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Hair. It's so weighty, so important, so central to our presentation of self in the modern world. For years I have dyed mine radically different colors as a sort of social experiment- trying to disrupt the notion that anyone has "naturally" bright blond hair by dying it dark brown the next time, or red, or strawberry blond. What I've learned is that if my hair is blonder than "dark blond" people treat me differently- as if I'm stupid or a child. Men in hardware stores are much more likely to help me. Men on the street are much more likely to make comments. If I'm a brunette or a dark red, people act as if I'm smart. People in hardware stores ask me for help. A dark blond or light brown make me nearly invisible- neither sexy nor smart- just a blank slate which I must fill out with sartorial signifiers and actions.
I like to think that my unwillingness to commit to the central lie of American femininity- that we "naturally" look this way- without the aid of cosmetics, hair dye, razors, tweezers, and increasingly Botox- marks me as a heretic (or, for those of you who enjoy a bad pun, hairetic).
That's why the recent political brouhaha over Barbara Boxer's hair is so interesting- because hair is a weighty subject, full of social rules, class status, race, gender embodiment, and sexual desires. The political hairball started when Senator Boxer's GOP opponent, Carly Fiorina, got caught on an open mic saying
Ms. Fiorina has her own issues with hair as the result of chemotherapy. She has talked about her hair publicly as something she "misses" now that it is cropped close to her head. Barbara Boxer, to my knowledge, has made no public statements regarding her hair.
But let's take a close look as these women and their hair and think about what social signifiers are twisted into it.
Ms. Fiorina is the former Chief Executive of Hewlett Packard and her hair says as much. It's not just short (obviously she lost it during the chemo), but it's also kinda butch (there are ways to cut short hair to signify "femininity" if one wants or needs to). There's a no nonsense feel about it, especially because it is also undyed. Honestly, I like Ms. Fiorina's hair. Like President Obama's closely shaved locks, her hair says "really, I just have way more on my mind than my hair." It also signifies an unwillingness to look "younger" or "softer" because she's a woman.
Senator Boxer's, by contrast, is a veritable rats nest of white femininity. It's dyed blond, to signify "youth" and "innocence." It's clearly marked as feminine, but also feminized- not the practical hairdo of the hardworking, but the sort of hair that gets in the way, has to be tied back, slows one down.
Don't get me wrong- my hair at the moment is more like Senator Boxer's than Ms. Fiorino's. It's longish and kinda girly and is always in my way. And I far prefer Senator Boxer's politics and policies to Ms. Fiorinio's- who quite honestly scares me a little. But Senator Boxer 's hair says "young girl" when in fact she's one of the most accomplished politicians of our time. It's time to lose the little girl blond, the come-hither messiness, and show that a woman in charge need not try to look as if she's not.
Have you seen this video put out by a bunch of American soldiers in Afghanistan?
That's right, some seriously hot boy soldiers took some time to have some fun being super gay with Ke$ha's "Blah Blah Blah." The video is funny, but it's also kinda serious because the soldiers chose this particular song, performed gayness to it, and then overlaid it with their own disavowal of gayness-- a cultural enactment of the military's own conflicted relationship to masculinity and homoeroticism.
Let's consider some of Ke$ha's lyrics to get an idea of the "serious play" at work here:
Coming out your mouth with your blah blah blah.
Just zip your lips like a padlock and meet me at the back with the jack and the jukebox.
I dont really care where you live at just turn around boy and let me hit that.
Dont be a little bitch with your chit chat just show me where your dicks at...
So just hush baby shut up
Stop stop stop talking that...
If you keep talking that blah blah blah blah blah.
Boy come on now "
These lyrics are, of course, a perfect summary of the military's "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy. Just don't name it, don't speak it, stop with your blah blah blah. The soldiers also end the video by assuring us that "no one is this video is gay... that we know of." Which of course they must, because no one is allowed to be openly gay under the DADT policy.
All of which is extremely interesting in terms of timing since both the House and the Senate will vote on the repeal of the DADT policy within the next few weeks, but with midterm elections looming AND a recent letter from Secretary of Defense Gates stating that he would like to wait till a report is complete in December before changing the policy, it is possible that Congress will not have the carrot nor the stick to repeal DADT this year.
All of which leads to the real question: what are we to make of a bunch of shirtless male soldiers dancing to bad pop music in a variety of ways that are meant to elicit homoerotic desire?
Obviously, this is NOT what the military will look like if DADT is ended and yet we are left with some lingering questions. Would allowing queers of various sorts to serve openly and even flamboyantly in the military actually change what the military is? Would the military be less homophobic, less racist, less misogynist as a result?
Personally, I'd love to believe that the military could be saved from its historical role of "making men" - men who primarily kill poor and brown people to show not just that they are men, but straight American men.
But if masculinity were removed from the equation, what would possibly motivate men- or women for that matter- to join? In other words, the military can entice a variety of people- men, women, queers and straights- to sign up in order to "prove themselves" as tough, invulnerable, courageous, and willing to sacrifice- all qualities generally assigned to masculinity. The military does not use traditionally feminine qualities like cooperation, communication, or nuturing to recruit.
As long as those are the qualities that are mobilized to get people to go through boot camp, end all signs of individuality, and then go off to war, the military will remain a masculinist space, regardless of the sorts of individuals who serve. Female soldiers did not fundamentally change this about the army. In fact, female soldiers often say they want to prove they are "not typical females" (i.e. that they are masculine women). Here's what an American female soldier said of her time in Afghanistan recently:
They view American women as the 'third gender,'" she said. "They hold respect for us. They treat us like men.
Respect comes, in masculinist institutions, from behaving in ways that are marked as masculine. Disrespect comes from being a "pussy" or a "fag." The military will remain masculinist and the people who serve in it, regardless of gender expression or sexual identity, will have to man-up if they want to succeed.
So sadly, Blah Blah Blah is all that queers in the military will mean, even when they're finally allowed to serve openly.
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Remember James O'Keefe, III, the ultra-right "merry prankster" who dressed as a "pimp" and brought along a friend to be his "ho" and went into an Acorn office and asked for help starting a brothel?
Ah, the most fun I've ever had writing on True/Slant was calling O'Keefe's piece "fantasy" not "news." Calling him the "Borat of the Right," I pointed out that Mr. O'Keefe's video of Acorn employees supposedly supporting prostitution rings was no more "true" than a Sacha Baron Cohen piece.
Sadly, most of the media and nearly all our national politicians saw Mr. O'Keefe's highly-edited clip of Acorn employees trying to respond to his "pimp and ho" routine as an actual indictment of the organization.
The website Big Government, who gave Mr. O'Keefe support and a national platform for his "reporting," linked my piece so that I received a lot of hate mail and more than a few death threats. Less amusing were the people who called my employer and insisted I be fired.
Now Mr. O'Keefe is in deep doo doo and I find myself both wanting to defend his right to be a pain in the ass that is power AND thinking he needs to learn the difference between a prank and journalism.
It seems that O'Keefe and a merry band of pranksters went to New Orleans and dressed up like telephone repairman to get "gottcha" footage of Senator Mary Landrieu's staff.
Mr. O’Keefe, 25, ...and three other men... were arrested and charged with a federal felony, accused of seeking to tamper with the office telephone system of Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. Two of them were impersonating repairmen in the senator’s New Orleans office and were caught after being asked for identification.
Mr. O’Keefe said Friday that the four men had been trying to determine whether Ms. Landrieu was avoiding constituent complaints about the Senate health care bill after her phone system was jammed in December. (Her office said no calls had been intentionally avoided.) On reflection, he said in a statement, “I could have used a different approach to this investigation.”
It's funny, right? I mean, you're suspicious that a Senator is lying about "phone problems" and so you dress up as phone repairmen and ask the staff what problems they're having with the phones. If you're lucky, you catch them saying "we're not having problems." Hilarious.
But it's not journalism, is it? It's protest and activism and possibly even a joke and this is where O'Keefe steps over the line of "funny" and "right on" into "stupid" and "send him to jail."
There is very little that I would be willing to die for, but our right to protest power while getting a laugh is worth dying for. We have an obligation to point out the abuse of power. We have a sacred duty as citizens to do so in the most entertaining manner possible.
I myself have staged drag queen bake sales for peace or dressed up like an ultra conservative housewife who believes all our rights should be based on our marital status, including our right to vote.
But I have never pretended as if this is "true" or "journalism." It's protest. That's the point. It's clearly absurd. Even the people who are the butt of my jokes--like Family Research Council representatives responding to my "Heterosexuals for Mandatory Marriage Manifesto"-- know that it's a joke and that the joke's on them.
O'Keefe's protests cross the line between staged absurdity and absurd entrapment. They are less a question of First Amendment rights and more "Boy, do you know there is such a thing as ETHICS, even with your enemies?"
So although I support O'Keefe's right to stage as many absurd protests as possible, to throw metaphorical and even actual pies in the faces of his enemies, I must draw the line at presenting these protests as journalism. I must also draw the line at breaking and entering under false pretenses.
There is nothing wrong with standing up in public space and screaming "look the Emperor has no clothes." There is something sleazy about sneaking into the Emperor's closet with a hidden camera.
So although I hope O'Keefe and his merry band of ultra-right pranksters get off with a slap on the wrist, I also hope they learn that there is a difference between protest and journalism, staged absurdity and truthful reporting.
And that they learn the lesson that even our worst enemies deserve to be let in on the joke, especially because the joke is on them.