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

THE MAVERICK IS NOT A TROUBLEMAKER

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.

Mavericks, Renegades, Troublemakers

I was doing a random google search of troublemakers and I came across this article from Rolling Stone (12/2005). It was part of a special feature on Mavericks, Renegades and Troublemakers of 2005. Michael Moore wrote the introduction for it. Here are some highlights from Moore’s reflections on making trouble [emphasis is mine]:

Thanks to a number of individuals who, in 2005, dared to step out of line and say something real, the public had begun a seismic shift away from the chokehold of uniform and uninformed thought.…As a rule, we are instructed from childhood that serious consequences shall arise if we dare to rock the boat. We learn instinctually that it is always better to go along so that we get along. To slip off the assembly line of group think means to risk ridicule, rejection, banishment. Being alone sucks, but being alone while you are attacked, smeared and scorned is about the same as picking up a hot poker and jamming it in your eye. Who in their right mind would want to do that? Especially when conformity to the community offers as its reward acceptance, support, love and the chance to be comfortably numb.

So, troublemaking (and rebelling, rabble-rousing, being a brat–which are all categories in this special issue) is: daring to step out of line; saying something real; and shifting away from uniform and uninformed thought–from being the same and being ignorant.

We don’t make trouble because: there are serious consequences for rocking the boat (troubling the waters); refusing to participate in group think is risky and leads to rejection and ridicule; challenging others is often an ostracizing and solitary endeavor which can lead to violent attacks; and conformity is comfortable and comforting.

Note: Moore’s description of being attacked because you rock the boat as the equivalent of jamming a hot poker in your eye reminds me of Theodor Adorno and this passage from Minima Moralia: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” I will have to find my copy of the book (at least I think I have a copy) and reread it. That might provide for an intriguing way in which to read Moore’s comments.

Here is some more of Moore’s introduction:

This year’s mavericks and rabble-rousers stuck their necks out — and they didn’t get them chopped off. They helped the nation make a turn toward the truth, and average Americans began to speak their minds freely in the diners and the churches and the bars, little words of discontent and dissent and growing outrage. You can argue that it was five years and 2,100 dead soldiers too late. Or you can say that Americans may be slow learners, but when we finally figure something out… well, watch out. A new majority forms, and there can be no stopping it. Stands taken by this year’s troublemakers had become, by year’s end, the mainstream position of the American people. Every poll shows the same thing: The majority now oppose the war and no longer trust the president when he speaks. The time is ripe to get this country back in the hands of the majority. Will we seize the moment? Or will we need a whole new crop of rebels next year to keep us honest? Thank God we will still have artists and writers and everyday citizens willing to sign up for the call. Those who dare to be different are the closest thing we have to a national treasure.

This passage raises some interesting questions for me: Can we be a nation of troublemakers? Or, if troublemakers become the majority do they lose their ability to make trouble? What is the process that occurs when troublemakers unsettle us to the point that we listen–really listen–to what they have to say? The image I get of the troublemaker from Moore’s description here is that of someone (or a bunch of someones) who provoke us into action. These troublemakers are not part of the action, instead, they cause the action. But, is that the only role of the troublemaker? What kind of action is troublemaking itself? And, how can troublemakers participate in the action themselves?

Finally, what do we make of Moore’s final statement: “Those who dare to be different are the closest thing we have to a national treasure”? If you are part of the majority can you dare to be different? Earlier in the passage, Moore argues that the majority of American’s disagree with the direction of the country and the President (this is 2005, remember). If you are part of that majority and you share the same opinion, can you dare to be different (whatever that means) and still be part of the majority? If not, is Moore suggesting that those who are different–who stand out, who don’t conform and who are willing to challenge the mainstream–are not us (the majority) but simply treasures (objects) that we should keep around to remind us of where we are going wrong or how we should change? If so, where and how do these figures fit into the community–are they just exalted figures that are different from us OR can we learn to be our own troublemakers?

Films with Trouble in the Title

Here are three different films that have trouble in the title (and that have some connection with making/being in/staying in trouble). As of this post, I have only seen one of them.

ONE Trouble the Water is a documentary from this year (2009) that was nominated for an Academy Award. It is about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and includes footage by an aspiring rap artist–Kimberly Rivers Roberts–whose home and community were devastated by the storm and the chaos and destruction that it caused.

What or who is it that is troubling the waters? Is it the storm and its aftermath? Is it the filmmakers (the “professionals” and/or the “amateurs”)? Is it Kimberly’s/Scott’s community and the people of New Orleans? Is the trouble the water of the title a good thing or a bad thing or both? I will report back to this blog once I have watched the movie. Hopefully it will be sometime soon.

TWO Making Trouble (2007) is a documentary about some key Jewish women comedians and the important contribution that they have made to the entertainment world.

I like the connection between making trouble, comedy and women. I am very interested in the exploring how comedy/laughter/humor fit into troublemaking and its role in resistance and transformation. I have wanted to watch this for awhile, but it is not available on DVD. I just might have to arrange for a special screening this year.

THREE Female Trouble is part of John Water’s Trash Trilogy. It came out the year I was born (1974) and chronicles the descent of Dawn Davenport (Divine) into the world of crime and the criminal.

What can I say? This movie is crazy and gross and fabulous. I previewed it this spring and then screened parts of it in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class. Judith Butler makes reference to it in the original preface to Gender Trouble and it (and Waters and Divine) has a lot to say about the links between troublemaking, deliquency, gender performance, and trash-as-abject. It is available on DVD and worth a screening–just don’t watch it on a full stomach.

Judith Butler wants us to disobey. Why? Exactly.

I first came across this interview with Judith Butler at Engage: Conversations in Philosophy. In this excerpt, Butler talks about disobedience and how we can shift from being obedient subjects who willingly accept and follow the rules/regulations by those in power to being critical thinkers who, through the process of questioning and challenging, become disobedient troublemakers. The emphasis in bold is mine.

But in the moment we begin to ask ourselves about the legitimacy of this power we become critical, we adopt a point of view that is not completely shaped by the state and we question ourselves about the limits of the demands that can be placed on us. And if I am not wholly formed by this power of the state, in what way am I, or might I be, formed?  Asking yourself this question means you are already beginning to form yourself in another way, outside this relation with the state, so critical thought distances you to some extent.  When someone says “no” to power, they are saying “no” to a particular way of being formed by power.  They are saying: I am not going to be subjected in this way or by these means through which the state establishes its legitimacy.  The critical position implies a certain “no”, a saying “no” as an “I”, and this, then, is a step in the formation of this “I”.  Many people ask about the basis on which Foucault establishes this resistance to power.  What he is saying to us is that in the practice of critical thought we are forming ourselves as subjects, through resistance and questioning.

So, when we begin to ask about why we are formed in the way that we are or why the rules exist as they do, we create a critical distance from those rules. This distance enables us to (occasionally or more frequently) resist those rules and it also prevents us from being completely shaped by them (or in the shadow of them) into good little obedient people/subjects/citizens. Instead of being overly influenced by the rules, we can be shaped by our questioning of them into critical thinkers who disobey and never merely accept anything without questioning it once or twice or three times, etc. Ah ha! Critical thinking. Being disobedient. Questioning authority. Sounds a lot like troublemaking. Yep. Well, it should. Butler (along with Foucault who is she referencing) is a big source of inspiration for my own thinking about troublemaking (It also reminds me of my discussion of Foucault’s link between curiosity and care in this entry).

I really like how Butler (with the help of Foucault) links disobedience with critical thinking and turns asking “why” into an act of resistance. The mere (or not so mere) act of wondering why something is the way that it is or why it isn’t any other way opens up distance between you and the things (like regulatory power) that shape you. It gives you an “outside” perspective from which to reflect on your own experiences. And it allows for the possibility of an alternative idea of the subject/self–not as one who is wholly constructed by the norms and regulations that surround us and give us meaning but as one who is constructed as a being-in-resistance, a self-who-questions. That’s cool.

Here, let me explain that idea in another way. Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful.  No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-(re)making (or what Butler would call subject formation).

Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time.

Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.

The “why?” is our chance to disobey (more precisely, to not obey) and to make a claim as someone who questions, who resists being fed easy answers, who is willing to make trouble and stay in trouble for the sake of learning and understanding more. Of course, the asking of “why” is not enough to transform the world or to topple unjust ideologies and institutions. But, it is a good start. And, it is something that almost all of us do all of the time. Many of us are taught (directly or indirectly) that asking “why” is tedious, disruptive and only productive up to a point. We need to remember that “why” is always a proper and appropriate question. Okay, sometimes it should only be posed to ourselves, but maybe we should take that up in a different post…