What We Mean When We Talk About Choice

…my point is that there is no easy choice between choice and social determination — that choice itself is not the solution to the oppressive pressures of racism and patriarchy because the choices we have (and the fact of choice at all) are constructed by the very systems we wish to use them to undermine.


Let me tell you something. My feminism doesn’t much care about Beyoncé. My heart may beat to the beat of “Partition,” but debates about the potential feminism of Yoncé’s lyrics, ass, or marriage leave me cold. Bey’s choice to make her body and sexuality central to her persona is held up against the fact that such displays are always filtered through white supremacist patriarchy. We can only ever think of her as fully in control of her performance, image and body, or totally and abjectly victim of a system that uses women’s bodies against each other. Her self-determination is always besieged by the fear that she might have been working for the male gaze all along. But no, we shudder, the male gaze is foiled and frustrated just so long as we can convince ourselves that this was Bey’s choice.


Choice, we pant fiercely. Choice will keep Beyoncé safe — choice will save us all.

Continue reading “What We Mean When We Talk About Choice”


What is self care?

This is your official reminder.

Self care is what it sounds like: taking the time to take care of yourself. But it is also much, much more.

Loving yourself, fully and without conditions. Resisting the pressure to say you are not good enough. Stepping back from the relentless pressures and cares of life, and giving yourself a moment (or two or three) to breathe. Disengaging, if only for a little while, from situations that stress you (even if you feel societal pressure to stay engaged in them). Telling yourself you don’t need to be 100% at all times.

This is not laziness or selfishness disguised as indulgence. Instead, it is a a building block of strength. Self care is absolutely necessary if you are to do any good in the world. It is also a political act in itself. Continue reading “What is self care?”

Big Sound Saturdays: Working For the Man

It’s apt that Working for the Man is out today, a Saturday, because it was on a Saturday that Labor Day was originally celebrated. Actually, Labor Day started on Saturday, May 1st, 1886—“May Day,” “International Worker’s Day”—as a strike, in demand of an 8-hour work day. Continue reading “Big Sound Saturdays: Working For the Man”

Magic Mike XXL: Pleasure in the Crowd [Movie Review]

Two women go to a matinee showing of Magic Mike XXL.

[Spoilers ahead, though it’s hard to spoil a movie that cares so little about its plot. Knowing the narrative trajectory shouldn’t ruin anybody’s experience of this movie.]

What we were expecting:

EL: The first Magic Mike was a movie about capitalism masquerading as a movie about abs, and I was really convinced that the sequel would dump the capitalism and hit heavy on the abs. And, for the most part, it did just that. The burlesque set pieces were spectacular, and the drama over money and entrepreneurial ambition was kept to a minimum. What was unexpected was the amount of time the movie dedicated to sitting with male friendship—just letting us watch while men talked to each other. Not in high intensity, the-bomb’s-about-to-blow situations, but during the conversations that happen when six men go on a nostalgic road trip together. I was also preparing for some great female gaze moments, which did not disappoint, and I was thankful that we weren’t forced to endure much of a romance plot. When you go to see a strip show, you don’t want to think about your stripper’s girlfriend, and the same holds true in a movie about strippers.

KS: I hadn’t seen the first movie so I had no idea what to expect. I think I was hoping for a dance movie/ female gaze romp and on that account I was not disappointed. For me, the movie reflects its knowledge of the assumed audience demographic (straight women, maybe middle-aged), but I was pleasantly surprised in the various ways this was manifested: the way the men talked to and about women, moments of sheer gratuitous fun (bonus points for showing pleasure on everyone’s faces!), and the diversity in the mass of women who made up the audience. Actually, the movie’s efforts to engulf viewers in its fantasy was one of my favorite parts—we could have easily been a part of the audience at the stripper convention which is conveniently held on July 4th weekend…

Things we liked:

EL: It was strange to me how little women signified in this movie. The love plot was pretty understated, and for the most part women only really showed up as audience members in the strip shows. This mostly worked for me. I liked that the way the movie catered to female desire wasn’t through our identification with a single romantic lead but through the anonymous crowds of women at the shows.

Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter
Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter

KS: Yeah, I was not so into the understated love plot, especially at the moment when Mike pulls his romantic interest onto the stage, breaking the fantasy demarcated by the performance space. It’s significant that in all of the other performances, female desire is embodied by a collective of individual, nameless women. Even though individual women and individual narratives of disenchantment with men and sexuality pepper the movie, ultimately women experience pleasure and gratification together. Adding a named, romantic interest spoils that fantasy—the performance becomes about one woman rather than all women.

EL: Right. Or by watching each other being done-to on the stage of the strip show. Like when Mike pulls his love interest on stage, the real pleasure is all of the women in the audience getting to watch and identify with her physical contact with his body. The woman on stage is the proxy body for all of the women’s desires in the room, which is why the romance plot doesn’t work so well. The strip show is not interested in individual pleasure, but in the collective pleasure made possible by the spectacle of simulated sex.

KS: The romantic plot enables the blurring between the real world of Mike Lane and the performance world of Magic Mike which is a line continually transversed throughout the film. One interesting claim Mike made while he was trying to convince the crew to write new dances is that their repertoire did not reflect them as anything other than stereotypical male entertainers (i.e., none of them were actually firefighters in real life). Thus, for Mike, performance should be connected in some way with reality in order to be authentic. While this certainly lays the ground for the romantic subplot and enables some pretty nifty final dances, it seems like a sketchy claim to me. I suppose the insistence on the reality/performance connection could also be read as a way that men’s fulfillment [albeit psychological] works its way back into a film about female pleasure: the men need to be fulfilled by their performance and that it not possible through providing pleasure alone.

EL: Yeah, the way authenticity works in the performance is really weird. Because pleasure is also strangely inauthentic. Like none of the audience women actually get to have sex with the performers, and none of the performers actually desire the women in the audience, and yet that is the only kind of pleasure that seems to be authentic in the movie. The other, more individual and more traditionally authentic pleasures like actual sex are almost always disappointing. One of the strippers bemoans how his sexual encounters are always frustrating because of a problem related to his dick, and a group of middle-aged women confess that their sex lives with their husbands are less than fantastic even as a genuinely erotic encounter for one of them involves getting a lap-dance and simulated oral sex from one of the strippers.

KS: Also, as flamboyantly performative as the dances are, in some ways they purport to affect healing in the real lives of women as individuals (even though the pleasure is experienced via the collective). In the example of the group of middle-aged women, the erotic experience Ken provides is meant to empower the woman to voice her sexual desires to her husband. The performative healing takes effects only in the world outside of the performance space.

EL: Exactly, like supposedly inauthentic collective pleasure can be genuinely healing. There are multiple moments when the male strippers “heal” women by involving them in performances. Each time, the payoff of the performance was that the woman smiles or laughs rather than gets off. (We don’t want to spoil the gas station scene, but it was one of the highlights.)

KS: And another thing, as the men make it to Rome’s club and see Donald Glover’s (Andre) rap/dance combo, they realize that they can offer more of their authentic, non-stage-name selves in their performance. (Andre identifies primarily as a musician who works at Rome’s club preparing for his EP to drop). From this angle, combined with Mike’s ideas about changing the group’s  routines, we can read the men’s insistence on authenticity as a way to insist that they are more than bodies.

EL: Yeah. It’s like the trajectory of the movie for the male performers is to transcend their embodiedness—or to include their “authentic” selves in their performances—while the trajectory of the movie for the women is to become a mass or crowd. This isn’t a bad thing for me. I liked that women become less individuated—and therefore less objectified—while the men have to negotiate how their individuality makes them vulnerable to objectification.

KS: Also, as a sidenote, we have only talked about straight women’s desire because the film almost exclusively portrays heterosexual desire. The closest thing to queerness we get is a scene featuring drag queens, which doesn’t necessarily mean gay.

EL: To finish up, let’s talk about the only thing both of us had a real problem with, which was the way the movie uses race. The men go to a black strip club run by Jada Pinkett Smith where, it seems, the black strippers teach them how to dance—you know, the new, black way. At one point, Ken says that Donald Glover’s rap performance has “revolutionized” male burlesque.

KS: This is a really common trope—throwback to D2: The Mighty Ducks (totally dating myself here) where Team USA isn’t playing well enough, so they go down to the hood to play streetball with the black kids in order to learn how to play “real hockey”. Thankfully though, Magic Mike XXL didn’t fall into the trap of locating black authenticity in “the hood”.

EL: Overall, I really liked this movie. The bromance was great, and the beefcake was well done.

KS:  Served with buns and cheese.

Big Sound Saturdays: Crazy Arms

S.A. brings us the country, blues, and rock sounds that pair well with cold shoulders, knee bones, and other body parts—her write-up this week brilliantly breaks down the relationship of objects and desire in musical magic.

American music—country music, especially—is littered with body parts. There’s no word in the English language for the object-animation of Faron Young singing “hello, walls” or George Jones coaxing each piece of his house furniture to life in “The Grand Tour.” “Personification” is too simple when the walls literally, naturally, talk back. These songs sit, to me, in a confusing pre- and late-capitalist space: wisdom resides in places and objects are animated by their use, on the one hand, and things have value irrespective of their production on the other. Singing “well look here, is that a teardrop in the corner of your pane?” is sweet and lowdown, but it also (knowingly) treats Young like an object amongst objects. It’s probably worth lingering on why that metaphor is so available, so funny, and so sad.

When emancipated from the body, “cold shoulders” and knee bones work similarly to singing windows and memory-filled chairs. In “The Jukebox of History,” Aaron Fox writes beautifully on this kind of object confusion: because country music—always stereotypical and personal, objective and subjective—sets the categories of “true” and “false” in motion, “solid ‘objects’ become speaking ‘subjects,’ and heartbroken ‘subjects’ consume themselves as commodified objects.” Driven by what Fox calls “the metanarrative of Desire,” feelings and people are thing-ified; in the metanarrative of Loss, things turn into “speaking, feelingful presences.”

Jerry Jeff Walker’s wistful “About Her Eyes” is an aubade to “her eyes, her face and her hair,” buoyed by the kind of desire that’s languid and comfortable and tangled in the wailing wa-wa that hearkens to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. It’s a strange song, if only for the incongruity of all the floating parts of “her” face and the sheer airiness of the piece altogether. In a tune that sings of hiding and sailing on a breeze, sent off with the blues falsetto that hurls out and up, Walker’s crooning about his lover’s body parts disturbs the concrete referent of the piece and questions the capacity of music to really point and hold to anything.

The most famously freaky of the batch, Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” is an ambling, peripatetic, hopeless tune, where the “crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new” seem, at first, to be hers—the betrayer—second his, the scorned, but their severance from the body is the real point of it. Breaking up, in “Crazy Arms,” is nonsensical. It doesn’t compute. It happened, though, and the undeniable reality of this impossible act actually morphs lived reality into a place where arms can act on their own, a kind of mystical object-oriented magic. Even if “this ain’t no crazy dream,” “these treasured dreams I have for you and me” are lodged in Price’s “troubled mind,” and the entire plane of country-song existence collapses, also, within it.

Wynn Stewart’s “Unfaithful Arms” performs a similar apocalypse of light and darkness collapsing together, but the thingness of the cheater—her arms, not her body—manages to sort of abscond her from guilt. And the great Dolly Parton, easily one of the most creatively out-there country singers ever to’ve graced us with “Little Andy,” removes Bobby from “Bobby’s Arms” completely. It’s a safe-space utopia, insistent, I think, that the only way to achieve such a perfect comfort is to have the body, ditch the man.

Bobby’s arms they are warm when he holds me

Bobby’s arms always comfort and console me

When I’m in his arms hold tight, I know everything’s alright—

Just as long as I’m inside Bobby’s arms.

Not every song on here is a country song. “Big Leg Blues” is a classic blues tune, Ruth Brown’s “Lucky Lips” is a goofy proto-rock ‘n’ roll love song, “Snap Your Fingers” and “Knee Bone” are early folk/blues from Mississippi, and “Skip” Spence, the Beach Boys, and Linda Perhacs are steeped in rural psychadelia. Still, for floating body parts, country really carries the crown. My iTunes alone has 18 songs about blue eyes! If desire morphs people into objects for consumption, the body, like a machine, loses its products through its fragmented methods of production. Arms are for holding, but it sits wrong when they are also for love. Country is brilliant in that way. When the Man in Black laments, “I’ll always get a cold shoulder from you,” he knows the problem is that a shoulder can’t love you. Hello walls, definitively. These songs are a handful of milagros, little talismans that praise just as they denigrate. Listen with your ears.

What Is A Zombie? or: 7 Ways to Teach the Undead


So, I teach a college course about the zombie in popular culture. Well, actually it’s about academic writing, cleverly masked as a course about the zombie in popular culture. Using writing as a process for thinking (rather than a product of thinking), my class attempted to articulate what about the zombie makes it a particularly suitable monster to represent the social anxieties of our contemporary cultural moment.


In my piece on body horror, I claim that  “Horror films can disturb our notions of safety, cause ripples in our faith in the human race, and reveal our monstrous natures. At their best, horror films can speak truth to power by providing new metaphors or alternative worlds that allow us to explore hegemony in our own culture”. Never has this been more more true for me than when talking about zombies in the classroom. Part introduction to zombie-research-methodology, part homage to my brilliant students, this post features some of the most important discussions we had this semester.


  1. Monsters can do critical work: The first article we read in my class contends that the monster  is “born only at this metaphoric crossroads as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”*.. The importance of recognizing that even fantastical, imaginary bodies can speak to the real world highlights the fact that no instance of discourse is value-free. But I don’t need to tell you that…

zombie cartoon

  1. Loss of agency is scary. While reading and discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s account of zombies in Haiti (Tell My Horse), my students became fascinated with the intersection of  zombies and human agency. We decided that one of the scariest things about the zombies of Haitian lore is the loss of control experienced by the zombified person (It’s widely recognized that Haitian zombies are deeply interconnected with the island’s history of slavery). Our society is filled with institutions and people that will try to deny that my students are individuals, or that they have agency over their own bodies. Thus we are always at risk of being treated as zombies.zonbi_UMich


  1. Love at first sight does not exist. Also, google “Eat Me zombies” at your own risk.

In the short story “Eat Me” by Robert McCammon, we get to see the world from the perspective of a dead zombie who only wants to find love in the post-apocalyptic world. When he meets a shy, but romantic-at-heart female zombie, they return to her apartment and engage in zombie intercourse: literally eating one another. Their carnivorous carnal act results in their bones floating away from the world, leaving nothing behind but a necklace found by a small boy on the other side of the mountain. My students: “This is not love. This is lust. They barely know each other.” Okay then. Also, the group that presented on this text warned us that google searching “eat me zombies” leads to a weird corner of the internet.

Dubious zombie-themed boxers...
Dubious zombie-themed boxers…

  1. Institutions both perpetuate the fantasy of the American Dream, while keeping people from actually being able to achieve it. Many of my students are in college because they are chasing “the American Dream”: to graduate, get a job, and pursue some form of professional and/or personal success. However, as they acknowledged, there is a well travelled road that leads from pre-school through the bachelor’s degree (and increasingly to other advanced degrees as well). But my students are—when pushed—disillusioned with this reality. School is expensive and there are increasingly fewer job opportunities after graduation. They are told to explore coursework and follow their interests, but are bound by general education requirements–like my course–and they are forced to pay for coursework that they see as irrelevant to their careers. As we increasingly saw throughout the semester both in our course readings and in the real world, the institutions we thought were in place to protect us and allow us to flourish–higher education, the government, legal institutions–are actually cutting off our potential, so much the more if you are not a straight white male.

zombie_city-t2Thus, the zombie apocalypse provides a mental playground where we can imagine a world without the institutional structures that keep us in the thralls of particular hegemonies. But the freedom of the  zombie-apocalypse is a ruse. In almost every text we read or watched this semester, we saw the way that people were reorganized, either top down (often imposed by military force) or bottom up through collectively enforced social behaviors. We asked the questions, “despite our desire to be free from the strictures of abusive institutions, do we know how to live without them? Does the toppling of one regime always lead to another, more violent or more authoritarian than before?” Thus zombies apocalypses provided an important space for students to discuss the abuses of current authoritarian institutions as they tried to imagine whether or not society ever has a way out from underneath certain structures.


  1. We are not special…but we want to be. Part of the fantasy in watching zombie media is imagining that  we would be the survivors; we would be Michonne with the katana, or Daryl with his sassy poncho and crossbow. But, as my students were quick to point out,  it’s a bit silly to imagine that we would survive, especially as middle-class Americans who generally lack survival skills. However, the zombie apocalypse can be a powerful fantasy that someday there will be a situation where the societal values of the current world, like wealth and social standing, will not necessarily translate to the new world order. Those of us with skills or characteristics that society has devalued will have a chance to reign in the apocalypse–or so the story goes.


  1. Does the zombie apocalypse merit changes in our ideas about morality? Through watching and discussing human behavior in TV shows such as “The Walking Dead,” my students took up the question of morality in the zombie apocalypse: do human morals change in reaction to an apocalyptic scenarios? And if so, what are the stakes of this changing morality? Obviously, we did not definitively answer these questions. However this conversation made me realize that zombies could be a way of discussing otherwise highly contentious issues of religious or philosophical import by masking them in hypotheticals. Though focalized through the zombie apocalypse, my students were really asking “Do our ideas about morality come from an objective source or is morality also a social construct?” Giving students a way into these kind of discussions without the heavily loaded context of religion allowed for various viewpoints to be heard without anyone feeling personally attacked (or at least, that’s how the conversation went in my class).

  1. People often treat bodies that look or act differently than themselves with suspicion disdain, or violence, trying to cite the differences as indicative that the other body is less than human. One of my students wrote a forum post on the movie Warm Bodies where a zombie man falls in love with a human woman, and after proving to her they are really the same on the inside, they ride off into the sunset. (Okay, so it’s more complicated than that…but I don’t want to spoil it!) My student said that on the surface, you could read Warm Bodies as a hopeful text that shows that if we try to get to know people who seem different from us, that their differences will disappear. However, he acknowledges that bonies (super devolved zombies) trouble his happy conclusion: (with his permission) “through this metaphor the “bonies” could tell us that you should not care for people who are too different from us, because some people are just completely bad and don’t have a good/human side”. This posting, when shared in class, lead to a discussion about how zombies are essentially humans who we have “permission” to kill because they threaten to overtake our society. Our conscious need not be troubled by their deaths because these undead aren’t seen as human.


On the last day of class we discussed how this attitude towards zombies is shockingly similar to attitudes about various groups of disenfranchised people across our globe. We treat some bodies like zombies already. If they are threatening us,  it is okay for us to kill them. But perhaps zombies have the last laugh—in our destruction of their bodies, we prove we are no better or different than they are. They are our future.


Each of these takeaways could be its own blog post (or really, its own book) and it feels a bit like an injustice to my students to characterize their intellectual work in such broad strokes. But the larger purpose of my post is to serve as a primer of sorts for how people think about zombies.  the kinds of critical work that zombies can do as metaphors for consumer culture, representations of disenfranchised bodies, catalysts for investigations of human morality, and grisly reminders of our own certain demise. By viewing the zombie as inextricably bound to the society that produces and consumes him, we can be better attuned to the way that our own fears, desires and anxieties are reflected in the zombie body. In this way, we can read zombies not as an Other, but as a reflection of ourselves.


* Jeffrery Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory, pg. 4

Politics of Style: Subculture and Circulation

While the zoot suit remained more or less subcultural—it was never picked up by the (white) mainstream as anything other than a nostalgic emblem of a depoliticized jazz age—other forms of subcultural style circulate more widely and suggest a more complex relationship between subculture and mainstream than we usually suppose.

The Ramones do subcultural style circa 1976
The Ramones do subcultural style circa 1976

Last time on Politics of Style, we discussed how personal style intersects with a whole host of problems related to personal choice and political action.  What does it mean for self-fashioning to be political, and what are the limits of collective political action in the arena of style?

Subcultural style offers an interesting way to think through these questions precisely because of its relationship to both elements in this problem: the group and the individual. We are concerned here with how individuals perform identities that diverge from the mainstream by identifying with particularly visible divergent groups. Subcultural style reveals not only how personal expression in the arena of fashion can (and sometimes cannot) be a deeply political act, but also how politics is enfolded and resisted in choices about self-expression.

Subculture, loosely defined, is a social and cultural formation of individuals that find themselves at ideological odds with the mainstream. We should keep an eye on the two terms we are working with here, subculture and mainstream, because they are so unstable and tend to mean different things in different contexts. Dick Hebdige, one of the first scholars to theorize subculture, suggests that subculture is fundamentally concerned with setting itself up against what it views as an oppressive mainstream. Subculture, for Hebdige, is “a form of resistance in which experienced contradictions and objections to [the] ruling ideology are obliquely represented in style.” Style, in other words, offers a space in which people can register opposition to the status quo as a form of political performance that reaches beyond a traditional political sphere concerned with voting, policy-making, filibustering, etc.

Instead, the political potential of subcultural style resides in its capacity to challenge standard or “normal” ways of living and looking—it is usually a provocation of normativity rather than a codified political position.

Think, as only a few of many possible examples, of biker gangs, punks, or the emo scene. Each of these subcultures represent a group of individuals who self-consciously style themselves in social, aesthetic and sometimes political formations that resist normative modes of being. Subcultures are rarely exclusively concerned with politics—though some like punks or Riot Grrrls have deep ties to political movements such as anarchism or feminism—but often pose political provocations that challenge “business as usual.”

When we talk about the politics of subcultural style, therefore, we would do well to think of it in terms of a provocation of normativity rather than as a political performance aimed at policy reform.

I went to college at a university with a particularly preppy and greek undergrad culture. They were known for their sundresses, cowboy boots and Southern charm. This was a culture with which I did not identify much, yet it made finding friends pretty easy. Wearing black jeans and Doc Martens was a simple way to signal that my cultural sympathies lay beyond frat row, and for a lot of my undergrad career, finding my people included scanning the crowd for those who weren’t wearing the standard prep uniform. By Hebdige’s definition, this is subcultural practice within the context of my university. In this case, the mainstream was the visible prep culture and the subculture were the hipsters who self-consciously deviated from it.

And yet, this might reveal a major flaw in how we talk about subculture and politics. There are limits to the political efficacy of style as provocation. My crew were not anarchists or even punks—most of us would have more or less identified as mildly disaffected kids from the middle-class—and our style had less to do with political expression than with a certain distaste for the aesthetics of Southern Charm. There are, of course, deeply embedded gender, race and class politics in the Southern Charm aesthetic, but I am not sure that the resistance signaled by hipster style offered a properly political response. While we were interested in signaling our dis-identification with the preppy culture of the university, that dis-identification did not, in many instances, translate into political action.

It is imperative, therefore, to think about what is actually political about provocation. This is one of the central questions of this series.

For a historical example of the interaction between subcultural style and politics, look to the zoot suit. Today, the zoot suit is probably associated most visibly with black entertainers. It reached the height of its popularity in the 1940s when it was worn primarily by black and latino men as part of black nightlife. Figures such as jazz singer Cab Calloway and Mexican film actor Tin-Tan made the zoot suit famous beyond the nightclub subculture in New York and California. Most white Americans would have known the zoot suit from touring jazz bands or films featuring big band leaders.

Above: Cab  Calloway in his zoot suit performs Geechy Joe in Stormy Weather (1943)

The zoot suit is all about excess — the pants are high-waisted and wide, the coats are commonly knee-length, the lapels and shoulders are aggressively large, and a fedora and long chain often accompany the look. The excessiveness of the suit is what makes it so iconic and so troubling to the mainstream. The amount of fabric it takes to create the elaborate draping effects of the suit made them a luxury during a time in which luxury was frowned upon by normative—that is, white middle-class—America. To own and wear a zoot suit during World War II was seen as spitting in the face of the Americans who lived on ration books and recycled their out of style clothing to save resources.

This kind of material excess alongside its association with black and brown people made the zoot suit a highly visible icon of racial and cultural difference that ignited a lot of simmering resentment from white Americans. This resentment eventually spilled over into outright violence during the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in 1943. A series of altercations between Anglo-American servicemen and latino youths in zoot suits escalated into days-long riots during which white servicemen sought out and attacked young latino men wearing the suits.

White sailors during the Zoot Suit Riots, 1943
White sailors during the Zoot Suit Riots, 1943

The zoot suit, an emblem of a larger subculture of black and latino youths, became the scapegoat of the Anglo-American aggression against the subculture itself. Because the zoot suit lay so far outside of mainstream American style, it was read to represent a larger trend in which resistance to austerity during the war also represented resistance to the nation itself and therefore the political imperatives of the war.

It is interesting to think of this crisis not only in terms of nationalism or racism, but also in terms of subculture and mainstream. While the zoot suit is big and excessive, the military uniform worn by the servicemen is close-fitting and more or less lacking in expensive frills. But to read the zoot suit against the military uniform is not to read a subculture against a mainstream, but rather as an altercation between two subcultures. The military is a specific social and cultural formation that has its own rules and norms—discipline, honor, and courage, for example—distinct from civilian culture, just as zoot suiters had a set of norms distinct from middle-class white American culture. Both subcultures are set up against a different “mainstream,” yet the military gets to “speak for” or represent the mainstream as a kind of police force. My point here is that rather than thinking of the American servicemen as a disciplinary mainstream, it might be more interesting to think of them (and their style) as a celebrated subculture against which the zoot suiters were seen as deviant.

The politics of the zoot suit are revealed, therefore, both in the way that it comes to represent a racial and national group at ideological odds with white middle-class America, but also in the ways that it allows another subculture—the military—to think of itself as the defender of a normative mainstream through violent conflict.

While the zoot suit remained more or less subcultural—it was never picked up by the (white) mainstream as anything other than a nostalgic emblem of a depoliticized jazz age—other forms of subcultural style circulate more widely and suggest a more complex relationship between subculture and mainstream than we usually suppose.

One of the most iconic subculture styles to permeate contemporary fashion is associated with punk. Punk culture was one of the first objects of study for scholars of subculture in 1970s and 80s Britain. At that time, punk meant a very specific group of working-class youth associated with anti-establishment expression, particularly in music. Since then, punk style has become far more visible and accessible to those outside of punk culture. We see elements of punk style everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Coachella.

Bob Mazzer captures punks in the London Underground during the 1970s
Bob Mazzer captures punks in the London Underground during the 1970s

As we said in our last installment, the politics of personal style are complicated by the ways in which fashion is intersected by capitalism. Although the punk subculture is usually understood to be anti-establishment and anti-capitalist, its style and its music are commodities that are consumed by many people outside the subculture itself. Doc Martens boots, one of most iconic facets of punk style, has recently become a mainstream fashion trend, and the Dr. Martens website dedicates an entire page to celebrating the subcultural history of its product even as it also attempts to sell its boots to an ever-growing consumership. The subcultural ties of the boots actually function as an attraction to non-punk consumers interested in emblems of anti-establishment authenticity.

Docs, as I mentioned above, allowed my friends and me to identify against the hyper-visible preppiness of my undergrad college campus. Their association with punk culture allowed us to perform resistance and non-comformity because they function as a general sort of symbol for edginess and counter-cultural posturing even as they are increasingly worn by “mainstream” consumers.

I definitely do not mean to suggest that the use of subcultural style by consumers outside the subculture is some sort of adulteration of a pure authenticity. Fashion proves that originality and authenticity can never be accurately pinned down—every stylistic performance incorporates and alludes to other styles and other performances. Coco Chanel’s iconic tweeds, for example, refer to the textiles worn by poor fishermen in coastal French fishing villages during the early 20th century though they now almost exclusively signify high fashion. My point instead is that the “mainstreaming” of subcultural styles muddies the uses of style as political resistance.

And while I am very interested in the way subcultural groups can make cultural expression a political provocation using style, I am also sensitive to the limits imposed by thinking of politics exclusively in terms of style, performance or fashion.

This is, perhaps, something to think about. Stay tuned.

The Politics of Style: A Primer

Our mothers told us it’s what’s on the inside that counts. You do you, girl — all the bullies are just jealous of how smart, talented, funny and with-it you are. And then middle school proved our mothers wrong. Your hair is bad, those shoes are cheap and ugly, and nobody much cares about what’s happening inside your head, anyway. The cruel lesson of puberty for many of us is that your value must be legible on your body because, to quote our mothers again, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Our mothers told us it’s what’s on the inside that counts. You do you, girl — all the bullies are just jealous of how smart, talented, funny and with-it you are. And then middle school proved our mothers wrong. Your hair is bad, those shoes are cheap and ugly, and nobody much cares about what’s happening inside your head, anyway. The cruel lesson of puberty for many of us is that your value must be legible on your body because, to quote our mothers again, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

This framing makes it seem as if our choices about the way we look are a problem of social coercion — that our personal choices are imposed more or less from the outside by the protean and mysterious pressures of Society. This isn’t totally wrong, but it doesn’t fully account for the complex tension between style as political resistance and style as social domination. Nobody wants to wear stilettos…except when they do. Heels may be torture devices designed specifically by the patriarchy to keep women slow and hobbled — a claim that the history of the high heel doesn’t quite support — but they are accessories that many women (and men) willingly, even joyfully, adopt for reasons that cannot be explained away as a mere capitulation to social pressure.

I refuse to let this discussion devolve into an easy pitting of social pressure against personal choice — victimhood vs. agency — because, of course, personal desires are always already conditioned by social context, and social attitudes are produced and changed by individual choices. As the great pubic hair debate has depressingly exposed, there is no winning when our only options are capitulating to the patriarchy or radical autonomous choice. My point instead is that the spectrum between choice and non-choice always contains the possibility of playful self-determination as well as the promise that self-determination is limited by the options available in one’s social milieu.

Feminists have spilled a lot of tears and ink attempting to dismantle this deterministic correlation between personal style and social and political definition. That people, especially women, are not reducible to the way they look amounts to something of a truism. Throughout the 60s and 70s, our mothers in the Second Wave fought against the coercive sexualization of women’s bodies on one hand, and for the possibility of women’s body autonomy and self-determination on the other. Fashion was, and continues to be, a staging-ground for these battles precisely because it inhabits a space in which bodies, personal agency and social determination meet.

Women protest 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, NJ c/o San Francisco’s digital archive (foundsf.org)

Women’s libbers were (mis)named “bra-burners” precisely because of the way clothing can be used to represent and enact political projects. And despite the persistent rumor that feminists are ugly and fashion-backward, they have produced some prime style icons. Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress defined the style of a generation of liberated women. Gloria Steinem, erstwhile Playboy bunny, vocal pro-choice activist and founder of the Ms. Foundation for Women, became the face of feminism not least because of her beauty and trendsetting style. And the mini skirt, the pantsuit and the bikini became emblems of political self-possession for women whose fashion choices were determined by middle class standards of modesty and respectability.

Gloria Steinem with her cat in 1970 | from The Guardian
Gloria Steinem with her cat in 1970 | from The Guardian

What these kinds of struggles have managed to prove is that style is political. Regardless of your personal attention to clothing, your fashion choices have political content. The Afro and the Black is Beautiful movement reveal the politics of style in a particularly poignant way. When your body represents the very opposite of the reigning aesthetic model, the act of embracing and celebrating your own image is a radical political statement. Refusing the hold of “good hair” (hair that most closely approximates the texture of European hair without ever actually recreating it), the afro offered a way for black men and women to inhabit their bodies not as a negative project — removing as many markers of African heritage as possible — but as an affirmation of identity.

The afro came to be associated not only with black self-love, but also with the political organizing of the Black Power movement. The signature look of the Black Panther party included militaristic gear, a beret and an afro, and functioned not simply as a means of self-expression, but also as a political performance of provocation and solidarity. It represented the enactment of politics on the body and the use of aesthetic markers as political signifiers.

Angela Davis on cover of Newsweek, October 26, 1970

Similarly, body positivity and fatshion (fat fashion) activities turn fashion into a political project. Like Black is Beautiful, fatshion is interested in reclaiming the fat body as an aesthetic object in a culture that insistently desexualizes, humiliates, and vilifies it. When the pressures on fat people include government programs that target children, medical institutions that consistently discriminate against and humiliate fat people, and a culture of fat hate that straw-mans fat people for problems as diverse as environmental destruction and airline greed, choosing to inhabit your own skin unapologetically takes on a political dimension. This is similar to the arguments made by feminist, queer and anti-racism activists: simply owning a maligned and violently oppressed identity has political stakes.

Fatshion intersects with body positivity, disability and queer activism, but its main focus is accessibility. One of the recurrent calls in the fatshion community is for clothing that is affordable and stylish. Plus size clothing manufacturers have a habit of producing tent-like contraptions in bad prints on the assumption that fat women aren’t very interested in style and would rather hide their bodies than celebrate them. What’s more, plus size clothes tend to be sold at a significant markup compared to the same garment in a straight size.

Fatshion proves that dressing how you want is a political act, especially when simply finding clothes to fit your body is a major challenge to time and resources. Choosing self-love in the face of a stacked cultural deck is hard enough, but it’s even harder when the price of entry is so steep.

Of course, the political potential of style has its limits, and those limits are usually drawn and redrawn by the machinations of capitalism. Standards of beauty are capitalist productions in multiple ways. On one level, companies manufacture a need for their products by convincing consumers that their bodies are unacceptable without things to camouflage, contort, trim and otherwise discipline them. On another level, those who inhabit the most debased position in the market, whose labour powers the system, tend not to be the ones who determine aesthetic standards. If you choose to go far enough back, the Africans who were used as slave labor in the pre-capitalist and then fully capitalist slave system also represented the ugly and the grotesque for their European masters. In this context, the afro feels revolutionary for African Americans after centuries of oppression built at least in part on the disavowal of kinky hair by European and American whites.

Yet, choosing style as a political field of battle has the potential to reproduce the same oppressive mechanisms it seeks to challenge. How can you, for example, use fashion to express self-determination and personal autonomy when your clothing is produced by an oppressed labor force in the global south? How can you challenge aesthetic standards set by capitalism by contributing to the very system that produced them? How can you, in other words, style yourself responsibly? These are not insoluble problems, nor do they prove that style cannot be an empowering and pleasurable experiment in self-creation. Rather, they point to the fissures in a political project that relies on image (and self-image) to function.

This series will attempt to grapple with these problems in a way that does not rest exclusively on the personal choice/social determination dichotomy, and that keeps an eye always to the ways in which individual self-fashioning cooperates with and resists the mandates of collective political practice.

Stay tuned!

 By E.L.
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