What is your image of a troublemaker?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

So, when STA told me about the Think Different commercial (which I just wrote about in this entry, he pointed out something curious (and troubling): the different descriptions of “think different” correspond with particular images of individuals who embody them. For example, the Crazy One is Einstein while the Rebel is Bob Dylan. Now, here comes the troubling part: when Richard Dreyfuss says “Troublemaker” this is the image that we get:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (at 10 seconds).

Now, they could have easily used his image when Dreyfuss says: the Ones who See Things Differently or, even, the Rebels. So, why use this image with that word? Reflecting on this question, I was reminded of a kid’s book that I discussed at length earlier this summer (here and here and here): The Book of Timeouts. In this book, the author offers 14 different examples of troublemakers who behaved improperly and were punished with a timeout. In my earlier entries, I argued that these examples are meant to serve as moral lessons for kids on how not to behave and why they should try to stay out of trouble. As I was doing a close reading of the author’s examples, I remember being troubled by the one about Louis Armstrong.

Entitled, “The Horn Player That Nearly Blew It,” Lucke describes Louis Armstrong’s stint as a troublemaker:

One upon a time Louis Armstrong was just a poor boy looking for trouble. It found him, on New Year’s Even in 1912 in the city of New Orleans. A short while after that, the police showed up. He was hauled away in a paddy wagon and put in a ‘home’ for wayward children [juvenile hall aka prison for minors]. He thought it was the end of the world. But it turned out it wasn’t. His time out changed everything. While he was there he learned how to play the cornet.

Among all of the examples, which I have listed here, this story about Louis Armstrong is the only one about an African American man (And, why is it the only one? What about Martin Luther King Jr or Malcom X, for example?). The only one about a juvenile delinquent/criminal/street thug–who by nature (at least according to the author) seems to up to no good. And the only one that doesn’t offer any specifics about what exactly Armstrong did wrong. Instead, the description, “a poor boy looking for trouble” seems to be all that is needed (along with the illustration of a black boy) for the reader to understand that Armstrong was a troublemaker and criminal who really deserved a time out. Why didn’t the author provide any more specifics as to why Armstrong was in trouble? What exactly did he do that made him deserve a time out? In all of the other examples the author offers some witty connection between the behavior of the troublemaker and the misbehavior of a child (Cleopatra couldn’t share, Richard the Lionhearted cut through people’s yards, Napoleon took other people’s things). As I mentioned above, these connections are meant to reinforce moral lessons: Don’t be like Cleopatra, learn to share with others. Then you won’t get a time out. What moral lesson are we meant to learn from Armstrong? Don’t be born black or poor because then the police will find you and put you in jail?

The author’s (perhaps unwitting) linkage of poor, Black and young with criminal, deserving of prison, and troublemaker is very disturbing. It invokes a very problematic equation that influences a lot of thinking about and visualizing of troublemaker as someone who disobeys/breaks the rules: troublemaker = criminal/delinquent = black male. For more on this equation and why it is a big problem, see here or here.

This equation is also present in the Think Different ad when the image of MLK Jr pops up on the screen as Dreyfuss is saying, “troublemaker.” The image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as troublemaker should be empowering and inspiring and another example of the virtue of troublemaking. But it could also be seen as just one more image reinforcing the ideas (1) that troublemaking is bad, (2) that it is a form of criminal activity, and (3) that black male troublemakers are all criminals.

Thinking about this problematic link between black men, criminal activity and troublemaking reminds me that any revaluing of troublemaking, as something good and virtuous, also requires a deracializing of the troublemaker and a decriminalizing of the troublemaking activities of breaking the rules and disrespecting the status quo.

Think Different. Just Don’t Stop Buying (what we’re selling).

About 10 years ago, when I was living in California and getting my masters in ethics, APPLE had an advertising campaign entitled Think Different. I had (almost) completely forgotten about it until STA reminded me yesterday (thanks STA). As part of the campaign, APPLE produced the following commercial:

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

They’re not fond of Rules and they have No Respect for the status quo. You can quote them, Disagree with them, Glorify or Villify them. About the only thing you can‘t do is Ignore them.

Because they Change things. They Push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the Crazy ones, we see Genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.

Watching this commercial again this morning, I got really excited. Yes! Troublemaking as virtuous! Troublemaking as changing the world…as thinking different and differently…as refusing to accept the status quo or to follow the rules…as genius! Cool, huh? For the most part, yes. I really like this ad and it makes me happy to watch (and know that others are watching) virtuous troublemaking on television during primetime. (and, I really like APPLE–I am writing this entry on a MacBook). Uh oh. Here comes the…But, what do we make of this campaign as an advertisement for a product? And what is the product? It doesn’t seem to be computers since there is no mention of them–in words, images, or voiceover–in the ad. No, the product that they are selling is the image of APPLE as Rebel, as Misfit, as Crazy, as Troublemaker and, by extension, the image of you-the-consumer as rebellious troublemaking genius. This is a tactic that they have employed for quite some time. Just ask any good APPLE follower (like STA): Microsoft is the MAN (as in working for the…) while APPLE is the nerdy, crazy, cool dude (what exactly is the opposite of the MAN anyway?).

So, want to think different/ly? All you have to do is buy an APPLE product. After all, it is the American way. Ah, America, whose founding truths (that are held to be self-evident) are not so much “we the people” as “we the consumers.” Just ask George W. Bush, who offered the following words of encouragement to the American people after 9/11: Go Shopping!

Of course, there is more going on with the Think Different advertisement than the selling of an image and there is much to praise about its linking of rebellion, rule-breaking, troublemaking with innovation, change and genius. But, why does troublemaking (as an attitude or approach to life) have to be made into a commodity? Aren’t there other (and better) ways to access it than by patronizing your local APPLE Store?

Union Activists as Troublemakers

Did you know that many union activists/activist organizations proudly embrace the label of troublemaker? Labor Notes sponsors troublemakers schools and they even have a handbook. Check out what they say about the schools (which were held this spring in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area and Kansas City):

Are you angry that bankers get bailed out and workers get sold out?

Labor Notes readers across the country are stirring up trouble and connecting with grassroots groups to think through big-picture responses to big-picture problems—positive action on jobs, contracts, health care, and the environment. Learn tactics, skills, and strategies you can use right away. Join with other activists to figure out what this economic crisis means for everyone.

And, here is how they define troublemaker in The Troublemaker’s Handbook:

By “troublemaker” we mean someone who dares to defend her or his rights and those of fellow workers. That often means making waves and making management uncomfortable—so management tends to call such brave souls “troublemakers.”

I have not read the handbook yet, but I have been wanting to order it ever since I found it on the web last fall. The handbook focuses on tactics and strategies (as told by worker-activists) for claiming and defending one’s rights while on the job. Central to their mission (Labor Notes, troublemakers schools, and The Troublemaker’s Handbook) is the importance (1) of real stories from workers-on-the-floor and (2) of linkng resistance to education and to social justice.

Here’s another online article, Savvy Troublemaking that describes (and in positive terms) union activism as troublemaking. I particularly appreciate the author’s (Amy Carroll’s) explanation of savvy:

The AFL-CIO tends to stress that skills, as an organizer or staffer, are what young activists need most of all. And while such skills are imperative, they are better derived from experience than through a pamphlet. Rather, the best tool of the activist is political savvy. Such understanding is derived from knowing the relevant questions to ask, both of ourselves and of the movement. Towards the end of developing sophisticated politics, we tell here the stories of union reform caucuses, activist newsletters, community groups, and strikes that embody the best of vision and struggle, and are helping to rebuild the labor movement from the bottom up into the militant fighting force that it has the potential to be.

So, much like Labor Notes with their handbook, Amy Carroll emphasizes the importance of real stories and experience; for her, savvy is akin to being streetsmart. And, savvy is about developing the skills and tactics (a real world education?) for how to resist/transform and survive on the floor.

Savvy as streetwise…tactics…skills…real stories…I love the language they use. In my work on virtue ethics, I have long been interested in comparing virtues with skills and tactics. When is something virtuous and when is it skillful or tactical? Also, what are the differences between being streetwise and being intellectual (or theoretical)? This last question makes me want to revisit María Lugones and her fabulous chapter in Pilgrimages/Peregrinages entitled “Tactical Strategies of the Streetwalker/Estragias Tácticas de la Callejera.”  More on this later…

Incidentally, in the process of googling troublemaker for this entry I came across this little gem. Sweet. I have already netflixed it. Look for an entry on Laura Ingalls Wilder as the troublemaking schoolgirl soon. Ahh the interwebs how I love you so.

Uh Oh. Hannah Montana is in (gender) trouble.

-1What, you say, could Hannah Montana possibly have to do with Judith Butler and gender performativity? If you are asking, this must be your first visit to my blog. This kind of crazy, seemingly impossible connection is what I do and is, for lack of a better phrase, how I roll.

Anyway, my daughter RJP and son FWA have recently taken an interest in Hannah Montana. Perhaps they are a little too young for it, but they just want to be like their older cousin IIE (who incidentally now thinks Hannah Montana is “treated.” Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are much cooler). This week we were watching one of the two Hannah Montana DVDs they possess (at least, so far) when an episode entitled “Good Golly, Miss Dolly” came on.

Before launching into an analysis of how gender is performed and enforced in this episode, let me offer this disclaimer: I have watched less than a handful of HM episodes (and by a handful, I mean about 4. Okay, I just saw the Hannah Montana movie with my kids two night ago, but I don’t think that counts. The tv formula is much different than the movie one). Because of my somewhat shallow knowledge of the show, I can’t speak to how gender is discussed/performed/reinforced/joked about in the whole series. Instead, I can only speak to how it functions in this one, (gender) troubling, episode from the first season.

So, I’m sitting on the couch between RJP and FWA watching the episode. A couple of minutes in, Dolly Parton shows up as Miley Stewart’s (aka Hannah Montana’s) Aunt Dolly. What can I say–someone could write a book about Dolly Parton and her parodic (intentional or not) performance of gender. And I am sure someone has–link anyone? Anyway, the appearance of Parton didn’t initially register as particularly gender troubling. Neither did the first mention by Miley’s Dad (Robbie Ray) or her brother (Jackson) of how Aunt Dolly was “girling” up the house with frufru pillows. It wasn’t until about 10 minutes in that I got really suspicious and started to think about and question how gender was working in this episode.

(note: I originally had youtube clips from the show here, but they no longer work due to copyright issues.)

The troubling inspiration for this blog: Hannah’s friend Oliver is over at her house. He tells her that he has to go because his Mom is dropping him off at school early. Suddenly there is a very deep, very masculine voice in the background yelling to Oliver to hurry up. Then, the following exchange between Oliver and Miley’s best friend, Lilly, occurs:

Lilly: I thought you said that was your mom.
Oliver: It is. [audience laughs] When she’s mad, she uses her man voice (said in a deep voice). [ha ha ha ha ha]

So, what’s so funny here? Is it just that we find it funny to hear a woman sound like a man? Wait, why is that funny? My immediate reaction was that it was just another example of how it is okay to make fun of trans folk (ha ha–his mom isn’t really a woman, but a man!) or women-who-are-really-lesbians (ha ha–his mom is soooo butch). While I think there is definitely some anti-trans/anti-gay sentiment lurking in this joke about the mannish Mom, I think there is something deeper (albeit connected) going on here. This joke, when placed in the larger context of this entire episode–with its persistent jokes about how Miley’s Dad and brother are being femininized by Dolly the uber femme Barbie–is about enforcing and regulating certain gender (more specifically heterosexual masculinity) roles. The threat of men acting like and then, gasp, possibly turning into women is the punchline of countless jokes throughout the episode.

Let me list off just a few examples:

Example 1: Robbie Ray, Miley’s father, comes in from his (manly) jog, looks around at all of the pink pillows on his couch, and comments on Aunt Dolly’s decorating: “Woah. Looks like my home has been invaded by aliens from the planet fru fru.” [Ha Ha Ha Ha from the audience]

Example 2: Jackson, Miley’s brother, is upset because his shirt smells too girly; it turns out Aunt Dolly used “special” fabric softener. Jackson is convinced that he will be beaten up for wearing it to school. [audience laughs and so does Dolly.]

Example 3, part 1: Jackson and Robbie Ray are upset because Aunt Dolly has replaced their regular (manly) shampoo with her girly shampoo; their hair becomes “volumized and dollycized.”

Jackson: I can’t take this anymore Dad. I mean, between the shampoo and the smelly tissues and the potpourri and all of these flowers, I mean, I’m losing my manly essence.
Robbie Ray: There’s only one thing we can do son. Let’s go the gym and fight back with the one thing she can’t take from us: our MAN stink!” [audience laughs]
Jackson: Uh, Dad. Could we maybe do it tomorrow? Aunt Dolly buffed my nails and I don’t want to ruin them.
Robbie Ray: Do you hear yourself son?
Jackson: Oh no! Get me to the gym fast. Argghhh!! [they run off as the audience laughs]

Example 3, part 2: Jackson and Robbie Ray are back from the gym and they smell bad (or stanky as Robbie Ray likes to say).

Robbie Ray: [smelling himself] Breathe that in son. That’s the sweet stench of independence, freedom and manly pride. [ha ha ha]
Jackson: I hear ya Daddy!
Jackson: [smells himself again] Awww… My eyes are burning, my eyes!
Robbie Ray: I’m so ranky, I taste my own stanky.
Jackson: I can’t stand it! I’m taking a shower and I’m using Aunt Dolly’s peach body wash with exfolliating loufa glove! [audience: ha ha ha]
Robbie Ray: Well you loufa all you wanna. I’m going to take a bubble bath with one of her citrus fizzy balls. [smells himself again] Maybe two! [audience ha ha ha]

Listing off these examples and watching the show again (this time more closely and without FWA and RJP) got me thinking about what exactly is troubling about how Robbie Ray, Jackson, Aunt Dolly and Oliver’s mannish mom play (as in: play their part, play with/against standard and accepted roles, playfully poke fun at) with gender roles in this episode. First, to understand the Jackson/Robbie Ray/Aunt Dolly storyline (and punchline), it is important to think about it in relation to the main storyline of the episode: Miley has a big crush on Jake Ryan but she is afraid to tell him how she feels. Aunt Dolly is trying to give her advice about how to get and stay in the game (that dating game, that is). So, the episode is all about relationships/heterosexual love and how men and women can learn to come together.

In light of this larger context, Robbie Ray, Jackson and Aunt Dolly seem to be playing the gendered (and heterosexualized) roles of women-as-wives and men-as-the-husbands-they-must-tame and playing with the gendering process of marriage as the domestication of (stinky, manly) men by (very feminine/girly, sweet-smelling) women. And, it seems as if they are poking fun at these roles–ha ha, isn’t it funny how men and women get along with each other: men try to hold onto their manly essence and freedom while women systematically take it away from by converting them into whipped, emasculated, frufru-loving wusses. And, ha ha, isn’t it funny that the only thing men have that women can’t take away from them is their manly stinky-stank? But, what are they poking fun at here? Is it the rigid gender system that (strongly) encourages little girls to turn into feminine, sweet-smelling women and boys to turn into stinky, independent, manly-men? Or, are they making fun of anyone who tries to resist this system–ha ha, you can’t fight it, so why bother trying. You’ll just look like an idiot (like Jackson and Robbie Ray) and you won’t be able to escape it anyway. The gender system (and the peach body wash with exfolliating loufa glove) will always get you in the end.

So, you may be asking yourself (those of you who have stuck around to the end of this lengthy entry), what does this have to do with Judith Butler and her theories on gender performativity and gender trouble? Well, Butler provides a great theory about how gender is a performance or a set of stylized acts and daily rituals that we repeatedly practice (rituals like washing with citrus fizzy balls or buffing our nails or even going to the gym so we can smell ranky and stanky). While we understand these daily rituals to be merely an expression of our gender (we take baths with citrus fizzy balls because we are girls and girls like to smell *pretty* or we go to the gym and work up a sweat without bathing because we are boys and boys like to smell *stinky-stanky*), Butler suggests that our practice of them, repeatedly and faithfully, does more than express (or indicate or signify) our gender; it helps to create it. It is through these repeated practices that we establish and reinforce that we are girls or boys. For example, how do we know that Aunt Dolly is a real woman, someone who can give Hannah Montana proper advice on how to win a boy’s heart and become a real woman herself? We know this because Aunt Dolly effectively performs her femininity/womanliness: not only does she decorate with pink frilly pillows but she smells great, she wears tight jeans with high heels, and she sounds like a woman with her sing-songy-cutesy voice. It is not the fact that she is a woman that establishes her credibility, it is the fact that she properly acts like one.

Here is a key point for Butler: these daily rituals (some we do deliberately, some we do not) produce the illusion that our gender performances (and the idea that girls smell sweet and boys are stinky) are natural–of course real girly-women smell nice and use pretty body washes and of course real manly-men smell stinky and don’t bathe much, duh. And to keep up appearances, we must repeatedly and faithfully practice those acts. When we don’t practice them as much as we should or we fail to practice them properly, we get into trouble, GENDER TROUBLE–like Robbie Ray, Jackson, and most importantly Oliver’s mannish Mom. These examples of gender trouble serve a dual purpose in the episode. First, they are meant to make us laugh. Ha Ha. Isn’t it funny to see these fools failing to do their gender properly? Second, they are meant as a warning to us. See what happens to men (Jackson and Robbie Ray) or women (Oliver’s mom) who don’t do their gender right? They become the butt of our jokes. So, make sure you always act properly! Now, in the case of Jackson and Robbie Ray, the poking fun is harmless enough. They are in on the joke and, perhaps because they are main characters, we like them and aren’t really making fun of them. But, what do we make of Oliver’s mannish Mom? I can’t help thinking that she is the real threat–what Butler refers to as an abject–that haunts our gender performances. And the laughter we make when we find out that the manly disembodied voice that calls out to Oliver to “Move! Move! Move!” is a she and not a he isn’t lighthearted and fun but nervous (and scared) laughter.

Just to be clear here: I really don’t mind my kids watching Hannah Montana. In fact, I don’t really mind watching it myself. I am bothered, however, by the inclusion of the joke about the mannish Mom. That joke changed the tone of the whole episode for me and made the playful gender trouble that Jackson and Robbie Ray were engaged in much more serious. I can’t help but wonder: Why do tv shows like this have to take the joke too far? Could there have been another way to play with gender in this episode so that (once again) getting into trouble wasn’t always accompanied by the threat of gender punishment? Would it have been enough to just leave out the mannish Mom joke? I don’t think so, but it would have been a start…

Wow. This entry was, in the words of my dad AEP, “a chewy bagel.”

Word count: 2021 words


Last year during election season, there was a lot of talk about how John McCain was a maverick. But, what does that mean? What exactly is a maverick? And is it a type of troublemaker or something different altogether? According to dictionary.com, a maverick is “a lone dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician, who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates” and “one that refuses to abide by the dictates of or resists adherence to a group.”

article-1036911-008D18B90000044C-813_468x3341For John McCain being a maverick meant refusing to vote with his party on some important issues (at least this is his claim when he referred to himself as a maverick). In the case of ‘lil Tommy Cruise and his character in Top Gun–whose pilot name was Maverick–being a maverick meant rebelling by not only refusing to follow the rules but deliberately flaunting them so as to prove that they didn’t apply to him. The original meaning of maverick refers to a farmer in Texas named Samuel Maverick who didn’t brand his cattle. In this case, a maverick is: “an unbranded range animal, especially a calf that has become separated from its mother, traditionally considered the property of the first person who brands it.” This final meaning is fascinating to me. Could it be suggesting that a maverick is someone with no community of its own–and by extension no particular perspective or stance–whose allegiance is available to the first group to take them in or the highest bidder? Hmmmm–is that the kind of maverick that McCain is/was?

While there are some serious differences between these three descriptions, one thing remains the same: the maverick is a loner who doesn’t play nicely with his party (McCain) or follow the rules (‘lil Tommy Cruise) or really belong to any community or identity group (Samuel Maverick). The maverick is someone who acts alone and without others; who either rejects their community or doesn’t belong to one. It is this lack of belonging (and connection) that distinguishes the maverick from the troublemaker (at least, the troublemaker-as-virtuous-moral-agent).

Troublemakers do not act on their own. They act on behalf of and from within (even if from the fringes) a community or communities. They are selves-in-relation who are connected to others. And, in the words of J Butler, they are selves who are vulnerable, undone by, responsible for and to others. They are not loners. And their actions are not meant to isolate them from their communities.

In contrast, mavericks distance themselves from their communities; they act alone. A major point of their mavericky (thanks, Tina Fey!) behavior is to stake a claim as an individual who is not beholden to anyone. Hmm…The American Individual writ large. Yes, it makes sense that maverick, as a term, originates in the U.S. (and especially in Texas). It fits with the American ethos of wide open spaces, freedom as being left alone to do what you want to do (negative freedom), and individuality.