bookmark_borderResilience and unbreakability

Picture of Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt protecting the other mole women.
Others can be broken, but not Kimmy.

Robin James‘s recent book Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015) isn’t a perfect book, of course. But its theorization of resilience for the age of branded feminism is refreshing and crucial. We need this book.

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.[1]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

Photo of news anchor; chyron reads "WHITE WOMEN FOUND. Hispanic woman also found."

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.


1 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.

bookmark_borderBeyoncé’s Second Skin (Part II): How to Be ***Flawless

Cross-posted to Arcade.

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.

Josephine Baker

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.

Beyoncé dancing on a stripper pole, leopard spots projected onto her body
Beyoncé in “Partition.” The nearly-nude body (but is that a leotard and tights? skin or cladding?) has the image of animal skin projected onto it. No attempt is made to suggest that this is “really” her skin: this is a surface among surfaces, subject to light.

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.

Elie Nadelman standing next to his sculpture Man in the Open Air
Elie Nadelman, Man in the Open Air, c. 1915

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.*

Skeleton Crew
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.”Beyoncé Knowles in ***Flawless

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.

Beyoncé in “Ghost”

*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.