Monday, June 27, 2011

Forever Cute

[Image: Zooey Deschanel dressed in pale pink in the sunshine holding up a heart necklace]
Sorry this is so long, but I have a lot to say:

I enjoyed this thoughtful post from What Tami Said: Who is the black Zooey Deschanel? No one really tries to identify a black Zooey, though, because what she is really asking is, can a black woman pull off a cutesy, innocent/sexy, intellectual yet vapid little-girl aesthetic? Does society give black women room to define themselves in this way? As Tami pointed out in another post, a white woman streaking her hair pink is seen as whimsical while a black woman doing that is seen as "ghetto." Both posts and comment threads I highly recommend reading.

[Image: Nicki Minaj, also in a pink dress, making cute face, and with pink hair, literally impersonating a child's toy.]

While there understandably wasn't much love given to this trendy eternal-little-girl persona on a post about how this mode of self-expression is unfairly racially exclusive, or examination of why white women might choose this on a blog that isn't about white people, I think digging deeper in this issue is actually very pertinent to Tami's question. I realize many women use cutesy-ness to be transgressive, that there is deeper meaning at work for many lesbians, sex workers, forty-year-old women who've defined themselves differently in the past, and many many more situations. But this is a mega-trend and since 80% of people don't seem to think deeply about anything at all, I'm going to assume 80% of the trend followers haven't thought deeply about this either. And to be as clear as possible, the "cutesy" I'm talking about is what I think of as Etsy, alternative precious weddings, Real Simple Magazine, cupcakes obsessives, DIY tissue paper pom-poms, and yes, Zooey Deschanel's persona. And no, I don't have a problem with people who are into this stuff (or Deschanel). It doesn't make you stupid or shallow. I myself enjoy a stiff drink even more if it's pink and coordinated with a pastel retro tablescape.

Let's say a white girl doesn't like being sexed up like a reality star. She doesn't enjoy the Barbie persona, doesn't enjoy the snap judgements or the way people treat sexed-up women, doesn't enjoy the harassment, doesn't enjoy the objectification. Let's say she doesn't want to focus her life on male attention, either. But she also wants to stay within the acceptable limits of what girls do. She's not about to grow out her pit-hair and spend tedious hours reading up on The Male Gaze. She doesn't want to be one of those Icky Girls. She wants to be a girly-girl, but on her own terms.

Louise Brooks, in a boyish bob, cupid's-bow lipstick and sailor costume. She was extremely young in these photos and a poster-girl for "boyish" figures, i.e. small-breasted and straight-hipped.

Probably the only time a woman in her 20s or 30s remembers feeling free of The Sexiness is early childhood. It's just about the only time in a woman's life where she is deemed "ok" by society. Hopefully it's pre-dieting, pre-making sure you keep your legs together when sitting in a skirt, pre-skeevy-uncles, pre-slut-shaming, pre-prude-shaming. This would not be the first time women rebelled by channeling childhood. Remember the flappers in the '20s who flaunted "boyish" (aka pre-pubescent) figures and loose clothing like a little girl might wear? Louise Brooks? Or the Sixties, when mod and Jackie-O prep styles both made women literally look like dolls (oversized hair, big eyes, clothes that were cut to make limbs look tiny and disjointed, that hide the waist and breasts)? It's a subtle way of saying, "I'm not a sex object. I'm a 'person,' not a 'woman.'"

Jackie O in doll-like dresses. Notice the proportions of head to body because of her bouffant, and the way the clothes slice her into movable parts. Compared with cinched-waisted, pointy bazooka dresses from the '50s these also downplay her breasts and waist.

And then there's the way the current trend (at least as opposed to other trends) centers itself around "female" experience, not performative femininity. For example, tweeting about adorable kittens, as Deschanel did, is basically for a female audience. Sharing childhood experiences is another big element ("Omg remember Thundercats/MyLittlePony/Full House???") and that is also about female community. People like Deschanel seem to be developing a sense of humor that is based around appealing to other women both on the cute level, the "our experiences are worth sharing," level and the girl-friendly gross-out level (I'm using "female" and "girl" as abstract ideas here). The guys in their universe can either get with the program or be relegated to the sidelines.

And it's not just "girly" ideas you can share, but intellectual stuff too. There's a strong current of liberal arts education, contemporary art/film/music awareness, and political awareness that comes rolled into this mega-trend, probably because of the affluence of the mainly white, slightly older participants.

And best of all you're still a good girl. You're still a desirable employee, a good daughter, a cute girlfriend, a good student, a good consumer.

So why is this a new (ish) trend? Why now? I know people in every decade believe women are being hyper-sexualized more than ever before but... I think women today are being hyper-sexualized more than ever before. Women in the workplace has been well-established since the '80s, and since the liberal '90s there has been a growing conservative backlash fetishizing domestic labor at the same time that working is just what women do. That requires delicate balance.

Also women--particularly middle-class women--are experiencing a decade-or-so-long no man's land between adolescence and doing traditional "grown woman" things: getting married, having kids, owning a house, having a Career-with-a-capital-C. Today there's often college, a few shit jobs you have to take where you're not treated like a real person followed by some fluff occupations while you're trying to figure stuff out, some hit-and-miss career moves, dating around and having a few long-term relationships, crazy room-mate situations, basically a time when you want to play around for a while and for the first time in history you can. Or for many, a time when you want to be treated like a grown effing adult but aren't. You graduated and haven't been able to get a job (any job!), or you have a humiliating job, or you have to move back in with your parents. Again, this requires a delicate balance and I think the eternal little-girl trend addresses this for lots of women.

Manet, "Bar at the Folies-Bergere." I think we all know how she feels.

But of course there are major, major problems with this, and I haven't even gotten to the issue Tami brought up yet. First, due to porn and legions of pervs, little-girl-hood isn't as desexualized as most would like it to be. In fact grown women infantilizing themselves is a huge turn-on to a lot of men. Because of the focus on female, not male appreciation I mentioned earlier I think many women can knowingly overlook this. Furthermore since there is a huge hipster-cute-little-schoolboy-aesthetic trend among guys, these women can often find plenty of men who share the childhood mentality instead of being pervy consumers of female sexualized infantalization. But I wouldn't put these guys in the majority. And while little girls may be mostly free of sexual stigma they aren't particularly powerful in society. Giggles and fantasy don't get you very far in a board meeting or an argument. The main problem with this persona: there is NO room for anger, power or raw sexual energy-- I'm talking about MAJOR HUMAN EMOTIONS here.

Deep breath. And here's my other point:

I think the media (mostly owned and/or run by white affluent men) uses black people and black stereotypes to be a fantasy outlet for white people who play by the rules. Black "bad-asses"--characters like Samuel L. Jackson's in Pulp Fiction and Shaft, and heavily produced personas like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent--function as fantasy outlets for white men and, somewhat, to white women, to the extent that many white men will, instead of expressing anger or misogyny in their own words, simply imitate black stereotypes. It's a way of saying the ugly shit you want to say but still having it be a joke (and a way to quickly earn my disgust).

Thus black women's stereotypes that get hyped in mainstream media are a directly related to white female fantasy (in addition to the old Women-of-Color-as-Exotic-Sexual-Deviants male fantasy). There's anger, power, raw sexual energy. I've seen many white women who, instead of simply standing up for themselves, imitate the neck-roll, finger-waving image as a way to say "Seriously, get out of my face" but in a cute, joking way. Even many positive-sounding phrases of empowerment used by white women are derived from black women because of the "power" fantasy: "You go, girl!" "Preach it sister!" "Right on!" "Tell it like it is!" etc. Plenty of white women directly imitate black women shown on MTV to express sexuality, too. I once saw an all-white, all-female Southern church group out at a bar being very prim and tittering until some music came on and a few of them ran to the dance floor and started booty-dancing and rolling their hips. They quit after a few minutes, all of them collapsing in laughter. They got to express their sexuality but not get in trouble for it because it's just a joke! A fantasy. Part of why reality shows seek out the same black female knock-down drag-out dramatic situations over and over is that there isn't any other viable female anger/power fantasy on TV. As the white girl cutesy trend has grown the angry black woman stereotype seems to get played in heavier rotation. White people can identify with certain black characters as fantasy, then imitate them to express emotions and attitudes that are forbidden.

I think Tami does a great job explaining why this is extraordinarily unfair to black women, both in this post and her entire blog, so I don't have much to add to that. But I'll point to the positive aspects of cutesy-ness I listed earlier that I didn't think were touched on in the post as a viable tool (however problematic) women use to circumvent societal pressure that is being denied Black women and other women of color. I also hope women who subscribe to the cutesy trend will give it some thought and perhaps develop some way to make it work for a full range of human emotion, including anger. Finally I hope that if any readers have ever thought of stereotypes assigned to Black women as Not Their Problem, that this post has illuminated just one way in which stereotyping Black women is gross and demeaning for all women, part of a system that sucks for everyone.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Opening credits on Ugly Betty.

In the past week, a woman between the ages of 40-ish and 60-ish whom I talked to while doing portraits, confided that she'd had a nose job when she was very young and that she didn't like the result. So I shouldn't draw her face. Then another woman between the ages of 40-ish and 60-ish told me, while I was doing portraits another day, that she'd had a nose job when she was very young and didn't like the results because she felt like the nose was someone else's, and was concerned about how some young women she knew felt about their own noses. Another woman asked me not to do her profile--she hated her nose. These were all within a week.

I can certainly identify to an extent: my nose is large, bent at the top, trapezoidal at the bottom, very shiny, and bumps up and down when I talk. I really, really wanted a different nose when I was younger because I thought it would make me prettier. I'm white, though, so I guess I got off easy with no pointed racial messages about my nose. People just said, "it gives you character," which doesn't mean much when you're a teenager and you're fed a bunch of hype about female beauty but none about female character. Strangers also frequently ask (!!) if I'm of Middle-Eastern/Greek descent. "No, why?" I ask. "Uhhh.... your eyelashes." Right.

Now I still think a straighter nose would make me prettier, but that would be a problem because my nose goes with my personality really well. Looking like a round-faced cute-nosed brown-haired girl would be misleading (see Sarah Vowell's story about wanting to appear more menacing and getting a goth makeover). All the same, I have no problem with cosmetic surgery in general. But it's such a shame people do it so young. I've heard lots of people in their forties say they're just starting to be comfortable with the way they look and are starting to understand the role (if any) that beauty plays in their lives. I guess it's not the nose you grow into, it's the idea that you're really, seriously not an object (and that can take a while).

So, since this week is apparently about nose-shame, instead of contributing something constructive about Patriarchy, I'll just post a "top ten" of my favorite noses, noses I simply appreciate. I have no idea if any of these people has had cosmetic surgery; either way, I like what they've got.

Comedian/actor Lily Tomlin

Actor Sandra Oh.

Snoop Dogg. And here's his nose in action:

Actor Sally Field, whose adorable looks never stopped her from throwing some of film's most memorable meltdowns.

Spanish actor Rossy de Palma.

Actor Julia Roberts, whose entire face fascinates me endlessly.

Actor/musician/comedian Jemaine Clement.

Actor/comedian Bill Murray.

Musician Nina Simone.

Actor Marc Indelicato, who played the adorable Justin on Ugly Betty. America Ferrera gets honorable mention with really expressive nostrils that she had the good sense to utilize throughout the series.

And an extra. Number 11, Actor, activist Audrey Hepburn.

Okay, just one more extra. Number 12, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean, Black Adder).

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Summer" at Rebekah Jacob Gallery

I stopped by Rebekah Jacob Gallery on my way home from some errand and unexpectedly viewed their new show pre-opening night. They've got the usuals: Tim Hussey, Timothy Pakron, Kevin Taylor. Their pieces are definitely worth another look as they're best viewed in person. Hussey's scraped and lightly sculpted surfaces, Taylor's smoothly glazed paintings and Pakron's large hand-processed photographs are more rewarding to see up close than photographed. There was also photography by Richard Sexton of the demolished crumbling building variety. I spent a long time looking at his photos, fantasizing about history in general, and feeling very Charlestonian.

My favorite, though --and SEE IT if you didn't see it at the Gibbes last year!!-- was Brian Rutenberg, who had two pieces up. I took myself out for my birthday to the Gibbes last year (or '09 maybe?) in time to see his show in that second-floor ballroom type gallery. The room has some sort of cupola-skylight thing, if I remember correctly, and a worn light wood floor, historical moulding, and double doors leading to a schmancy second gallery with ornate old globe chandeliers and large windows. The work itself was a series of medium-to-very-large canvases loosely--LOOSELY--depicting scenes from the woods in a very abstract, thickly painted, richly colored style. The sense of light filtering through branches and perspective was conveyed through saturated color and Diebenkorn/early Mondrian-style blocks of paint, with plenty of fractured, faceted shapes and a rich variety of brushstrokes and paint application. The paintings fit perfectly in the space: old/modern contrast, and both sharing a filtering of natural light in an almost sanctified space.

So, when I saw the to pieces at Rebekah Jacob Gallery I was disappointed at first, as that space is your typical white box, small and narrow with recessed lighting and a window at the front. But it turned out to be a more intimate place to view them. What was a medium size in the Gibbes seemed large in this gallery, and since there were only two I stopped for longer, looked closer, and appreciated the inner dynamics of the composition, which is rich, lively, and well-resolved. I could compare them to each other. Oddly, the space made them seem more "modern art"-y: paint for paint's sake, formal, angular and blunt,while at the Gibbes they seemed more narrative and lyrical. I have a serious art crush on this painter, so go see this stuff!!

Friday, June 10, 2011


The blog Contemporary Japanese Art has a post about Japanese musician & performer Oorutaichi that's worth a look. They describe him as performing, "his own progressive form of ‘drifting folklore music’ combining elements of dance, folk and pop. Singing with a palpable joy in his own invented language, while at the same time mashing and mixing driving base-lines with disco-kicks and synthesized freestyle beats." The second video is probably a good description of an annoying circular dream experience I have a lot, where you're trying to do something and all these obstacles come up that you have to deal with but you're never really done, just on a loop. Anyway, I think it's funny that "folk" can be this digitally sophisticated but I guess that's an honest description for someone that age in Japan in 2011, with "folk" being the flip-side of terms like, "crowd-sourcing," "networking," "DIY/guerrilla," etc.

Here's what this looks like live:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

First painting I rememeber

This is definitely not the first painting I ever saw (my mom had actually made flashcards with famous paintings on them that she taught me along with the alphabet. She was very "classical music in the womb" at that point). But it is the first one I remember. I must have been 3 or 4 and was visiting my grandparents' Baptist church in rural Tennessee. We were walking down a basement corridor decked out in '60s office drab when I looked into a classroom decorated with smiling cartoon biblical men in beards, the "footprints in the sand" poster, and this poster in a frame:

I walked into the classroom, which wasn't lit and had some cloudy window light so I could see the poster. I sort of remember hearing the grown-ups exclaiming "damnit, where'd the kid go?" and just not caring. Someone eventually had to come find me. I told my mom I was looking at that painting and she said, "well, it's ok but not really my thing." It was SO my thing. She looked like a princess and I wanted to be a princess because, duh. But it was inexplicably so much cooler than "pretty." I thought it was cool how none of the whites were white and the composition (I didn't know that word) was weird. It seemed utterly mysterious.