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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.
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Increasingly we visually driven post-moderns cannot distinguish the Imaginary from the Real. At this point in time, my alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College, has morphed into a brand of clothing that is extremely trendy in most major cities of Europe and Japan. While living in Shoreditch- a hip section of London- for a few months this winter, I was overwhelmed by the number of Franklin and Marshall sweatshirts. When I finally asked someone whether they had gone to my college, they answered
What, you mean there's really such a place as Franklin and Marshall? I just bought it because it's American prep, you know? It reminds me of what an American college would be like- but I never thought it was real."
When I tell people in Europe that I went to F and M, they ask "The clothing brand?" How did this happen? According to a recent article by Kathy Matheson,
Franklin and Marshall the company was founded by a pair of entrepreneurs in Verona in 1999, more than 200 years after Franklin & Marshall the college was founded in Lancaster by a gift from Benjamin Franklin.
Giuseppe Albarelli and Andrea Pensiero were inspired to create their high-end sportswear by an authentically old F&M sweatshirt they found at a secondhand shop in London. They began replicating and improvising on that classic collegiate look, not realizing Franklin & Marshall was an actual U.S. college.
Hmm, interesting that these two young entrepreneurs had no access to an internet search. But still, my alma mater will benefit from having its name used for sportswear. A scholarship fund for an actual F and M student is being established by the faux college wear.
But what are the broader consequences of becoming the school that is now a brand? Will incredibly hip kids from Rome or Tokyo decide to go to F and M because they love the brand name? The company's website features a variety of pretty and very white young people- blonde hair, tan skin. The men are huge- rugby or American football players; the women are rail thin. There is a nostalgia about it all- a vintage truck, scenes from somewhere vaguely like the American West (NB: the actual Franklin and Marshall is in Lancaster, PA). These young cyphers of American elite educational institutions sport the uber-preppy styles- plaid shorts, polo shirts, dark blue or bright red sweat shirts with Franklin and Marshall in white letters- that the company is now famous for. There is even a faux insignia.
The motto of the company is apparently
For Franklin and Marshall the word vintage refers to the continued search for clothing and personalization in order to express one's identity.
The dizzying mix of the postmodern search for authenticity through consumption is made more real by a button that allows the consumer to then click on the website for the actual Franklin and Marshall College.
What is real and what is not in this mix? There seems to be a real fetishization of whiteness and wealth and privilege on this site. The youth on the website are untroubled by "urban" scenes. America is white and in open spaces. This is interesting since most the youth wearing the sweatshirts in Shoreditch were Black. Like earlier appropriations of privilege by the less privileged- think Tommy Hilfiger- perhaps Franklin and Marshall the brand represents the knowledge that the way to get into the ruling classes is to be born to the ruling classes. To go to schools like F and M and meet "others like you" and then have careers like everyone else in your family: lawyers, doctors, professors, etc. Perhaps also the fact that this is a brand that has taken off everywhere but the United States (Bloomingdales tried selling the brand but no one wanted it here in the US) means that first world young people are yearning for a time when America was still a Superpower and young white college prepsters were preparing for a secure future.
Whatever it means, it certainly is a sign that elite educational institutions in the US are now easily branded-something the schools themselves are constantly trying to do anyway. F and M the school can now sell itself as "hip" in the same way that the school I teach at now, Middlebury College, sells itself as "green." It also means that when Ben Franklin started Franklin College a few hundred years ago, to educate what he saw as the highly ignorant local inhabitants of Lancaster, he could not have envisioned a time when higher education and business joined together to sell a product. But perhaps he would have been in favor of such a wise use of resources. As an apologist for both the Protestant ethic of penny pinching and the capitalist spirit of seeking wealth, Franklin might have favored saving a penny in school advertising by letting a clothing brand do it for you. So now when people ask me if I graduated from a clothing brand, I will say, "Yes, yes I did. And now I teach at a lifestyle brand."
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I was over at the Fox News website--digging around for something to disagree with-- when I had one of those "I hate when they're right about something" moments. Of course, it wasn't about anything happening in DC or the world, but a shared hatred of the pornification of young girls by megastars and megacorporations.
The latest pornified 8 year old is none other than Myley Cyrus's little sister, Noah, and her Disney "Hanna Montana" star pal, Emily Grace Reaves. It seems Emily recently launched a line for Oh La La Coutour, the Emily Grace line, that is lingerie for the little ones.
According to the official press release announcing the line in September, the designs feature “versatile styles that can be worn with sweet ballerina slippers, casual sneakers or paired with lace stockings and boots for more of a rock and roll look.”
Okay, I suppose "rock and roll style" might involve animal prints and corsets... for eight year olds. But take a look at these images from the line:
Is that a pole in the background? Are there ANY parents involved in any decisions made in these kids' families- including Ms. Miley there, who as you might recall did pose almost topless for Vanity Fair at aged 15. But 15 is a sexual age. It's supposed to be anyway, even if crazy religious groups would like 15-year-old girls to pledge eternal virginity and wear "promise rings" from their fathers.
Eight is NOT. I'm not going to impose on any sexualized being's "right" or "choice" to dress like a sex worker and call it fashion, despite having serious doubts that such fashion is "liberating." But as 3rd Wave Feminism has been telling us, there's something "liberating" about embracing one's inner lap dancer.
And I supposed to be fair to the mostly middle-class white women who think "pole dancing" is both fashion and a great exercise class (as opposed to the primarily poor and disproportionately of color women who do it for a living), engaging in their own pornification can provide some resistance to the "sexual innocence" and "purity of white womanhood" so near and dear to the racial hierarchies of America.
But seriously - is there anyone who believes there is anything resistant or liberating about turning little girls into "female chauvinist pigs"? Does anyone other than the Cyrus family and Disney and all the rest of the megastars and megacorporations making a profit off of the pornification of 2nd graders think this is a good idea?
I have to believe that when Fox News and I both think that the pornification of 2nd grade girls is a bad idea, then most of America will not be buying these slutty little numbers for their 8-year-old girls.
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Five or so years ago, my friends and I heard about these right-wing Evangelical Christian haunted houses, called Hell Houses, that tried to scare sinners into going "straight." A favored tableau was of a gay man dying of AIDS, all alone, unloved, with Satan taking his soul and causing him great pain for eternity. Scared straight. A perfect ploy for the lines of young teens and families who came in droves for some spooky fun.
My friends and I thought this was a great idea- except instead of scaring people straight, we'd scare them queer. We'd make them reject normative white, straight, middle class gender and masculinity by showing them really scary things, like George and Laura Bush doing it Missionary Style. Creepy, right?
Our Hell House was a joke, a fundraiser actually for a local queer rights group, but perhaps we should think about a nationwide campaign to scare people away from worshiping a certain sort of straight, white masculinity that is extremely dangerous to everyone- men, women, queers, and people of color- and this kind of masculinity seems to be on the rampage. Two items flitted across my screen today that made me afraid, very afraid, of the sort of masculinity that can only be called creepy.
The first was the appearance by the really creepy and super straight (now) evangelical "gay conversion therapist" Richard Cohen on the Rachel Maddow Show. You should really watch the clip to see how scary Cohen is. His work converting gays to straights is based on blatantly false claims- like homos are more likely to molest children and that being homo is influenced by race!- and is not sanctioned by a single therapeutic body in the US.
Cohen's work, however, is the basis of much of the legal discussion in Uganda about the need to sentence homosexuals to death since they're clearly "choosing" their lifestyle AND they represent a constant danger to society.
Rachel Maddow trashes gay-to-straight therapist | Raw Story.
Okay, so Richard Cohen and the gay conversion folks have the blood of gay Ugandans on their hands. And that's scary. But so is this ad for Dockers. Here's what the text says:
Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by boamy non-fat latte, men were striped of their khakis. And left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave… We need heroes… We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar and untie the world from the tracks of complacency… It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.
Let's see- "disco by disco" and "androgyy"- could that be code for Gay (actually, disco could be code for gay and/or Black)? Hmm. And "cities crumble" is code for let's see, it's right on the tip of my tongue.... Black and poor? And children misbehave because someone's to blame. Who is it? Oh yes, women.
If this sort of advertising doesn't scare every man into wearing khakis, what will? But actually, it's straight, white men (the very ones most likely to wear these khakis) who should be afraid of this kind of masculinity more than anyone. It forces them to be "heroes" and really super human. Instead of relating to other humans, they must relate as the "pants" and can never actually be weak or afraid or part of a group- but rather must charge ahead into battle like John Wayne on T.
And if you are a straight, white men - listen to me on this- you should be afraid of the pants themselves. If being a real man means wearing something as tacky as Dockers khakis, well, that's more or less like having Satan drag your soul to hell.
So be afraid. Everyone. Of what is out there. And avoid the Dockers. Why not try some nice skinny leg jeans in a bright and happy color instead? I promise it will make the world a much less hellish place.