Monday, September 19, 2011

Jack Butler--Jujitsu for Christ (1986)

Ugly Violence
In Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ, the narrator’s identity is not overtly revealed until the last chapter of the novel.  Such calling attention to its narrative nature demonstrates the difficulty of restoring unheard stories to the accepted version of history.  These stories often resist being told, as the narrator Marcus admits: “This was supposed to be my story.  Turns out to be everybody else’s” (197).  In fact, it is just such a subplot on which I wish to focus: the story of Marcus’s sister, Eleanor Roosevelt Gandy, and the tragic consequences of her attempts to meet white standards of beauty.  Though her story is not the main one, it is important enough that it does break through the main narrative for a couple of chapters.  By including Eleanor’s story, the novel calls attention to the very physical dangers posed by unattainable white beauty standards on young black girls.
Thirteen year old Eleanor is described as “sensitive” because she does not like to sit in the movie theater balcony “watching the pretty white people all together and happy down below” (109).  Her crush on Roger Wing, her white college-aged neighbor, is at first rather cute.  However, when she appears at his jujitsu studio wearing her best dress, her innocent puppy love quickly takes a disturbing turn.  Roger, in his typical state of lust, uses her flirtation as an excuse to molest her.  Eleanor understands this act to be a declaration of love.  Roger, however, subsequently vacillates between guilt over his molestation of a child and anger over what he considers to be her seduction of him (111). 
Eleanor becomes withdrawn and begins pulling her hair out.  Her unconscious behavior attempts to mark on her body the abuse she has suffered, not only to make visible what is invisible, but also as a form of self-punishment for her perceived failure to keep Roger as her boyfriend.  She attributes this failure to her own ugliness—specifically, her lack of pink skin.  We see this after Roger describes the torture of a young African American girl, about which Eleanor asks, “‘Wa[s] she ugly?’” (126).  Eleanor equates racist violence with what she perceives as the ugliness of her race, and takes extreme measures to rectify this, as she “washed her face with Drano” in an attempt to bleach it (132).  Even more horrifying than this act alone is her reaction to the pain: though she yells with pain, she is thinks that she is “smiling and singing” (132), and as she is taken to the hospital she celebrates what she imagines is her victory over her brown skin, expecting her skin to grow back a beautiful pink color.
In the midst of the larger, more overtly political violence in the book, it seems strange to focus on what might be read as a minor subplot involving a disturbed young teen.  However, Butler ties Eleanor’s story to the novel’s larger themes of sex and violence to emphasize just how dangerous life was for a young African American girl in Mississippi in 1961, even if she somehow managed to avoid the riots and thrown bricks.  In fact, resistance to white standards of beauty is identified as a political act in the novel when Roger encounters a young woman who has refused to embrace white standards of female beauty: “She wore her hair in a way that he had never seen anyone wear hair before: it was a great busy globe nearly two feet in diameter, like a trimmed hedge, like a large strange hat from outer space” (39).  Both her glare at Roger and Marcus’s explanation—“She ain’t arn it….She mad at white people” (39)—emphasize that hair can be a form of social protest:
Despite his detestable molestation of Eleanor, Roger is ultimately a good guy, taking Marcus from the dangers of Jackson and raising him in the comparatively safer environment of Arkansas.  However, that he can sexually assault a girl and not only get away with it but put it behind him as he does highlights not only the entrenched violence of the system but also Roger’s own privileged position within it.  More importantly, it shows how the violence of the time was not only in the billy clubs and the Klan but also present in less dramatic elements, part of an insidious force in the larger culture.  By allowing Eleanor’s story to break through, Butler emphasizes the subtle ways in which privilege and violence intertwine in 1960s Mississippi.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sandra Lee Bartky--Assorted Articles

I read "The Pedagogy of Shame" (1996), "Narcissism, Femininity, and Alienation" (1982), and "Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power" (1997).  While the age of these articles meant that some of their points were either outdated or now common knowledge (such as the "new" pairing of feminist and Marxist criticism), there were enough interesting points to make it worth my while.

In "The Pedagogy of Shame," I found her distinguishing between shame and guilt--shame is felt over shortcomings, while guilt is felt over actions. Shame, therefore, can be much more pervasive and attached to a social environment.  Bartky claims that shame as a "pattern of mood...that tends to characterize women more than men."  I'll grant her that.

In "Narcissism, Femininity, and Alienation," she looks at the role of women in capitalist society as having an additional layer of alienation than Marx described.  In the modern beauty industrial complex, the norms of femininity and sexual objectification mean that women become their own alienated Other on which they pass judgment.  Turning to Freud, she shows how this demonstrates narcissism, an attempt to compensate for a deficiency.  Put together, she claims that in failing to live up to societal expectations, "the female body is revealed as a task, an object in need of a transformation.  There are no ugly women, just lazy ones."

One important insight she makes is in her Marxist feminist critique is to point out that the beauty industrial complex is reinforced in ways that alienation of labor is not: “Women of all classes bury large numbers of books and magazines which teach them how to be better, that is more “feminine” women.  There is no comparable body of popular literature which teaches workers to be better workers."  She also calls on women to form a more nurturing collective Other for women to turn to: “This collective Other, while not requiring body display, will not taboo it either; it will allow and even encourage fantasy and play in self-ornamentation.  Our ideas of the beautiful will have to be expanded and so altered that we will perceive ourselves and one another very differently than we do now” (140).  She calls for a “revolutionary aesthetic of the body” (140), which I maintain third wave feminism has gone a long way toward.

In "Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power," Bartky looks at how Foucauldian ideas of discipline can inform ideas of enforced and internalized norms of femininity.  While I agree that there is certainly an internalized surveillance mechanism at work in women's conformity to gender norms, I disagree that it is a "panoptical man" which women have internalized; I argue that women are much more aware of other women as gender police. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Elaine Scarry: On Beauty and Being Just (1999)

            In this work, Scarry first looks at the nature of beauty, which then leads her to a focused look at what she sees is a intimate relationship between beauty and justice in the world.  I am most interested in how her evaluation of beauty focuses on the interaction between the beautiful and the perceiver; to Scarry, it is in this interaction that the power of beauty is felt, as both provide a sense of life for each other.  Beauty makes the heart beat faster, makes the perceiver feel alive; and the attention of the gaze bestows life upon the beautiful.
            One important distinction that Scarry makes is the idea that,“Beauty always takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down” (18).  This is one explanation for cultural differences in ideas of beauty, because of lack of familiarity.  She also talks about how we assume our idea of “beautiful” arises from a “composite of particulars, and so erasing the particulars” (19).  This seems to speak to Nancy Etcoff’s claim in Survival of the Prettiest that our ideas of beauty are an average of what we have seen before, which in her schema explains cultural differences in ideas of beauty.  I like Scarry’s specification, however, that the particulars part of the definition is as important as the composite part.
            I also like her delineation of the common and necessary elements contained in that which is deemed beautiful.  According to Scarry, beauty is (1) sacred; (2) unprecedented; (3) lifesaving; (4) incites deliberation; and (5) encourages replication.
            I do take exception at her discussion of those who claim that the gaze has a destructive potential against that upon which it gazes.  Scarry says, “It is odd that contemporary accounts of ‘staring’ or ‘gazing’ place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at, for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived” (73).  However, she is not taking into account the fact that, typically, when “the gaze” is being discussed, the perceiver is typically in a position of more power, a less vulnerable position, than the person being seen.  And in this schema, the person being seen is being framed solely in terms of (usually) her beauty, which takes away her own personhood.  The gazer has the ability to frame that what is deemed beautiful, and the frame/pedestal functions to restrict the agency of the person being gazed at.
The traditional stories of men being struck dumb by beauty?  They seem to want to blame the beautiful for their own reactions.  They are shirking responsibility for their own reactions.  This seems an awfully dangerous road—like, so much beauty can overpower you and you just can’t help but ravish the object of beauty.  These stories strike me as the kind that would use the word “ravish,” trying to deny the reality of rape.  Yeah, it’s the excuse given for all of the times Zeus raped a woman.  I don’t buy it.
            However, to Scarry, beauty is responsible for the pursuit of justice in the world.  Beauty “has been perceived to be bound up with the immortal, for it prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts a search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backward until it at last reaches something that has no precedent, which may very well be the immortal” (30).  This explains its connection to truth, as truth is also of the immortal realm (31).
She then brings in the notion of fairness-both in its meaning of being beautiful, but also in terms of justice.  She quotes John Rawls, who defined fairness as “‘a symmetry of everyone’s relation to each other” (93).  Intriguing that the idea of symmetry—so important in Etcoff’s discussion of the evolutionary importance of beauty—comes up in more abstract theorizing of beauty, too.  And this is how Scarry gets from beauty to justice.  To Scarry, beauty acts as a concrete example or representation or reminder of much more abstract laws and principles of justice in the world (102).  Further, it inspires and calls out for justice.  The vision of beauty requires the existence of truth and order in the world.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nancy Etcoff--Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (1999)

Etcoff uses evidence from evolutionary biology to analyze and define the idea of beauty.  Contrary to more common understandings of beauty, which typically see it as a culturally constructed concept, bound to time and place, Etcoff claims that “there is a core reality to beauty that exists buried within the cultural constructs and the myths” (233).  Etcoff says that her work posits an “argument for beauty as a biological adaptation….beauty is a universal part ofhuman experience, and…it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes” (24).  Tracing her project back to classical thinkers who similarly tried to quantify beauty, Etcoff examines various elements which seem to underlie all human concepts of beauty, such as symmetry, highlighted gender-specific physiological differences (such as female breasts and male square jaws), and certain markers of youth and nobility, such are large, round eyes.
Etcoff’s work is strongest when she is delineating these specific characteristics and showing how they have evolutionarily functioned to signal health and fecundity.  However, I question quite a bit of her argument, as she often makes sweeping statements with citations functioning more as a confirmation bias than providing credible source material.  For example, Etcoff says that “Men want to be more promiscuous than women, and often desire more variety in partners” (52), though she provides no source for this statement.  Or, after pointing out that men, unlike women, have no physical markers of fertility, she concludes that “This difference is the sole basis for the erotic visual preference for women in their teens and twenties,” and cites a 1986 article on “Age and infertility” as her sole source for such a statement.
Not only are many of her statements backed up by single studies from the 1980s, but I also question the credibility of many of the people she cites.  In addition to quoting such questionable cultural critics such as Fran Lebowitz, Camille Paglia, and Susan Sontag, she also attributes unquestioned authority to “experts” whose credibility I question.  For example, she quotes “psychiatrist Robert Stoller [who] has described ‘most men of most cultures’ as ‘whole race of erotic minifetishists’” (71).  A bit of internet research revealed that Robert Stoller, while indeed a psychiatrist, wrote quite a bit about how most sexual behavior concealed hostility and had emotional wounds as their basis.  Or, citing “feminist Karen Lehrman”’s claim that “‘allowing beautiful women their beauty may turn out to be one of the most difficult aspects of personal liberation’” (243), Etcoff fails to note that Lehrman’s work has primarily been about the failings of feminism to allow for individuality and self-expression, especially through the use of cosmetics.
Etcoff also uses the concepts of beauty, attractiveness, and sex-appeal interchangeably, conflating what I think are very different concepts.  While I do appreciate the differentiation of feminine and masculine traits and their possible evolutionary functions of adaptation, this work would have been much more useful had she been much clearer about the differences in these three concepts.  In my own work on theorizing ugliness, I did find it important to note that, with a few exceptions on the reproductive advantages of more symmetrical genitalia, Etcoff’s focus was primarily on facial structure.  While descriptions of ugly women are as often about bodies as they are about faces; it’s possible that ugliness is a more bodily characteristic than beauty, which is perhaps primarily located on the face?  Etcoff does very infrequently mention ugliness (or even homeliness, which is even less defined), though she does locate a historical meaning for it. Quoting sixteenth century author Baldassare Castiglione, Etcoff explains that the Renaissance’s idea of ugliness saw it as a reflection of a damned soul: “Ugliness was a sign of the bad, mad, or dangerous.  Deformities, ugliness, and disease were seen as stigmas branded onto the body by a wrathful God” (41).  Ironically, the equation of physical ugliness with a corrupted soul does go along with the idea I’m working with that ugliness was often a marker in southern fiction of sexuality, when sexuality was a form of moral corruption.