing to take what she calls Cyndee’s “shortcut” to realizing her goals. Instead she’ll scapegoat Indiana as a place full of religious fundamentalists and yokels and leave it behind for New York, an act for which she is frequently, if sometimes ambivalently (e.g. by her half-sister Kymmi) castigated in the show. (The kind of crime she experiences in New York, which is frequent, is never going to be Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s particular brand of misogynistic violence, the show suggests.) Cyndee’s lesser, offscreen performance of resilience fades into the background of Kimmy’s greater one, which is the substance of the entire show. As Kimmy tells Titus in the pilot,
Life beats you up, Titus. It doesn’t matter if you got tooken by a cult or you’ve been rejected over and over again at auditions. You can either curl up in a ball and die… or you can stand up and say we’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.
The obvious consequence of that philosophy is that some people aren’t different, aren’t the strong ones, and will curl up in a ball and die. Kimmy’s exceptionality is her unbreakability, and it’s the show’s central spectacle. In this way the show also enacts the spectacle of resilience that it critiques.
And in this sense, too, it brings us back to one of the disturbing consequences of Resilience and Melancholy, which is that while resilience means recycling damage into social capital through spectacle and personal branding, the damage still has to happen for this overcoming to work, and it is real. The dream of neoliberal resilience is that obstacles become opportunities, damage becomes strength. For instance, in the electronic dance music (EDM) that James close-reads to exemplify the aesthetics of resilience, sonic damage is deliberately incited through soars and hyper-fast stuttering rhythms so that a spectacle of repair may supplant it.
That’s certainly one way to read Anita Sarkeesian’s experience: she was targeted with vicious harassment for her feminist analyses of video games, which increased when she began a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new series. Wired then reported, “After posting about the harassment she was receiving, her Kickstarter has grown at an astronomical rate, clocking more than 5,200 backers.” (The harassment, and the donations, have only increased since then.) In a very literal way, Sarkeesian has profited from her damage. But it would be inaccurate—and insidious—to suggest, as a careless reading of James’s argument might, that Sarkeesian herself, rather than the system in which she is embedded, incites that damage, and more importantly still, none of her gains erase the damage. “Anita Sarkeesian” the brand may be able to recycle that damage (and perhaps must), but Anita Sarkeesian the person has to live with it.
Even privileged women and people of color don’t stop being punished by patriarchy and white supremacy; it’s just that they have the opportunity also to advance by it, so long as they will accept an individual solution—”We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us”—and so long as the breakable, instead of cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy, can be scapegoated. The cycle of trauma and healing enforced by resilience discourse is a very bad deal for women and people of color, and it’s the best deal on offer. (What do you do when you’re being sent large volumes of creepy personal emails? Shut up and go away, or perform your resilience?) Maybe “females are strong as hell,” but maybe they shouldn’t have to keep proving it over and over by surviving, and recuperating, damage. And this is one of the complex and disturbing implications of Resilience and Melancholy that I would have liked to see pursued further on the page: how does one critique the practice of resilience, while also registering the damage that resilience constantly absorbs? (I haven’t gone into James’s version of melancholy here, but I don’t think it quite gets at the question I’m posing here.)
In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy undergoes an experience whose status as trauma would be difficult to dismiss (in the way that online harassment has too often been dismissed). For that reason, Kimmy’s experience manifests not only in goofy out-of-date pop culture references but also in nightmares and frightening, violent sleepwalking episodes that signal that the show does not consider Kimmy’s trauma overcome—not yet, anyway. Perhaps this is harm that can be avowed as harm (not a challenge, not an opportunity) after all.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is also all about passing. Hugely so. Maybe someone else can write that post.
Donna Maria (Sol Miranda), the hispanic captive, isn’t outside resilience either, though; she starts promoting her own Mole Woman molé sauce (hilariously, a banner ad for it appears on the website where Titus is streaming the trial) and refuses to testify in English at the trial because it will hurt her brand.
I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. My original opinion remains unchanged; but it is only an opinion.
The question is, what and where is the skin of the whale?
—”The Blanket,” Moby Dick
[I wrote the previous installment of this post in May. Then…some things happened. Hi from England. And yes, my grades are in.]
In my previous post, I argued that Beyoncé: The Visual Album is a spectacle of occluded labor, putting on display not quite the labor nor its product but the hiding of that labor, the acts of partitioning (or what Emily Lordi called “boundaries”) that make for Beyoncé’s whiz-bang she-can-do-it-all appeal.
As I suggested earlier, this is not just a matter of demystifying care work, sex work, beauty work. It’s not a Dove ad. All of this work is crucially bound up in time, from the “forty-five minutes to get all dressed up” to the ironies of the bonus track, “Grown Woman,” wherein adulthood allegedly liberates you to do “whatever I want.” This is particularly evident in the repeated references to Beyoncé’s childhood hometown, Houston, and in footage of Beyoncé performing as a child, which all insist that one is not born, but rather becomes, Beyoncé.
Here I want to draw on Anne Cheng’s analysis of Josephine Baker, and especially of Baker’s representation as a shiny, metallic object in her studio photographs:
This is indeed the first time that black skin is, and can be, glamorized. But the point here is not just that Baker assumes a look that has traditionally and ideologically been reserved for white femininity—an amazing and notable fact in itself—but also, and more important, they raise a nexus of intriguing questions about the surfacism of black skin at the turn of the twentieth century. … Her seminudity is invariably accompanied by three visual tropes that have become her visual signatures: animal fur, that almost ubiquitous gold cloth, and dark shadows. We can dismiss these ornamental details as the clichéd conflation between animalism and dark, racialized female sexuality. But by now we are sensitive to the complications of skin and surface in Baker’s art. Does human skin (both literal and displaced by the tropes aforementioned) in these images act as decoration or cladding? Is ‘blackness’ ornament or essence? … From her famous lacquered hair, known as the ‘Baker-Do,’ to the expanse of gleaming skin in her studio photographs, Baker sheen is an integral part of her iconography. (110-12)
Cheng’s reading of the modernist surface that Baker’s skin epitomizes—both nakedness and decoration—helps to make sense of the surfaces in BEYONCE: The Visual Album.
The production of the glittering surface that is the Beyoncé-image is perhaps nowhere more ostentatiously performed than in “***Flawless,” feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The very title announces the song’s contradictions: flawless with asterisks, flawless with a footnote, with qualifications. Those asterisks are stars, too; they signify sparkle and shine, but the shiny thing here is “this diamond (flawless), my diamond (flawless), this rock (flawless), my rock (flawless)”: the diamond ring that marks Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z, itself (regardless of the actual contents of their personal lives) its own kind of flawless performance. This is the song that announces Beyoncé’s avowal of feminism. And one of its centerpieces is a gorgeous diamond wedding ring.
Here, Bildung, marriage, and feminism explode—and are catchy. Contradictions act like glinting facets, throwing off light. As in the Elie Nadelman sculpture “Man in the Open Air,” bare skin and clothing form one smooth surface. As Cheng describes the sculpture, “He is hermetically sealed in a flawless skin that pours down from his bowler hat through his lithe figure down to his toes sinking comfortably into the metallic ground: body, vestment, environment as one” (9-10). It’s not for nothing that Beyoncé wears four pairs of pantyhose while performing. Patting her flawless thighs, she says: “you’ve got to keep it supported!”
The song is framed by footage/audio of a television competition in which a child Beyoncé, as part of a girls’ ensemble, earns only three stars for her performance, thereby losing the competition to long-haired 80s superdweebs Skeleton Crew.*
When the frame opens, we have only the child performance, which lays the ground for, and complicates, the opening lines: “I know when you were little girls”—this accompanied, in the video, by a comic Bambi-eyed blink—”You dreamt of being in my world/Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/Respect that/Bow down, bitches.”
Who could be the addressee of these lines but Beyoncé herself? A Beyoncé, that is, who is not herself, one who is a (potentially plural) “you.” Claudia Rankine has recently shown how mobile and activating the second person can be: here, self-estranging, Beyoncé addresses a plural “you” who has her history and who once aspired to become herself. “I know” becomes the admonishment to “you”: “don’t forget it/Respect that.” Who are the “bitches” who should “bow down”? Whoever they are, they’re being told to respect the past dreams of little girls.
When the song continues, it’s to claim the right to “have it all”: “I took some time to live my life/But don’t think I’m just his little wife./ Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted;/ This’s my shit;/ Bow down bitches.”
In the video, at the word “wife,” Beyoncé raises her left hand, in a gesture that is, for her, iconic; this is the hand of “Single Ladies,” ostentatiously unsingle and, indeed, well populated with rings, too many to make any particular ring stand out. What is being shown here is not a wedding ring but The Hand: she may be married, but first she made what was famously called “one of the best videos of all time” (*shrug*).
This is a classic “having it both ways” moment, one of many throughout the album.** And, I want to suggest, “having it both ways”—self-determining feminist artist and objectified Hot Wife, both “I” and “you” in the same sentence,—is repeatedly figured through a “flawlessness” that is not the less hermetically sealed for being explicitly and visibly constructed.
Sampling a TEDx talk in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a celebrated Nigerian-American novelist, notes reprovingly that “because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage,” Beyoncé piles on signifiers of respectable feminism mere seconds after calling no one and everyone and possibly herself “bitches.” And once Adichie has done her part and pronounced a definition of feminism, the outlandish claims to flawlessness begin: oneself, one’s diamond ring (four times), one’s looks tonight. The slightly rushed, out-of-time “goddamn, goddamns” that end these verses, the injunctions to “tell him” and “say,” the marginally too-energetic dancing in these citations of flawlessness reveal the seams while also showing how tightly and impermeably they are sutured shut.
Nothing could be more ironic, then, than the repeated avowal, “I woke up like this”: we’ve just seen the footage of her long struggle toward becoming Beyoncé. Even being “so goddamn fine” is a constructed process rooted in the family: “My mama taught me good home training; my daddy taught me how to love my haters; my sister told me I should speak my mind; my man made me feel so goddamn fine.” The video closes with the awarding of the three stars that lead to the girls’ defeat on Star Search. Yet those three stars don’t direct personal history toward psychologization or interiority; rather, they route it toward surface and sparkle: three stars that become the shine of being “***flawless.” Thus, as Emily Lordi puts it, “If I never expected to see so much of Beyoncé’s own skin in all my life, [neither] do I experience her self-exposure as self-revelation.” It’s her (flawless) skin and it isn’t (it’s four layers of stockings). Bildung here does not lead to “Reader, I married him,” although she does marry him, unrepentantly, and shows off the diamond to boot. Rather, it leads to something closer to Thea’s magnificent and forbidding impersonality at the end of The Song of the Lark: consummate artist, you cannot tell what and where is her skin. You just see the shine.
*No offense to the actual members of Skeleton Crew, who have gone on to haircuts and a better life.
**The album is sprinkled with strange intensified variations on being “barefoot in the kitchen”—inappropriate or reappropriated convergences of the kitchen and sex. In “Drunk in Love,” “We woke up in the kitchen saying how the hell did this shit happen”; in the same song, Jay-Z’s immortal and hilariously Seussian line “your breastesses are my breakfastes” turns sex back into feeding, even nursing. In “Jealous,” Beyoncé sings, “I cooked this meal for you naked.” Is that supposed to be sexy? Or just abject?
Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. Edited by Sherrill Harbison. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.