Thesis Re-Visited

[It’s] a popular notion, that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work, or insightful work.  I don’t think that’s the case. I think in a certain sense, it’s  a trigger, or a lever. But I think good work is produced in spite of suffering, and as a response, as a victory over suffering.

Leonard Cohen

I had the idea to read through my thesis, and post excerpts on my blog; I may still do that.  As always, I hesitate; I think that some of this work is of high quality, but I wonder how it will be received. I talked about my thesis and agonized over it for so long, that I’m not sure anything I could have created would have been worth the fuss I made about it. Then again, the only arbriter that really matters at the end of the day – my supervisor – gave me an A- on it. So I’m not really sure what I’m worried about in that regard. I suppose putting one’s work out there will always feel like an act of incredible vulnerability.

Reading my thesis in preparation for posting it reminds me of how far removed I am from the academic world; I admit that this reminder is somewhat disheartening. I’d have to read and study for months before I would become as well-versed in the theoretical language and literature as I was when I wrote the thesis. Furthermore, I don’t see myself having the opportunity to write something like that and become immersed in the acts of learning and creation anytime soon; I may not have an opportunity like that ever again.  I suppose my hesitation to post my thesis is borne from that sentiment as well, which isn’t exactly regret; I’ve just become aware that there’s a gap between where I am, and where I want to be, and I’d rather not think about it.  At the present time though, I’m a still a little too weary from the struggle to get through school to knit that yarn into motivation to go back.

Although there are ideas and passages in this piece that I wish I could have developed further, in some ways, that doesn’t really matter; what matters most to me about this work is that I finished it at all. I wrote it during a tumultuous time in my life, during which I was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Hence, the Leonard Cohen quote above: this work is important to me for its merits as a piece of undergraduate-level scholarship, and because I see the completion of this project as a “victory over suffering.” I may always struggle with my mind, but this serves as a reminder that I can still (with a hell of a lot of effort, time, and support) complete the work I set out to do.

That’s what I’ll remember this piece for; this piece, with all of its glorious imperfection. Maybe one day I’ll regard the time of my life during which I wrote it as being “gloriously imperfect” as well.

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After thinking and writing about it, I’ve decided to post excerpts from my thesis after all. These can be found on the following pages:

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque Excerpt 1 (Introductory Chapter)

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque  Excerpt 2 (Research Methods Chapter)

The Overlooked Composer

My mornings spent listening to Tempo while in contemplation are pretty much my most favorite things in the world; it is during this time that I can find a form of healing solitude. With as much time as I spend alone, one would think I’d be quite adept at using this time consciously; instead, I woke up grumpy and anxious (which tends to be my default state; come to think of it, that’s why I’ve earned the labels of “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Major Depressive Episode”). I was wondering when I’d be able to even look at the academic work I had been unable to complete yesterday, due to working overtime; I was looking ahead to today’s shift, trying to think of what behavior management strategies I’d adopt now that I knew a little bit more about our current clients. I was thinking about all of the things I feel my life is missing these days (namely, fun and excitement); I was pondering the ironies of being a self-identified feminist who had unwittingly (unwillingly?) taken on the role of “mother figure” in both her personal and professional life (I want to be random and irresponsible too, goddamn it)… and so on.

Then I took my place at my desk, in front of my computer, and the magic of positive associations kicked in. I felt focused, I felt safe, I felt like I’d come home. The radio in the kitchen was tuned to CBC Radio 2’s Tempo; the strains of classical music floated through the living room and into my bedroom, where began to settle my mind by triggering positive memories of this place. I was reminded it of all of the times I’d deliberately cultivated a sense of calm in this space, by taking a few minutes to slow down my breathing and tell myself that I didn’t have to take on the world that particular day.

I don’t have to take on the world today, either.

For various reasons my apartment hasn’t really felt like “home” lately, so it was helpful (in terms of settling my negativity/anxiety) to take a few moments to remind myself of what was in my power to control, at least in this particular moment (ie, my mind). Again, it’s not everything, but it’s something.

“The Overlooked Composer,” indeed. At times one has to take stock and learn the true identity of the one who is “taking something for granted.”

Considering Theory

Something I just thought about with respect to the puzzle of “what theory to use”:

Atkinson etc. talk about things people do in everyday life, and the overall idea seems to be that the people who are doing this are participating in it in an attempt to be or become normal/normative.  People who would read this as a “political” activity see “odd/disfigured” bodies as an attempt to critique norms, and at least has feminist potential – they’re trying to set themselves apart from norms, self-consciously.

 

My issue is, what’s actually happening here? It seems like maybe there’s potential to be “revolutionary” on stage, and maybe such an analysis is more applicable to an act that is obviously a performance, like burlesque.  The “feminist” or “post-structuralist” reading might be a useful way to interpret the behavior of people who use invoke those discourses to explain what they’re doing (so they might be doing drag, or performances that are obviously political).  However, it’s doubtful that everyone in the subculture is doing so. Moreover, in everyday lives, both “political” and “apolitical” burlesque artists are probably are trying to appeal to a sense of what is “normative” locally (in which case I am better off reading behaviour that only seems “different” the way Atkinson does – as a way of establishing one’s place within the “figuration.)”

 

I have an empathy for a politicized reading, particularly a feminist one. I want to think that there is something feminist about what these women are doing, and at times they do talk about themselves in feminist terms (the “heckling” incident inspired a conversation about what women “ought” to be doing that was overtly feminist).  But it’s difficult to say one way or the other – on the one hand, women may see this as empowering – on the other, being on stage may cause a woman to self-regulate to a greater degree (I note the tendency for women to put themselves on a diet/exercise regime around the time they start performing).

 

So my research question is really something like, “is a politicized reading necessarily the best way to approach the topic of women in burlesque? Under what circumstances might a politicized/post-structuralist/feminist reading apply?”

Dance Macabre: Performances of Gender and Sexuality within Sub-cultural Spaces

Proposed Topic of Study

I am interested in studying “burlesque” subcultures to determine why local women are engaging in a practice that can alternatively be read as a “simplistic display of the flesh” or a form of social critique (Nally, 2009, p. 622).  Arguably, the local burlesque subculture does both; it is exemplified by groups such as the Fake Moustache Drag King Troupe, and those involved in the annual variety show “Demonika’s Symphony of Horrors.” Although some burlesque troupes perform gender in more or less “straightforward” ways, others take up the art form’s historical use of satire, “performing” gender in ironic, “campy,” exaggerated, or “humorous” ways to critique gender norms (Nally, 2009, pp. 622 – 3,631 – 3). I am interested in understanding why local women are engaging in these practices. Do they offer a form of “freedom” from conventional femininity, allowing women to embrace “composite” sexualities and explore their desires (as some theorists claim)(Nally, 2009, p. 628)? What are these performances intended to signify within these subcultures, and how are they taken up by those outside the subculture (ie, by friends outside of these subcultures, co-workers, authority figures)? How do women negotiate their sexualized “subculture” identities with other social roles? Although “burlesque” groups in the UK and United States have received some attention from academics (and feminists), this project presents an opportunity to understand how local women are engaging with broader cultural trends.

Working Literature Review

From the literature I have reviewed so far, it seems like the topic of “sexualized self-presentations” (typified in neo-burlesque, as well as websites such as Suicide Girls, God’s Girls, etc) tend to be studied from a “post-structuralist feminist” and/or “critical race feminist” perspective (Magnet, 2007, p. 577; Nally, 2009, p. 622). Many of these perspectives discuss possibilities for agency within these “cultural” practices, yet express anxiety about the “libratory” potential of such practices when “subculture identities” have become commodified, and “meaning-making” of women’s identity work is an intersubjective process (and thus not entirely within individual women’s purview) (Magnet, 2007, p. 593, Nally, 2006, pl 621; Pitts, 2003, p. 73). On the other hand, the study of “body modification” itself is not always explicitly framed in “feminist” or “post-structuralist” terms; some approaches to the study of body modification “de-emphasize” these “politicized” readings, to focus on the ways in which “body projects” facilitate and gain meaning within social “figurations” (Atkinson, as cited by Pitts, 2004, pp. 382-3). Of course, there are also interesting perspectives from feminism and queer theory (Pitts, 2003, p. 87). The concept of the “queered body” might provide a useful way to read some of the more “non-heteronormative” gender work I might come across in my study (Pitts, 2003, p. 91).

Preliminary Research Questions:

  • Do these women’s  “performances of femininity” constitute a self-conscious “performance” of gender?
  • What meanings are encoded onto burlesque performers’ gendered, sexualized, and possibly modified bodies?
  • How are these messages “read” by women themselves, other subculture participants, and those outside the subculture?
  • Are these projects/performances indented to “subvert” the male gaze?
  • Are these women engaged in “stylistic,” “discursive” or “behavioural” resistance, or some combination of all of these (LeBlanc, 1999, pp. 17 – 18)?
  • Do they “succeed” in doing so (and what constitutes “success”)?
  • How and why do women engage with “grotesque” representations of femininity (Braunberger, as cited by Magnet, 2007, p. 581)?
  • Do women experience burlesque performances as acts of sexual transgression or eroticism (Pitts, 2003, p. 99)?

Preliminary Methods:

Qualitative Interview:

  • Population: women involved in body modification and burlesque subcultures in Calgary
  • Sampling method: Purposive/judgmental or snowball sampling; ie, “word of mouth”, postings on Facebook and mailing lists ) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 134 – 5)
  • Obtain 3 – 5 participants
  • One semi-structured interview with each participant, one hour in length (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
  • Topics: how do they define/describe themselves, personal or social significance of body modification, experiences within either the “burlesque” or “body modification” subcultures, gender identification, whether or not gender is important in one’s “embodied practices,” how they feel about their social location (as a “woman,” “performer,” “body modifier” etc.), experiences of sexual harassment/abuse as a result of their “different” identities (presuming they describe themselves as such)
  • Possible questions/prompts:
    • Can you tell me about experiences within (a particular “scene”)? (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • How did you develop/create (a body modification or performance)?
    • Tell me more about (an experience/concept the participant identified) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • What does (a symbol such as an article of clothing, a particular body modification, or an event such as a performance) mean to you?
    • How do you think women typically experience (a scene, body modification, performance)?
    • Do you think women tend to experience sex/sexuality differently than men? In what ways?

Working Bibliography

Baxter, L.A., & Babbie, E. (2004). The Basics of Communication Research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Leblanc, L. (1999). Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys Subculture. Piscastaway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Magnet, S. (2007). Feminist Sexualities, Race, and the Internet: An Investigation of SuicideGirls.com. New Media and Society, 9(4), 577 – 602. Doi: 10.1177/1461444807080326

Nally, C. (2009). Grrrly Hurly Burly: Neo-Burlesque and the Performance of Gender. Textual Practice, 23(4), 621 – 643. Doi: 10.1080/09502360903000554

Pitts, V.L. & Atkinson, M. (2004). Review Symposium: Health and Body Modification. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Heath, Illness, and Medicine, 8(3), 373 – 386. Doi: 10.1177/1363459304043479

Pitts, V.L. (2003). In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Death of the Lover.

I just saw a production of Miss Saigon for stage, and I am trying to work through my reactions to it. The first act played as an ordinary “waiting for your prince” drama, except with some racist/anti-communist overtones as well. The second act seemed to problematize the first; it played like a Greek tragedy in that all of the characters seemed less like racist/gendered stereotypes, and more like ordinary people who were trying to do the best they could with the information they had, in a situation that could not add up to a happy ending. In the end, I appreciated the efforts to problematize some of the patriotism evident in the first act and some of the gender stereotyping (even if some of the racism wasn’t really dealt with; I seem to remember something in my sociology text about Vietnamese Canadians protesting the way they were portrayed in a Toronto production of Miss Saigon, so I don’t think I’m too off the mark when I suggest that that the racialized characters were stereotyped).

I alternatively identified with and despised the heroine; she falls in love with an American GI after inspiring him with her innocence after he had resisted being corrupted by the seedy underbelly of Saigon. He promises to return to her so they can consummate their love and live happily ever after, even proving his masculinity in the face of her racialized betrothed. She waits for him; after singing many songs about how he (and another man/boy, their son) is all she lives for, she bravely (?) speaks of her hopes for her future, and the redemptive power of their love. She waits for him; at one point I thought to myself, “let me know how that works out for you,” anticipating that she would somehow sacrifice her life while hanging on to something that would never materialize. In the end, it never does because her man convinces himself that he can start over with his American wife (whom I also identified with, as the “other woman”). Our heroine sacrifices herself through suicide; in the closing act the main characters hang their heads as Scylla and Charybdis look on. Who didn’t see either outcome occurring?

Of course, this is a (fairly straightforward and underdeveloped) critical/feminist analysis of the play. What most struck me was how almost all of the women in the play were either sex objects or victims; the racialized women (and men) simply had even fewer choices than say, the American GI and his wife. While some would say “that’s what happens in a war,” I would say, yeah, it does – but why does this have to happen at all, and how does the play perpetuate the idea that This Is The Way Things Have To Be? What bothered me the most was the heroines’ insistence that “love would conquer all,” although I am not certain if the play ultimately endorses or questions ideologies of Romantic Love. Although most of the play seemed to be trumpeting the redemptive powers of love (and American idealism) in the face of corruption, the death scene in the end could be read as a confirmation of this ideology (she dies, but their love lives on in the child that is saved) or refutes it (look what happens when you believe in this sort of thing). Similarly, by portraying an American GI as a hero (and the betrothed as easily corruptible and power hungry) the play seems to be lamenting the “tragedies of war” without really criticizing the Americans’ role in constructing this tragedy in the first place (while the Vietnamese, on the other hand, are either corrupted or “pure” and in need of the American’s “salvation,” which is where the charges of “racism” apply. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I think the Vietnamese were entirely in the right either; some “leftist” interpretations of the Vietnam war – as one of Imperialistic aggression – are problematic/overly-simplistic as well). On the other hand, even our hero makes calculations that the play positions as selfish (while the married couple want to blindly start over in the US with Kim’s child, the “chorus” – the GI’s friend – warns them that they are being selfish by choosing to forget about our heroine Kim).

In the end, although our hero does fall victim to hubris, yet I am not sure that admitting to the individual soldiers’ moral failings adds up to a criticism of the US’s role in the war in and of itself; the fact that Vietnamese are never really portrayed as anything but helpless or corrupt puts doubt into my mind that this is a critique of “the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war” or just “the tragedy of war” itself. My gut feeling, and the bit of analysis I have done, leads me towards the latter conclusion. I suggest that our hero’s moral failings make him a hero in the sense that Achilles was – his “humanity” is there to make him seem like someone to whom the audience can relate, but it is not a vulnerability that calls the American’s involvement in the war itself into question.

I kind of want to go back to my reaction to the play’s endorsement/possible questioning of ideologies of romantic love; although I was critical of portrayals of communists as mindless and racialized “others” as victims, my reaction to the idea of “love” in the play was definitely coming from a more emotional place. I initially dismissed the relationship between the American GI, Chris, and the heroine, Kim; in one night of passion they fall in love and dream of building a life together. Oh please, I thought to myself; although I could appreciate how one could fall in love in an obviously desperate situation, I was already thinking that their long-term prospects were pretty grim. To compare possible outcomes, I submit the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For those who don’t know the film, our hero from the wrong side of the Berlin Wall is a beautiful young boy with an abusive mother and few prospects in life. He falls in love/lust with an American GI, and goes through a sketchy sex-change operation so he can marry the GI and leave Berlin. Hedwig ultimately finds her/himself abandoned in a trailer park, confused about her gender identity, and betrayed by the American dream when she finally arrives in the USA (no doubt, this film is playing with the ways in which gendered relationships are portrayed within more “conventional” films about war; this more cynical/critical reading of the American imperialistic wars and relationships between the genders definitely suits my sensibilities a bit more). However, when I realized that my reaction to Miss Saigon had something to do with my own experiences with Romantic Love and was not entirely made on intellectual grounds, I decided that I would consider the possibility that our heroine’s death could be read in a few ways (although there is definitely a reading I favor).

I’ll discuss the emotional reaction soon; this reaction notwithstanding, my final verdict on “gender in Miss Saigon” is similar to that of my (underdeveloped) analysis of race. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that a film that generally portrays women as helpless victims who need to be saved by American men and only find a sense of agency when they align themselves with men is *actually* trading on gendered stereotypes and re-enforcing ideologies of romantic love instead of problematizing these. I do believe that the original play was made a number of years ago, before it was so common to portray gender roles and relationships in an “ironic” or cynical fashion (Hedwig does this brilliantly, IMHO); for that reason, my “straightforward” reading seems to be the more plausible one. Considering the other possibility (as I said I would), it seems to be a bit of a stretch to imagine that the death scene in the end is suggesting that women shouldn’t wait for their hero, when most of the dramatic and emotional content of the movie comes from her longing, not any sense of agency she might have. It would be a different movie, if say, she tried to start over in the same way as her man did (granted, I am not entirely sure what her options would have been in that situation; maybe waiting for him was her best choice, and my underdeveloped feminist analysis should therefore rest in peace as well). It is difficult for me to imagine that this play isn’t saying anything about love that hasn’t been repeated again and again within Western culture – and like Romeo and Juliet, they do find themselves together in the end, if briefly.

My final verdict? This is a play about the power of love between a man and a woman in the “modern” setting of the Vietnam war (making a critical analysis based on race possible); yet it doesn’t seem to be offering any ideas about love that we haven’t seen before. It suggests that Love has the power to “redeem” the corrupt or emotionally damaged, yet in order for it to persist someone (usually a woman) must sacrifice herself for the other (others have noticed that this “self-sacrificial love” is a very “Christian” form of love as well; I will not get into that reading in much detail, simply because I don’t feel like I have the background in religion to make a compelling case for interpretation as well. I bring that reading up because it is definitely related to the gendered analysis above inasmuch as some readings of the Bible can be said to be responsible for some of the ideas we have about gender now).

For the time being I am going to hold off on getting to involved in analyzing the “emotional” aspect of my response to this play. However, it is probably obvious to anyone who knows me that my cynicism towards Romantic Love is not entirely unrelated to my own experiences believing in the self-defeating ideas the heroine of Miss Saigon held. In short, I believed that I also sacrificed a bit of my life as I held on to something that would never materialize. I appreciate the play for being honest about what that belief will do to a person of any gender, even if it doesn’t suggest any alternatives (ie, holding onto the idea that someone is going to come along and save you is probably going to end up in a wasted life – metaphorically or literally – and a broken heart). Quite honestly, I really liked the ending (and the entire second act) because although it wasn’t obviously critical, ironic, or cynical, it did seem to call the purpose of the war and at least some of the American’s idealism/hubris into question (even while trading on racialized and gendered stereotypes). Quite honestly, while death is a Romantic ending as well (and it is Romanticism I doubt), I preferred that to another possible ending (the GI and the heroine move to the USA and live happily ever after). Quite honestly, I would have thrown up or laughed uproariously if that had happened, and no one would have wanted that.

To a certain extent, I don’t expect to see a love story that plays into my sensibilities and thinking on Love because I think most people want to believe in True Love, even if I’ve rejected the possibility. A story that casts doubt on the possibility of “True Love” would be a story so depressing I wouldn’t even want to watch it (at the end of the day, even I want to think I experienced it, even if it was painful and ended terribly). I write about these issues because I am time and again reminded that I have become deeply cynical, and even I am surprised by this. I am starting to think that my own experiences with Romantic Love changed me in ways that probably aren’t reversible, and that’s a bit of a scary thought. At the same time, as a Canadian woman who is not trapped in a war, I realize that I have the opportunity to analyze my past and make choices. I don’t have to re-live victim scripts; although I am severely emotionally fucked-up, I hesitate to claim that I am a “victim” per se (if only because I realize that I am fucked up; a realization that lends itself to the possibility of agency, even if I have no idea about what to do about it yet. That’s probably why I’m looking for answers in plays and movies, come to think of it). At any rate, it is ironic (or inevitable?) that the ideology of Romantic Love has taken yet another female victim (even an unwilling one), and I realize that experience and my subsequent rejection of this ideology informs how I see and act in the world (including how I analyze media). If I were a modernist thinker, I would say something about this experience indicating the existence of some sort of paradigm, but I am not arrogant enough to think that my situation has much to do with that of actual Vietnamese women. Of course, I may have a bit in common with the “Vietnamese Woman” as constructed through hegemonic discourses (but only the “woman” part, not the “Vietnamese” piece); to the extent that women are constructed through these discourses as passive victims, I could be occasioning some sort of “survivor identity” in a misguided, artificial act of resistance (I’m sure there is a Lacanian analyst out there who has come up with one that applies to me).

At this point, I should be applying my critical thinking skills and my tenuous grasp on post-modern thought to my assignments. For anyone who might be hoping for it, this means I am not going to do any more probing into my emotional state (at least, I won’t be writing anything I care to make public). Part of my “act of resistance” (or, alternatively, evidence of complicity with a victim script) is a disavowal of anything approaching vulnerability. What I’ve said here is about as good as it gets in terms of any “willingness to be human.” I could write something about an unwillingness to be vulnerable indicating an internalized sense of misogynist self-loathing; alternatively, I also suspect that my entire analysis and the feminist perspective it articulates may be an example of slave morality, in the Nietzschean sense. However, those are pieces for another time.