in these troubling times what we need is some queer optimism…

A few days ago I wrote about troublemaking hope here and queer hope here. At the end of my post on queer hope, which was primarily about Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive,  I pondered:

The idea of no future, at least at first glance, indicates that we need to function without hope. If there is no future (no better world on the horizon), there is no hope that things will be different. Because isn’t hope a futural term? Edelman seems to be rejecting the possibility for queer hope. But is hope fundamentally counter to queer? Can we imagine these things together?

In the midst of doing more prep work for my queering theory course (and by prep work I mean finding books on amazon that I might want to use and then skimming through the “customers who bought this item also bought” section), I came across a book by Michael Snediker called, Queer Optimism. The description of his project intrigued me:

Michael Snediker offers a much-needed counterpoint to queer theoretical discourse, which has long privileged melancholy, self-shattering, incoherence, shame, and the death drive. Recovering the forms of positive affect that queer theory has jettisoned, Snediker insists that optimism must itself be taken beyond conventional tropes of hope and futurity and reimagined as necessary for critical engagement.

-1Cool. So, we can have a positive vision of queer ethics/theory/politics that is not shaped by some futural vision of hope. Instead of queer hope we have queer optimism. This idea hadn’t occurred to me and I am very interested in reading more about what Snediker is suggesting. I haven’t had a chance to get the book from the library yet, but I did find Snediker’s earlier essay from 2006 about queer optimism. I am in the process of reading it right now. In this essay, Snediker assesses the foundational queer-as-pessimistic suffering theories of Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Eve Sedgwick and Lee Edelman and argues for an alternative: queer-as-non-futural-optimism. Huh? Here, I will let Snediker explain. Queer optimism

doesn’t ask that some future time make good on its own hopes. Rather, queer optimism asks that optimism, embedded in its own immanent present, be interesting. Queer optimism’s interest–its capacity to be interesting, to hold our attention–depends on its emphatic responsiveness to and solicitation of rigorous thinking (2).

I am not sure if his explanation helped any better than mine. I will have to tackle this again once I have read the whole essay–all 50 pages of it! At this preliminary stage, Snediker’s counter to both hopeful optimism (what he calls utopic optimism) and queer pessimism has got me thinking about hope, troublemaking, and queer ethics as something more than just a rejection of ethics/politics/culture (which is Edelman’s position). I especially appreciate his critical approach to Butler’s emphasis on melancholy, suffering and grief. As someone who is in the process of grieving for a loved one (who, while still barely alive, has virtually no livable life), I have found Butler’s work to be very helpful in my reflecting on the process of grief/mourning/loss. Yet, as I experience the pain and suffering of that grief, I find myself wondering, should grief (being undone by others) be the only, or at least primary, foundation for an ethics of accountability to others/the Other? Are there alternative, more positive and perhaps joyful, ways in which to think about how and why we are accountable to and responsible for others? Personally, I think being in a constant state of grief is exhausting and overwhelming and one that I am quite ready to get out of. I like the idea of imagining an ethic that is queer (and full of troublemaking) but not predicated on this negative sense of loss.

Can Snediker deliver on the promise of his concept? Wait, am I imposing hopeful optimism on him? Hopefully (argh! there I go again), I can wrap my brain around his vision of optimism by the time I finish the essay.

Troubling (and queering) religion: a few sources

My academic background is in religion. Before getting a PhD in Women’s Studies at Emory University, I got a MA in Theology, Ethics and Culture at the School of Theology at Claremont and a BA in Religion from Gustavus Adolphus College. While my work has shifted away from religion/religious ethics in recent years, my early training and interest in religion has persisted and managed to remain a big influence on my thinking.

In the past few years I have felt increasingly compelled to bring that early training back to the forefront in order to give some serious attention to the connections between ethics, religion, queer theory, feminism and troublemaking. And yes, contrary to popular opinion, there are connections (and not just negative ones!). You can be feminist and ethical! You can believe in a queer God! You can even make trouble and proudly label it religious activity! What, don’t believe me? Here are just a few sources that support my claims:

album-the-troublemakerTHE TROUBLEMAKER
I came across this song when I was randomly googling troublemaking. I’m Learning to Share focuses on Della Reese’s version of it from 1971, but Willie Nelson also sang it on his gospel album of the same name.

Warning Spoiler Alert: The song is all about a troublemaker who had long hair, no job and refused to join the army. He and his friend were rebels who went from town to town stirring up trouble. He was eventually arrested, tried and given the death penalty. At the end of the song, he is hung from a cross. Whoah…What a twist. Jesus as a troublemaker? Okay, the song is a little cheesy, but the connection between troublemaking and Jesus-as-prophet is pretty cool.

This connection is not limited to popular music and the likes of hippy-loving Willie Nelson, however. Cornel West writes about deep democracy, the Socratic tradition and the prophets (prophetic pragmatism) in Democracy Matters. Incidentally, when I presented on Judith Butler and the virtue of troublemaking at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2007, my dad (a religion and ethics scholar) suggested that I explore the prophet-troublemaker connection. Thanks AEP!

Reverend Dr. Carter Heyward gave a sermon (I originally linked to it, but the link doesn’t work anymore–as of April 29, 2012) in 2004 at the Episcopal Divinity School. Very cool. Here is her definition of queer. A queer is someone who has an “irrepressible interest in making connections between justice struggles and making these connections public. Not hiding [their] convictions under a barrel. Not remaining silent when everyone around [them] would be more comfortable if they were…” and who does so with compassion and love. For Heyward, being queer is being confrontational and compassionate. It is to embody apparent (but only apparent) contradictions, to be angry (about injustice) and yet to love all of humanity at the same time. For Heyward, to be queer in this way is to embody Christ–who holds together qualities that only appear to be contradictions (but aren’t–and that simultaneous embracing of seemingly contradictory qualities is what makes Christ queer).

note: Since this sermon doesn’t seem to be available online anymore, here’s a passage that I particularly liked:

What makes her, my mother so queer is not simply that she is supportive of her lesbian daughter and my friends and communities; and not simply that she is at strong odds with the prevailing political culture in both the world and church in which she has grown old. What makes my mother queer is her irrepressible interest in making connections among justice struggles and making these connections public! Not hiding her convictions under a barrel. Not remaining silent when everyone around her would be more comfortable if she were sometimes a little less in their face about Bush, the war, and gay marriage. At the same time, you will never meet a gentler, kinder, more compassionate soul than my mother Mary Ann Carter Heyward.

Is she in your face about injustice? Yes.

Is she open to you and eager to know what really makes you tick? Yes.

Is she angry about the injustices we join in and perpetuate? Yes.

Is she compassionate and forgiving toward everyone she has met who has hurt her or done her wrong? Yes.

The queerest thing of all about my mother is that she is such a bundle of apparent contradictions. She is confrontational and compassionate, angry and gentle, representing for me One through whom we meet God face to face. There are many people, including many right here in this chapel, who embody Christ for me in stunning ways. But there is no one through whom I catch stronger intimations and glimpses of the Wisdom of God, Christ herself, than my own queer mother.

This is because the most dynamic dimension of Queerness – and Christ – is the holding together of qualities that only appear to be contradictions, qualities that are not in fact contradictory or oppositional, qualities that taken together are, well, simply “queer.” Each brings out something in the other, revealing it more fully for what it is: humanity and divinity, anger and compassion, the struggle for life and the letting go of it, a capacity to wrestle fiercely against the enemies of justice and to love them concretely, which means trying to do them no harm, trying not to humiliate them, respecting them as brothers and sisters, whether or not they recognize us. Like the humanity and divinity we meet in Jesus and — through him as our spiritual lens — in one another, we also can experience anger and compassion, anger and gentleness, anger and forgiveness, anger and hope not as contradictory feelings but rather as mutually interactive dynamics of human being and divine being that work together in us and make us whole.

AlthausR_QueerGod-smllTHE QUEER GOD
Marcella Althaus-Reid wrote this book in 2003. I wanted to use it, or at least parts of it, in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class this past spring, but I couldn’t find any room for it. I am still trying to figure how to squeeze in a chapter or two in Queering Theory this fall. Is this book accessible for non-theology, non-religion students? I am not sure. I need to read it more closely to make sure. Here is part of the blurb on the back of the book:

The Queer God introduces a new theology from the margins of sexual deviance and economic exclusion. …Inspired by the transgressive spaces of Latin American spirituality, where the experiences of slum children merge with Queer interpretations of grace and holiness, The Queer God seeks to liberate god from the closet of traditional Christian thought, and to embrace God’s part in the lives of gays, lesbians and the poor.

The first chapter of this book that I want to read is “Chapter 8. Demonology: Embodying Rebellious Spirits.” Seems like I might find some interesting connections with troublemaking here.

This collection edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St.Ville was published in 2006 and offers a wide range of essays by scholars in biblical studies, ethics, theology and ritual studies on the religious significance of Judith Butler’s work. I am particularly interested in Claudia Schippert’s essay, “Turning on/To Ethics.” Schippert wrote another essay (in 1998) that I have just started entitled, “Too Much Trouble? Negotiating Feminist and Queer Approaches to Religion.” I hope to write more on this essay later. [In the process of looking up links for this edited collection, I found this queer theology bibliography. Must check some of these sources out later.]

Queer hope: Is it possible when we have no future?

no-future-7977791I have started the laborious (yet fun–I am a nerd, remember?) process of figuring out what readings I want to include in my syllabi for the fall. Today I am thinking about my Queering Theory course. Ever since I found out about in the spring of 2008, I have wanted to give some attention to Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. In this polemic, Edelman argues for a queer ethics that is counter to “reproductive futurism” with its emphasis on building better futures for our children. He writes:

Indeed, at the heart of my polemical engagement with the cultural texts lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.

So, what does this mean and what are the implications for our ethical and political projects? Some unpacking of terms is needed here. Simply put, reproductive futurism is the belief that our participation in politics–indeed, the political itself–is motivated by a belief in and a desire for creating better futures for our children. We are, in Edelman’s words, always “fighting for our children.” Reproductive futurism suggests two things: a. there is a future that we can make better–that has “unquestioned value and purpose” (4) and b. that future is emblemized by the Child. For Edelman, this reproductive futurism is linked to heteronormativity (heterosexual as the only normal, natural, right way to be) and renders any alternatives (queerings) of communal relations/kinship/visions of resistance as unthinkable–how could you possibly be against fighting for the children?–and outside of politics. Wow, I hope that makes sense. Now, why does Edelman make this radical claim? Because queerness/queering is not possible in a politics of reproductive futurism, he wants to encourage the stepping outside its logic and into the space of refusal and negativity–the space of the death drive (warning: psychoanalysis alert!)–where there is no future.

I have only just (barely) skimmed the introduction and table of contents of this book, so I am having a difficult time explaining all of this in coherent, compelling and intelligible (non-jargony) ways. Clearly, I need to engage in a much closer reading of this text. The more I think about his ideas, the more I think I want to use this in my class. It raises some great questions for my own work and for one way I am thinking of organizing the course: What would it mean to think about political and ethical projects outside of this logic of better futures on behalf of our children (especially for those of us who are parents and/or are heavily invested in children/youth)? What could a radically negative politics looks like? Are negativity and a refusal to engage in political projects aimed at transformation or ethical projects aimed at striving for the good what queer is essentially about? Is the only way in which to imagine a queer ethics negatively and in opposition to any claims, normative or otherwise?

halberstamIn what I have skimmed so far, Edelman seems to be theorizing queer theory in relation to time (queer time = no future, no linear progression) and space (queer space = outside of politics/social) which makes me think of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place. In this collection of essays, Halberstam explores queer time and queer space in order to shift the perspective on queerness from an identity or set of activities to “a way of life” (1). I am fairly sure that I want to use several chapters out of this book as well. Now I just need to think about how to put them in conversation with Judith Butler, who remains a big focus of the class.

Final thought: It seems appropriate to follow my last post on Michael Jackson and hope (both the loss of it and how we might rethink it) with this one on no future and the death drive. There are some significant connections between my comments about Jackson (and my reference to k-punks posting on him) and any thinking through of Edelman’s idea of no future (which k-punk also writes about here four years earlier!). One connection between No Future/critique of reproductive futurism and Michael Jackson is found in k-punk’s post. K-punk writes:

Certainly, Edelman explicitly identifies the logic of reproductive futurism as ‘poptimism’, whose ‘locus classicus is Whitney Houston’s rendition of the secular hymn, “I believe that children are our future”, a hymn we might as well make our national anthem and be done with it.’ (143) In fact, though, ‘We are the World’ might be the better choice for reproductive futurist anthem: we are the world, we are the children (therefore it is OK for us to bomb other people’s children – because they aren’t the Future.)

Wasn’t “We are the World” a central part of the recent tribute to MJ? Interesting… In case you don’t yet have the song in your head, here it is:

There is another connection with which I want to end this post. The idea of no future, at least at first glance, indicates that we need to function without hope. If there is no future (no better world on the horizon), there is no hope that things will be different. Because isn’t hope a futural term? Edelman seems to be rejecting the possibility for queer hope. But is hope fundamentally counter to queer? Can we imagine these things together? In my last post, I pointed to Cornel West and his tragic hope as one that is counter to the vision of hope as innocent (the Child?) and naive. But is his notion of tragic hope entrenched in a heteronormative (non-queer/anti-queer) vision? After all, he is very invested in defending and revaluing parents. Hmmm…Queer hope. A future article, perhaps?

Little Miss Trouble

FC0843174269When I showed my sister MLP the picture of RJP on this blog (with her troublemaker t-shirt on) she said, “Hey, that’s Little Miss Trouble!” I guess I should have known that, but I didn’t. I decided that I better read this kid’s book. It must be cool, right? A book about someone named Little Miss Trouble, how great is that, right? Well, hmmm…not really.

Here is a recap of the story: Little Miss Trouble likes to make trouble in order to get others in trouble. One day she decides to get Mr. Small in trouble. First she tells Mr. Uppity that Mr. Small calls him fatty behind his back (which is a lie). Mr. Uppity punches Mr. Small and gives him a black eye. Next she tells Mr. Clever that Mr. Small calls him Big Nose (which is another lie). Mr. Clever punches Mr. Small and gives him a second black eye. Feeling rather upset and suffering from two black eyes, Mr. Small visits Dr. Makeyouwell. Dr. Makeyouwell gives him some advice on how to handle Little Miss Trouble. So, Mr. Small tells Mr. Tickle that Little Miss Trouble calls him Pudding Face behind his back (which is a lie). Then, Mr. Small tells Mr. Bump that Little Miss Trouble calls him Mr. Nitwit behind his back (which is another lie). Uh oh. Now Little Miss Trouble is in trouble. Both Mr. Tickle and Mr. Nitwit are so mad that they decide to punish Little Miss Trouble by ticklebumping her for a full 10 minutes. This upsets her a lot. The story ends with Dr. Makeyouwell telling her that she should cheer up because she got a taste of her own medicine.

Little Miss Trouble is part of a series of Little Miss (and Mr. Men) books by Roger Hargreaves. Apparently this series is a big deal…very popular in certain areas–Since MLP lives in Australia I imagine it is big there. I never remember reading them as a kid and I can’t find many of the little books in the local library. After (very briefly) doing some research online, I found this wikipedia site about Roger Hargreaves and Cartoon’s Network’s official Mr. Men site.

Anyway, back to the story. So, how does trouble (and troublemaking) function in this story? Little Miss Trouble is trouble because she does bad, naughty, disruptive things. She is trouble because she gets other people in trouble…and for no particular reason. It seems as if she is, by nature, trouble. It is just who she is. Mr. Small isn’t trouble but, because of Little Miss Trouble’s actions, he is in trouble with Mr. Uppity and Mr. Clever. And, when Little Miss Trouble gets a taste of her own medicine, she winds up in trouble too. So, trouble works two ways: (1) trouble is a description of what someone is…here comes trouble, she’s nothing but trouble, etc. and (2) in trouble is a state of being or a consequence of actions (yours when you do something bad or other’s when they do something bad to you). Either way, trouble is something you don’t want to be or be in. If you are trouble, it means that you are bad and naughty and do mean and hurtful things to others. If you are IN trouble it means that you get big black eyes or suffer through 10 minutes of ticklebumping by others who are really mad at you. Again, I have to ask: Is the only way we should understand trouble and how it works? Can’t we imagine trouble differently, as something we might want to do? As something that has some redeeming value?

Now, I don’t know how to redeem Little Miss Trouble as a good troublemaker (although maybe there is more to the story that we don’t know. Maybe Mr. Small was a really big jerk and liked to say awful things about how Little Miss Trouble was just a stupid, weak girl or liked to harass her by whistling at her as she walked down the street or told all of his friends about how she put out on the first date). Instead, I want to ask: why couldn’t the troublemaker or the act of being in trouble be represented differently here? Why couldn’t Little Miss Trouble be trouble because she kept asking too many interesting questions or because she refused to follow rules that she felt were unfair?

The story about Little Miss Trouble (and my description of it in this entry) reminds me of the first part of my favorite passage by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. Here is the entire passage with the first part highlighted in italics and bold:

To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it (xxix).

What does this passage from Butler suggest for Little Miss Trouble and how we (as parents and children) should read this *cute* kid’s story? Well, according to the story, by making trouble (for Mr. Small) Little Miss Trouble gets into a lot of trouble (10 minutes of ticklebumping!). Maybe the moral of the story–because isn’t there always some sort of moral lesson in these kid’s books?–is that we should never make trouble because it will always lead to us getting into trouble. Now, this is fine (or is it?) when we are trying to teach our kids not to lie about others and deliberately be mean and hurtful to them. But, when Little Miss Trouble’s specific troublemaking stands in for (signifies) all Trouble as what one is or the state one is in, isn’t the moral lesson that trouble–which not only is playing dirty tricks on others but is also stirring up the waters, disturbing the peace, challenging the status quo, rebelling against standard practices, rejecting the rules–is always bad and will always lead to no good (and to being in trouble)?

By the way, I just found a youtube clip of the Little Miss Trouble show. More on that in a future entry…

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