Category Culture

Notes on America

Ilgaz sent me this great piece written by an American living in Istanbul. She writes on her revaluation of her personal identity through college and her stay in Istanbul. It’s thought provoking!

Unlearning the Myth of American Innocence

Suzy Hansen writes about the first time she understood that identity is created when reading James Baldwin:

“I’d had no idea that we had ever had to define our identities at all, because to me, white Americans were born fully formed, completely detached from any sort of complicated past.”

This rung my bell, as I had a similar experience in college, specifically an American Literature class I took in Wellington while reading The Great Gatsby. The class was entirely Kiwi except for me, and a lot of the lectures and discussions focused on American cultural identity in relation to a Kiwi cultural identity. I was the first time I’d heard anyone discuss American Culture from the outside looking in.

I was used to criticism of American culture. Through high school I was a fan of the Beat writers, American Transcendentalists, Fight Club’s Palahniuk, and Robinson Jeffers. I had a punk rock, Adbusters attitude of cutting through bullshit and focusing on who really benefits from any given cultural form.

These authors offered an alternative to the bland consumerist conformity that forms the background of middle-American life, and I embraced them. My choice to study in New Zealand was an attempt to take “the road less traveled” as the famous poem goes.

The Kiwi professor and TAs approached America as a foreign culture and from the outside they were able to thoughtfully criticize problems with the American dream with a clarity I had never heard before. The arguments were familiar but the perspective was new, and it rattled me.

I had never considered myself a nationalist but I found myself reflexively defending cultural values I didn’t realize I’d internalized.

Goals ARE achievable, “where there is a will, there is a way.” Social mobility IS REAL. People grow up poor and work hard and send their children to college. That happened in MY family so I know it’s true. Cars and driving, road trips, moving across country, these things have a psychological effect, there is freedom in that. I’ve experienced it! These ideas weren’t manufactured in me, they are real!

But looking into American literature from another cultural perspective, I saw that these are not universal truths, they are American ideas local to a place and a part of a system of myth-making, national brand building. From this perspective even rebellious American authors questioning of the status quo became status quo and are absorbed into the brand. A snake biting it’s own tail.

There was some business man in the 80s-90s trying to decide whether to take a job at Apple Computer or at Coca-cola. Steve Jobs asked him, “do you want to put sugar into water or do you want to change the world?” The guy started working for Apple.

But think, he could have changed the world.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

That’s the last bit of The Great Gatsby. The urging, the stretching-out-for, the pretension, reaching toward a goal, but inevitably reaffirming the place they started from. (There are big resonances here in the 20-movements and neutrality work: seeking neutrality of movement we discover the clown.)

So what? Do you give up and quit? Do you cynically sit back, criticizing the efforts of others? Do you say, “Fuck it all! This is who I am now?” These questions were right in the middle of all the texts I was reading back then how couldn’t I have heard them?

In Defense of Villainesses

My over coffee read this morning was an editorial in defense of female cartoon villains.

It argues that there is something admirable about Ursula or Lady Tremaine or any of the evil ladies in cartoons. Especially when comparing them to the heroines in the same cartoons.


Female cartoon villains define transgression. We look at thin-wristed shy-smiling nice-haired female protagonists and we see what’s expected of us: wait. Be patient. Be nice. Be happy with your lot, enjoy what you’re given, and don’t look for more. Make wishes, not plans. Have animal friends, never henchmen. No one should work for you, but everyone must love you. Look soft and small and breakable, and cry with your head flung into your arms so no one has to see your puffy eyes. Be afraid that no one will ever rescue you. Be afraid that you’ll have to live your whole life without adventure ever finding you.

My first reaction to a piece like this is, come on, feminist reading of Disney movies? That’s beating a dead horse, and dismissal. But I like reading about cartoons and I trust the feminist project for gender equality too. So why do I find myself ambivalent to the argument here?

Even the best cartoons are simple storytelling. Cartoons are flat, a context that does not lend itself to deep analysis. Attempts to lock down meanings beyond the surface in cartoons take a conspiratorial tone. That’s because they are empty, same as fairy tales, they don’t have a “true meaning.” They are not crafted to be meaningful but to carry it.

I get the argument and I agree with it up to a point. Princesses are passive, reacting to what is going on around them. The stepmothers of the cartoon/story world are much more interesting, they’re doers, ambitious, smart. But what makes me uncomfortable about the article is the idea of modeling behavior after characters from cartoons/tales at all. This is using stories as moral lessons for dumb children and dumb women, it’s a creepy side effect of the Grimm’s publishing folk tales and having to market them. Very few people took them seriously as literature to study, so they became little lesson books for wifey and baby. It’s crazy really.

Here’s a thought experiment

Imagine someone transcribing the best standup bits from the top dozen or so comedians in the past few years. Now re-work them them so they are clean, appropriate for children and have the same voice and the same point of view. Edit them so that the moral voice is unambiguous. Now adapt one into a cartoon. Now show that to your children. Now your kid grows up and writes an interesting essay on how the characters in the cartoon ring false and she can interpret them differently after all.

See what I’m getting at? The finger pointing at the producers of these cartoon lady-villains has to point all the way back to moralists messing with folk traditions 200 years ago. In any case, Disney has been addressing the Princess problem in newer movies. The witch in Tangled was driven by fear and protectiveness, Elsa in Frozen is a mean magic princess, Maleficent hates humans because she was betrayed. These more recent cartoons feel more generous to me. They serve ambiguity, show a little more of the why of badness than old Disney was able to. Because when the story stops ringing true you can’t blame the story, you just retell it.

Ads from the Future

I flew from JFK airport recently and these ads were in the Jetway. I’ve seen them before but never taken photos. I find the messages so disturbing, as if they are out of a dystopian novel.

Sworn Virgins

Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. More photos here.

More Medieval Marginalia

Last year I wrote about the funny things monks drew in the margins of their manuscripts. In that same vain here is a whole blog dedicated to some of the weird illustrations that show up in these old hand written books. Check out Little Red laying eggs and Ugly Skeleton.

 Via Boingboing and discarded image|discarding images